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Justin Fields and the Second-Year QB Leap

A review of the offensive talent around Justin Fields and other second-year QBs and how that roster talent impacts QB production.
Justin Fields Chicago Bears

Photo: Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Justin Fields is ready for that second-year QB boost! It is basically like clockwork in the NFL at this point. Second-year QBs ALWAYS take massive steps forward and become the stars they were destined to be, right?

With a recent history of second-year QB success, some fans have come to over-expect what their young signal-callers are capable of. While there is a lot of data to support large improvement in a QB’s second season, I want to discuss how varying levels of non-QB offensive talent correlates to second-year QB success.

“In football, it’s the ultimate team sport. You have to have good people around you as a quarterback for things to happen.”

HOF QB Warren Moon

Skill Position Talent vs Second-Year QB Production

Second Year QB Help

Skill Talent Rankings around 2nd Year QBs since 2014.

First, we look at skill position talent around each rookie quarterback. Specifically, talent at the WR, TE, and RB positions. To determine “talent”, I used five factors from the two seasons prior to the year in question.

  • Player Age: Because older players tend to be less reliable over the course of the season.
  • Net Positive Play %: The percentage of a player’s snaps where they achieved positive plays, netted against their percentage of snaps resulting in negative plays. Positive plays are first downs, explosive runs, contested catches, or touchdowns. Negative plays are pressures or sacks allowed, penalties, drops, fumbles, or targeted interceptions. While this is not perfect, its simplicity generates solid logical rankings that we can blend with other factors to find the middle.
  • PFF Grades.
  • Contract Annual Average Value as a percentage of that year's salary cap.
  • Percent of any NFL team's snaps that the player has played in the last two seasons.
  • Pro Bowl (removing alternates), AP All-Pro, MVP, Offensive Player of the Year, and Rookie of the Year voting.
  • Draft Capital used on each player.

Now that we have established the five factors, I want to look at how correlated the amount of “talent” around a second-year QB might be to their performance. In this chart, the x-axis represents how far each skill position group is above or below average.

Meanwhile, the y-axis represents each QB's average statistical rank for that season. The advanced stats used to generate the average ranks are EPA, CPOE, ANY/A, Sack %, BTT %, and TWP %.  

Second Year QB Help

Skill Talent vs 2nd Year QB Production

The trendline shows that there is a reasonable correlation between skill position talent and QB success in year two. The yellow line represents Davis Mills, while the orange line is both Trevor Lawrence and Justin Fields. The green line is Zach Wilson, and the blue line is Mac Jones. Finally, the red line is Trey Lance.

Offensive Line Talent vs Second-Year QB Production

Second year QB Help

Offensive Line Talent Rankings around 2nd Year QBs since 2014.

Next, we look at offensive line talent around each second-year QB. The same five factors already discussed were used for the offensive line. Each factor is weighed against the average of the group for each position.

Here, we see that Zach Wilson has the best-ranked offensive line among second-year QBs in 2022. However, I think this could be a little skewed by their high-level talent at offensive guard and multiple questions at offensive tackle.

I tried to adjust for situations like this by weighing OT talent more heavily than OG talent. But I will just take it at face value for now because the rest of the chart seems accurate to me.

Second Year QB Help

Offensive Line Talent vs 2nd Year QB Production

In a very similar outcome to what I found within my rookie QB study last year, the offensive line talent is not nearly as correlated to quarterback success as skill position talent appears to be. Although, the trendline has moved towards a positive correlation with the year-two data, as opposed to the negative correlation found with rookie QBs.

Interestingly, no second-year QB in the dataset showed much success with a well above-average offensive line. Perhaps this is a signal that those teams invested too heavily up front, neglecting the skill positions. Or maybe some of it is just noise that comes from outside factors like a toxic environment, poor play calling, or anything in between.

Second-year QBs entering 2022 are represented on the chart with vertical lines. Davis Mills is the yellow line, while Justin Fields is the orange line. Additionally, Trevor Lawrence is the light blue line, Trey Lance is the red line, and Mac Jones is the dark blue line. Finally, Zach Wilson is the green line.

