Justin Fields

Steelers OC Arthur Smith: Russell Wilson To Enter Training Camp In “Pole Position”

Before acquiring Justin Fields via trade, Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin made it clear the team intended to use Russell Wilson as their starting quarterback in 2024. Both passers are pending free agents, and training camp looms as an opportunity for Fields to reverse the pecking order.

Tomlin later opened the door to Fields unseating Wilson for the starter’s gig this offseason, but such a development would still be considered an upset at this point. The latter has the opportunity to earn a multi-year stay in Pittsburgh or a deal sending him to another new team during free agency in 2025 with his play as a Steeler. New offensive coordinator Arthur Smith is in line with the organizational notion that the QB1 spot is Wilson’s to lose.

“Russ is in the pole position,” Smith said (via ESPN’s Brooke Pryor). “It’s a competition. Obviously, we get to Latrobe, I’m sure things will heat up, but both those guys knew that, however they were acquired, and they got here and I think it’s been pretty transparent.”

Indeed, Tomlin has routinely used the same phrasing this offseason when describing Pittsburgh’s situation under center. Wilson has impressed during spring workouts, giving him the edge so far over Fields. That has pointed further to the former Super Bowl winner opening the season at the helm, although the 25-year-old does not intend to spend the full campaign on the sidelines.

Opinion amongst PFR’s readers also pegs Wilson as the favorite to operate as Pittsburgh’s starter for at least a majority of the 2024 campaign. In that event, his free agent market (and that of Fields) would be interesting given the Steelers’ reset at the position undertaken this offseason. Moving on from Kenny Pickett, Mitch Trubisky and Mason Rudolph paved the way for the team’s new faces acclimating to Smith’s scheme. More clarity will emerge during training camp and the preseason, but the competition between Wilson and Fields will be one to watch as the summer unfolds.

Steelers Notes: Fields, Harris, WR2

Last month, there was some chatter that Steelers quarterback Justin Fields could see some action as a kick returner in 2024, with special teams coordinator Danny Smith raising the possibility at a team meeting. Steelers beat reporters were quick to throw cold water on the notion, and Fields himself recently did the same.

While acknowledging that Smith did indeed bring up the idea of having him return kicks, Fields said, “nah, I think everybody kind of interpreted it wrong. Coach Danny was basically just trying to send a message that no matter who you are, you could be on special teams. He just used that as an example” (via Brian Batko of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette).

Even if Fields is not deployed as a third phase player, his athleticism could be an asset in other ways, especially since Russell Wilson is expected to at least open the regular season as Pittsburgh’s starting quarterback. However, as Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette noted during a recent chat with fans, head coach Mike Tomlin is not fond of taking out his starting QB to run gadget-type plays. Of course, the team would not necessarily need to remove Wilson from the game in order to take advantage of Fields’ athletic gifts, so it will be interesting to see whether OC Arthur Smith designs a package of plays for Fields as the 2021 first-rounder tries to unseat Wilson and prove that he can be the club’s long-term starter under center.

In that same conversation with fans, Dulac predicted that the Steelers will extend running back Najee Harris. Back in January, we heard that Pittsburgh was planning to exercise Harris’ fifth-year option, which would have kept him under club control through 2025. However, the Steelers ultimately reversed course and declined the option, which puts their RB1 on track to hit free agency next year.

Harris has been a model of durability and consistency throughout his three-year professional tenure, starting all 17 regular season games and topping 1,000 rushing yards each year. On the other hand, his heavy usage and efficiency issues — he has a career YPC rate of just 3.9 — likely informed the team’s decision to decline his option.

Despite their passing on the option, we heard that the Steelers would nonetheless be open to working out a deal that would keep Harris in the fold beyond 2024. The team’s policy of not negotiating contracts in-season and Harris’ own public frustrations with running backs having to settle for team-friendly pacts would seem to work against such a deal coming to fruition, so Dulac’s prediction is a noteworthy one.

Speaking of predictions from longtime Pittsburgh beats, Mark Kaboly of The Athletic says it would demonstrate “a lack of awareness and urgency if [the Steelers] don’t add a legit No. 2 [wide receiver] before the season starts,” and he believes the club will do just that (subscription required). Kaboly does not hazard a guess as to whom the Steelers might pursue, and 49ers GM John Lynch said his team is no longer talking trades involving Deebo Samuel or Brandon Aiyuk (Pittsburgh was one of the clubs eyeing Samuel).

