Justin Fields is quickly becoming one of the most polarizing fantasy football selections of the 2023 drafting season. Will he become the next rushing quarterback to take the “passing leap” a la Lamar Jackson, Josh Allen, and Jalen Hurts?
While there are real passing volume concerns after witnessing the Bears’ 2022 offense, there are plenty of reasons for excitement including his performance as a college prospect, the Bears’ 2023 offseason additions, and certain positive regression of the Bears’ offensive balance.
Justin Fields: A Special College Quarterback
With so many comparisons to the career arcs of Lamar Jackson, Josh Allen, and Jalen Hurts, let’s compare their college performances to Fields’. Fields broke out as a true sophomore during his first year at Ohio State, so below are the sophomore passing statistics for these four players:
|Player (Soph. Year)||Pass Attempts||Pass Yards||Pass TDs||Ints||Pass Efficiency Rating*|
|Justin Fields (2019)||354||3,273||41||3||181.4|
|Jalen Hurts (2017)||255||2,081||17||1||150.2|
|Josh Allen (2016)||373||3,203||28||15||144.9|
|Lamar Jackson (2016)||409||3,543||30||9||148.8|
*Passing Efficiency Rating (PER) is a metric used in college football, similar to how “passer rating” is used in the NFL.
A few notes here:
- Fields was an absolutely incredible passer at a tender age. To give you an idea of just how good he was, the difference between his sophomore year rating (181.4 PER) and Joe Burrow’s historic 5th-year senior season at LSU (202) is only 20.6 points. That’s smaller than the difference between Fields and any of the above’s sophomore seasons. Fields never had a season below 173 PER, while Hurts is the only other of the above to surpass a 151 PER in his entire collegiate career (senior year at Oklahoma).
- Fields followed up his sophomore season with a COVID-shortened junior campaign where he played 8 games. He proceeded to throw for nearly 30 more yards per game on 3 more attempts while throwing for touchdowns at a similar rate.
- Jackson and Allen both either plateaued or seriously regressed during their junior seasons before declaring for the NFL draft. Before his fantastic senior season at Oklahoma (with the benefit of Lincoln Riley as the head coach and Swiss-cheese Big 12 defenses), Jalen Hurts was memorably benched outright for Tua Tagovailoa at Alabama before transferring.
As we can see, Fields has the ability to put up high touchdown totals on incredibly efficient (yet still somewhat significant) passing volume. When a true sophomore comes into a new system at ultra-elite Ohio State and dominates more than current NFL superstar quarterbacks, we need to take note.
Jackson, Allen, Hurts…Now Fields?
After the Bears’ historically underwhelming 2022 passing volume (more on this later), the narrative around Fields is that he is a run-first quarterback who may not have what it takes to make it as a passer in the NFL.
They’re all superstars now, but once upon a time all three of Lamar Jackson, Josh Allen, and Jalen Hurts faced similar questions and narratives before their breakout seasons. All were limited as passers before their respective breakouts, so let’s compare their per-game stats the year before their breakouts (Year N-1) to Fields’ 2022:
|Player (Year N-1)||PaAtts/G||PaYds/G||PaTD/G||RuYds/G||RuTDs/G||Fantasy PPG|
|Justin Fields (2022)||21.2||149.5||1.13||76.2||0.53||20.5|
|Jalen Hurts (2021)||28.8||209.6||1.07||52.3||0.67||21|
|Josh Allen (2019)||28.8||193.1||1.25||31.9||0.56||18.2|
|Lamar Jackson (2018)*||22.6||159.1||0.7||79.4||0.6||19|
*Only includes stats from Jackson’s 7 starts during his N-1 season
While all but Jackson had significantly better volume and yardage during this season, none are overly impressive passing statistics. It’s worth noting that Fields’ stats look even worse because of a horrendous first month of 2022. But he began to improve as a passer after that, inching closer to Allen’s and Hurts’ N-1 seasons:
In seemingly the blink of an eye, all three of Jackson, Allen, and Hurts became superstar quarterbacks who demolished opponents through the air as well as on the ground. Here are their breakout passing (Year N) seasons:
|Player (Year N)||PaAtts/G (N-1 -/+)||PaYds/G (N-1 -/+)||PaTD/G (N-1 -/+)||RuYds/G (N-1 -/+)||RuTDs/G (N-1 -/+)||Fantasy PPG (N-1 -/+)|
|Jalen Hurts (2022)||30.7 (+1.9)||246.7 (+37.1)||1.47 (+0.4)||50.7 (-1.6)||0.87 (+0.2)||25.3 (+4.3)|
|Josh Allen (2020)||35.8 (+7)||284 (+90.9)||2.31 (+1.06)||26.3 (-5.6)||0.5 (-0.06)||24.9 (+6.7)|
|Lamar Jackson (2019)||26.7 (+4.1)||208.5 (+49.4)||2.4 (+1.7)||80.4 (+1)||0.47 (-0.13)||28.1 (+9.1)|
Very importantly for Fields’ ceiling projection, they all maintained a rushing yardage floor and rushing touchdown ceiling. But what can explain this massive leap in passing numbers? Like Fields currently, all faced major skepticism the preceding offseason about their passing volume and skills. The answer: all of them significantly upgraded their supporting casts right before each of their passing breakout seasons.
