Why? How? The Bears, Trubisky and the Fateful 2017 NFL Draft

Three quarterbacks. Two are franchise foundations. The other, in Chicago, just got benched. The 2017 draft was a case study in one of the sport's most confounding puzzles: How to pick the right QB.
photo of Kalyn KahlerKalyn KahlerContributor IOctober 2, 2020

The end of the Chicago Bears' up-and-down-and-up-and-down Mitchell Trubisky era somehow arrived sooner and later than expected. After just 10 quarters of football this season and a head-scratching 2-0 start, head coach Matt Nagy yanked Trubisky this past Sunday following an interception in Atlanta. In the moment, the move felt premature, but with the context of three-plus seasons—44 starts marked by frustrating inconsistency—the move also felt absurdly late. 

One source who previously worked with the Bears during Trubisky's time doubts that he will ever be the franchise quarterback that his No. 2-pick status would suggest. His inexperience in big games in college didn’t prepare him well for the NFL, and his biggest weakness is difficult to coach: “It revolves around confidence, but really it is the mental part of the game,” the source says. “That’s ... where the other two were ahead of him in the process. The situation he is in being compared to the other two, it kind of compounded his issues. He got dealt a bad hand.”

The other two being quarterbacks drafted after Trubisky in 2017: Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson, who are among the top faces in the league. Trubisky has never lived up to the expectations put upon a No. 2 overall pick, and his reputation suffers in their shadows. This offseason, while the Bears passed on extending Trubisky and traded for the QB who replaced him Sunday, both Mahomes and Watson signed mammoth extensions as their team's long-term answers. 

More than three years after that 2017 draft, a maddening question haunts the franchise and will linger as long as those Mahomes and Watson shadows loom: How, why, and what on Earth was GM Ryan Pace thinking in selecting Trubisky? 

To understand all that went into the 2017 quarterback draft and the resulting Trubisky era in Chicago, Bleacher Report spoke to sources who are connected to the Bears, Chiefs and Texans, as well as to evaluators around the league who studied the quarterbacks. The sources spoke on condition of anonymity given the classified nature of team evaluations and draft strategy. 

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Then-Bears head coach John Fox didn't find out until the morning of the draft that Pace planned to draft a quarterback, and that that quarterback would be Trubisky. In an earlier meeting, sources said, he'd made clear to a group that included Pace, offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains and quarterbacks coach Dave Ragone, that Watson was his choice among quarterbacks, followed by Mahomes and then Trubisky. 

But Fox, a source said, didn't even want to take a quarterback at No. 3. Mike Glennon had just signed a generous three-year contract to be the Bears' starter. Headed into a win-or-get-fired third season as the head coach, Fox wanted the team to select LSU safety Jamal Adams, and most within the organization were under the impression Adams was going to be Pace's pick.

(Fox and Pace both declined to comment for this article.)

Though Pace finally had looped Fox into the Trubisky plan that morning, many in the organization didn't find out about it until the Bears traded four picks to move up to No. 2 and the phone call was made to Trubisky. A source familiar with the situation says Fox was not alone in his contrary opinion about the quarterbacks. The love for Trubisky was "not unanimous" among personnel and coaching staff.

Ryan Pace and John Fox in 2017
Ryan Pace and John Fox in 2017Nam Huh/Associated Press

Pace seemed to be fixated on the quarterback position and on Trubisky, to judge partly from what was seen as an unnecessary trade from No. 3 to No. 2.

"I don't know where they were getting their information [on needing to move up], but it was not great sources," said a source close to the team. "To give up four picks to move up one spot, that was another ridiculous thing. Especially on a team that didn't have great talent anyways. They [the 49ers] kind of duped [Chicago]." 

Pace had taken over as GM in 2015 and had looked into trading up for Marcus Mariota in the '15 draft and Carson Wentz in '16. A source close to the team says that not making moves for those quarterbacks motivated Pace in '17. He would do whatever it took to get Trubisky. So when the Bears' front office caught wind that there was one team threatening to move up and select Trubisky, Pace made certain Trubisky would be a Bear. 