Needless to say, a trade could come together at any time, and the trade market would seem to be a more likely source of WR2 talent than the free agent pool at this point in the year. At present, Hunter Renfrow (who is more of a slot option) and Michael Thomas (who has not turned in a healthy, productive season since 2019) profile as two of the top free agents available. In the meantime, players like Van Jefferson, Calvin Austin III, Scotty Miller, Quez Watkins, Marquez Callaway, Denzel Mims, and third-round rookie Roman Wilson are competing for reps behind George Pickens.

Latest On Steelers’ Quarterback Situation

Both the Steelers’ top two quarterbacks are in Pittsburgh after unusual separations from their previous teams. Jettisoned after a rocky Denver tenure, Russell Wilson counts for a record-shattering dead money figure on the Broncos’ payroll. The Bears-Panthers swap for the 2023 No. 1 pick created another No. 1 selection for Chicago after Carolina’s 2-15 season, leading to the Bears capitalizing via Caleb Williams this year.

After showing some progress down the stretch last season, Fields is still viewed as a clear backup to Wilson with the Steelers. The three-year Bears starter said he is not prepared to sit behind Wilson for the season’s entirety. Although the Steelers have given Wilson indications he will be the starter, Mike Tomlin has left the door ajar to a training camp competition.

[RELATED: Who Will Lead Steelers In QB Starts In 2024?]

“I’m definitely competing,” Fields said, via ESPN.com’s Brooke Pryor. “I think Russ knows that we’re competing against each other every day. Him being out there for me, that helps me getting better, especially each other. I definitely don’t have the mindset of me just sitting all year.”

Turning 25 earlier this year, Fields is more than 10 years younger than Wilson. The 2021 first-round pick is certainly not as polished as a passer but offers a more dynamic presence by comparison, though Wilson did display more in the run game under Sean Payton than he did during a bizarrely ineffective season under Nathaniel Hackett. QBR placed Wilson two spots ahead of Fields last season (21st, 23rd), though passer rating gave a considerable edge to the then-Broncos starter. Wilson’s 26 passes and eight interceptions highlighted a bounce-back campaign — to a degree, at least — and an eighth-place finish in rating (compared to Fields’ 22nd).

As for the prospect of this becoming a straight-up competition come August, The Athletic’s Mark Kaboly points to no such setup developing. Barring injury, Kaboly notes there is no chance Fields unseats Wilson to begin the season (subscription required).

This matches up with how the Steelers addressed the situation following the Fields trade. Wilson was told before the Kenny Pickett trade he would be the starter; that was among the reasons the 2022 first-rounder was dealt to the Eagles. This messaging continued following the Fields trade, with Tomlin contacting Wilson before the Steelers acquired the ex-Bears starter to ensure him the QB1 job would be his. The 18th-year Pittsburgh HC then brought up competition for the job, though it is still assumed Wilson is the clubhouse leader.

Despite Fields landing with a team that — as of now, at least — plans to sign off on a demotion, the dual-threat performer confirmed a previously reported notion he wanted to be traded to Pittsburgh. The Falcons, Raiders and Vikings were also on Fields’ list of acceptable destinations prior to free agency. Ryan Poles had said he wanted to do right by Fields, and while reports of the third-year Bears GM turning down a better offer to make sure Fields landed on his feet probably does not mean another proposal was significantly better, the new Steelers QB thanked his former GM for trading him to the Steelers.

Shoutout to Poles. We communicated to him through my agent, and I told him where I wanted to be and this was a place I wanted to be,” Fields said. “He honored that, and I appreciate him for that and glad he was able to put me in a spot where I wanted to be at.”

The Bears only received a conditional 2025 sixth-round pick for Fields; that choice could be bumped to a fourth if the former 1,000-yard rusher plays 51% of the Steelers’ offensive snaps this season.

The Steelers have expressed interest in having both Wilson and Fields back in 2025. It would be highly unlikely that comes to pass, as both players are on expiring contracts and each is accustomed to starting. A Wilson-Fields pecking order could change during the season, but months away from Week 1, the Steelers’ QB plan would only have them sending a sixth-rounder to the Bears.

Poll: Who Will Lead Steelers In QB Starts?

Bailing on their handpicked Ben Roethlisberger successor two years in, the Steelers put together one of the more interesting quarterback offseasons in recent NFL history. Two starters on other teams last season are now in the mix, with neither tied to a pricey deal nor a commitment beyond 2024.

