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Justin Fields and Patrick Mahomes: A tale of two quarterbacks

Well, four.

NFL: Buffalo Bills at Chicago Bears Jon Durr-USA TODAY Sports

What do Trevor Lawrence and Mitch Trubisky have in common?

How about Justin Fields and Patrick Mahomes?

Two of these quarterbacks were chosen in the 2017 NFL Draft. One won a Super Bowl. One is fighting for a backup job in the NFL.

Two of these quarterbacks were chosen in the 2021 NFL Draft. One impressed in his opening preseason game. One was sacked twice.

Two of these quarterbacks faced off in Chicago Saturday in the second week of preseason play as we saw the Bears’ top pick from the draft, Justin Fields, go up against Mitch Trubisky, Chicago’s top pick of 2017 who is now with the Bills, backing up Josh Allen.

Fields was less impressive against the Bills yesterday (a game he did not start) than he was against the Miami Dolphins last week in his preseason debut. He connected on 9-of-19 passes for 80 yards Saturday, coming in off the bench to replace Andy Dalton.

Against the Dolphins, Fields went 14-of-20 for 142 yards and a touchdown.

Trevor Lawrence is still awaiting his second preseason game, with the Jaguars preparing for the New Orleans Saints on Monday Night Football. In his opener against the Cleveland Browns, Lawrence was 6-for-9 passing for 71 yards.

Now, we know the preseason means nothing. Heck, the Browns went 4-0 in the 2017 preseason before losing every single regular season game that year. Star players might show up for a series or two in the second and third games, but many are giving injuries extra time to recover, or simply giving the field over to young rookies and free agent signees looking to make the roster at all.

The data might also be skewed. A rookie quarterback might be facing off against a second or third string defense, playing with second or third string wide receivers with a second or third string offensive line in front of them. Of course, if that rookie’s name is Trevor Lawrence, even the likes of Urban Meyer would play the best offensive linemen available to protect the quarterback of the future. However, it’s hard to gauge a rookie’s progression when not facing or playing with the full complement of first-string NFL talent.

When evaluating rookie quarterbacks, we also recognize that a lot of a team’s failure isn’t the players’ fault or success due solely to their abilities. The No. 1 overall pick, by definition, goes to the worst team in the league. Trevor Lawrence and Mitch Trubisky went No. 1 in 2021 and No. 2 in 2017, respectively. The Jaguars are and the Bears were, at those times, truly awful, and poor play from the Bears, in 2017 at least, wasn’t entirely on Trubisky.

The Bears of today and the Chiefs of 2017, however, are entirely different matters. For starters, both had traded up to get their chosen quarterbacks — which meant that the No. 10 pick for the Chiefs and No. 11 for the Bears were lower than their records might indicate. In short, Fields and Mahomes went to better, more complete teams with savvy front offices who understood the type of talent they were looking for. Their strategies were not to build a team around a franchise quarterback, but rather to have a certain amount of stability so rookies weren’t thrown into the proverbial fire.

We’ve seen what happens when this isn’t the case. Most recently, Cincinnati experienced it with Joe Burrow last year. We saw it with Tim Couch in 1999. The story doesn’t change. Everyone wants a franchise quarterback, but having a good quarterback doesn’t fix a sievelike offensive line, a lack of depth at running back, mediocre pass catchers at receiver or a defense that gives up more points than even the best quarterback could make up. It also doesn’t solve for poor coaching or management that might have led the team to the worst record in the league. To have less than four wins as an NFL team is indicative of larger, systemic problems within an organization than a single position group.

Related, there is a benefit of being a backup for a minute. Mahomes had the great Alex Smith playing ahead of him, which meant he didn’t need to start day one. Fields has Pro Bowl quarterback Andy Dalton and Super Bowl champ Nick Foles in the quarterback room with him. If Bears head coach Matt Nagy feels like he needs to sit Fields for a few more weeks (or a whole season) while he develops, the Bears have that option in a way that Jacksonville doesn’t. No offense, Gardner Minshew.

Sure, quarterbacks should be hungry, battling for starting roles. However, it’s far better for players to get those jobs because they’re ready rather than because there are no other options.

There’s also the risk of injury when teams simply take quarterbacks without making other investments. We saw the worst case scenario, again, with Burrow in 2020. Financially, such an arrangement could doom NFL teams that shell out good money or QBs for them only to suffer season or career-ending injuries. It’s hard. Even Andrew Luck, who was part of an arguably solid Colts organization, suffered a lacerated kidney. Staying healthy is a team effort with an undue amount of responsibility on the front office.

What does that mean for the fresh faced quarterbacks who faced off against one another on a much different stage just a few months ago? Well if history is any indication, it doesn’t bode well for Lawrence.

While Fields has the likes of Allen Robinson III and Marquise Goodwin (plus David Montgomery in the backfield), Lawrence...doesn’t. Marvin Jones is about it.

As a lifeline Cleveland Browns fan, I’ve seen the worst of these scenarios. Tim Couch was the first of many. We’re familiar with the cautions of repeatedly drafting first round quarterback talent when the organization isn’t equipped to support that player.

Being an NFL quarterback is tough. There’s a heavy mix of hard work, talent, luck and a host of external factors that all have to coalesce at the right moment for even the most promising quarterback to have a shot. For the time being, it would seem the odds at least are more in Fields’ favor.