Total Offensive Talent vs Second-Year QB Production

Now, we want to combine the two factors already discussed to see how total offensive talent compares to year-two production:

Second Year QB Help

Total Talent vs 2nd Year QB Production

We see a trendline that is very similar to the line drawn in the Skill Position chart. The talent around the QB has a lot to do with how successful they are in their second season. However, it is interesting that there seems to be a floor regardless of talent.

The floor for QBs with average or worse supporting talent seems to be the same. But once the talent around the QB hits roughly 2% above average, the floor is to be a top-16 QB (more or less).

Once again, Davis Mills is the yellow line, while Justin Fields is the orange line. Additionally, Trevor Lawrence is the light blue line, Trey Lance is the red line, and Mac Jones is the dark blue line. Finally, Zach Wilson is the green line.

Can We Translate This To Justin Fields?

Well, we might as well try! Using standard deviations, I found how similar the calculated “talent” was at each position to that of the 2022 Chicago Bears. Here is how they stack up in similarity:

Second Year QB Justin Fields

Offensive Roster Similarity of Second Year QB's to that of the 2022 Bears and Justin Fields

Now, I am going to go through the circumstances of the five most similar situations to dig down to which scenarios are the most similar on multiple levels.

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Justin Fields vs. Teddy Bridgewater (2015)

Teddy Bridgewater, Justin Fields

How the 2015 Vikings' Offense compares to the 2022 Bears' Offense

What Is Similar?

  • This Vikings team started a mid-late-round rookie at WR2 and at RT. Similarly, the Chicago Bears expect to have a mid-late-round rookie at WR3 and at LT.
  • Both teams had many unknowns along the offensive line.
  • Also, both teams have strong running back rooms that they hope can help them open the passing game.
  • Each team has generally average players at TE, who both played at Notre Dame, were both selected in the second round, and have similar body types.
  • The parallels between Darnell Mooney and Stefon Diggs have been drawn before. And Diggs led the Vikings in targets in 2015 but putting an unknown fifth-round rookie at their WR1 spot would have hurt their rankings here.

What Is Different?

  • Mike Zimmer was entering his second season as head coach.
  • Additionally, the Vikings returned their entire offensive coaching staff from the previous season.
  • Moreover, the Vikings had a proven ability to produce on the ground despite a lack of a passing game.
  • The style of Bridgewater is very different from that of Fields. Additionally, their athletic profiles are quite different. Fields tends to be much more aggressive downfield, while Bridgewater has more of a reputation for playing it safe. Ultimately though, the arm talent and athleticism between the two are too different to see them in the same light.
  • Lastly, the Vikings boasted a strong defense that helped take the weight off Bridgewater. I am not sure that the Bears will have that same luxury.

Justin Fields vs. Mitchell Trubisky (2018)

Mitchell Trubisky, Justin Fields

How the 2018 Bears Offense compares to the 2022 Bears Offense

What Is Similar?

  • Starting with the obvious one, both teams have a new head coach and an entirely new offensive staff (except for Dave Ragone).
  • The 2018 Chicago Bears team started a second-round rookie at WR3 and at RG. In a similar situation, the 2022 Bears expect to have a third-round rookie at WR3 and a fifth-round rookie at LT. That is not as close as the Vikings' example but has some loose similarities.
  • Also, both teams have strong running back rooms. Although, the 2018 Bears did not have as much interest in “coming off the bus running” as I expect from the 2022 Bears.
  • Each team has generally average players at TE, based on the analysis. However, Kmet is much more proven at this point than Trey Burton was in 2018.
  • Both teams are relying on a single above-average WR and a rookie to pull their WR room from questionable to good enough. In the case of the 2018 Bears, that WR is Allen Robinson. He was coming off a torn ACL injury and had questions about whether he was a #1 option.

What Is Different?