Across the league, scouts, GMs and coaches were stunned by the Bears' move. "Everyone was like, 'Holy shit! They just took Mitch Trubisky No. 2?'" said a scout whose team drafted a quarterback that year. "There was no way we thought they were going to get Trubisky. That was so far removed from what we thought could be reality." 

The shock was partly because Pace had kept his intentions quiet, but mostly it was because, for many teams, Trubisky was ranked as the third quarterback and a late first-round pick.

 "I'm not sure anyone had Trubisky as high as the Bears did," said a scout who closely evaluated quarterbacks that year.

"The division is glad Chicago picked him," said an evaluator who worked in the NFC North at the time. His team graded Trubisky as a third-round pick. 

"Deshaun was 1A and Patrick 1B," said an AFC scout. "[Trubisky] was in consideration; he just wasn't ranked with those guys. If you want to say third, then yeah, that's where he was."

Deshaun Watson and Patrick Mahomes each received new deals this offseason as franchise QBs, while their 2017 draft counterpart, Mitch Trubisky, did not.
Deshaun Watson and Patrick Mahomes each received new deals this offseason as franchise QBs, while their 2017 draft counterpart, Mitch Trubisky, did not.Colin E. Braley/Associated Press/Associated Press

"Trubisky third, and it wasn't even close," said the scout whose team drafted a QB that year. "We had so little to work with on Trubisky. I mean, he's a one-year starter, you know? And for much of his [college] career, he was beaten out by a guy who wasn't even going to play in the NFL. As much as they tried to say he was more prototypical than other guys, he was as much a project as they were."

So what was it that Pace might have seen in Trubisky that so many others did not?

Pace arrived in Chicago from New Orleans, and his experience there meant he viewed Drew Brees as the mold for the perfect quarterback. In his press conference introducing Trubisky, Pace compared the rookie to Brees: 

"All these top quarterbacks, it's just their ability to quickly process defense, process coverage, find open targets, not panic under pressure, deliver accurate throws when there's a noisy pocket and things are collapsing. Those guys all have those traits. Mitch has those traits. Drew has those traits."

"The thing that intrigued people most about Trubisky is that he was pretty much able to play in a pro-style system," said the scout who closely evaluated quarterbacks that year. "That's what everyone had pigeonholed him that he could do."

Indeed, Pace was not alone in his high opinion of Trubisky. Emerging from a relatively off-the-radar University of North Carolina program, he was popular with draft analysts Mel Kiper Jr., Gil Brandt and Charlie Casserly. They all ranked Trubisky as their top QB prospect. 

The red flags so many others saw in Trubisky were elementary quarterback criteria: his lack of experience, his intangibles. UNC coaches hadn't exactly shown great faith in Trubisky, after all.

As a freshman in 2013, Trubisky redshirted. Then he sat behind Marquise Williams, with limited chances to play, for two seasons. He finally started as a junior in 2016 and then declared early for the draft. 

UNC coaches explained it away by saying they were winning with Williams (11 straight victories in 2015), so they stuck with him. Several scouts pointed out a next-level strategy for starting Williams: He was from Charlotte, UNC's recruiting base. But was there something else going on?

One Southeast-area scout remembers being really impressed by the film of Trubisky's game against Delaware in 2015 when the sophomore threw four second-half touchdown passes in relief of Williams.

So he went to ask a coach friend on UNC's offensive staff why the team wasn't starting Trubisky. What the hell are you guys doing playing Marquise Williams at QB when this kid is on your team? 

"He was laughing, and he said something like, 'The guys just played for Marquise,'" the scout recalled. "He wasn't knowingly taking a shot at Trubisky, but I took a mental note that there is something missing with this guy. There is no way talent-wise that Trubisky shouldn't have been playing. And Marquise Williams kept him on the bench?"

"The Williams kid had the heart of the locker room and the pulse," the scout whose team drafted a QB that year remembered learning from his research on Trubisky. "The players rallied around him, which is part of the reason why he started those years over Mitch."

Mitch Trubisky spent one season as a starter at North Carolina before going pro and becoming the No. 2 overall pick.
Mitch Trubisky spent one season as a starter at North Carolina before going pro and becoming the No. 2 overall pick.Steve Helber/Associated Press

"When they described how he couldn't win the starting job from Marquise, you ask follow up questions about that," said the scout who evaluated quarterbacks closely. "Do the guys like him? Do the guys gravitate towards him? And once you start going down that road and asking those questions, it's something that is always in the back of your mind when you're evaluating him."

