The Bears have cleared the first two hurdles of a pivotal offseason, hiring Shane Waldron and Eric Washington to be their new offensive and defensive coordinator, respectively.
With the coaching staff almost filled out, the attention will pivot back to the big quarterback decision that awaits general manager Ryan Poles and head coach Matt Eberflus.
That's naturally the focus of the first of many offseason mailbags in the lead-up to a franchise-defining choice:
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But the Bears already flushed the continuity argument by firing most of the offensive staff. Even if Fields returns, he'll be working under his third offensive coordinator in four seasons.
Fields has a world of talent. His constant improvement has, at the very least, made this more of a conversation than it appeared it was going to be when he dislocated his thumb in Week 6. He got better as a passer. He started escaping with a passer's mentality, leading to improved quarterback play overall.
This might be a different conversation if the Bears had landed the No. 2 or 3 pick via the Panthers.
But I think it will be virtually impossible to pass on Williams and stick with Fields.
For all of Fields' growth, he still struggled massively during crunch time. Out of 40 quarterbacks who threw at least 50 passes in the fourth quarter this season, Fields ranked 39th in passer rating at 53.4. Only Bailey Zappe was worse. He ranked 28th in yards, tied for 26th in touchdown passes, and was tied for the second most interceptions in the final quarter.
Thirty-one quarterbacks threw at least 20 passes this season while trailing with four minutes or less remaining in the game. Fields ranked 29th in passer rating and 28th in completion percentage and was tied with Jordan Love and Aidan O'Connell for the most interceptions.
Fields hasn't shown an ability to elevate his game in the got-to-have-it moments.
We haven't even talked about the contract part of the Fields-Williams discussion. If you pass on a quarterback deemed one of the three generational prospects since Peyton Manning (Andrew Luck, Trevor Lawrence, Williams), you have to have all the evidence you need that the guy you have has everything required to be a Super Bowl-winning quarterback.
The Bears don't have that with Fields.
The Bears just revamped their offensive line last offseason. Right tackle Darnell Wright, right guard Nate Davis, and left guard Teven Jenkins are locked in. The Bears need to find a long-term answer at center, and I expect them to do so in the draft. Left tackle Braxton Jones is the only unknown on the offensive line. The Bears could look to draft a blue-chip left tackle with their second first-round pick, but there's a good chance they will wait to add "competition" until later in the draft, and Jones will enter OTAs as the starter.
Point it, the line isn't getting revamped again.
As for the scheme, expect new offensive coordinator Shane Waldron to run a much more efficient, explosive attack than the one Luke Getsy was orchestrating. Waldron is known for his versatility, creativity, and adaptability. He has shown the ability to tailor the offense he runs to the personnel he has at his disposal.
Should the Bears draft Williams to pair him with Waldron and new quarterbacks coach Kerry Joseph, I expect the Bears' offense to be predicated on what Williams is comfortable with and can excel at early on.
The 2022 Heisman Trophy winner is also much better in structure than he's given credit for. Yes, a lot of Williams' highlight plays are improvisational. But that was largely due to USC's poor offensive line and the Trojans' clunky offensive game plan that asked Williams to bail them out. Even in his worst games (at Notre Dame, vs. Utah, at Oregon), Williams showed precision, accuracy, and quick decision-making within the structure of USC's offense.
He's not a sure thing. No quarterback is. But I think there's a good chance Williams can enter and succeed immediately with the pieces the Bears have in place.
I think the Steelers will be one of the lead contenders for a Fields trade should the Bears decide to move on from him.
But I don't think he's going to fetch them a first-round pick. I've talked to several people around the league, and most of them place his value at a Day 2 pick, but they didn't rule out that price rising if multiple teams are interested and get into a bidding war.
Perhaps a desperate team (Atlanta?) might bite that bullet, but I think it's safe to say that the Fields trade price starts with the Sam Darnold framework from a few years ago.
The Carolina Panthers sent a second, fourth, and sixth-round pick to the New York Jets for Darnold, who had just finished his third season in the NFL.
Fields has shown higher upside through his first three seasons in Chicago than Darnold did in New York. Both have the excuses of organizational incompetence and a lack of weapons. Both still have two years remaining on their rookie contracts if the fifth-year option is picked up.
