Potential Trade Destinations for Justin Fields

Many things happen at the annual NFL gathering in Indianapolis for the Scouting Combine. With virtually the whole league in one place, all eyes are once again on the Bears to see what they do. Only this time, the first domino isn’t just the No. 1 pick, but QB Justin Fields, Chicago’s 2021 first-round pick out of Ohio State. 

Justin Fields

Fields has started for the Bears the last two-and-a-half seasons, flashing considerable upside while also demonstrating shortcomings and inconsistencies that have made the Bears hesitant to commit to him long-term. With the first overall pick in the 2024 draft thanks to the Panthers’ ineptitude and a decision due on Fields’ fifth-year option in May, the Bears have a big decision ahead with the chance to draft a top prospect, trade Fields and reset the clock at the quarterback position. Teams already gauged the market for Fields at the Senior Bowl, and the Bears were expected to have finalized their plan at quarterback heading into the Combine and to be ready to act. 

Fields’ talent has never been in question. He’s been a dynamic threat at QB since entering the league, boasting a big arm and top-end speed and agility. He can rip the ball with velocity to the outside and over the middle, firing passes into tight windows before defenders can close on the ball. His rushing ability is something defenses must respect; he’s been one of the most productive rushing quarterbacks in the NFL over the last two seasons. Despite the Bears’ poor record overall, Fields’ ability has allowed Chicago’s offense to be quite productive, even with middling talent around him.

But there are areas of Fields game he needs to improve to be a viable long-term starting quarterback. He holds the ball too long, taking far too many sacks trying to extend the play, waiting for receivers to come open or looking for a rushing lane. He also prefers to see his targets open rather than throwing with anticipation. He’s a capable thrower across the middle of the field but is often reluctant to do so, preferring to target outside the numbers. Fields’ accuracy and ball placement, something he was lauded for in college, has proven spotty in the NFL.

All this culminates in a quarterback with a ton of raw ability who has struggled in specific areas of his game in the NFL. Fields has been productive enough to believe that in the right environment, he could certainly thrive. A team with a more stable infrastructure and a more talented supporting cast could convince themselves that Fields would develop in their care into a quality starter in this league.

USC QB Caleb Williams is widely seen as a generational prospect, with many evaluators grading him out even higher than elite prospects in recent years like LSU’s Joe Burrow and Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence. Williams isn’t the kind of quarterback a team can afford to pass on and it feels like there’s little chance Chicago trades the first overall pick in favor of Fields, a largely unproven passer, for the second year in a row. 

Additionally, the rookie quarterback window is the most valuable contract asset in the sport. Star quarterbacks are expensive — even mid-level veterans cost $35-$40 million a year or more — and the rookie wage scale keeps draft picks locked on very reasonable deals for their first few years in the league. The surplus value from a star quarterback on a rookie contract unlocks so much money that can be spent on upgrading the roster elsewhere.

Chicago is hitting the end of that window with Fields. The Bears have to decide by May whether to exercise Fields’ fifth-year option which would guarantee him more than $25 million for the 2025 season. Picking it up would virtually lock Fields onto the roster for the next two seasons, and be a clear statement by the Bears that they view Fields as their starter for the duration. Based on how the past two years have gone, that would be a bold call. 

Drafting Williams or another top quarterback, on the other hand, resets that clock. It gives the team three additional years of a cost-controlled potential star, and three more potential years of team-building with a surplus. There’s no guarantee Williams will pan out to be a better player than Fields of course, but there’s more NFL tape saying Fields isn’t the future than there is for Williams at this point. Teams place a high value on their assessments of players coming out of college and factor that into their decision-making, and Williams is likely to grade out as a better prospect than Fields was, as well.

Chicago brass has said multiple times they’ve made no decisions about Fields’ future and are open to keeping him, even if they use the No. 1 pick on a quarterback. However, this feels unlikely for several reasons. Trying to keep Fields as a backup behind a rookie, even a No. 1 pick, would be a challenging sell in the locker room. Teams usually go out of their way to avoid this potential for discord. Combined with the quality compensation Chicago could receive for Fields, there’s a lot of motivation for Chicago to get a deal done for Fields.