The dominoes that led Kenny Pickett out of Pittsburgh began to fall before the team’s Russell Wilson signing, but that contract — a veteran-minimum deal agreed to before the Broncos officially designated Wilson a post-June 1 cut — led the way in driving Pickett to Philadelphia. After it looked like Wilson had a firm grip on the Steelers’ starting job, the team reached an agreement on a low-cost trade for Justin Fields. The final year of the ex-Bears first-rounder’s rookie contract is on the Steelers’ payroll — at the cost of merely a conditional sixth-round pick.

Mike Tomlin has said plenty to suggest Wilson will be his starter in 2024, but given the age gap between the two high-profile acquisitions and how the potential Hall of Famer’s Denver chapter unfolded, it would be a bit unusual if Fields was not mentioned as a candidate to step in at some point. The team has already been linked to pursuing potential deals with both QBs beyond 2024, though the club’s longstanding policy not to negotiate contracts in-season will put these efforts on hold. That seems unrealistic, given each’s starter background. For this year, however, the Steelers have assembled a unique depth chart — one that also includes UFA addition Kyle Allen.

An eight-asset package — headlined by two first-round picks — brought Wilson to Denver. The Broncos cut the cord on the Wilson contract before the extension years (on a five-year, $245MM deal) began. This will bring record-smashing dead money to Denver’s payroll, as the Steelers’ Wilson contract (one year, $1.2MM) barely ate into the $85MM dead cap coming the Broncos’ way through 2025. Wilson bounced back in 2023, but Sean Payton deeming him a bad fit represented another setback in a career that has veered off course.

After a shockingly poor 2022 season when paired with overmatched HC Nathaniel Hackett, Wilson rebounded — to a degree — under Payton by throwing 26 touchdown passes compared to eight interceptions. Slotting him 12 points higher than 2022, QBR ranked Wilson 21st last season. That settled in six spots behind Fields. It is arguable Wilson (six original-ballot Pro Bowl nods) disrupted his Hall of Fame path with the Broncos stay and needs a strong Steelers season to firmly reestablish himself as a Canton-bound player. Fields stands in the way of this reality, and Tomlin kept the door open — while still affirming Wilson will go into training camp as the starter — for the younger player to challenge for the job at some point.

While Wilson trails only Michael Vick and Cam Newton in career QB rushing yards and is the league’s only 40,000-5,000 player, Fields is certainly a better runner from the position. Joining Wilson with a propensity to take sacks, Fields both led the NFL in sacks taken and QB rushing yards in 2022. The Bears saw some improvement through the air last season, and QBR interestingly viewed the Ohio State product’s 2022 showing as superior to his 2023 slate. Fields also posted a worse yards-per-attempt number (6.9) compared to 2022 (7.1) and upped his passer rating by barely a point from the ’22 campaign.

Mentioned as a player expected to command at least a Day 2 pick in a trade, Fields bringing the trade value he did reflects a dim outlook around the league regarding his potential to improve significantly as a passer. The Steelers quickly declined Fields’ fifth-year option, joining the Broncos (Zach Wilson), Cowboys (Trey Lance) and Jaguars (Mac Jones) in passing on an extra year for a recently acquired QB. Pittsburgh will still attempt to finetune the former No. 11 overall pick, and it will be interesting to see how long they do so while keeping him in a backup role. If Fields plays at least 51% of Pittsburgh’s offensive snaps this season, the 2025 pick owed to the Bears vaults to a fourth-rounder.

The post-Killer B’s Steelers have been among the NFL’s most dependable teams, but the ceiling from the Roethlisberger-Antonio BrownLe’Veon Bell period dropped as Big Ben aged and then Pickett, Mitch Trubisky and Mason Rudolph stepped in. Improved Pittsburgh defenses have been unable to make the past three Steelers squads, even as two of them advanced to the postseason, Super Bowl-caliber operations. This season will be key to isolate some variables within the organization, as Pickett and since-booted OC Matt Canada are gone. After seeing QB play sink his Falcons tenure, OC Arthur Smith will be tasked with coaching two middling — at this point, at least — signal-callers.

The Steelers are banking that Smith and the Wilson-Fields duo will provide sufficient upgrades from their previous play-calling setup and what the QB group of the past two seasons offered. Who will be the quarterback that ends up as the team’s preferred option by the season’s stretch run? Who gives the Steelers the best chance to succeed? Vote in PFR’s latest poll and weigh in with your thoughts on this revamped setup in the comments section.

Steelers Considering Justin Fields As Kick Returner?