Personally, I could see Fields fetching maybe a second, a third, and a later-round pick.
The Steelers have a solid roster but have a question mark at the quarterback position. They are out of range for the top prospects but also have to decide what they have in 2022 first-round pick Kenny Pickett.
Pittsburgh is a well-run organization that understands the value of first-round picks. They'll want to use the 20th overall pick on a foundational player who they can have five years of control over on a cheaper deal.
But I think Pittsburgh, along with Atlanta and Las Vegas, are live to give up a second-round pick and more for Fields.
While I don't think the Bears will get a first-round pick for Fields if the Falcons are willing to give up the No. 8 overall pick for him, the Bears have to say yes. No question about it.
As far as then trading down from No. 9, it depends who is on the board and what offers the Bears get. Adding more draft capital is almost always a positive, but if the Bears can get two of Rome Odunze/Dallas Turner/Brock Bowers/Malik Nabers at eight and nine to add to Caleb Williams, that would be worth staying and making both selections.
But if a team is offering multiple high-quality picks for the Bears to move down only a handful of spots, it'll be hard for Poles to say no unless he's in love with someone on the board.
The ability to get a big-named player for the No. 1 pick, as the Bears did with DJ Moore last offseason, likely hinges on how far they are moving down and if they are prioritizing said star over more draft capital.
Since Washington is sitting at No. 2, I don't think a deal with them would include McLaurin unless new Commanders general manager Adam Peters views Caleb Williams as head, shoulders, and sky above Drake Maye and Jayden Daniels.
At the moment, I just don't see the Bears wanting to move down that far, nor do I see a team that is desperate enough to do what the Panthers did last season and trade a premium player along with valuable draft assets. Should the Bears elect to stick with Fields and trade the No. 1 pick, I would assume a deal would be centered on several future first-round picks.
Now this equation can change after free agency, but I think thoughts of McLaurin or Maxx Crosby are just dreams at this point.
Jaylon Johnson bet on himself and won big time this season.
After having a career season in which he earned Pro Bowl and second-team All-Pro honors. Johnson recently went on Keyshawn Johnson's podcast and admitted that he is now looking to be the highest-paid cornerback in the NFL.
"I think the ball is in my court, the ball is in my favor," Jaylon Johnson told Keyshawn Johnson. "Really, I think it's just a matter of time when it happens. But I think really going into the negotiation, I don't think it's too much really to talk about. I feel like there's no reason I can't be the highest-paid corner in the league. I feel like that's what I'm aiming for, that's what I'm shooting for, that's what I think can be done and should be done. I feel like I've had a good enough resume from my rookie year until now. I feel like really this was just the icing on the cake. I feel like there's not anything anybody can say: I took the ball away, I got All-Pro, I got Pro Bowl. I mean, what else is there for me to get? I feel like I'm very deserving of the highest paid at the position. I'm going to go in and the ball is really in my court. I'm just going to wait for them and come to terms on it, and hopefully, it's what I feel I'm deserving of."
Now, the question becomes does Johnson want to have the most guaranteed money, the highest average annual value, or both?
Right now, Green Bay Packers cornerback Jaire Alexander has the highest AAV at $21 million per year, while Cleveland Browns cornerback Denzel Ward and Miami Dolphins star Jalen Ramsey both have just over $71 million in total contract guarantees, per OverTheCap. Alexander only has $30 million in total guarantees.
Given Johnson's injury history and only one season of elite production, I'd say the franchise tag ($18.4 million) is likely. If the Bears and Johnson's camp had a difficult time finding the gap and closing it before, it likley will be even more difficult now with Johnson's demands increased.
Poles has been disciplined as general manager. Personally, I would extend Johnson and lock him in as a foundational piece for this rebuild. I like Tyrique Stevenson and Terell Smith, but betting on both of them being good starting corners is a gamble. Johnson is respected in the locker room, did everything the new regime asked, improved his ball production, and is an ascending player at a premium position. Most teams don't let those guys walk.
Maybe the Bears can tag Johnson initially and then work out an extension in the summer. That's probably their best-case scenario, but it's hard to see a deal getting done before the tag deadline (March 5).