As April’s NFL draft neared, most of the NFL’s bottom-dwelling teams wheeled and dealed to try to feast on the bumper crop of quarterbacking prospects.
But not the Chicago Bears.
Instead of tying their fortunes and their No. 1 pick to Heisman Trophy winner Bryce Young, Bears general manager Ryan Poles pulled off the trade of the offseason. And put his faith in the third-year QB who appears set to join the league’s elite.
Chicago Bears quarterback Justin Fields, right, runs away from Buffalo Bills linebacker Matt Milano during the second half of an NFL football game, Saturday, Dec. 24, 2022, in Chicago. The Bills won 35-13. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)
Justin Fields was the lone standout on the Bears’ offense last season. He had the second-most rushing yards ever by a quarterback: 1,143. More than 76 yards per game. A mere five NFL running backs averaged more. And his eight rushing touchdowns were second to Philadelphia’s Jalen Hurts among QBs.
Fields’ passing numbers? Less impressive, in large part because of a paucity of receiving targets. HIs 17 TD passes and 2,242 yards pale in comparison to his Ohio State numbers, where he averaged 244 yards and three TD passes per game.
That changes this year, thanks to the headliner of the Bears’ big trade: standout wideout D.J. Moore. More on him later.
Throw in an improved offensive line, and the Bears’ continued lack of a top-shelf running back, and Fields should at least duplicate his prolific rushing stats this season.
Fields isn’t the only player we see outperforming the prognostications this season. Here’s our baker’s dozen:
Our fave running backs
Derrick Henry (Titans) — King Henry’s stock went down with Tennessee’s during its season-ending seven-game losing streak. But he was second in the league in both rushing TDs (13) and rushing average (96.1 yards per game). An improved passing game with the addition of WR DeAndre Hopkins should ease a bit of the focus on Henry. So his No. 6 preseason rank among RBs seems low. Behind Atlanta rookie Bijan Robinson? Not bloody likely.
Tennessee Titans running back Derrick Henry (22) throws a touchdown pass against the Kansas City Chiefs in the first half of an NFL football game Sunday, Oct. 24, 2021, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Wade Payne)
Najee Harris (Steelers) — After accounting for 10 TDs in each of his first two seasons, Harris has slid out of the fantasy top 10 after his total yardage dropped by more than 400 yards as a sophomore. But he showed more life during the Steelers’ season-ending four-game win streak and will no doubt benefit with the continued improvement of QB Kenny Pickett and the Pittsburgh O-line.
Pittsburgh Steelers running back Najee Harris (22) leaps over Cleveland Browns cornerback Martin Emerson Jr. (23) during the second half of an NFL football game in Cleveland, Thursday, Sept. 22, 2022. (AP Photo/Ron Schwane)
Isiah Pacheco (Chiefs) — The rookie from Rutgers took over as the Chiefs’ top runner by the end of last season, rushing for 76 yards and a TD in their Super Bowl victory. Because of that premium role in the world’s most premium offense, his preseason rank in the mid-20s seems ridiculously low. Look for him to have a much bigger role in the K.C. passing game. While he had only 13 receptions in 2022, he had five in the AFC title victory over Cincinnati.
Kansas City Chiefs running back Isiah Pacheco (10) celebrates after scoring a third quarter touchdown against the Philadelphia Eagles during the NFL Super Bowl 57 football game, Sunday, Feb. 12, 2023, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Steve Luciano)
D’Andre Swift (Eagles) — To hear the “experts” talk, you’d think oft-injured Rashaad Penny is Philly’s top rusher. But the Eagles traded with Detroit to get Swift, who struggled last season while watching Jamaal Williams vulture all the goal-line opportunities. They’ve listed him at No. 1, and he’ll enjoy running behind the league’s top offensive line. After three meandering years in the Motor City, Swift could break out. And you can still find him in Round 6 of your draft.
Detroit Lions running back D’Andre Swift watches before an NFL football game against the Philadelphia Eagles in Detroit, Sunday, Sept. 11, 2022. (AP Photo/Lon Horwedel)
Our fave receivers
D.J. Moore (Bears) — All eyes in Chicago are on this Carolina import as he works to develop chemistry with Justin Fields. He’ll be the Bears’ No. 1 wideout, but with Darnell Mooney, Chase Claypool and Cole Kmet beside him, Moore will not face ridiculously tight coverage. He’ll be available in the fourth round of your draft, and he’s certain to top his yearly averages of 1,040 yards and four touchdowns.
Chicago Bears wide receiver DJ Moore works on the field during NFL football practice in Lake Forest, Ill., Wednesday, June 7, 2023. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)
Deebo Samuel (49ers) — Sure, the Niners’ QB situation is uncertain because of the injury to Brock Purdy, but Samuel is likely to rebound closer to his 2021 form, when he put up 1,770 yards and 14 touchdowns. He remarkably had more rushing TDs last season than receiving scores . That will not happen again. He’ll also benefit from the blossoming of teammate Brandon Aiyuk. Another fourth-round WR gem.
San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Deebo Samuel (19) in action against Philadelphia Eagles defensive end Brandon Graham (55) during the NFC Championship NFL football game, Sunday, Jan. 29, 2023, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Chris Szagola)
Calvin Ridley (Jaguars) — Also sliding to fourth-round status this year is the newest addition in Duval County who had 1,374 receiving yards and nine TDs in his last full professional season. Of course, that was back in Atlanta in 2020, before personal problems and a yearlong suspension for betting on the Falcons derailed the second-team all-pro. He’ll be wearing number 0 this season, but he’ll be anything but a zero working with QB Trevor Lawrence.
Jacksonville Jaguars wide receiver Calvin Ridley (0) work on a passing drill during an NFL football practice, Monday, June 5, 2023, in Jacksonville, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)
Chris Godwin and Mike Evans (Buccaneers) — Yes, Tom Brady is retired, finally. And yes, Baker Mayfield and Kyle Trask will never be mistaken for TB 12. But these two Pro Bowlers have plummeted into eighth-round range, and that’s a bit much. Godwin caught 104 passes last season, and Evans has topped 1,000 yards in every one of his nine seasons. They will both post surprisingly good numbers playing for a mediocre offense in a very mediocre NFC South.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver Mike Evans (13) celebrates with wide receiver Chris Godwin (14) after Evans scored against the Atlanta Falcons during the first half of an NFL football game Sunday, Sept. 19, 2021, in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Jason Behnken)
Our fave quarterbacks
Russell Wilson (Broncos) — Only the Duke and Duchess of Sussex had a worse 2022 than the QB that Seattle decided could no longer cook. He spent most of his inaugural season in Denver on his backside, absorbing a league-leading 55 sacks. And his plays while upright weren’t much more impressive. But this borderline hall of famer, trading up in coaches from Nathaniel Hackett to Sean Payton, is ripe for a comeback, and worth taking a late-draft flier on.
Denver Broncos quarterback Russell Wilson, left, bumps fists with head coach Sean Payton during NFL football practice, Wednesday, June 14, 2023, in Centennial, Colo. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
Kyler Murray (Cardinals) — If DangeRuss isn’t risky enough for you, then how about an injured QB who at best is only keeping the seat warm this season for future No. 1 draft pick Caleb Williams. Heck, offseason knee surgery will keep Murray on the shelf until October, anyway. But if you’re in a keeper or dynasty league, you could do worse with your last pick than take a QB who has accounted for 107 TDs in four years … and see where he lands in 2024.
Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray (1) falls to the ground due to an injury during the first half of an NFL football game against the New England Patriots, Monday, Dec. 12, 2022, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)
Our fave tight ends
Darren Waller (Giants) — Once considered one of the top three TEs in the league, the former Raider finds himself in the Meadowlands after two subpar seasons. He’ll be a welcome sight in the ninth round of drafts, and a welcome new target for Giants QB Daniel Jones. Especially in the red zone. We’re guessing he’ll top his 2022 total of three measly touchdowns by the end of September.
New York Giants tight end Darren Waller (12) walks off the field with Lawrence Cager (83) after workouts at the NFL football team’s practice facility, Thursday, May 25, 2023, in East Rutherford, N.J. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
Taysom Hill (Saints) — When it’s time to make your final pick at the bottom of the draft, take a good long look at this occasional diamond in the rough tight-end ranks. Sure, he’s a third-string TE and a fourth-string QB. But he bulldozed his way to seven rushing touchdowns in ‘22, tied for 16th in the league. You know what they call it when you wait until the final round to take Hill as your lone tight end? A whole lot of fun.
New Orleans Saints tight end Taysom Hill runs during the first half an NFL football game between the Carolina Panthers and the New Orleans Saints in New Orleans, Sunday, Jan. 8, 2023. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)
Coming Aug. 20: Players we’re not especially high on this season.