Trade Compensation

What would a potential deal for Fields look like? Based on precedent with former first-round quarterback trades, some sort of Day 2 pick seems probable. The Jets traded QB Sam Darnold to the Panthers for a package of picks including a second, while the Cardinals also got a two in return for dealing QB Josh Rosen. A high second-round pick is probably a bit too rich without another pick coming back, so a mid-second to a mid-third is the likely landing spot here.

It also depends on how competitive Fields’ market ends up being. If the Bears can generate a bidding war, they’ll have an easier time sticking to a higher asking price with more teams involved. If Fields’ market is more limited, it could get hairy for the Bears. When the quarterback carousel spins every year, there are only so many starting spots available. Sometimes when the music stops, guys you don’t expect to be left without a seat are still looking. This happened a couple of years ago with former Browns QB Baker Mayfield, and Cleveland had to settle on a trade with the Panthers for just a conditional mid-round pick — and were forced to eat some salary in the deal to boot. 

That’s probably the worst-case scenario for the Bears with Fields, even though there are several teams in need of help at the position. Fields won’t be a good fit in every offense, so scheme will be important to consider. A team looking to trade for him needs draft capital and a certain level of desperation to land a starting-caliber quarterback, or at least competition for the room. 

With trade talks sure to heat up at the NFL Combine later this week, let’s take a look at the teams most likely to trade for Fields:

Atlanta Falcons

Armed with a new head coach in former Rams DC Raheem Morris and a wealth of talented young playmakers on rookie contracts, the Falcons enter the 2024 offseason with one priority: finding a quarterback. They’ve suffered through a revolving door at the position the last two seasons after trading away franchise legend Matt Ryan in 2022 due in part to a failed bid to acquire former Texans QB Deshaun Watson.

The Falcons consider themselves contenders in the wide-open NFC South, provided they can solve their quarterback dilemma. Fields would both solve the need for an immediate starter and provide the potential for a long-term solution with considerable upside in Atlanta’s potent offense. It would also be a homecoming of sorts for the Kennesaw, Georgia native. 

From Fields’ perspective, Atlanta makes a lot of sense as a landing spot. The Falcons have one of the best run-blocking offensive lines in football and an elite trio of big-bodied offensive playmakers. Falcons WR Drake London, RB Bijan Robinson and TE Kyle Pitts all challenge defenses in different ways and would make life easier for a young quarterback. One of Fields’ greatest strengths is his ability to stretch the field and challenge defenses vertically and along the sidelines. Between London and Pitts, Atlanta has the receiving talent to capitalize on that, while Fields’ proficiency as a runner provides another layer of stress for defenses. 

In terms of negatives, Fields takes too many sacks, a problem that could be exacerbated by the Falcons’ somewhat suspect pass protection. However, this can be mitigated with designed rollouts, screens and a devastating rushing attack — all things Atlanta is well-equipped to deploy.

Despite Fields’ excellent fit, Atlanta may be targeting bigger fish this offseason at QB. The Falcons have the No. 8 pick in the draft, and while that probably won’t be high enough for the top prospects, it’s close enough to be within striking distance of a trade. The Falcons are also rumored to be among the top potential suitors in free agency for Vikings QB Kirk Cousins, who may not have the long-term upside of Fields but is a far better fit for a team looking to win now.

It’s also worth noting Falcons GM Terry Fontenot was part of Atlanta’s decision to pass on Fields in the 2021 draft to take Pitts instead with the No. 4 pick. They still had Ryan on the roster at the time, but it was clearly the twilight of the veteran’s career. It’s fair to wonder if Fields has done much in the NFL to change minds in Atlanta if they didn’t think he was worth the No. 4 pick as a prospect. 

If Atlanta strikes out on their first choices though — a reality that’s not much of a stretch to envision — they may have to circle back and give Fields another look.

Minnesota Vikings

The perennial middle-of-the-pack Vikings face an all-too-familiar challenge this offseason. Too good for a top draft pick, not good enough to be real contenders, the Vikings are in this spot almost every year. Now they face a new wrinkle: their starting quarterback, Cousins, is a pending free agent.

Vikings HC Kevin O’Connell and GM Kwesi Adofo-Mensah have danced around a full reset in recent years, but Cousins was playing at an elite level in 2023 before suffering a season-ending Achilles injury. All indications are the Vikings want to resign him, but they’ll have competition on the open market. Should another team outbid them for Cousins’ services, Fields could provide a reasonable alternative and mark a shift into a new era for the franchise.

