The Chicago Bears have been saddled with a quarterback curse for generations. The team hasn't employed a truly elite signal-caller since Sid Luckman led the team to four championships in the 1940s and has suffered through decades of brutal performances at the position.
Chicago hoped to put an end to that miserable run by trading up in the 2021 draft and selecting Justin Fields at No. 11 overall. Fields went into his first season as a backup to Andy Dalton but was quickly thrust into the lineup after the veteran went down with an injury early in the campaign.
Fields would retain the starting job for much of the year. While the young signal-caller flashed potential, it was largely a season full of disappointment.
The Ohio State product completed only 58.9 percent of his passes for 1,870 yards and seven touchdowns. He threw 10 interceptions and was sacked 36 times while winning just two of his 10 starts.
Despite the poor statistical showing and lack of victories, there is still hope for the future and a real chance that Fields turns things around as a sophomore.
It was clear that Fields was becoming more comfortable as he continued gaining valuable experience. This was reflected by a solid 76.9 PFF overall grade and a downright impressive 90.5 passing grade outside the pocket over his final five starts—marks that would respectively rank top-10 and No. 1 overall amongst qualifying QBs.
When he settled in and took what defenses gave him, Fields looked almost unstoppable at times. The quarterback diced up the opposition with his speed and elusiveness, turning broken plays into memorable highlights like his 22-yard fourth-down scamper against the San Francisco 49ers in Week 8.
Fields finished last season with 420 yards and a pair of scores on 72 rushes, a solid showing but one that has plenty of room for improvement.
The 23-year-old showed great touch on his deep ball as a rookie as well. That skill was on full display during Chicago's valiant comeback effort against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 9 and backed up by data that shows he was one of the league's more aggressive QBs when pushing the ball downfield.
PFF's Anthony Treash noted that his 10.1-yard average depth of target was the second-highest in the NFL last year. On Tap Sports Net looked back at every first-year QB to drop back at least 300 times since 2009 and found that Fields "was above average in his deep accuracy, well above average in big-time throws, and about a little better than average at avoiding risk" on passing attempts of 20-plus yards.
A small tweak to Fields' mechanics could see the quarterback become even more effective going forward. According to Larry Mayer of the team's official website, the coaching staff is having Fields put his left foot forward when lining up in the shotgun formation.
Fields had his right foot forward as a rookie but is switching it up to make his throwing motion more efficient. This shift could pay dividends as Chicago's protection capabilities may leave something to be desired in 2022.
PFF is projecting Chicago to have the NFL's second-worst offensive line this coming season, a rather steep fall-off from last year's No. 22-rated unit. If young tackles Larry Borom and Teven Jenkins can improve—both were below-average during their rookie seasons in 2021—the Bears may surprise in this area, but this O-line appears to be in line for a regression.
The losses of Jason Peters and James Daniels, the team's highest-rated performers in the offensive trenches last season, will certainly be felt as the Bears prepare to run a new system under new head coach Matt Eberflus and offensive coordinator Luke Getsy.
As part of the new regime's offensive overhaul, the Bears will also be integrating a few more pass-catching weapons. The offense leaned a bit too heavily on Darnell Mooney last year, evidenced by the wideout accounting for 26.7 percent of the team's total targets.
Mooney may have been one of Chicago's few bright spots last year, but he's not at the level of Cooper Kupp or Davante Adams—two of only five wideouts who saw a larger share of their respective team's targets last year—at this stage of his career.
The Bears were hamstrung by a lack of effective receivers outside of Mooney during Fields' rookie season. Allen Robinson II was supposed to be his No. 1 weapon but fell off a cliff following back-to-back 1,000-plus yard campaigns.
Chicago wisely elected not to retain ARob after his abysmal 410-yard season and instead brought in Byron Pringle and Equanimeous St. Brown as replacements in free agency. While neither was a focal point in their first NFL stops, both should get plenty of opportunities to establish themself behind Mooney.
The Bears landed a promising rookie WR who could play a major role right out of the gate in Velus Jones Jr. The team selected the Tennessee product in the third round, and while he may not have the upside of some of his contemporaries in the class, the 25-year-old possesses the speed and athleticism to take the top off opposing defenses.
With these pass-catchers in the fold and Fields improving with a full offseason to prepare as the starter, there should be some significant on-field progress in 2022. As great as this is, the growth Fields has shown as a leader is what should have fans in the Windy City truly excited about where the young signal-caller can take this club.
Teammates have been raving about Fields' leadership this offseason. Per Mayer, Bears defensive tackle Justin Jones called his quarterback a "legit field general" and said he's looking forward to seeing what he can do this year:
"I'm really excited about the season he's about to have. Once you've played your first year, you've seen the speed of the game, you've seen how guys are moving, how fast the window closes. You see how fast receivers get open. I'm excited. He's a lot more comfortable now."
According to ESPN's Courtney Cronin, tight end Cole Kmet said his confidence has been boosted by Fields' command of the huddle, while Mooney revealed that Fields "wants to take over the league" and has "unbelievable faith" that his QB will eventually become the best quarterback in the NFL.
It all appears to be coming together for Fields to have a breakout sophomore season. It may still take some time to break the Bears QB curse and usurp Luckman as the top quarterback in franchise history, but Fields should be well on his way by the time the 2022 campaign wraps up.