Toughness of Ohio State QB Justin Fields attracted the attention of Chicago Bears

Joey Kaufman
Buckeye Xtra
An image of Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields is displayed after he was chosen by the Chicago Bears with the 11th pick in the the NFL draft on Thursday.

Seventeen months before the Chicago Bears traded up in the first round to select Justin Fields, general manager Ryan Pace observed the Ohio State quarterback from the press box at Michigan Stadium.

It was Thanksgiving weekend in 2019, and the Buckeyes held a 19-point lead over Michigan midway through the third quarter when a tight end rolled up on Fields’ left knee.

As he writhed in pain on the field, a pair of trainers rushed to his side. After their attendance, he limped to the sideline and stepped into a medical tent. Uncertainty hovered over his status before a dramatic reentrance in the rivalry game.

Wearing a brace on his knee, later diagnosed as a sprained medial collateral ligament, Fields returned from the injury later during the series, rolled outside of the pocket and delivered a pass to Garrett Wilson in the back of the end zone for a 30-yard touchdown, a gutsy scene that Pace never forgot.

“This guy's toughness on a scale from one to 10 is an 11,” Pace said. “You just love that about him.”

Athletic staff members help up Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields after he was injured against Michigan on Nov. 30, 2019. Fields returned to the game and threw a touchdown pass.

The quality was perhaps the biggest reason the Bears dealt a haul of draft picks, including two in the first round, to the New York Giants on Thursday night to grab Fields when he was left on the board at the end of top 10.

It was seen through his two seasons at Ohio State, and often on some of the biggest stages.

In a College Football Playoff semifinal win over Clemson in January, Fields took a bruising shot to his ribs and missed only a play before throwing for six touchdowns, paving the way for the Buckeyes to reach the national championship game.

Buckeyes coach Ryan Day has praised Fields’ toughness in recent years and noted on Friday it was a trait that would serve him well in the NFL.

"When you’re projecting somebody into the NFL, you better be tough," Day said. "You better be physically tough and mentally tough. You’re not going to be able to survive in that league if you’re not willing to take shots because you’re going to take shots in the pocket and you got to sustain through a whole season.

"Then mentally tough, because you're exposed. He knows that being from Ohio State, and that's why he's going to have a quick transition."

Pace, the Bears' general manager, thought the resolve shown by Fields has not been evident only in games, but also in his interviews and conversations with the team this spring.

While offensive coordinator Bill Lazor and assistant director of player personnel Champ Kelly were at the first pro day at Ohio State in March to watch, Pace and others attended the second two weeks later.

“It's just his focus and how serious he is, that determination he has,” Pace said. “He's really locked in. His desire to be great, you can feel that when you speak to him.”

Fields’ intangibles weren’t the only draw. Pace cited his arm strength and accuracy, as well as his speed, as other reasons for the selection. Fields ran the 40-yard dash at his first pro-day workout in 4.44 seconds, an unofficial time that was faster than many wide receivers and a testament to a skill set that could allow him to become one of the top dual-threat quarterbacks in the NFL.

Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields leaves the field after being injured during the second quarter of the Sugar Bowl win over Clemson. Fields returned to the game and finished with six touchdown passes.

“He has all those tools,” Pace said. “He has those arm strengths. Now it's on us as a staff to refine those and develop those, and I know he's going to be open to that. That's what's exciting.”

Fields might not start right away as a rookie in Chicago. In his press conference late Thursday, Pace affirmed veteran Andy Dalton is the team’s starter.

Dalton, who spent his first nine seasons in the league with the Cincinnati Bengals before joining the Dallas Cowboys last year, signed a one-year contract with the Bears in March.

He started nine games for Dallas last season after Dak Prescott suffered a season-ending ankle injury in Week 5.

But the Bears are set to groom Fields as their franchise quarterback after trading Mitchell Trubisky earlier this offseason.

Trubisky had been the team’s primary starter since Chicago took him second overall in the draft in 2017.

Coach Matt Nagy previously was the offensive coordinator for the Kansas City Chiefs in 2017 when he helped to bring along then-rookie Patrick Mahomes, a situation that mirrors the current one in Chicago.

While Kansas City drafted Mahomes with the 10th overall pick, it also had Alex Smith in place as an incumbent starter, and he held onto the role for 2017 as the Chiefs reached the postseason. Mahomes took over as the starter in 2018 after Nagy left to become the Bears’ coach and become the league’s MVP.

Pace noted Nagy’s role in Mahomes’ rise and handling the situation with him as a rookie while Smith remained on the roster.

“He kind of has a blueprint,” Pace said.

Now it begins with the development of Fields.

“Getting him is one thing,” Pace said. “But for us to surround him and develop him is the other thing. You can draft players, but you have to develop them the right way. That's what I love about the environment that we have.”

In either case, Day felt his former pupil would be prepared.

Do I think he could play right away? Sure. But do I think he’s going to be a lot better in year three, four or five? Absolutely.

jkaufman@dispatch.com

@joeyrkaufman