LAKE FOREST, Ill. (AP) — The Chicago Bears are counting on Justin Fields to develop into the franchise quarterback Mitchell Trubisky never became.
It's just not clear when his opportunity will come.
The Bears plan to go with veteran Andy Dalton as the starter to open the season, hoping he can give them the steady play they lacked in recent seasons and allow their latest prized rookie to watch and learn.
“If Andy controls Andy and we have success on offense and we play well and we’re winning, that’s a good thing,” coach Matt Nagy said. “I think we’d all understand that’s a good thing while this kid develops and continues to grow and learn and watch tape. But at the same point in time, Justin needs to do everything he can from Week 1 in the video, in the meetings, at practice, always being prepared.
"Because you’re one play away.”
The Bears excited their fans when they traded up nine spots with the New York Giants to draft Fields with the No. 11 pick. It was another big swing to land the franchise quarterback Chicago has lacked for decades.
Fields comes with a far more extensive resume than Trubisky, the No. 2 overall pick in 2017. He was a Heisman Trophy finalist in 2019 and the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year each of his two seasons at Ohio State after transferring from Georgia.
In the preseason, Fields looked like he was ready. He showed his ability to squeeze passes into tight windows and extend plays with his mobility.
But Dalton will be the one staring at Aaron Donald when Chicago visits the Los Angeles Rams on Sept. 12. The longtime Cincinnati Bengals quarterback signed a one-year, $10 million contract after spending last season in Dallas. If the Bears struggle early, the calls for Fields figure to grow louder.
“Just have to take advantage of every practice rep I get,” Fields said. “I can’t be defeated by, ‘There’s no more preseason games.’ Just every rep in practice, and every play I get, I’ve got to treat it like a game and get better on that play.”
The quarterback storyline isn't the only one to watch.
Chairman George McCaskey opted to stick with general manager Ryan Pace and Nagy after last season, citing the team's culture. But if the team struggles again?
The Bears did make the playoffs for the second time in three years last year. But they got there as the seventh seed in an expanded field. They then bowed out with a convincing wild-card loss at New Orleans after going 8-8 in the regular season for the second year in a row.
With three-time All-Pro Khalil Mack leading the way, the Bears' defense remains a strength. The Monsters of the Midway just haven't been quite as dominant in recent years.
The Bears have gone from ranking third overall in 2018 to 11th, and from leading the NFL with 36 takeaways to finishing tied for 25th with 18 in 2020. Mack had nine sacks in his second straight season in single digits.
Getting nose tackle Eddie Goldman back after he opted out of last season due to COVID-19 concerns should help the interior. But age could be an issue with linebackers Danny Trevathan (31) and Robert Quinn (31), lineman Akiem Hicks (31) and Mack (30) all in their 30s. The Bears also have a new coordinator after promoting Sean Desai to replace the retired Chuck Pagano.
LINE 'EM UP
A big concern for the Bears is the offensive line.
They signed 39-year-old Jason Peters in mid-August, hoping the two-time All-Pro can solidify the left tackle spot with second-round draft pick Teven Jenkins missing the start of the season following back surgery. Right guard James Daniels (quad) and right tackle Germain Ifedi (hip flexor) are coming off injuries.
On the other hand, the blocking improved after Chicago shuffled the line late last season. The Bears moved Cody Whitehair from center to left guard and inserted Sam Mustipher at center.
Star receiver Allen Robinson hoped to sign a multiyear deal. Instead, he'll play under the $17.9 million franchise tag.
Chicago's most reliable playmaker, Robinson is coming off one of his best seasons as a pro. He caught a career-high 102 passes, and his 1,250 yards were second only to the 1,400 he had in his 2015 Pro Bowl season with Jacksonville.
ON THE RUN
Running back David Montgomery enters his third year looking to build on a strong finish last season, when he ran for 1,070 yards and eight touchdowns. He came on strong down the stretch, with 598 yards and seven TDs in the final six regular-season games.
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