Before Justin Fields was even a draft-eligible prospect, Chicago Bears general manager Ryan Pace saw in person just how tough the Ohio State quarterback was.
Pace was in Ann Arbor for Ohio State’s 56-27 win over Michigan in 2019, when Fields delivered one of the most iconic performances of his Buckeye career. After aggravating a knee injury he had suffered one week earlier, Fields came out of the game for just seven plays before returning for the rest of the game and throwing a 30-yard touchdown pass to Garrett Wilson on his first play back in.
That moment, which Ohio State coach Ryan Day described as a “magical moment,” caught Pace’s attention, too. And that, along with his performance after getting injured against Clemson in this past season’s College Football Playoff, proved to him the resiliency of the quarterback he would ultimately select 17 months later with the No. 11 overall pick in the 2021 NFL draft.
“This guy’s toughness on a scale of 1 to 10’s an 11, and you just love that about him,” Pace said following Thursday night’s first round of the draft.
The Bears traded up for the opportunity to draft Fields on Thursday night, giving up their first- and fourth-round picks in next year’s draft and their fifth-round pick in this year’s draft to move up nine spots from the 20th overall pick. Pace said the Bears went into the night hoping they’d be able to land one of the top quarterbacks, but that depended on how the board would fall, so they were thrilled when Fields fell far enough to put them in position to trade up for him.
“We feel really fortunate to be able to get Justin in the area of the draft we were able to select him. The excitement throughout our whole building, you can feel it as I walked down here tonight,” Pace said. “We knew there was gonna be a sweet spot for us to be in that quarterback world, and this area was kind of it. So it just required a little bit of patience to get to that point.”
Chicago studied Fields extensively during the pre-draft process – Bears offensive coordinator Bill Lazor and assistant director of player personnel Champ Kelly attended Fields’ first pro day at Ohio State, while Pace, head coach Matt Nagy and director of player personnel Josh Lucas attended his second – and they were impressed by their findings both on and off the field.
When they watched Fields throw the ball in person, they were struck by the velocity with which he throws the ball and “the way the ball comes off his hand,” Pace said. They were also impressed by his physical build – he weighed in at 6-foot-2 3/8 and 227 pounds at his first pro day – which Pace said he thinks “explains the durability that he has and the toughness that he has.”
They certainly took notice of Fields’ speed, too, when they watched him run the 40-yard dash at his first pro day.
“It’s just the combination of factors that he has. It’s the arm talent, it’s the accuracy, it’s the athleticism. When you see a guy with that kind of arm talent, with that kind of quarterback makeup that he has, with that kind of work ethic, that’s played in really big games and really big moments and performed in big moments,” Pace said. “Oh and then by the way, he runs a 4.44. So you throw that all in together, and it just feels good.”
Pace said the Bears also like Fields’ “aggressive approach” and the ability to make plays in the vertical passing game that he consistently showed at Ohio State.
“He has all those tools, he has all those arm strengths. Now it’s on us as a staff to refine those and develop those and I know he’s gonna be open to that. And that’s what’s exciting about it,” Pace said.
While there was some scuttlebutt during the draft process that NFL scouts had questions about Fields’ work ethic, Pace made it clear he had no such concerns and that Fields’ dedication is one of the things he was most impressed by.
“What stood out with him in all of our interviews, and we’ve done a lot of them … his focus and how serious he is and that determination that he has,” Pace said. “He’s really locked in, his desire to be great, you can feel that when you speak to him.”
Pace also said the Bears have no concerns about Fields having epilepsy.
“He’s handled a lot of those things throughout his life, and we have a lot of ties into the Ohio State football program, and our doctors and trainers do a great job,” Pace said. “We were very comfortable with that and how he handles that. We’ve dealt with something similar in the past, with different players over the years, and we’re completely fine with it.”
Now that Fields is officially a Bear, Pace wants to make sure they develop him properly. Because of that, the current plan is for Andy Dalton – who signed a one-year contract with the Bears in March – to be their starting quarterback for the 2021 season.
“Andy is our starter,” Pace said. “And we’re going to have a really good plan in place to develop Justin, and do what’s best for our organization to win games.”
Nagy was the Kansas City Chiefs’ offensive coordinator when they drafted Patrick Mahomes and had him learn behind Alex Smith for a year before taking over as their starting quarterback in his second season, and Pace believes the Bears can use that as a blueprint for Fields’ development.
“Getting him is one thing, but for us to surround him and develop him is the other thing. You can draft the players, but you have to develop them the right way,” Pace said. “The process and how we do that is important. We’ve got a good plan in place to surround him with the right resources, to develop him the right way.”
That said, you don’t have to look very hard to find countless examples of teams claiming they would start a veteran quarterback over a quarterback they just drafted in the first round only for that quarterback to end up starting as a rookie anyway. And Pace certainly didn’t close the door on that possibly when he was asked if Fields would get the opportunity to beat out Dalton.
“I think we just gotta let it play out,” Pace said. “It’ll be a daily process, a daily evaluation, but we’re excited to let that play out.”