Training fields

Bears hope Justin Fields ‘soars’ – but his rookie struggles weren’t unique

MOBILE, Ala. – Ohio State edge rusher Tyreke Smith is connecting with his former teammate via text or Instagram. He wants to let Bears quarterback Justin Fields know he’s watching.

“Every time I hit him it’s to say, ‘Hey man, keep doing it,'” he said. “People only see what he does on the pitch, but inside and out he’s a great person. [He] has a great personality, a great passion for the game.

“He treats everyone with the same respect he demands.”

Smith stood inside the Arthur R. Outlaw Mobile Convention Center shortly after sunrise Wednesday, not far from the most popular players in this year’s Senior Bowl: quarterbacks. Pitt’s Kenny Pickett and Liberty’s Malik Willis are expected to be drafted midway through the first round. It’s far from a vintage draft for quarterbacks – Fields would be by far the best of them – but every franchise without a passer will consider investing in one.

The Bears suspect they already have their quarterback. Now they want to see Fields grow in his sophomore year, surrounded by a new Bears brain trust of general manager Ryan Poles, coach Matt Eberflus and offensive coordinator Luke Getsy.

“It excites me in terms of, I want to give him everything he needs to be successful, and we’ll see where we are,” Poles said earlier this week. “‘Potential’ is used a lot, but he has talent.”

Poles said his former team, the Chiefs, evaluated Fields and concluded he would be an NFL starter.

“He’s been through adversity now,” Poles said. “He went through tough times. He took a few vicious hits. He had to get up and keep fighting. For me, this tenacity that he has acquired over the last year is essential to his growth.

“We’re going to put him in position to succeed, we’re going to do what he does well and hopefully he will soar and become a really good player.”

That should reassure the Bears that he wasn’t the only rookie struggling. The quarterbacks picked first and second overall in 2021 were among the few to finish with a lower passer rating than Fields. He ranked 28th with a passer rating of 73.2.

Trevor Lawrence of the Jaguars, picked first, was 29th at 71.9, and Zach Wilson of the Jets, picked second, was 31st at 69.7.

Unlike Fields, Wilson started the season as a starter. Both missed time with injuries. A knee problem forced Wilson to miss four starts. Fields missed five with separate rib and ankle injuries and, ahead of the season finale, a coronavirus diagnosis.

On Wednesday, Jets coach Robert Saleh, the National Bowl’s senior coach, detailed Wilson’s season. It sounded like he was talking about Fields.

“He had that first half of the season, things weren’t going so well for him,” he said. “Then he missed four games and really got to see the attack unfold [veteran quarterbacks]. . . . When he came back, being able to reset and create more consistency in the way he played, he was able to improve every week. Nothing he did was wrong.

Wilson has “tremendous arm talent” and “the toughness that we’re looking for,” Saleh said.

“For him, it’s just a matter of feeling the pocket and figuring out how to play in the pocket,” he said. “All the off-schedule stuff is going to happen. It’s what he does best.

“I feel like he took a really good step towards the end of the year. Now it’s just a matter of attacking this offseason and doing everything he can to prepare for OTAs and training camp.

The same can be said for Fields.

“He’s just one of those guys you want to have in your corner,” Smith said. “He has a good head on his shoulders. You never have to worry about him being a jerk. He’s just one of those guys. It just has that “it” factor.


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