  • The 2018 Bears invested heavily in their offense during the offseason. They used two second-round picks on offensive players and signed multiple free agents to large contracts. Meanwhile, the 2022 Bears spent very little money on offense in the offseason.
  • The play style of Trubisky is very different from that of Fields. Additionally, their athletic profiles are quite different. Fields tends to be much more aggressive downfield, while Trubisky tends to play it safe more often. Ultimately though, the arm talent and athleticism between the two are too different to see them in the same light.
  • Additionally, the 2018 Bears returned four of their five starting offensive linemen from the previous season, while the 2022 Chicago Bears only return one starter along the offensive line.
  • Lastly, the 2020 Bears boasted a record-breaking defense that carried them to wins (and points) often. I am not sure that the 2022 Bears will have that same luxury.

Justin Fields vs. Marcus Mariota (2016)

Marcus Mariota, Justin Fields

How the 2016 Titans' Offense compares to the 2022 Bears' Offense

What Is Similar?

  • Once again, both teams have a new head coach. But in a weird situation in Tennessee, almost half of the offensive staff returned under the new regime.
  • This Titans team started a mid-late-round rookie at WR2 and a first-round pick at RT. Similarly, the Bears expect to have a mid-late-round rookie at WR3 and at LT. This is a little disingenuous though, as Jack Conklin was the eighth overall pick while Braxton Jones went in the fifth round.
  • Also, both teams have strong running back rooms that they hope can help them open the passing game.
  • Both teams lack proven talent across the WR room which could make for some serious depth issues if something goes wrong.
  • Each team has a young QB who tends to take too many hits and rely on their athletic abilities to win.
  • Lastly, both teams have middling talent on defense and need to put up points to win games.

What Is Different?

  • The draft capital that the Titans committed to offense is far and away from what we saw from the Bears. The Titans used a first and second-round pick on offensive players, while the Bears did not pick an offensive player until the third round.
  • Also, the Titans spent a fair amount of money in free agency, while the Bears signed fewer proven players.
  • The Titans' offensive line was in much better shape with Taylor Lewan and Jack Conklin at the bookends. Additionally, the signing of veteran center Ben Jones gave them a high-level trio in the trenches.

Justin Fields vs. Josh Allen (2019)

Josh Allen, Justin Fields

How the 2019 Bills' Offense compares to the 2022 Bears' Offense

What Is Similar?

  • The parallels between Justin Fields and Josh Allen are not hard to see. Rocket arm? Check. Inconsistent processing and accuracy as rookies? Check. Elite NFL-sized hands? Check. The substandard supporting cast in their rookie year and second season? Check. Look good in shorts? Check. Born winner? Check and mate.
  • Seriously though, Josh Allen had very limited options at the skill positions in his second season. And that is like the 2022 Bears and Justin Fields. The reason these Bills' skill position similarity is so low is that Montgomery, Mooney, and Velus Jones Jr. are too good to compare strongly to 36-year-old Frank Gore, John Brown, and Isaiah McKenzie. Now McKenzie has become a nice player, but entering 2019, he had 22 career catches for 208 yards across 19 games played.
  • Additionally, the two teams’ offensive lines have a lot of new faces and not a lot of known quantities. However, the Bills were likely a little bit better off based on the eye test.

What Is Different?

  • In 2019, Sean McDermott was entering his second season as the Bills' head coach. And despite making some changes to his offensive staff, he still returned over half of the staff from the previous year.
  • The Bills used higher quality draft picks on offensive talent for their rookie starters than we saw from the 2022 Bears.
  • Additionally, the Bills spent a lot more in free agency on offensive players. Most notably handing large contracts to Mitch Morse and Cole Beasley.
  • Lastly, the Bills boasted a very talented defense that really carried that team while Josh Allen was developing. I am not sure that the Chicago Bears will have that same luxury.

Justin Fields vs. Lamar Jackson (2019)

Lamar Jackson, Justin Fields

How the 2019 Ravens' Offense compares to the 2022 Bears' Offense

What Is Similar?

  • So, this one is very interesting. Because I do see the offensive parallels. This Ravens team had weak offensive weapons at WR outside of a speedy rookie.
  • Also, Mark Andrews had not become THE Mark Andrews yet, posting 550 yards and three TDs as a rookie. Pretty good, especially for a rookie, but not quite a superstar yet.
  • Both teams have strong running back rooms and extremely gifted runners at QB that they hope can help them open the passing game.
  • Neither team spent any real money in free agency despite losing multiple starters from the previous year.

