Justin Fields

Justin Fields, Braxton Jones among NFL figures who will determine Bears' draft path

How four NFL figures perform during the season's final five games will determine the Bears' draft path

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The Bears exit their bye week at 4-8 and full of belief that an unlikely playoff run is possible with five winnable games down the stretch.

While the 2023 Bears focus on being where their feet are, the outside focus has shifted to the 2024 NFL Draft and the potential ahead. Thanks to general manager Ryan Poles' trade heist of the Carolina Panthers last March, the Bears can focus both on an unlikely postseason push and an offseason that could see them own the No. 1 pick again.

After Sunday's Week 13 action, the Bears have a 72 percent chance of getting the No. 1 pick via Carolina. Currently, the Bears would own the No. 1 and No. 5 picks in the 2024 draft, giving them two top-tier assets to reshape the franchise.

The question from now until they go on the clock in April is: How will/should Poles utilize those picks? Should he draft a new quarterback in Caleb Williams or Drake Maye? Should he use the picks to add blue-chip talent around Justin Fields? Or should he trade one of the picks for more draft capital?

Poles will have plenty of paths to choose from this offseason, but what happens in the final five games will impact the route he travels.

Four figures, three of whom reside in Halas Hall, will play a key role in determining how Poles attacks what is setting up to be a potentially "transformational" offseason:

Justin Fields

Fields and how he plays during the final five games will undoubtedly play a massive role in how Poles chooses to use the draft capital he finds in his war chest this offseason.

Last offseason, the Bears' GM said he'd have to "be blown away" to move on from Fields and draft a different quarterback. The Bears eventually dealt the pick to Carolina, passing on the opportunity to draft C.J. Stroud, who is having an impressive rookie season in Houston.

Poles and head coach Matt Eberflus wanted to build around Fields, remove the excuses, and see if he could take a big step forward as a passer in 2023.

The season didn't start as planned. The third-year quarterback struggled early on and admitted to playing "robotic." Fields appeared to get back on track in Weeks 4 and 5 before dislocating his right thumb in Week 6.

Since returning in Week 11, Fields has played well in the two games since his return. He has shown some improvement with pocket presence and escaping with a passer's mentality by keeping his eyes downfield after being flushed from the pocket.

Fields has been inconsistent as a passer this season. Some of that can be attributed to questionable play-calling and a constantly changing offensive line picture.

But a lot of the issues fall at Fields' feet.

The Bears will look at the entirety of the Fields' three seasons when evaluating him as a franchise quarterback option going forward.

The feeling in league circles is that the Bears will move on from Fields after the season if they have a top-two pick. Fields has shown flashes and has exceptional athleticism, but that's just enough to get people fired for sticking with him too long and not enough to pass on either Williams or Maye, both of whom are viewed as elite NFL quarterback prospects.

Fields has five games to change the Bears' mind.

Five games of consistent, high-level passing and playmaking could change the course of the Bears' offseason plans.

It's easy to be enticed by Williams or Maye. But quarterback evaluation is an inexact science. Having Fields remove doubt that he's the long-term answer behind center would provide the Bears with a world of options when it comes to the draft. If the Bears don't have to use their first pick on a quarterback, that should allow them to travel the safe road with wide receiver Marvin Harrison Jr.

But if Fields can't silence the doubts, then the Bears have to go with either Williams or Maye.

Braxton Jones

After Fields, Jones might be the player with the most riding on the final five games of the season.

Two blue-chip left tackles are slated to be in the 2024 NFL Draft class in Notre Dame's Joe Alt and Penn State's Olu Fashanu.

The Bears locked down the right tackle position in the last draft with the selection of Darnell Wright. They entered the season hoping Jones would solidify himself as their franchise left tackle, allowing them to check off an import box in their rebuilding project.

Jones worked all offseason on getting stronger against the bull rush, which was his biggest weakness during his rookie season.

That work showed up early in the season, but Jones struggled with mental mistakes and hand placement. Then came a neck injury that cost him six games.

Since returning to action in Week 9, Jones has allowed just 10 pressures in 140 pass-blocking snaps.

On the season, Jones has allowed just 14 pressures and one sack while being penalized seven times.

Jones will be part of the Bears' plan going forward. He's a talented tackle that the Bears believe has left-right versatility.

But if he can cement himself as the franchise left tackle, that could allow the Bears to focus elsewhere in the first round, be it edge rusher, wide receiver, or defensive tackle. If doubt remains about Jones after the season finale, the Bears will have a tough time passing on Alt or Fashanu in Round 1.

Matt Eberflus

The Bears' head coach might be the biggest pivot point in the road ahead.

From the outside, Eberflus' seat appeared to be warming early in the season. But I don't think it was ever as hot as everyone believed, and it's likely cooled, given the Bears' improved play over the past eight weeks.

The Bears are 4-4 in their last eight games, and the defense has continued to improve under his direction as play-caller. The Bears' defense now leads the NFL in run defense and ranks ninth in yards allowed per game. The Bears are two blown leads away from being 6-6 and right in the thick of the playoff race.

As dysfunctional as things have appeared at times, I don't get the sense that those inside Halas Hall view things the same way the general public does. The Bears have already won more games than last year and should be in line to win at least two more games down the stretch.

If the Bears move on from Eberflus after the season, it likely means Fields is gone as well, and Poles is looking for a full reset with a new staff picking their own quarterback. (This is how functioning organizations do things, which might be foreign to the Bears.)

If that's the case, the Bears' draft path becomes clear.

But if the Bears continue to play well and Eberflus earns Year 3, there's a good chance that Fields was a big reason why and might have done enough to allow the Bears to utilize their first-round draft picks by adding talent around him (Harrison, Alt, Fashanu, Brock Bowers, etc.)

The coaching situation at the season's end will play a big role in how the Bears attack the draft.

Bryce Young

The final domino in the Bears' draft puzzle is the guy they elected to pass on in 2023.

Young landed in the worst situation possible for a young quarterback. His weapons don't separate, his line is beyond leaky, and his head coach was fired after 11 games.

The Panthers are an abject disaster and are hurtling toward a doomsday scenario where they hand the Bears the No. 1 pick in the draft.

Carolina is horrible. No doubt.

But you should never underestimate the mediocrity of the NFL.

The Panthers were close to knocking off the Tampa Bay Bucs on Sunday. They have games against the Saints, Falcons, and Buce remaining. All of those teams are capable of laying a stinker.

Can Young drag the Panthers to one or two more wins down the stretch to push Carolina out of the No. 1 spot? The New England Patriots have completely cratered and are projected to likely finish with a lower strength of schedule than Carolina. If the two teams finish with the same record, the Patriots would receive the better selection.

Getting the No. 2 pick would still be a massive win for Poles and the Bears, but it could also drastically alter how they approach the selection and their quarterback future.

While many might see Williams and Maye as worth a top-two pick, the Bears' pre-draft evaluation could lead them to believe only one is worth the selection. If that signal-caller were to go No. 1, the Bears would have to go to Plan B.

The Panthers are dreadful, but Young has already beaten a good Texans team. Anything can happen in the NFL. If anything happens one more time for the Panthers, the Bears' plans could be irrevocably altered.

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