Is Justin Fields Mirroring Lamar Jackson's Rookie Year?

Photo: Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

Justin Fields enjoyed his most productive day as an NFL quarterback in Sunday’s Week 8 loss to the San Francisco 49ers when he threw for 175 yards, ran for 103, and totaled two touchdowns (one passing, one rushing). Was he perfect? No. But at times, he was magical.

Fields’ 103 rushing yards were the most by a Bears quarterback since 1973 and the second-most by any quarterback in 2021. Lamar Jackson is tops on that list with 107 yards against the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 2, and it’s fitting that Fields is in similar territory as the Baltimore Ravens’ superstar. Fields’ rookie season is trending very much like Jackson’s after the 2019 NFL MVP became Baltimore’s starter in Week 11 of his first year in the league (2018).

Jackson sat behind Joe Flacco for the first nine games of his career, which was supposed to be the plan for Fields in Chicago before Andy Dalton busted his knee in Week 2 against the Cincinnati Bengals. Dalton’s injury thrust Fields directly into the fire against a fierce Cleveland Browns defense in Week 3, and like any rookie quarterback, his first few starts were rocky. But something clicked against the 49ers. Fields finally realized that his best weapon in Year 1 may just be his legs, and he unleashed his ridiculous athleticism in a fashion we’ve seen from few starting quarterbacks, sans Jackson, in recent seasons. And it’s this realization that he can succeed at an extremely high level as a runner that should put Fields on a similar track of production as what we saw from Jackson as 2018 closed and 2019 began.

Jackson’s tenure as a starter kicked off in 2018 against the Bengals. He threw for just 150 yards and tossed an interception, but he dominated as a runner with 119 yards. The Ravens won the game, 24-21. Sure, Fields’ breakout didn’t result in a Bears win, but his final stat line was nearly identical to Jackson’s—278 total yards to 269—which is an accomplishment in itself.

The rest of Jackson’s rookie season was more of the same. He was OK as a passer—much like Fields has been. He only had one game with more than 200 passing yards (204 against the Los Angeles Chargers in Week 16) but had rushing totals of 71, 75, 67, 95, 39, and 90 yards to close out the year.

Fields, meanwhile, has run for 184 yards over the last three games while passing for 174, 184, and 175 yards during that span. He, too, has just one game with more than 200 passing yards so far this season. Simply put, Fields’ numbers are very similar to the kind of production we saw from Jackson while he was getting his NFL legs under him.

Fields entered the league as a prospect who was widely viewed as having a quality arm. There’s a very real expectation that he’ll be a quality passer in the league, something that wasn’t the case for Jackson. In fact, some draft analysts during the run-up to the 2018 NFL draft suggested Jackson’s best shot at a successful career would be at wide receiver. It’s a sentiment that remains as ludicrous now as it did at the time.

Jackson’s success and development as a passer since his rookie season can be attributed, in part, to the fear he created in opposing defenses with his legs. His completion percentage jumped from 58% as a rookie to 66% in his second year, and his production was consistent with the increased efficiency. He threw for more than 3,100 yards with 36 touchdowns in Year 2. Jackson added a ridiculous and record-setting (for a quarterback) 1,206 rushing yards that season as well.

Jackson’s numbers dipped in 2020, but he’s tracking for a career year in 2021 with 1,943 passing yards and 10 touchdowns through seven games. At his current pace, Jackson will end the year with 4,718 passing yards (factoring in the 17th game). In the traditional 16-game season, Jackson would be on pace for nearly 4,500 yards. And, by the way? He’s on pace for more than 1,000 rushing yards (again).

Here’s a scary thought: Fields is nearly the athlete Jackson is, and his natural arm talent is better. Can we really say there’s a ceiling on his upside?

Call it a hunch, but I believe a switch finally flipped for Fields on Sunday. His rushing production was affirmation, even if just within himself, that he can dominate NFL defenders the same way he’s dominated defenses since his days of youth football. And when that switch happens, production—consistent production—usually follows. See: Jackson, Lamar.

Fields threw the ball with confidence against the 49ers, too. Yes, some passes sailed high. And yes, some attempts could’ve been delivered faster. But confidence in his game was there, and as we saw with Mitch Trubisky in the era that preceded Fields, a quarterback who lacks confidence usually fails. Fields has plenty of it.

Remember: Jackson only started seven games during his rookie season (eight counting the playoff loss to the Chargers). Fields is entering his seventh start in Week 9’s Monday night matchup against the Pittsburgh Steelers, and much like Jackson’s growth that occurred in games nine, 10, and beyond, the same can be expected from Fields.

The difference here is that Fields will start those games this year. We won’t have to wait until season two of the Fields era to experience his maturation as a player. He has a chance to build serious momentum heading into the offseason if he can fill the box score the way Jackson did once he had half a season’s worth of starts under his belt.

If Sunday’s performance against the 49ers is an indication of what’s to come with Fields, buckle up. It’s going to be a fun ride.

Written By:

Bryan Perez

Staff Writer

Bryan’s past stops include covering the Chicago Bears as the managing editor for USA Today’s Bears Wire and as a Bears writer for NBC Sports Chicago. He’s covered the NFL Draft for various outlets, including his time as the co-owner of Draft Breakdown. In addition to his contributions in football media, Bryan spent time as a Northeast scout for the CFL’s Ottawa Redblacks, is a licensed attorney, and most importantly, a proud husband and the father of two sons.

Connect: