Justin Fields' improvement noticeable as QB embraces emphasis on passing

LAKE FOREST, Ill. – Justin Fields doesn’t typically set individual goals, but there’s one benchmark the Chicago Bears’ 24-year-old quarterback discussed for his third season.

In 2022, nine quarterbacks threw for at least 4,000 yards. There’s only one team in NFL history that hasn’t had a quarterback reach that mark.

“A Bears quarterback hasn’t done it yet, so that would be cool,” Fields said as training camp opened. “With the help of this guy [DJ Moore], hopefully I can get there."

Considering Fields threw for 2,242 yards last season, he’ll need more than Moore to nearly double that production.

The offseason in Chicago has revolved around helping Fields develop into a franchise quarterback. He has a true No. 1 receiver in Moore, who was acquired as part of a package from the Carolina Panthers for the No. 1 overall pick, and he has an upgraded offensive line with additions at right guard and right tackle and new starters at center and left guard. The Bears also revitalized the backfield with D’Onta Foreman and Roschon Johnson backing up Khalil Herbert.

Throughout the first week of training camp, Fields’ improvement has been noticeable. Here are the areas where he’s proving he’s ready to take the next step as a passer after rushing for the second-most yards ever for a quarterback last season (1,143).

A deeper understanding of the offense

Bears offensive coordinator Luke Getsy has noticed a different level of comfort with Fields. For the first time in his NFL career, Fields isn’t spending training camp with a new offense, new terminology and new protections.

“It’s fun to be able to talk deeper into the concepts and stuff,” Getsy said. “We’re not talking about the simplicity of what the word means anymore. We’re talking about what the reaction should be. And I think having those next-level conversations with Justin makes everything look like he’s more comfortable with what we’re doing.”

At this time last year, Fields was having to adapt to modified throwing mechanics and new footwork. Having moved beyond the basics, Fields and the offense are learning to master more complex play designs and concepts with pre-snap motions and shifts, which allows Getsy to incorporate a higher level of difficulty into his scheme.

“That’s probably bigger in the meeting room where the simplicity last year was more … we tried to keep it pretty direct,” Getsy said. “We’re using our brains a little bit more, so we’re trying to get a little crazier. We’re trying to have a little bit more fun with things.”

In practice, Field’s teammates have seen the quarterback’s grasp of the playbook play out in areas he wasn’t comfortable executing in his second season.

“There's no confusion there at all,” wide receiver Darnell Mooney said. “He's just, ‘I know where I want to go with the ball. I know where this play is designed for. I know the coverage that I want to get this done in.’ Even during walk-throughs, he will do a two-minute drill and he's calling plays himself. That’s something he wasn’t able to do last year”

Rhythm and timing

Dating back to OTAs, the Bears have made a concerted effort to increase the amount of time spent on the passing game with longer 7-on-7 periods for the first-team offense and repping more two-minute and end-of-half situations.

It’s in those moments when coach Matt Eberflus measures Fields’ growth as a passer. In the two-minute drill during the Bears' first padded practice Tuesday, Fields evaded the rush to buy time on third down and finished with a no-look pass to Moore in the end zone.

“I thought he did a good job of going through his reads to start,” Eberflus said, “so he went through his progression and then he felt the pocket break down and then he did his thing.

“And that’s what we’re talking about. During situations -- which is that was a situation, right? – we’re in a two-minute, end of half, we’re trying to score a touchdown, we’ll take a field goal, where he utilized that.”

As Fields develops as a passer, the Bears are emphasizing patience in letting routes develop downfield. In May, Getsy said one-third of Fields’ 1,143 rushing yards last season came off pass plays in which the quarterback scrambled and decided to tuck the ball and run.

Teaching Fields to focus on throwing if he sees an opening instead of running is a point emphasized during camp.

“There’s a time clock on each play that he needs to get the ball out, and he knows that,” Eberflus said. “When it stops, he’s got to move on to the next thing and sometimes that is moving out of the pocket and creating.”

Getting the ball out quicker

The Bears' new linebacker T.J. Edwards, who saw Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts rise as an MVP candidate in his third season, sees parallels between his former teammate and the growth he thinks Fields can achieve in 2023.

It starts with how quickly Fields has been able to deliver the ball to his pass-catchers in practice.

“He’s made some tight windows where he fit the ball in, you see his arm strength and what he can do and how quickly he’s getting the ball out,” Edwards said.

Fields averaged the longest time to throw (3.03 seconds) through the first six weeks of the 2022 season. After missing Week 12 with a right shoulder injury, Fields averaged 3.12 seconds to throw during Weeks 13-17, which was second-longest, after Zach Wilson.

Getting the ball out faster is the top priority, as is taking his quick, easy outlet throws and checkdowns.

“Having guys like DJ take a slant for 20, 30 yards is definitely going to help us a lot and once those defenses start coming up, start taking away the short game, that’s when we can go over the top,” Fields said. “Those quick passes are definitely going to be an advantage for us this year, especially with the guys that we have that can catch and run with the football.”

The first play of 11-on-11 on Tuesday resulted in Fields hitting Moore on a quick read. Moore beat cornerback Jaylon Johnson on a slant route and turned on the jets to cruise down the sideline. A quicker release and explosive plays go hand-in-hand.

“That's a critical part of playing the position, is that your feet take you through your progression and your timing, and so if your feet are telling you it's time to move on to the next guy, then it's time to move on to the next guy,” Getsy said. “And then if he's open, then you gotta throw it to that guy, and continue through your progression. When things break down, and you can't stay in that rhythm, that's when the best become the best.”

Better protection

Fields took a league-high 55 sacks in his second season. That number must come down for the passing game to succeed. The emphasis on Fields getting the ball out faster will help with that, as will the improved protection in front of him.

Most of the Bears offensive line – Braxton Jones, Teven Jenkins and Cody Whitehair – has learned Fields’ tendencies over the past three seasons. Nate Davis, the Bears’ new right guard, and rookie first-round right tackle Darnell Wright have joined a group of five that has been playing together since May. For the first time in three seasons, the Bears can boast a level of continuity upfront that will play a role in better pass protection.

“We’ve been taught that with Justin, he’s dynamic that you just have to block forever,” Jones said. “He can get us out of the craziest plays when I’m bad, too. I’ve noticed that he’ll get me out of – you know it looks like it’s about to be a sack or I had a bad play there, but he’s just right out the back and starts running. You just have to block forever. ... He’ll get you out of anything.”

New -- and improved -- receivers

Last August, the Bears had 13 wide receivers in camp competing for spots on a wide-open depth chart. As of now, Moore, Chase Claypool and Darnell Mooney are firmly cemented as Chicago’s top three receivers while rookie Tyler Scott, Equanimeous St. Brown and Velus Jones Jr. are getting consistent reps.

“I think it changes everything for the offense,” Fields said of his revamped receiving corps. “I think just knowing those guys’ roles and how they’re going to be used in the offense, they can take more reps at those certain positions, so they’re able to get on the same page. We’re able to have certain conversations on what guys are running certain routes, talking about if you see a certain coverage they’re going to do this or that. It is going to help our team, having those guys set in certain positions rather than trying to find out which receivers do what things best.”

Fields’ connection with Moore has been on display since the Bears’ first practice, especially in critical situations in 11-on-11, particularly in the red zone. In Tuesday’s 7-on-7, Fields had up-and-down moments, highlighted by a tipped pass that resulted in an interception by Eddie Jackson but also touchdown throws to Claypool, Mooney and tight end Jake Tonges.

The work the Bears front office did in upgrading the receivers around Fields and the time the quarterback put in this offseason working with these players away from Halas Hall has yielded early returns for the passing game.

“He's throwing to more skill,” Eberflus said. “And he’s had time on task with those guys, so he feels comfortable with the skill he’s throwing to.

“You saw a lot of good connections to Clay. That was pretty cool. And obviously DJ had that real nice slant. And we’re still working the tight ends, so there’s a lot of options there.”