The Bears must draft with Justin Fields in mind

This is the season the Bears must figure out whether Fields is a keeper.

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The Bears have a ton of needs to fill in this week’s draft, but they can’t overlook getting help for quarterback Justin Fields.

The Bears have a ton of needs to fill in this week’s draft, but they can’t overlook getting help for quarterback Justin Fields.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

The best draft pick the Eagles made last year wasn’t a draft pick at all.

Instead, they decided to trade the No. 18 pick on draft night. Along with a third-rounder, it landed them A.J. Brown, the Titans’ star receiver who had, unsuccessfully, lobbied for a contract extension. The Eagles gave him one — and then watched him catch 88 passes for 1,496 yards for them.

Brown’s emergence helped lift Jalen Hurts from an intriguing second-year quarterback with questions about his accuracy and timing — sound familiar? — to one of the NFL’s best players. Hurts went 14-1 as a starter, won the NFC and signed a contract with the largest average annual salary in NFL history.

The Bears aren’t likely to swing a trade for a veteran receiver during the first round Thursday night, but they must learn from the Eagles nonetheless: nothing is more important than serving your young quarterback.

To the Bears, the most important player this year’s draft isn’t Paris Johnson or Jalen Carter or Devon Witherspoon. It’s Justin Fields.

The Bears have to begin rehabilitating one of the league’s worst defenses during the draft. But if general manager Ryan Poles’ choice between two candidates is close, he should lean toward the offensive player. Fields’ future might depend on it.

This is the season the Bears must figure out whether he’s a keeper. It’s a $100 million question — at least. After the 2023 season, Fields will be eligible, for the first time, to sign a contract extension. If he doesn’t sign one, the Bears can, in May 2024, lock in his fifth-year option for 2025.

Or not.

With two first-round picks next year — thanks to the Panthers trade — the Bears have the ammunition to pivot to drafting a passer in the superior 2024 quarterback class. That’s why it’s so critical for the Bears to, for the first time, get an accurate read on Fields.

Poles took an important first step when he traded the No. 1 overall pick to the Panthers. That locked in Fields as the starter, but it also gave him the Bears’ best receiver, DJ Moore, under contract for three more seasons.

He joins Darnell Mooney and Chase Claypool in a receivers’ room that looks a lot better than it did this time last year. There’s still room for more, though, if the Bears decide they want to draft slot Jaxon Smith-Njigba, Fields’ own Ohio State teammate.

Poles signed D’Onta Foreman to replace David Montgomery — and to team with Khalil Herbert — but neither should prevent the Bears from adding another running back. Texas’ Bijan Robinson is one of the three most talented players in the draft — would the Bears dare pick him at No. 9?

Poles also signed free agent guard Nate Davis to a three-year, $30 million deal. Sliding Cody Whitehair to center — at least for now — solidifies the middle of the Bears’ line. The tackles, though, need help. The Bears won’t hesitate to move second-year left tackle Braxton Jones to the right side if they can land Ohio State’s Johnson, Northwestern’s Peter Skoronski, Georgia’s Broderick Jones or even Tennessee’s Darnell Wright in Round 1.

Blocking is most pressing need for both the Bears and their quarterback. Fields was pressured on 14.75 percent of his dropbacks last season, the highest percentage since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger for a quarterback who threw at least 300 passes. The year before was almost as bad — among quarterbacks who have thrown 250 or more passes, Fields has the two worst percentages since 2010.

Staying upright all season is the first step in being able to evaluate Fields. Entering a do-or-die year for the quarterback, that matters most of all.

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