The Steelers moved quickly in the wake of the NFL’s new kick return rules being approved. Pittsburgh added Cordarrelle Patterson on a two-year deal, and his return skills played a central role in the team’s interest.

Under the new format, however, teams may line up a pair of returners on a play, so multiple options could be in play for the Steelers. An unlikely scenario – albeit one which appears to be under consideration – could see backup quarterback Justin Fields used as a return man. The idea has been brought up by Pittsburgh special teams coordinator Danny Smith.

“[Smith] was talking about Justin Fields being back there,” running back Jaylen Warren said during an appearance on teammate Cameron Heyward‘s Not Just Football podcast. “We’re like, ‘Hold up, hold up.’ We looked at him like, ‘Justin Fields is about to be back there?’ I don’t know. I think it’s cool” (h/t ESPN’s Brooke Pryor).

Fields is among the most athletic quarterbacks in the NFL, and his rushing ability was on full display during his time with the Bears. One of the goals of the new kickoff alignment was to make the play safer, meaning returners could face a lower injury risk than in years past. Still, using Fields – currently set to operate as Pittsburgh’s backup quarterback, albeit one who is believed to be in the team’s post-2024 plans – on special teams would constitute quite the surprise.

Both Pryor and Mark Kaboly of The Athletic (subscription required) note it is unlikely Fields sees any time as a returner. The 25-year-old will enter his first Pittsburgh training camp aiming to unseat Russell Wilson for the starter’s job, but it will be interesting to see if he is used in any unorthodox capacities as the offseason unfolds.

2025 NFL Fifth-Year Option Tracker

NFL teams have until May 2 to officially pick up fifth-year options on 2021 first-rounders. The 2020 CBA revamped the option structure and made them fully guaranteed, rather than guaranteed for injury only. Meanwhile, fifth-year option salaries are now determined by a blend of the player’s position, initial draft placement and performance- and usage-based benchmarks:

  • Two-time Pro Bowlers (excluding alternates) will earn the same as their position’s franchise tag
  • One-time Pro Bowlers will earn the equivalent of the transition tag
  • Players who achieve any of the following will receive the average of the third-20th-highest salaries at their position:
    • At least a 75% snap rate in two of their first three seasons
    • A 75% snap average across all three seasons
    • At least 50% in each of first three seasons
  • Players who do not hit any of those benchmarks will receive the average of the third-25th top salaries at their position

With the deadline looming, we will use the space below to track all the option decisions from around the league:

  1. QB Trevor Lawrence, Jaguars ($25.66MM): Exercised
  2. QB Zach Wilson, Broncos* ($22.41MM): Declined
  3. QB Trey Lance, Cowboys** ($22.41MM): Declined
  4. TE Kyle Pitts, Falcons ($10.88MM): Exercised
  5. WR Ja’Marr Chase, Bengals ($21.82MM): Exercised
  6. WR Jaylen Waddle, Dolphins ($15.59MM): Exercised
  7. T Penei Sewell, Lions ($19MM): Extended through 2029
  8. CB Jaycee Horn, Panthers ($12.47MM): Exercised
  9. CB Patrick Surtain, Broncos ($19.82MM): Exercised
  10. WR DeVonta Smith, Eagles ($15.59MM): Extended through 2028
  11. QB Justin Fields, Steelers*** ($25.66MM): Declined
  12. DE Micah Parsons, Cowboys ($21.32MM): Exercised
  13. T Rashawn Slater, Chargers ($19MM): Exercised
  14. OL Alijah Vera-Tucker, Jets ($13.31MM): Exercised
  15. QB Mac Jones, Jaguars**** ($25.66MM): Declined
  16. LB Zaven Collins, Cardinals ($13.25MM): Declined
  17. T Alex Leatherwood, Raiders: N/A
  18. LB Jaelan Phillips, Dolphins ($13.3MM): Exercised
  19. LB Jamin Davis, Commanders ($14.48MM): Declined
  20. WR Kadarius Toney, Chiefs***** ($14.35MM): Declined
  21. DE Kwity Paye, Colts ($13.4MM): Exercised
  22. CB Caleb Farley, Titans ($12.47MM): Declined
  23. T Christian Darrisaw, Vikings ($16MM): Exercised
  24. RB Najee Harris, Steelers ($6.79MM): Declined
  25. RB Travis Etienne, Jaguars ($6.14MM): Exercised
  26. CB Greg Newsome, Browns ($13.38MM): To be exercised
  27. WR Rashod Bateman, Ravens ($14.35MM): N/A; extended through 2026
  28. DE Payton Turner, Saints ($13.39MM): Declined
  29. CB Eric Stokes, Packers ($12.47MM): Declined
  30. DE Greg Rousseau, Bills ($13.39MM): Exercised
  31. LB Odafe Oweh, Ravens ($13.25MM): Exercised
  32. LB Joe Tryon-Shoyinka, Buccaneers ($13.25MM): Declined