The "It" factor. Looking back at the 2017 draft and considering why so many player evaluators are saying today that the Bears' mistake was obvious back then, the "It" factor is what they say Watson and Mahomes had that Trubisky did not.

"Mahomes had a swagger confidence to him. Deshaun was kind of almost how Russell Wilson was, like this guy makes you feel something when you're talking to him," said the former AFC scout, echoing other sources.

What about Trubisky? "You just didn't get this feeling of a leader of men, a guy that just stood up and looked you in the eye. It's hard to put an actual word to it."

A source familiar with the Bears' draft believes Pace viewed Trubisky as the secure, comfortable choice with the least risk involved. Bears brass recognized that if Mahomes hit his potential, he would be the better player, but they believed it was much more likely that Trubisky would hit his potential. Trubisky was the prospect with the lowest ceiling and the highest floor. 

Scouts around the league agreed Mahomes had the most arm talent, but there was a real fear his backyard football skills might not translate to a pro-style offense. Watson was a proven winner, but his accuracy was questioned. He threw 32 interceptions in 38 games. "You knew exactly what you were getting with Mitch," the source said. "When that's your franchise, that's your job, and knowing what you're getting is a comfortable feeling."

In hindsight, Watson, quarterback of national champion Clemson, seems like the obvious choice in that class. He started for two full seasons in which he led the Tigers to two national championship appearances, winning the second time around by beating a much more talented Alabama team, one that several scouts compared to an NFL defense. 

"[Watson] has something in hand that is magical; it's called 'It,'" said one general manager, recalling his analysis at the time. "And when you got 'It,' you can do a lot of things. He was very special."

There were just a few factors that might have made him seem less "safe" to the Bears.

Scouts had questions about Watson's downfield accuracy and his consistency because Clemson's offense was built on a lot of predetermined throws without many progressions. As one scout said, Watson was clutch late in games, but he could be a little erratic with routine passes early in games. The Southeast-area scout said Watson's play dipped at the start of his junior season, to the point where the evaluator lowered the high grade he had on him in his team's evaluation system. 

Another factor was Dabo Swinney.

When the Clemson head coach compared Watson to Michael Jordan just before the Senior Bowl that year, the hyperbolic praise fell on deaf ears. Many scouts rolled their eyes because they'd heard too many college coaches oversell their players before, and Swinney was no exception: The memory of Tajh Boyd, the last Clemson quarterback who was an NFL prospect before Watson, was still fresh in scouts' minds. 

The Jets took Boyd in the sixth round of the 2014 draft and cut him during camp. Evaluators knew Boyd didn't have an NFL future, but at Clemson's 2015 pro day, Swinney stood in front of a room of NFL personnel and asked why Boyd was not on an NFL roster. "Listen," Swinney remembered pleading with NFL personnel. "I am telling you guys right now: Tajh Boyd is an NFL QB. He would be on my roster. I will go to my grave with that."

A day later, Boyd was signed by the Steelers, who then cut him in August.

"People were a little hesitant after the previous Clemson QB. Remember Tajh Boyd?" said the scout who closely studied the 2017 QBs. "He was quite popular coming out and then he never really panned out, so people were like, well is that a sign of a Clemson QB?" 

Swinney says Boyd frequently came up in conversations with NFL personnel during Watson's draft process, and he made sure to create a distinction between his praise for the two:

"It took Tajh two years to become a starter here, and Deshaun's ability to really grasp things was unique when he came in here as a freshman," he said. "That's why he won the job as a freshman. He beat out a senior. He went to two national championship games. The NFL overthinks so many things. I don't know how anybody could pass on this guy." 

Deshaun Watson at Clemson's pro day in 2017
Deshaun Watson at Clemson's pro day in 2017Rainier Ehrhardt/Associated Press/Associated Press/Associated Press

Watson has made it clear he did not feel like the Bears did enough work on him. He tweeted in May, "The bears NEVER ONCE talked to me.." Chicago had private workouts and dinners with Mahomes and Trubisky, but not Watson. 