What Is Different?

  • We cannot just expect Justin Fields to turn into MVP Lamar Jackson. Especially when considering that Jackson was running a Greg Roman offense that is catered to his running ability, while Fields will be in a very different type of offense.
  • We cannot expect Cole Kmet to just become Mark Andrews. The two players are very different athletically, and it is just not fair to ask them to do the same things.
  • Add those together, and that is all you really need to understand. Because Lamar Jackson and Mark Andrews are the motors for that offense.
  • John Harbaugh is a Super Bowl-winning head coach who had been in Baltimore for years already and has a long leash.
  • The Ravens' offensive line had two all-world players on it in Ronnie Stanley and Marshal Yanda. And that is before considering Pro Bowl caliber OT Orlando Brown Jr.

Takeaways

Ultimately, I think the expectations for Justin Fields' 2022 stats should be somewhere between these five QBs. But much less weight should be put on Lamar Jackson unless Fields becomes a more natural runner and committed to being “run-first” much more often. And then the Bears would still need to hire Greg Roman to pull it off.

Justin Fields Year 2 Expectations

The average stat line of the five comparable QBs seems reasonable for Justin Fields in 2022 expectations.

  • Every one of these teams ranked near the bottom of the NFL in pass percentage. Meaning these were some of the most run-heavy offenses in the NFL.
  • Four of the five QBs mentioned here led an offense that ranked top 10 in explosive play rate.
  • Additionally, four of these QBs ranked in the top 10 in average depth of target. Meaning they often attacked downfield.
  • Three of the five QBs mentioned here ranked top 11 in play-action rate. And all these QBs ranked in the top 18 for play-action rate.
  • However, it is important to note that three of these QBs had top-10 defensive units behind them.
  • Moreover, four of these teams played one of the ten easiest schedules of the season.

As much as I would like to say that Justin Fields will lead the Bears to over nine wins and a playoff berth, I do not think that is realistic. Once you factor in the defenses that these five QBs had with them, you start to see how these teams won games. And I am just not sure that the Bears' defense will live up to that expectation in 2022.

Final Thoughts On Justin Fields

After a lot of thought and number crunching about the Bears QB situation, I recently concluded that I do not expect to know if Justin Fields is “The Guy” for the Bears by the end of year two. Although, as a fan, I am sure that I will WANT to believe that he is “The Guy”.

But ultimately, I expect his numbers to be a lot closer to those of Marcus Mariota, Mitchell Trubisky, Josh Allen, Dak Prescott, and Jameis Winston than those of the QBs who exploded onto the scene in year two. Mainly because this team lacks the offensive firepower to boost a young QB to that elite production.

Another QB who took a little bit longer to figure it all out is Dak Prescott. Everything did not click for Dak until his fourth season. During his second season in 2017, the team around him was stacked. But the team struggled as Ezekiel Elliott missed six games.

Additionally, Dez Bryant and Jason Witten were clearly not the same players they once were. In Prescott’s third season, in 2018, he was still just “good enough”. At least through the first seven games of the season when Cole Beasley was his most-targeted WR. But then, the Cowboys traded for Amari Cooper. Since that moment, Dak has been a significantly better QB.

Dak Prescott

Dak Prescott before and after Amari Cooper.

Truthfully though, Josh Allen and the Bills are the models. An uber-athletic QB in a total rebuild situation. Truthfully, Justin Fields might have more to work with this year than Josh Allen did with the 2019 Bills, but not by much. And Allen was only “good enough” in his second season.

Entering his third season, the Bills added star WR, Stefon Diggs, via trade. Since adding Stefon Diggs, Josh Allen has been a different player.

Josh Allen

Josh Allen before and after Stefon Diggs.

So, what is the point here? Get Justin Fields some help going into year three. That is the point. It is unlikely that we walk away from this season having a strong grasp of whether Justin Fields is “The Guy”. Unless he struggles enough for the Chicago Bears to pull the plug, which is not a thought I am willing to entertain. So, buckle up Bears fans. Because we have a lot of arguments, debates, discussions, and analyses for the next year and change.