LAKE FOREST – Justin Fields shows no hesitancy.
Not that he did a year ago, but a year ago he was a rookie buried under Andy Dalton on the depth chart. He was still learning how to be a professional quarterback – from learning the offense, to learning the language of an NFL playbook, to adjusting to a quicker game.
So much has changed for the Bears in the last year. Fields’ approach to the game, however, has not. His command and control in leading the Bears’ offense has only improved. His teammates are noticing.
“When he comes in to enunciate the play or give us what we need to know to get out there and execute the play, it’s just a lot more smooth,” veteran left guard Cody Whitehair said. “He says it with more confidence.”
This time of year is about perfecting the process and perfecting the small details. Doing so will allow the big picture to come into focus during training camp and into the season. For the 23-year-old quarterback, much of his offseason has been focused on perfecting his cadence in the huddle, improving his footwork and shortening up his throwing motion.
He starts every practice working on his footwork with quarterback coach Andrew Janocko.
The goal is for that footwork to become automatic. The best quarterbacks can sense where pressure is coming from, see it with their peripheral vision and then let their footwork react.
“If you can get the ball out on time and you can listen to what your feet are telling you, then that helps you progress, helps you get through reads, helps you feel a defense and tells you when you’re late and need to move on,” Janocko said.
As a rookie, Fields allowed 36 sacks – 10th most in the NFL – in only 12 games. He was quick to bail on the pocket when things went awry. Scrambling will always be a part of his game, and with his elite speed it should be, but perfecting his footwork will allow him to have a better feel for the pocket.
Bears head coach Matt Eberflus said Wednesday after an OTA practice that he is already noticing improvements in Fields’ footwork and timing.
“You can see it in the drill work,” Eberflus said. “You can see them taking it from the drill work to the 11-on-11 reps and that’s clearly getting better.”
Janocko said Fields is such a natural athlete that the coaches don’t often have to show him how to do something more than once. Fields picks up on things pretty quickly.
The Bears have also had the quarterbacks working on ball security drills with the running backs and receivers this spring. Fields fumbled the ball 12 times last year. That’s a number he has to improve on.
In general, the former 11th overall daft pick is more confident and takes it upon himself to take initiative. He’s at the front of the line for stretches before practice. He’s sprinting across the field to go from one drill to the next. His teammates notice little things like that.
“He is a commanding leader on the field, a legit field general,” veteran defensive tackle Justin Jones said. “He gets guys wound up, gets guys going, stuff like that.”
Being a defensive lineman, Jones doesn’t interact with Fields all that much on the practice field. But even in just a few short weeks practicing with Fields, Jones can see his quarterback’s drive and his leadership abilities.
Fields said earlier this spring that he does feel empowered. And he should. General manager Ryan Poles sought out his opinion on rookie receivers during the draft process. The team brought in two additional quarterbacks who are clearly here to support Fields in backup roles, not supplant his playing time.
This offense is Fields’ ship to guide. All eyes are on him.
“He’s just been great in terms of being vocal to everybody and being demonstrative about what he wants from everybody,” tight end Cole Kmet said. “It’s been fun to be a part of and fun to watch and [it’s] exciting to keep drawing on this going into training camp.”