Watson's tweet wasn't entirely truthful because a large Bears contingent attended Watson's pro day and spoke to him briefly afterward, but his private quarterback coach, Quincy Avery, says he didn't consider it to be real interest. "They came to his pro day, but they didn't have the same conversations in the same vein that teams typically do when they are really interested in drafting someone," Avery said. "If you are really interested in the quarterback, you go to dinner with them after their pro day, or you set up a meeting where you actually sit down and talk to them, and they didn't do that."

Avery says he knew Fox, who has a close relationship with Swinney, liked Watson a lot, but that it was clear Pace had zeroed in on Trubisky early in the process.

If Watson was the choice of Fox and plenty of other evaluators, Mahomes was considered a longer shot.

The Texas Tech star was the most polarizing of the three top prospects because his improvisational style was so unpredictable. Scouts hadn't seen many air-raid QBs have success at the pro level before. He'd need the perfect coaching situation and the time to develop. Many evaluators recognized he had the most raw talent, but they predicted he would take the longest of the three to be ready to play, and some wondered if his skills could translate to an NFL offense.

It was tough for some of his backers to convince superiors to seriously consider him. A Giants source says that then-head coach Ben McAdoo was a big fan of Mahomes', but GM Jerry Reese went for a quarterback in the third round that year, Davis Webb. (McAdoo, now the Jaguars' QB coach, declined to comment.)

Mahomes visited the Jets for an interview and a workout, but a source familiar with the Jets draft says general manager Mike Maccagnan had already decided to wait to draft a quarterback until 2018, which he thought offered a more talented bunch than 2017. Despite an impressive workout where Mahomes showcased his once-in-a-generation arm, the Jets drafted Adams, making it apparent that decisionmakers didn't see Mahomes as a franchise QB.

To pile on to the draft regret, league sources say that sometime in early March of that year, the Bears told Mahomes that he was their top quarterback in the class, and gave Mahomes the strong presumption they would take him. This further explains why Mahomes counted to 10 on his fingers after passing for a touchdown at Soldier Field last season. "10" for his draft position, a message to the team who passed on their "top quarterback." The Bears' interest in Mahomes was real, but the conversation with Mahomes that he was their top QB may have been a smokescreen to throw people off the scent of their actual top quarterback. 

Of course, it turns out Mahomes should have been the clear No. 1, even ahead of Myles Garrett, who is now a star defender for the Browns. For Bears fans who saw Mahomes toy with the Ravens defense on Monday, one day after Trubisky was benched for cause, Kansas City games can be tough to watch. But that goes for a lot of fanbases around the NFL. 

What K.C. had in the 2017 draft that neither Chicago nor Houston did was a true consensus among personnel evaluators and coaches on which quarterback they should take. In Chicago, it was Coach Fox preferring Watson as a QB but wanting to draft the safety Adams—and not having a say in the decision anyway.

The difference between Houston and Chicago is that the Texans developed a quarterback in Watson worth a huge extension, while the Bears and Trubisky have fumbled whatever potential Trubisky had.

Bring up the prospects of Trubisky's future with a Bears staffer and you might get an awkward silence or uncomfortable stammering. It's a taboo topic within the organization but a fair question to broach, especially now. On the day after Trubisky's benching, Nagy said the job is Nick Foles'. Have we really seen the last of Trubisky in Chicago, or as an NFL starter?

Sources around the league disagree. Some say yes, he was a bad draft pick and will be a fine backup quarterback. Others say it's a long season. Looking ahead, they say, a player of Trubisky's draft pedigree and athleticism will always get another shot to start with another team.

A fresh start in a new city could serve him well. Trubisky's career in Chicago didn't begin under ideal conditions. He was booed at a Bulls-game appearance before he had ever taken a snap for Chicago. Then Glennon played poorly, and Trubisky made his first start in Week 5. Chicago went 5-11, and Fox was fired after the season. Fox faced criticism for not putting much on Trubisky's plate in the passing game. 

"The worst thing you can do is give a coach a QB he doesn't want," said the former AFC scout. 

