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Chicago Bears had ‘deep conversations’ about keeping Justin Fields and drafting a QB, but trade was ‘best for organization and best for Justin’

Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune/TNS

ORLANDO, Fla. – When the time came for the Chicago Bears to trade Justin Fields, general manager Ryan Poles went over to coach Matt Eberflus’ house so they could make the phone call to their quarterback together.

Poles called the conversation earlier this month letting Fields know he was being dealt after three seasons as the Bears starter “one of the harder things I’ve had to do.” Poles and Eberflus wanted to express to Fields that it was a “tough decision” and to let the QB know how much he had meant to the city and the Bears fanbase.

The Bears also called several players to inform them they would be trading a respected teammate. And then Poles had to have one more difficult conversation – with his son, Mason, who had Fields’ jersey hanging in his room.

“It kind of puts that into perspective of how difficult those moves are,” Poles said. “But I really felt like that was best for our organization and best for Justin. I said that at the combine. I wanted to do right by him. We did that.”

Poles and the Bears staff are deep into their decision-making process about whether they will draft USC quarterback Caleb Williams with the No. 1 pick to replace Fields at the end of April. But early Monday at the NFL owners meeting at the JW Marriott Orlando, Poles spoke publicly for the first time about the process that led to the Bears sending Fields to the Pittsburgh Steelers for a 2025 sixth-round pick, which could be a fourth-round pick based on Fields’ 2024 playing time.

Poles said he was a little bit surprised there wasn’t a more robust trade market for Fields, but said as the Bears did research and had conversations with other teams, they adjusted expectations.

There were other teams involved in trade talks, but Poles felt the Steelers presented a better opportunity for Fields to get on the field through an open competition with veteran Russell Wilson, whom the team signed to a one-year contract at the beginning of free agency. Poles publicly made clear at the NFL combine a month ago that he wanted to “do right by Justin” in the trade, and there wasn’t a big enough difference in trade compensation offers from other teams to sway the decision.

“There were other opportunities where there were some quarterbacks that were either veteran guys or young guys that had already been paid, so it would have been a tougher situation for him to get on the field,” Poles said.

After the Steelers signed Wilson, third-year quarterback Kenny Pickett “expressed a desire for a change of scenery,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said Monday at the AFC coaches breakfast. That led Pittsburgh to trade Pickett to the Philadelphia Eagles and pursue Fields.

Tomlin said Wilson will enter the team’s offseason program and training camp in the “pole position” to be the Steelers starter given his depth of experience. But he said Fields will be given an opportunity “to show his capabilities” in the preseason.

Tomlin hadn’t met Fields yet in a professional setting but spoke highly of his on-the-field abilities.

“Oh my gosh, he oozes talent and potential,” Tomlin said. “He’s worn the responsibility of being a franchise quarterback, but still he gets an opportunity to come into a community-like situation and learn from a guy who’s been doing it for over a decade. Man, there’s a lot of meat left on that bone. I’m just excited about working to be a part of extracting it.”

Now Fields will work to revive his career in Pittsburgh after what Poles acknowledged were tough circumstances in his first three years in the NFL.

Poles called Fields’ 2021 rookie year under former coach Matt Nagy – after former general manager Ryan Pace drafted him No. 11 overall – a “choppy start.” When the Bears shifted to the Poles-Eberflus regime in 2022, Poles said the Bears had “some cleaning up to do” with the roster, which delayed the team adding a more talented supporting cast to help Fields.

Fields made improvements in his third season when he completed a career-high 61.4% of his passes for 2,562 yards with 16 touchdowns and nine interceptions while going 5-8 in 13 games. But that improvement wasn’t big enough as the Bears neared a decision on Fields’ fifth-year option this spring and a potential extension after that. They felt they would be in a better position going with a rookie quarterback on a cheaper contract that would allow them to continue building the team.

“Just in terms of the game, I feel like he was making strides and improving,” Poles said. “The problem is, and that’s what I try to explain, it wasn’t Justin versus one of these rookies. It’s really the timeline and how much runway you have. To get a guy up off the ground, you need to support them with as much talent as possible. And then that flips because then they take so much cap space, which is a good thing if you get to that point. But then they have to be the reason you start winning. Then it’s harder to add the talent around them.”

Poles said the Bears had a lot of “deep conversations” about the possibility of keeping Fields and also drafting a quarterback. The team did its research on what that would look like before determining it wasn’t in their best interest.

“I got some really good guys on my staff to really dig into how that would play out in terms of the locker room, how would that play out with a young guy that needs a lot of reps, how would that play out with just the command and leadership that you need in that position,” Poles said. “And we felt like it was best to probably move on and allow a young quarterback to come in and work into that role.”

Fields hasn’t spoken to Steelers media yet, but Poles said the quarterback seemed to have a positive attitude in their phone call. Poles praised Fields for being a “class act” in how he dealt with all of the ups and downs.

The Bears made phone calls to their players about the trade because they wanted to be transparent about their decision. Poles said those called seemed to be understanding of the circumstances that led to Fields’ departure.

“They understand there is a business part to it and just because you trade someone, it doesn’t mean you don’t like them or appreciate them,” Poles said. “We thought it was the best move for where we’re at.”

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