* = Jets traded Wilson on April 22, 2024
** = 49ers traded Lance on August 25, 2023
*** = Bears traded Fields on March 16, 2024
**** = Patriots traded Jones on March 10, 2024
***** = Giants traded Toney on October 27, 2022

Steelers To Pass On Justin Fields’ Fifth-Year Option

We heard in March it was highly unlikely the Steelers would exercise the fifth-year option on Justin Fields‘ rookie contract. With the option deadline coming in just more than a week, Pittsburgh indeed appears to have no plans of committing to guaranteed Fields money in 2025.

The Steelers are expected to decline an option that would pay Fields $25.7MM fully guaranteed next year, ESPN.com’s Adam Schefter tweets. Teams have until May 2 to exercise or decline options; this has loomed as one of the more predictable option calls for a bit now.

Fields’ value around the league turned out to be far lower than many expected, as the Bears ended up settling for a conditional sixth-round pick for a player who has proven electric as a runner but inconsistent as a passer through three seasons. Still, the Steelers made it clear upon acquiring Fields, 25, they expect him to begin the season as a backup to Russell Wilson. Mike Tomlin has since pried the door open for competition, but as of now, the trade acquisition is on track to go from three-year Chicago starter to Pittsburgh backup.

Both Wilson and Fields, when the option is officially declined, will be going into contract years in 2024. The former signed for the veteran minimum, barely cutting into the record-setting dead money sum the Broncos face. Fields is under contract for $1.62MM this season. Because Fields never made a Pro Bowl but qualified as a full-time player under the option formula, his option number checked in on Tier 3 of the four-tiered structure that came about when the 2020 CBA ushered in fully guaranteed options.

While the Steelers have both Wilson and Fields in contract years, a March report suggested the team is considering keeping both players beyond 2024. This would be a highly unlikely scenario to pull off, given the starting histories each player brings. Neither would stand to be interested in being an assured backup in 2025. This makes a potential 2024 trade worth monitoring; the Steelers have Kyle Allen in place as their third-stringer presently.

With the team not planning to adjust a negotiating policy that mandates no in-season contract talks, Wilson and Fields will be set to play out their current deals. The Steelers are interested in revisiting Wilson’s pact, for now at least, in 2025. It will be interesting to see how Fields factors into this equation, seeing as he is 10 years younger than Wilson, who will turn 36 this season.

Steelers Will Not Change In-Season Negotiating Policy For Justin Fields, Russell Wilson

Arranging an unusual but intriguing quarterback setup by signing Russell Wilson for the veteran minimum and trading a Day 3 pick for Justin Fields, the Steelers have since expressed interest in keeping both QBs beyond the 2024 season. As unrealistic as that may be, the Steelers could have some negotiating to do in the not-too-distant future.

The Steelers have exclusive negotiating rights with Wilson and Fields until March 2025, but the team’s policy with regards to extension talks would not allow it to take advantage of many of these months that could be used to discuss a deal. While many teams negotiate with players during the season, the Steelers do not. Despite the QB talks that could be set to commence to keep one of their passers beyond 2024, the Steelers are not deviating from their policy.

I think regardless of position, I don’t think those certain policies like that one are going to change,” GM Omar Khan said (via The Athletic’s Mark Kaboly).

Khan was not with the organization when it implemented this policy, with the change coming back in 1994. That marked the salary cap’s debut and it came after some drama — brought on from in-season contract talks — emerged during free agency’s 1993 debut. The Steelers did deals with Rod Woodson and running back Barry Foster in-season in 1993, with Kaboly adding other extension candidates expressed frustration to create tension in the locker room.

The Steelers regularly extend players during the summer, with Alex Highsmith, Minkah Fitzpatrick and T.J. Watt being recent examples. They also reached a deal with Antonio Brown shortly after the 2017 season, as one year remained on the All-Pro’s second Steelers contract, and re-signed Cameron Sutton to keep him off the market just before the 2021 free agency period. If Wilson or Fields is to be extended, a deal will need to come in one of these windows — almost definitely the latter.