The situation in Minnesota is ideal for any quarterback at the helm of this team. The Vikings have arguably the league’s best tackle duo in Christian Darrisaw and Brian O’Neill alongside one of the best playmaking cores in football with WR Justin Jefferson, WR Jordan Addison and TE T.J. Hockenson. Hockenson is coming off an ACL injury suffered late in the 2023 season that may force him to miss time to begin the year, but he should be on the field at some point next season. It’s a great group coached by an excellent play-caller in O’Connell, waiting for the right QB to slot in and unlock this group’s potential.

Fields’ skillset would be an adjustment for the team after years of playing with Cousins. In many ways, Cousins’ style is the antithesis of Fields. Cousins was among the league leaders in time spent in the pocket in 2023, Fields was on the opposite end of the chart. Cousins thrives on quick reads, has low mobility and carves up the middle of the field. Fields is once again the opposite. O’Connell is certainly capable of crafting an offense for Fields to thrive in, but he may try to find a player more similar to Cousins to run his preferred style of offense.

Plan A for the Vikings seems to be resigning Cousins. If they fail, they could try and trade up from the No. 11 pick for an elite quarterback prospect, but the cost will be steep if any team is even willing to move. Even if Minnesota wanted to trade for Fields, the Bears may not be willing to reciprocate — while the Vikings haven’t been shy about making inter-division trades in recent years, the Bears might be more hesitant, especially involving a quarterback. Despite these hurdles to clear, Minnesota should be a team to watch.

Pittsburgh Steelers

The Steelers have a brewing drama on their hands at quarterback. Pittsburgh has started three passers in the last two seasons in the wake of future Hall of Famer Ben Roethlisberger’s retirement — 2022 first-rounder Kenny Pickett, Mitchell Trubisky and Mason Rudolph. Trubisky has already been released and Rudolph is a pending free agent. Pickett has been uninspiring when he’s played, and he was benched for Rudolph down the stretch in 2023. 

Pickett was a great story when he was drafted: the fifth-year hometown kid who worked hard to improve his game throughout college. But a good story only gets you so far in the NFL. Pickett has missed time in both his NFL seasons with injury and has struggled with consistency on the field. He has trouble reading middle-field coverages and tends to hold onto the ball too long, leading to avoidable sacks and turnovers.

Reports indicate Pittsburgh wants to bring Rudolph back and that the building is split on whether Pickett or Rudolph should start. They likely want to give their former first-round pick another year to establish himself as the starter going forward, but it’s clear they need to bring in some competition. Fields is an option if the Steelers want to go in a fresh direction at the position, bring in some competition for Pickett and try to jumpstart a lackluster offense.

Another wrinkle is the presence of new OC Arthur Smith. Smith has run an effective offense at each of his prior play-calling stops in Tennessee and Atlanta, and Fields is routinely mentioned as a great fit for his offense. Smith’s offense emphasizes the quarterback as a running threat and utilizes deep-field and sideline passing concepts more than middle-field reads, both things that tap into Fields’ natural strengths. Fields would bring a dimension to this offense through his athleticism and arm strength that neither Pickett nor Rudolph are capable of.

Ultimately, the Steelers have several options at QB and it’s unclear which direction they’ll go. If they bring back Rudolph with the intention of holding an open competition between him and Pickett, it’s unlikely they pursue Fields. But Fields holds intriguing potential in Smith’s offense, and perhaps the Steelers decide to explore their options rather than simply running things back from last year. The quarterback play in Pittsburgh has been subpar since Roethlisberger’s retirement; Fields would provide an opportunity to upgrade.

Las Vegas Raiders

Coming off a tumultuous season in which they fired their head coach and benched their starting quarterback, the Raiders once again enter the offseason with a lot more questions than answers. New HC Antonio Pierce oversees a roster with major holes on both sides of the ball, but none more important than QB1. The Raiders need a long-term answer at quarterback and could give Fields a long look.

Longtime Raiders starting QB Derek Carr was cut last offseason, with former HC Josh McDaniels hand-picking veteran QB Jimmy Garoppolo via free agency to replace him. Garoppolo underperformed and was benched by Pierce after he took over for McDaniels, with 2023 fourth-round QB Aidan O’Connell stepping up. O’Connell was solid for a mid-round rookie, throwing for 2,218 yards and 12 touchdowns in 10 games as a starter. However, O’Connell projects more as a career backup than a priority starter, and at minimum, the Raiders will be bringing in competition for his job this year.

