Why the Bears settled on trading Justin Fields to the Steelers

Sports

CHICAGO — Chicago Bears general manager Ryan Poles was the Chiefs director of college scouting in 2017 when Kansas City drafted quarterback Patrick Mahomes, who sat for a year and learned behind veteran starter Alex Smith. Poles knows that dynamic could work.

But that’s not what he was facing with the Bears.

Instead of having a proven starter like Smith, the Bears had Justin Fields entering his fourth season with questions about his development. Adding a No. 1 pick like USC quarterback Caleb Williams to the mix, even just for offseason workouts and training camp, might have made the situation untenable, or at least awkward for both players. With several Bears players recently voicing strong support for Fields, the potential for locker room discord had to be considered.

Poles avoided that scenario by trading Fields to the Pittsburgh Steelers on Saturday night for a 2025 sixth-round pick, which converts to a fourth rounder if Fields plays 51% of the offensive snaps this season.

“You just can’t [have both on the roster],” an NFL assistant coach told ESPN prior to the trade. “The league called Chicago’s bluff, and won.

“They’re not getting anything for [Fields], and just need to let him go.”

Clearly, it wasn’t the compensation Poles originally sought. A source with knowledge of the team’s plans told ESPN the Bears had initially eyed a Day 2 draft selection plus a late conditional 2025 pick. Six teams, including Pittsburgh, came with a variety of offers, with most envisioning Fields as a backup.

Through a flurry of QB activity, Fields’ market was shrinking. After being unable to move Fields before the start of free agency, multiple NFL front office sources told ESPN they believed Chicago’s best chance to get the compensation it desired — or closer to it — would be if a team missed out on the quarterback it hoped to draft in April.

Poles also could have waited until the beginning of the season, and when a starting quarterback got injured, engaged that team in trade talks.

But when Poles said during the combine in February he wanted to “do right” by Fields, that meant not subjecting him to a prolonged period before he was dealt. It also meant not dealing him to a team that had a young starting quarterback, and the Steelers fit that criteria after signing Russell Wilson to a one-year deal.

“We have engaged in multiple trade conversations in recent weeks and believe trading Justin at this time to Pittsburgh is what is best for both Justin and the Bears,” Poles said in a statement. “…We spoke to Justin to inform him of the trade and the rationale behind it for us as a club.

“We want to thank him for his tireless dedication, leadership and all he poured into our franchise and community the last three years and wish him the best towards a long and successful NFL career.”

In a social media post Saturday, Fields thanked the Bears and the city of Chicago “for allowing me the opportunity to be part of such a historic franchise.”

It meant a lot to Poles to be able to part ways with Fields, who was drafted by GM Ryan Pace in 2021, on good terms. That may not have been the case if he kept Fields and drafted Williams.

Plus, Poles wanted to put his new quarterback in the best position to succeed, and as he discussed at the combine, there are a lot of factors to consider.

“What’s the infrastructure look like?” he said. “What’s around the player? I think that’s key.”

In Chicago, what’s around the rookie quarterback the Bears will draft is a roster that is ready to compete.

Recently acquired wide receiver Keenan Allen joins wide receiver DJ Moore as the only teammates in the NFL who had at least 90 receptions and 1,200 yards in 2023. The Bears upgraded their backfield with D’Andre Swift, added Gerald Everett to the tight end room and are improving along the offensive line after adding a projected starter at center in Coleman Shelton. Chicago’s young defense is loaded with talent from defensive end Montez Sweat to cornerback Jaylon Johnson and linebacker Tremaine Edmunds.

Establishing a clear-cut role for their soon-to-be new QB1 separated Poles from the way the organization operated in the past, like when the team traded up to draft Fields, sandwiching him between two veteran quarterbacks — Andy Dalton and Nick Foles — who weren’t keen on ceding their jobs to a rookie.

There won’t be any suspense about who the Bears’ starting quarterback will be after the first round of the draft on April 25. The only question is how much of an upgrade will he be over Fields.

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