- Before Lamar Jackson’s overall QB1 2019, the Ravens drafted Marquise Brown in the first round while Mark Andrews made a sophomore leap. They also drafted starting guard Ben Powers.
- Before Josh Allen’s overall QB1 2020, the Bills famously traded for alpha WR1 Stefon Diggs and drafted Gabriel Davis, who finished 2nd on the team that season with 7 receiving touchdowns. They also bolstered their offensive line by signing Daryl Williams, who started all 16 games at left tackle.
- Before Jalen Hurts’ overall QB3 2022, the Eagles famously traded for alpha WR1 A.J. Brown, bumping sophomore breakout candidate DeVonta Smith to a desirable WR2 slot.
Let’s not forget that last year, the Bears may have had the most pathetic receiver room in the NFL. You can only do so much when Darnell Mooney (who missed the final two months) is your WR1. Chase Claypool was traded for in the middle of the season, while cast-offs Dante Pettis, Equanimous St. Brown, and N’Keal Harry are replacement-level talents at best. It’s no wonder TE Cole Kmet led the team in receiving. Byron Pringle and “Uncle” Velus Jones were just the icing on the cake of mediocrity.
In other words, the Bears ran the ball at a historic pace partially because that’s what their personnel dictated. But they’ve more than hinted at what their plans are for 2023.
They first made a blockbuster deal in which they acquired alpha WR1 D.J. Moore, who was apparently a “must-have” piece when trading away the 1st overall selection in the 2023 NFL draft. They signed OG Nate Davis from the Titans and proceeded to draft OT Darnell Wright at 10th overall.
Skilled pass-catching TE Cole Kmet was signed to an extension, and the physically-talented Chase Claypool now has a full off-season with the team. All of this bumps Mooney into a more deserving and natural WR3 role, with 4th-round rookie speedster Tyler Scott as a deep-threat WR4.
Meanwhile, they replaced ol’ reliable David Montgomery with 4th-round rookie Roschon Johnson and journeyman D’Onta Foreman. Neither of them nor Khalil Herbert possess the NFL pedigree or current profile to be a true, must-feed RB1.
Make no mistake: the Bears are all-in on finding out if Justin Fields has the passing moxie to be their franchise quarterback. When NFL teams’ entire offseason personnel moves point in a certain direction, recent history tells us we should tend to believe them.
Can The Bears Significantly Increase Their Passing Volume?
Of course, many analysts won’t disagree with any of the above – Justin Fields is undeniably talented and D.J. Moore can be a legit WR1. The real concern is their passing volume projection, which is a very legitimate red flag.
Last year, the Bears passed an unfathomably minuscule 377 times in 17 games (22.2 attempts per game). They passed at the 2nd lowest rate of any team since the strike-shortened 1982 season, a statistic that defies belief in our current era of NFL football.
A lot of this had to do with the sheer number of sacks Fields took (his 14.7% sack rate is the highest in NFL history). Many of them were his fault, as he held onto the ball too long looking for open receivers or running lanes. Hopefully, the offensive line improvements and the addition of Moore (a stud in the short-to-intermediate range of the field) will help him get the ball out quicker and more effectively.
