Justin Fields

C.J. Stroud, Justin Fields, and the under-the-radar question about Bears' QB future

The Bears' decision to trade the No. 1 pick last March creates an important question as they speed toward another monumental choice this offseason

C.J. Stroud
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Bears general manager Ryan Poles had a massive decision to make last offseason. With the No. 1 overall pick in hand, Poles had to decide whether the best way to shape his franchise moving forward was to trade the pick for the best offer and stick with quarterback Justin Fields or trade Fields and take a new quarterback with the first overall selection.

The choice always seemed obvious. Fields flashed during a teardown season where he had no protection or weapons. The belief was that if the Bears could surround him with better weapons and a better line, he would take off. That theory, coupled with the underwhelming 2023 quarterback class, made Poles' decision to trade the pick to the Carolina Panthers an easy decision.

But eight months after the Bears' blockbuster trade with the Panthers, that decision looks murkier in hindsight.

The package the Bears got from the Panthers remains a haul. DJ Moore is a star, Darnell Wright is starting to blossom at right tackle, and Chicago is in the driver's seat to once again have the No. 1 pick via the 1-9 Panthers.

But it's the meteoric rise of Houston Texans rookie quarterback C.J. Stroud, who went No. 2 overall, and the up-and-down season from Fields that creates the haze.

In 10 games, Stroud has thrown for 2,962 yards, 17 touchdowns, and five interceptions while completing 62.8 percent of his passes. Stroud has the Texans at 6-4 and in position to make the playoffs in a crowded AFC. Those 2,962 passing yards are more than Fields threw for in 15 games last season.

"Stroud always had this kind of upside," an AFC scout for a team that wasn't in the running to draft the QB told NBC Sports Chicago. "I know some teams got scared off him because of the offense [Ohio State runs], but I think the Georgia game kind of showed you what he could be. That's a defense with what, 10 first-rounders on it? He threw it all over them. If you can do that, there's a pretty good chance you can succeed in the NFL."

As Stroud makes a darkhorse MVP run, the Bears enter the final six games of the season needing to see consistent, high-level quarterback play from Fields to continue building around him. He needs their trust to do that, something they didn't show toward the end of their 31-26 loss to the Detroit Lions.

With the Bears likely to have two picks in the top six or seven in the first round next April, the decision made last March and how it was made must be examined.

"Organizationally, the question you'd have to ask yourself is: was our evaluation process sound?" a player personnel staffer told NBC Sports Chicago. "It's not a second guess of the package, right? You get an elite wide receiver. Need that. I like Wright, and the corner [Tyrique Stevenson] might pan out. You can't put a price on the first-round pick this year [2024], given the quarterbacks coming out.

"But if you think Stroud is going to be a star or even if he's better than your initial evaluation, you have to ask why you missed that. Or did you give yourself a chance to see it? They seemed pretty set on Fields. When you trade the pick that early, it seems like there's an error in the evaluation process on some level. It was a good trade, don't get me wrong, but you'd still rather have a set franchise quarterback."

Poles said last year that he would need to be "blown away" to draft a quarterback and move on from Fields. As the Bears look toward an uncertain quarterback future, how they came to the decision last March will have to be inspected thoroughly as they potentially evaluate Caleb Williams and Drake Maye this offseason.

Did Poles even give himself a chance to be blown away? If their evaluation of Stroud was off by this much, what are the chances they evaluate the next crop successfully if they move on from Fields?

Speaking of Fields, where does this conversation leave him with six games to go?

"There's still a lot to like," the AFC scout said. "The playmaking, the upside. I think when they let him play how he feels comfortable, you see how good it can be. If they can get him to play like he did [against Detroit] consistently, then you have what you're looking for. If you trade a guy with that talent, you better be right."

That brings us back to Stroud, Williams, and Maye.

The easiest way to derail a rebuild is to spend top capital on a mis-evaluated quarterback. That can set you back years and normally ends with people losing their jobs.

With the draft capital the Bears have this offseason, a massive decision looms. They can keep Fields and add blue-chip talent around him. Marvin Harrison Jr. is as can't-miss as they come.

Or they can reset the QB contract timeline with Williams or Maye and see what teams are willing to offer for Fields.

But they have to be sure the quarterback whose name they call in April is the guy and isn't destined for the dustbin of history.

"What's the bust rate of quarterbacks taken in the first round? Forty percent," the player personnel staffer said. "So it's already a gamble, and now you look back on the decision they made last offseason, and it makes you think: What's the confidence level that we can get this right when we either missed last year or saw it and passed anyways?"

The best-case scenario for the Bears is Fields lights it up over the next six games, and they enter the offseason comfortable about their future at quarterback. It's easy to be enticed by Williams or Maye, but having certainty in Fields is the more favorable door.

It's like the "Family Guy" boat or a box bit.

In this case, Fields proving he's a franchise quarterback to build around is the boat while the draft mystery box. Williams or Maye could be anything. The potential outcomes for their careers could run the gamut. Would you rather have a surefire franchise quarterback or draft someone with the potential to be what Fields is, better or worse?

If the Bears enter the offseason without a complete evaluation of Fields, it will be hard for them to turn down the chance to draft Williams or Maye. Having a quarterback on a rookie contract is the best asset in the NFL. That, coupled with the astronomical upside of the top two quarterbacks, creates a gravitational pull that might be hard for the Bears to escape.

But if they go that route, can they be trusted to evaluate them properly and make the right decision after they missed and/or passed on Stroud?

The biggest question about last offseason's decision is not the trade haul returned for the No. 1 pick but the evaluation process that led them to that choice. Perhaps Fields will thrive over the next month and render this conversation moot. Maybe Stroud's rise will be a mirage.

But Poles and this front office's biggest decision informs the expectations for the next decision and creates an important and probably unanswerable question about how they'll solve another monumental QB riddle this offseason.

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