Despite an 8-8 record in 2020, the Chicago Bears reached the postseason as the NFC’s first-ever seventh seed, which was enough to grant head coach Matt Nagy and general manager Ryan Pace a stay of execution.
Make no mistake, however, that duo is on the clock after they laid the blame for Chicago’s offensive regression at the feet of Mitchell Trubisky, who Pace infamously selected ahead of Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson, by allowing him to depart in free agency.
Rumors swirled that the Bears were in on acquiring Watson and later Russell Wilson, but those hopes evaporated on March 17 when veteran Andy Dalton signed a one-year deal. The torches and pitchforks were out amongst the Bears faithful, but Pace had another move up his sleeve. On draft day, the GM packaged the 20th pick along with next year’s first-round selection and a pair of mid-rounders to move up and nab Ohio State’s Justin Fields.
In the wake of those additions, Nagy announced that Dalton would open the season as QB1 while Fields watches and learns. It’s a plan we’ve seen laid out time and time again, though teams frequently abandon that approach if/when the losses begin to mount. With Nagy and Pace holding on by the skin of their teeth, you can bet the pressure will be immense to get this right lest another coach and GM oversee Fields’ development in 2022.
If you’re searching for an example of a young QB succeeding right away you needn’t look further than Dalton, who led Cincinnati to a 9-7 record and a Wild Card bid as a second-round pick. It would be the first of five straight playoff appearances for Dalton, though his Bengals tenure came to an end in 2019 after four sub-.500 finishes in a row.
His lone season in Dallas proved eventful as he was pressed into action by the injury to Dak Prescott, making nine uneven starts sandwiched around a concussion. While his final numbers weren’t terrible, they were propped up by a three-game December run against the Bengals, San Francisco 49ers and Philadelphia Eagles, all of whom were out of playoff contention. A Week 17 loss to the 5-10 Giants ended the Cowboys’ hope for a division title.
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Despite a deep and talented receiving corps in Dallas, Dalton looked every bit a game manager with a career-low 6.5 yards per attempt on 64.9 percent completions. He did limit the big mistakes after some issues with interceptions late in his Bengals career, but we’re now nearly a decade removed from his best statistical season: 4,293 yards and 33 TDs in 2013.
Dalton’s ability to remain QB1 in Chicago hinges on one thing, winning, and the recipe for that is going to be making safe reads, avoiding turnovers and hoping the defense can make plays. Could it work? Sure, but there’s no upside here. Avoid.
If the Red Rifle misfires you can bet Nagy won’t hesitate to call Fields’ number. The rookie arrives amid massive hype to a QB-starved franchise, in part because of his work at high-profile Ohio State (5,701 yards, 67 TDs, 9 INTs in two seasons), but it’s fair to wonder if expectations have gotten out of hand based on how badly Chicago missed with the Trubisky pick.
Fields showed poise and toughness with the Buckeyes, and he has the athleticism to make plays in the pocket and on the run. On the flip side, scouts worry about his tendency to lock onto targets and not go through progressions. He also had issues with ball security that need to be addressed.
While his collegiate numbers are eye popping, you shouldn’t read into them as he was surrounded by high-end talent that often simply overmatched opponents and operated in Ryan Day’s spread offense. Neither of those factors will be in place in Chicago. Yes, Allen Robinson (102-1,250-6) is a stud, but after that you’re counting on developing players, like Darnell Mooney (61-631-4) and Cole Kmet (28-243-2), alongside aging talent, such as Jimmy Graham (50-456-8).
No matter who takes the snaps, expect running back David Montgomery to be the centerpiece of the offense after a strong close to his sophomore season saw him log 301 touches, 1,508 yards and 10 TDs. Scatback Tarik Cohen returns as well after missing most of 2020 with a torn ACL. He opened camp on the PUP list but is likely to be ready for Week 1. Cohen caught 150 passes in 2018-19 and should be a popular target for the cautious Dalton or inexperienced Fields.
There’s certainly a lot to like about Fields’ potential, but there is no shortage of question marks for 2021: When will he take over for Dalton? What will the offense look like with him under center? Do the Bears have enough talent around him? Is Nagy capable of developing a young quarterback? With so much uncertainty, drafting Fields as more than a late-round flier is a mistake, and his true value lies in dynasty leagues.
In case you’d forgotten, Foles is still in the Windy City with an albatross of a contract that includes a $14.3 million cap hit if he’s released. The veteran is still celebrated for his stellar play during Philly’s 2017 Super Bowl run, but he’s had only one impactful season in his 10-year career, and that came under Chip Kelly in 2013. You know things have gone completely off the rails if Foles takes snaps for the Bears this year.