LAKE FOREST, Ill. — The Chicago Bears need to walk a fine line with rookie Justin Fields.
Technically the second-string quarterback, the No. 11 overall pick out of Ohio State has caught the attention of some of Chicago’s front-line players and already elicited a heady comparison to one of the NFL’s best at the position.
Despite the gushing praise from teammates, the Bears — heading into their first preseason game against the Miami Dolphins on Saturday (1 p.m. ET, NFL Network) — are not deviating from the plan they devised for Fields at the onset of training camp. Veteran quarterback Andy Dalton has taken the majority of practice reps and has already been announced as the starter for Week 1.
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Chicago’s preseason plan calls for Fields to see significant playing time in exhibition games to help the coaching staff properly evaluate his progress, with coach Matt Nagy telling reporters Thursday that Fields could play into the fourth quarter against Miami. But the great balancing act for the Bears over the next few weeks will be in keeping their rookie QB healthy during all that time on the field, as well as managing expectations for Fields off of it.
“It’s that Catch-22,” Nagy said. “You play somebody and all of a sudden they get hurt and go, ‘You dummy. Why’d you do that?’ The other one is, you don’t play them and you say they need the reps. That is the fine line.
“The only way we can evaluate is by seeing him play. He’s got to get valuable reps.”
Another aspect for the Bears to monitor will be Fields’ aggressiveness during the exhibition season. Fields has shown great ability as a runner throughout his college career. And while Nagy doesn’t want to see him hold back, he also wants Fields to be “smart” and try to avoid any unnecessary shots, like the vicious helmet-to-ribs blow he suffered in the College Football Playoff semifinal against Clemson in January.
“Don’t — that hit he took [against] Clemson — don’t take those hits.” Nagy said.
“We don’t need you guys getting speared.”
But while Nagy preaches caution with Fields, some of the Bears’ more decorated veterans have been unguarded with their early praise.
Bears Pro Bowl safety Eddie Jackson has been a vocal fan of Fields’ demeanor, work ethic and humility.
And tight end Jimmy Graham, who spent three seasons with the Seattle Seahawks, went even further.
“Man, I love the kid,” Graham said last week. “He sits beside me in the locker room and, man, he wants to be good. He wants to be great. He puts in the work. The guy really can throw the ball. That’s been impressive to see his arm strength.
“At some point I’ve got to get him matched up at some point with a guy up there in Seattle. Especially, you know, the ability to make plays while you’re running, I think he’s going to have — it’s been impressive to see him so young, so focused. And I can tell [you] it definitely reminds me a lot of [Seahawks quarterback] Russell Wilson.”
If Fields even comes close to Wilson’s achievements — Super Bowl champion, eight Pro Bowls — the Bears are in great shape for the next decade.
All of that seems far off, though. Perhaps a better correlation is made between Fields and Dolphins second-year quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, who began his rookie season on the bench — just like Fields is expected to do — before eventually taking over for veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick.
The fact Fields and Tagovailoa have shared the Halas Hall practice fields this week, and will square off Saturday at Soldier Field, is not lost on Nagy.
“When we’re all out on the field together, I’m sure they kind of go over and ask questions and pick each other’s brains,” Nagy said. “I think that’s beneficial. I really do. Same with Tua. He’s going through an interesting dynamic down there with Fitzpatrick last year and now he’s the guy. I’m sure behind the scenes they ask a lot of questions. Now that they’re out here in person they can really get to see each other, too. These guys will be all watching each other.”
And the city of Chicago will be fanatically watching Fields — a fact he is at peace with.
“I’m constantly growing every day. So, fortunately a lot of people are anxious to see me play, but greatness doesn’t happen overnight,” Fields said. “It’s a process.”