With just two games remaining in the Chicago Bears’ 2021 season, one that will once again end without a playoff berth and a record below .500 for the first time in embattled coach Matt Nagy’s tenure, the team’s focus has shifted toward 2022. There’s an expectation that several big changes are coming in the next few weeks, namely at head coach and general manager, but there’s at least one significant piece of the team’s rebuilding puzzle that’s settled: quarterback.
First-round pick Justin Fields has started 10 games so far this year. He missed Week 16 with an ankle injury and there’s a chance he’s played the last snap of his rookie season because of it. And if that’s the case, it’s time to look back at the trade that landed him in Chicago and whether it remains as big of a no-brainer decision that it was deemed to be at the time it was made last April.
The Bears made the jump from No. 20 overall in the 2021 NFL draft to No. 11 overall after sending the New York Giants their first-rounder (the 20th pick), the 164th pick (fifth round), and first- and fifth-round picks in the 2022 NFL Draft. That 20th pick turned into wide receiver Kadarius Toney; the 164th pick became safety Jamar Johnson (Denver Broncos). Toney’s appeared in 10 games, has 420 yards receiving, and zero touchdowns. Johnson, meanwhile, hasn’t logged any snaps for the Broncos' defense, per Pro Football Focus.
Players who were drafted a few picks after Toney and who would’ve been on Chicago’s radar had they not made the trade for Fields include Kwity Paye (EDGE, Indianapolis Colts), Caleb Farley (cornerback, Tennessee Titans), and Christian Darrisaw (offensive tackle, Minnesota Vikings). It’s safe to say none of the players who were picked at or around the Bears’ original first-rounder would’ve meant more to Chicago’s future than Fields.
As for next year’s first-round pick, if the 2022 draft were held today, the Bears’ selection would be eighth overall. A quick scroll through The Draft Network’s 2022 prospect rankings reveals players like Andrew Booth Jr. (cornerback, Clemson), Jordan Davis (iDL, Georgia), and Kenyon Green (iOL, Texas A&M) rated between the eighth and 10th-best prospects. Offensive tackle Ikem Ekwonu (North Carolina State) and edge defender George Karlaftis (Purdue) rank a few spots higher than that. If these rankings hold true and had the Bears not made the Fields trade, they’d land a talented lineman or cornerback who’d certainly upgrade the team but would be a far cry from the kind of impact player Fields is.
Even if we look strictly at the quarterbacks who are in the 2022 NFL Draft, it’s clear that the Bears’ decision to trade for Fields last April kept them one step ahead in the race for QB-next. Pitt’s Kenny Pickett, Cincinnati’s Desmond Ridder, and Ole Miss’ Matt Corral are three of the popular names referenced as first-round quarterbacks this year and none of them are in the same tier of prospect that Fields was. In fact, if Fields was in the 2022 NFL Draft, he’d be a near-lock to be the first-overall pick.
With that in mind, trading the No. 20 pick in 2021, the No. 8 pick in 2022, and a pair of day-three selections for a player who one year later would be valued as the No. 1 overall prospect is a smart decision by any measure. And while Fields hasn’t had an exceptional rookie season, his outlook is incredibly bright.
Now, the Bears can focus an entire offseason on building around their quarterback instead of trying to find one. It’s because of that bold trade by general manager Ryan Pace that Chicago’s future is much more exciting than their 10-loss record (and counting) would indicate. With a new coach and improved skill players around him, there’s no telling how good Fields can be. And when you have a chance to land a player with that kind of ceiling in the NFL draft, you do whatever it takes to get him. The Bears did that in 2021, and they’ll reap the rewards in 2022 because of it.