Chicago Bears general manager Ryan Pace had little idea how his world would unfold when Thursday began, how the first night of this year’s NFL draft might fulfill his biggest wishes or leave him to accept one of the team’s much-discussed fallback plans.
Pace entered the Bears’ state-of-the-art draft room at Halas Hall on Thursday evening eyeing three possible roads. The main avenue would take the Bears on a journey up the draft board to select one of the top five quarterbacks in the class. If, for whatever reason, that became unrealistic, Pace and the Bears had designs on either trading up to address another significant need — likely at offensive tackle, receiver or cornerback — or staying put with the team’s first-round selection at No. 20.
As fate would have it, a little before midnight Thursday night Pace was beaming on a Zoom call with reporters, enthused by the realization that the night couldn’t have gone much better. The Bears got exactly what they wanted, engineering a trade with the New York Giants, leaping up nine spots and selecting Ohio State’s Justin Fields.
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Just like that, the franchise snagged its newest quarterback of the future, nabbing a prospect who many talent evaluators believe has true star potential. Pace began his endorsement of Fields with three “a’s”: arm strength, accuracy and athleticism.
“We feel really fortunate to be able to get Justin in the area of the draft where we were able to select him,” Pace said. “The excitement throughout our whole building, you could feel it.”
Who knows how things will ultimately unfold from here, whether Fields will become the long-term answer the Bears have been seeking at quarterback for most of their 101-year history or whether he will land as just another bullet-point on an always growing list of quarterback disappointments in this city. That will take years to sort out.
But in the context of Thursday night, the first-round chess board provided the Bears an opening they knew wasn’t guaranteed. Not since 1999 had quarterbacks gone 1-2-3 in the NFL draft. Then Thursday night arrived and Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson and Trey Lance came off the board quickly — to the Jacksonville Jaguars, New York Jets and San Francisco 49ers, respectively. Over the next 48 minutes, however, no other quarterback was taken. Seven picks passed.
A sense of curiosity inside the Halas Hall draft room slowly transformed into eagerness.
The Detroit Lions grabbed offensive tackle Penei Sewell at No. 7. The Carolina Panthers followed at No. 8 with cornerback Jaycee Horn. The Denver Broncos? New general manager George Paton got coach Vic Fangio a standout cornerback in Patrick Surtain II. And after the Philadelphia Eagles traded with the Dallas Cowboys and leapfrogged the New York Giants to snatch Alabama receiver DeVonta Smith, the Bears had their coveted opening.
“We knew there was going to be a sweet spot for us to be in that quarterback world,” Pace said. “And right in this area was kind of it. It just required a little bit of patience to get to that point.”
The trade with the Giants wasn’t cheap. In addition to swapping spots in Round 1, the Bears also traded away a fifth-round pick (No. 164) plus first- and fourth-round selections in 2022. Still, Pace and coach Matt Nagy felt strongly enough about Fields’ skillset and long-term potential to roll the dice. They’re also understanding that the acquisition of the young quarterback is merely a starting point for what will become a demanding and detailed developmental process.
“Getting him is one thing,” Pace said. “Now for us to surround him and develop him is the other thing. We always talk about how you can draft the players but you also have to develop them the right way. And that’s what I love about the environment that we have.”
Fields, suppressing whatever disappointment he may have been feeling from his own slide out of the top 10, adopted a “meant to be” mantra, quickly dismissing a suggestion that he might now approach his NFL career with a chip on his shoulder.
“My goal now is not to worry about those teams (that passed on me),” he said. “Those teams have nothing to do with me. My goal is if we play that team, beat them. So I’m not worried about the draft. The draft is over. For me personally, I’m ready to get to work.”
Asked to identify his greatest strength as a quarterback, Fields highlighted his ability to thrive under pressure on big stages.
“When big moments present themselves, I feel like there’s just another thing that kicks in inside of me,” he said.
Thursday marked the fourth time Pace has traded up for the headliner of his draft class. He did so in 2016 with edge rusher Leonard Floyd, the following year with Mitch Trubisky and again in 2019 with the third-round selection of running back David Montgomery.
Now Fields will work to validate the organization’s confidence in him.
“I think this is God’s plan for me to be a Bear,” he said. “So I’m more than excited and I’m more than ready to get up there.”
For what it’s worth, Alabama’s Mac Jones went 15th overall to the New England Patriots, the fifth and final quarterback taken in Thursday’s first round. Fields’ career will now be judged against Jones’ as much as it will be compared to the journeys of Lawrence, Wilson and Lance.
Back in mid-January, just a few days after the Bears finished another disappointing season with a frustrating playoff loss to the New Orleans Saints, chairman of the board George McCaskey and team president and CEO Ted Phillips expressed unwavering confidence in the abilities of Pace and Nagy to get the franchise back on track. A big part of that mission, of course, revolved around stabilizing the quarterback situation.
“It’s pretty clear we need better production from the quarterback position in order to be successful,” McCaskey acknowledged in January.
As for why he still trusted Pace to solidify the quarterback position after high-profile misses with Trubisky, Mike Glennon and Nick Foles, McCaskey emphasized that a collaboration between Pace and Nagy would be invaluable.
“It’s how well they work together,” McCaskey said. “They have vigorous discussions. And we think their collaboration will result in the right decisions for the Bears. … I think that will be immensely helpful going into this upcoming draft.”
On Thursday night, months of evaluating and collaborating and sounding things out led the Bears to Fields, generating a renewed sense of excitement around Chicago that has been sorely lacking this offseason.