Fields is an interesting name to watch in Las Vegas. Luke Getsy, the Raiders’ new offensive coordinator, was Fields’ play-caller in Chicago the last two seasons. It’s unclear how interested either would be in a reunion — Getsy was fired by the Bears for his performance and Fields was often criticized for being a poor fit in Getsy’s scheme. The Raiders will have other options to pursue, most notably in the draft, so they aren’t tied to Fields if Getsy isn’t interested in bringing him in.

The Raiders attempted to trade up from No. 7 overall last year to draft a quarterback but balked at the price. Perhaps they will try again this year, although it won’t be any cheaper to trade up from No. 13. There’s a second tier of quarterback prospects, such as Michigan’s J.J. McCarthy, Washington’s Michael Penix Jr. and Oregon’s Bo Nix, that could be available at their pick in the first round or later. Las Vegas will likely be weighing Fields against these options.

Seattle Seahawks

Perhaps no team has had a more surprising start to the offseason than the Seahawks. Coming off an underachieving 2023 campaign, Seattle shocked the NFL when they announced they were parting ways with future Hall of Fame HC Pete Carroll, hiring former Ravens DC Mike Macdonald to replace him. It’s unclear how much of a roster shakeup Macdonald will perform, but Fields is an intriguing option to bring in if they want new blood at quarterback.

Seattle began overhauling their roster in 2022, trading away Super Bowl champion Russell Wilson and handing the reigns over to career journeyman backup Geno Smith. Smith was electric, winning 2022 NFL Comeback Player of the Year after a Pro Bowl season. With the return from the Wilson trade, Seattle infused its roster with a haul of young studs, turning their cache of draft picks into hit after hit. These moves led the Seahawks to a wildcard berth in 2022 and Smith signed a well-deserved, yet team-friendly, contract after the season.

Seattle entered 2023 with high expectations to take the next step and compete for a division title. However, Smith, and the team as a whole, struggled through a season of up-and-down play and failed to reach the playoffs. Several roster deficiencies became apparent, most notably in the trenches on both sides of the ball. Seattle’s top assets will likely go towards patching these holes.

Smith remains a quality starting QB on a reasonable deal and is the presumptive starter in 2024. Seattle notably had an opportunity to get out of the remainder of the deal this offseason and chose to keep him. However, given Seattle’s expectations moving forward and the star talent they have at receiver, it’s not unreasonable to expect more production from the position.

A trade for Fields would allow Seattle to kick the tires on a talented player without giving up a first-round pick or a ton of money in free agency. This is a flawed roster, yes, but it’s also a very talented one with a lot of potential. The organization has been built on a foundation of competition. Fields could compete with Smith for the starting job and give the Seahawks greater confidence in the man under center.

Other QB-Needy Teams

While these teams aren’t a perfect fit for Fields for one reason or another, they are desperate for a new quarterback and could consider a trade:

  • The New England Patriots enter this offseason without Bill Belichick as their coach for the first time in 24 years. Jerod Mayo takes over as head coach and faces a looming quarterback problem. Fields’ 2021 draft classmate Mac Jones has been a disaster the last two seasons and 2022 fourth-rounder Bailey Zappe hasn’t been any better. The Patriots do have the third overall pick in a draft with three QBs viewed as worthy of top-five selections. But there’s a school of thought that the roster would be better served by trading down, amassing picks and making a cheaper gamble on a player like Fields. Whether they choose to go with Fields or a top-three pick, the Patriots are desperate for an upgrade under center.
  • The Denver Broncos are simply waiting for the new league year to begin to send former prized trade acquisition Russell Wilson packing with a post-June 1 cut. Broncos HC Sean Payton didn’t try to hide his displeasure with Wilson’s play in 2023 and started journeyman Jarrett Stidham over Wilson in the final few games of the season. Payton wants to find his guy and it’s not hard to see him trying to move heaven and earth to move up in the draft for a top prospect. Fields is probably a little too similar to Wilson for Payton’s taste, but for a team as desperate as Denver, you can never rule it out.

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