But that was last season – how should we project the Bears for 2023? To adjust for a more modern NFL, I looked at every team that passed under 425 times in a season (Year N) since 2005 and compared that to the very same team’s following season (N+1):
|Year N||Team||Year N PaAtts/G||Year N+1 PaAtts/G||Pct Increase|
|Average w/o SEA*||25.4||31.8||25%|
*The 2012-14 Seahawks need to be taken with a grain of salt in this context. 2012-14 were their “Legion of Boom” years, where their historically elite defense combined with a running game led by Marshawn Lynch eliminated the need for their offense to pass at a high rate. They were either contending for or winning Super Bowls with this formula. The Bears are nowhere near this level defensively or with their backfield talent.
These extremely-low volume passing seasons are outliers with almost zero year-to-year consistency (besides the Seahawks, explained above). We know for a statistical certainty that the Bears will pass more in 2023, but as shown above, a massive increase is absolutely in the cards: excluding the Seahawks, 4/9 of the above teams increased their pass attempts by at least 30% the following season.
A 30% increase from their 2022 numbers is quite possible considering their personnel moves and how little they passed last year. The data shows us that the precedent exists for such an increase, and the entire coaching staff will be on the hot seat if the team is as non-competitive (the Bears lost 13 out of their last 14 games) as they were in 2022.
They aren’t going to waste the 3rd year of Justin Fields’ rookie contract simply playing keep-away from opposing teams after last year’s embarrassing results.
Conclusion And Projection
We’ve established that Fields is a superior college passer than the previous running quarterbacks whose passing breakouts have won fantasy leagues. The supporting cast upgrades follow the same pattern that foreshadowed Lamar Jackson’s, Josh Allen’s, and Jalen Hurts’ superstardom. They’re also guaranteed to pass at a higher rate – likely significantly higher.
We shouldn’t worry about Fields’ passing leap coming at the expense of his rushing prowess. Jackson, Allen, and Hurts all maintained awesome rushing numbers during their “leaps” and returning OC Luke Getsy has already stated he doesn’t want to limit Fields’ rushing. We don’t have to only rely on his dazzling long rushing touchdowns either – his 10 carries inside the 5-yard-line were 3rd among all quarterbacks (only Hurts and Allen finished with more) and led to 5/8 of his rushing touchdowns.
Our own Mike Braude’s 2023 projections have Fields passing 501 times for 3,663 yards and 23 touchdowns while rushing 140 times for 920 yards and 6 touchdowns for a total of 353 fantasy points. That would have made him last year’s QB8. Considering the history of run-heavy teams like the 2022 Bears passing at 30%+ more the following season, 501 attempts (which would be a 32.8% increase from their 2022 total) is a very reasonable projection.
But that doesn’t account for his hidden upside. His 2022 touchdown rate of 5.2% has the potential to increase due to more big passing plays with better weapons and more scoring opportunities with a better overall offense. All three of Jackson, Hurts and Allen set career-highs in touchdown rate in their breakout seasons. More sustained drives will also lead to more rushing touchdown opportunities.
While Fields almost certainly doesn’t have 550+ pass attempts in his range of outcomes, he doesn’t need to in order to have a truly special season – he simply needs to pass a lot more and a little bit better.
Reports out of training camp are already fantastic. Fields made the most out of his time at Ohio State with elite receivers and the connection with D.J. Moore is already turning heads:
— Ben Devine (@Chicago_NFL) July 29, 2023
Chase Claypool’s first full offseason with the team appears to be on the right track now, and his 6’4″ frame gives the Bears a red-zone weapon out wide they’ve sorely been missing:
Chase Claypool has been playing like a man possessed both yesterday and today. Looks like a fire has been lit in him, and he’s really ballin!! #DaBears
— Ben Devine (@Chicago_NFL) August 2, 2023
When taking into account his college profile, similar quarterbacks, and historical passing regression, this is a bet worth taking. In fantasy leagues where you need to beat 11 other teams, simply being “above average” gives you a losing team. Risks need to be taken, and especially considering the rise of dominant fantasy quarterbacks he is well worth the risk at his current QB7 ADP toward the end of the 5th round in 1-QB Apex drafts.