NFC North Reporter
Optimism is high in Chicagoland, and that’s probably underselling things. Another NFL season is upon us and the excitement there is high due mostly to one person: Chicago Bears quarterback Justin Fields.
Bears fans are ready for Fields’ year-three jump. The NFL as a whole saw Philadelphia quarterback Jalen Hurts do it and lead his team to a Super Bowl appearance. From 2021 to 2022, Hurts increased his passing yards by over 15%, his passing touchdown total by over 25% and decreased his interception rate by over 30%.
But it’s important to take a breath rather than immediately buying into the MVP hype Chicago has seemingly run away with. Fields is not Hurts. Their respective starting points are not the same. In Hurts’ second year he ranked 23rd in adjusted EPA (expected points added) per play with .117. His .088 composite score — a combination of EPA and CPOE (completion percentage over expectation) — ranked 26th in the league. Fields’ second season saw him rank 39th in both metrics.
If Fields improves by the same percentages in the passing game as Hurts, his numbers this season will be: 2,578 passing yards, 21 passing touchdowns and seven interceptions.
To be clear: that is an improvement. It would be a jump and a solid step forward as Chicago tries to figure out if Fields is their long-term solution under center. It would certainly make the decision on Fields’ fifth-year option easier, especially if the dynamic quarterback adds another 1,000 yards or so on the ground. But a jump for Fields doesn’t necessarily mean a jump for the team as a whole like it did for Philadelphia, because — I cannot stress this enough — the Bears are not the 2022 Eagles.
Yes, Chicago got wide receiver D.J. Moore in their trade back from the No. 1 overall pick. That’s reminiscent of the Eagles’ trade for A.J. Brown. But Philadelphia didn’t own the worst record in football in 2021 (Hurts’ second year). In fact, they made the playoffs that season. The Eagles had the best offensive line in football along with an established and domineering defense that carried into 2022, as well.
Conversely, the Bears did have the worst record in football during Fields’ second year. They don’t currently have the best offensive line. Despite the additions of guard Nate Davis and rookie tackle Darnell Wright, there are still question marks due to injury all across the unit. Chicago’s defense is also still a work in progress, even with the addition of Yannick Ngakoue.
The jump Fields would need to make to follow the same trajectory as Hurts, put simply, would be unprecedented.
NFL exec says there is no reason Justin Fields ‘can’t be a poor-man’s Jalen Hurts’
Fivethirtyeight developed a model for an advanced metric called quarterback ELO, which, according to nfelo.com, should be thought of as QBR but not on a 0-100 scale. It takes into account league-average quarterback play to evaluate total value contributed by a quarterback over his career.
To put Fields’ start in context, I went through not only his numbers, but those of Hurts and then Lamar Jackson. Elo can be measured by career and also by game. The graph below illustrates how much further behind Fields is starting from the other two passers.
Elo can also be measured per game, which takes length of career out of it. On a per-game basis, Fields’ score is -39.9. Hurts is 67.8. Jackson is 73.2.
For that matter, this also serves as a reminder that Jackson is an absolute outlier, even compared to Hurts. While Hurts is a great quarterback, he’s also the beneficiary of the team around him. Jackson brings innumerable value to his team.
Can Fields reach that level? He’d need to for Chicago to succeed this year. It will be a very difficult road, though. The Bears have a case for a wide-open NFC North, to be sure. But the odds aren’t in their favor. Expecting Fields to be an MVP this year puts undue pressure on the young player. Pressure that he doesn’t need on top of being the quarterback of the Chicago Bears.
Rather, Chicago should look at the 2023 season through the lens of improvement. Is it there overall? Does Fields take a noticeable step forward? Can the defense outperform expectations? If those things happen, that is success for Chicago. Anything beyond that is a bonus.
Carmen Vitali covers the NFC North for FOX Sports. Carmen had previous stops with The Draft Network and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. She spent six seasons with the Bucs, including 2020, which added the title of Super Bowl Champion (and boat-parade participant) to her résumé. You can follow Carmen on Twitter at @CarmieV.
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