In his second season, Trubisky was tasked with learning a new offense again, but this time he was paired with an offensive-minded head coach in Nagy, who had evaluated the three quarterbacks in 2017 as Kansas City's offensive coordinator. He took the job in Chicago knowing Trubisky was the future. 

The Bears were surprisingly successful in Nagy's first season, buoyed by the trade for Khalil Mack. The defense led the league with 37 takeaways and consistently gifted Trubisky good field position. Trubisky played in the Pro Bowl as an alternate after throwing for 3,223 yards with 24 touchdowns, 12 interceptions and a passer rating of 95.4, which stands as by-far his career high but was only 16th-best in the league that season.

Cody Parkey's double-doink obscured the real reason for the wild-card playoff loss: The offense could not score more than 15 points. Still, Trubisky's sophomore season was viewed as progress. There was evidence (like a six-TD explosion against Tampa Bay) he could evolve. 

But in 2019, the defense couldn't replicate its production, and Trubisky was exposed. The questions about his leadership and "It" factor resurfaced while he regressed in his second year in Nagy's offense. During a four-game losing streak, Nagy directed Trubisky to watch the broadcast tape to evaluate his body language after the coach judged him as acting too seriously following bad plays. In a press conference, Trubisky made a comment about turning off the TVs at the facility to avoid hearing criticism, which sparked a round of sports-talk debates over whether he was too coddled. 

And there were signs that the organization was doing its best to protect the young quarterback from mounting outside pressure. Six days after Trubisky's Week 1 Thursday night loss to the Packers, he was asked about the game. Instead of answering the question, he said, "Nah, I was told not to talk about the last game." When pressed further on who told him not to talk about it, he named a public relations employee. 

By the end of the '19 season, it was increasingly clear that the franchise needed a contingency plan at quarterback. 

 "You had all these usual suspects in Mahomes and Watson that people didn't think would be able to do all these things," said the scout whose team drafted a QB that year. "And the one guy they were like, 'For sure he's the guy,' he's struggling the most." 

Enter Foles, who the Bears traded for because he was familiar with Nagy and the offensive system from their time together in Philadelphia. (If Foles isn't the 2017 Eagles version of himself for the rest of this season, another quarterback decision will haunt the franchise: Cam Newton was available, and for a whole lot less than Foles.) 

Nick Foles (left) and Trubisky
Nick Foles (left) and TrubiskyNam Y. Huh/Associated Press

"They tried to forecast something that wasn't shown on the tape," said Avery, Watson's private coach. "I think that's the reason that pick ended up going so poorly for them. Trubisky was an OK college QB who flashed traits, but he never did it at a consistent level to make you think that in the NFL he would be able to do more than he did in college."

Despite his benching in Atlanta on Sunday, Trubisky appeared at the podium postgame, as scheduled. He stood tall and faced questions from the media, taking ownership of what he did to lose his job that day. It was a total 180 from his press conference the previous season in L.A. after he was benched in the final minutes because of a hip injury some later questioned. Then, Trubisky struggled to make eye contact with reporters, his head hung low so that the top half of his face was barely visible underneath his green hat brim.

"I gave him [Nagy] the opportunity to pull me, and he did," Trubisky said in Atlanta. "It is what it is."

Foles left no doubt about who should be the Bears starter when he passed for the go-ahead touchdown with just 1:53 left. Foles found receiver Anthony Miller on a post route in the end zone with a perfectly placed ball. 

Just two quarters earlier, Trubisky ran what he called "the exact same" third-down play. From the slot at Chicago's 43-yard line, Miller ran the deep post route and was wide open with a clear path to the end zone. Trubisky aired it out and overshot Miller's reaching hands. The quarterback watched his wayward football hit the field and clenched his fists, high-stepping out of his jog and jamming his feet into the ground in frustration. 

"Just missed it," he said postgame, with a tone of resignation, not near-success.

The 2017 quarterback draft class is a case study in projections, personalities and convictions. And a lesson that evaluating quarterbacks will always be an inexact science. 

In the words of their new backup quarterback, the Bears just missed.

        

Kalyn Kahler covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow her on Twitter for NFL musings and weird quarantine thoughts: @KalynKahler.