Wilson, 35, has first dibs on Pittsburgh’s starting job, with Mike Tomlin stopping short of guaranteeing the veteran will be under center in Week 1. Though, it is clear Wilson is the favorite. Rumors about another Wilson contract have come out, but the Steelers are planning to see how the veteran quarterback looks in Arthur Smith‘s system before doing another deal. While a midseason extension would make sense, that will not happen. The parties would need to huddle up after the season ends.

The team is not picking up Fields’ fifth-year option, but it views the ex-Chicago starter as a multiyear option. Unless Wilson is out of the picture in 2025, it would make little sense for Fields to recommit to the Steelers. Seeing Fields, 25, usurping Wilson this season is not too difficult based on the former Pro Bowler’s uneven Broncos play. For now, he is on track to begin the season as a backup. Any changes to that would impact the 2021 first-rounder’s second contract, but Fields will almost definitely play out his rookie deal — before potential talks commence — this year.

Revisiting 2021 First-Round QB Picks

With the 2024 draft approaching, this year’s crop of quarterbacks will increasingly become the center of attention around the NFL. Acquiring rookie passers is viewed as the surest route to long-term success, and the urgency teams feel to generate quick rebuilds fuels aggressive moves aimed at acquiring signal-callers deemed to have high upside.

Each class is different, though, and past drafts can offer a cautionary tale about the downfalls of being overly optimistic regarding a young quarterback. In the case of the 2021 draft, five signal-callers were selected on Day 1, and to varying extents things have not gone according to plan in each case. Three quarterbacks (quite possibly four, depending on how the immediate future plays out) have been traded, while the other has not lived up to expectations.

Here is a breakdown of all five QBs taken in the first round three years ago:

Trevor Lawrence (No. 1 overall, Jaguars)

Lawrence entered the league with enormous expectations after his high school and college success, having been touted as a generational prospect. The Clemson product (like the rest of the Jaguars) endured a forgettable season under head coach Urban Meyer as a rookie, however. The latter’s firing paved the way for the arrival of Doug Pederson, known to be a QB-friendly coach. Lawrence improved in 2022, earning a Pro Bowl nod and helping guide the team to the divisional round of the postseason.

This past campaign saw the 24-year-old battle multiple nagging injuries, and he was forced to miss a game for the first time in his career. Jacksonville failed to find a rhythm on offense throughout the year, and a late-season slump left the team out of the playoffs altogether after a division title seemed to be in hand. In two seasons under Pederson, Lawrence has totaled 46 touchdown passes and 22 interceptions – figures which fall short of what the pair were thought to be capable of while working together. Nonetheless, no changes under center will be forthcoming.

Following in line with his previous stance on the matter, general manager Trent Baalke confirmed last month extension talks with Lawrence have begun. The former college national champion will be on his rookie contract through 2025 once the Jaguars exercise his fifth-year option, but megadeals finalized in a QB’s first year of extension eligibility have become commonplace around the NFL. Lawrence profiles as Jacksonville’s answer under center for years to come, something of particular significance given the team’s past struggles to find a long-term producer at the position.

Four young passers inked second contracts averaging between $51MM and $55MM per year last offseason. Lawrence is positioned to be the next in line for a similar deal, though his generally pedestrian stats could hinder his leverage to a degree. At a minimum, he will see an AAV much higher than that of his 2025 option ($25.66MM) once his next contract is in place.

Zach Wilson (No. 2, Jets)

The Jets’ decision to take Sam Darnold third overall in 2018 did not prove fruitful, and in short order the team was in need of another young passer. Wilson was immediately installed as the team’s starter, but in both his rookie campaign and his follow-up season he struggled in a number of categories. A lack of improvement regarding accuracy and interception rates made it clear a more proven commodity would be required for a team internally viewed as being a quarterback away from contention.

That drove the decision to trade for Aaron Rodgers last offseason, a move aimed at relying on the future Hall of Famer in the short term while allowing Wilson to develop as a backup. Four snaps into the season, though, Rodgers’ Achilles tear upended that plan and thrust Wilson back into a starting role. Playing behind a struggling (and injury-marred) offensive line, the BYU alum guided an offense which finished 29th in scoring and 31st in yardage. In the wake of the poor showing, owner Woody Johnson publicly disparaged Wilson in vowing to upgrade the QB2 spot.

With Tyrod Taylor now in place (and Rodgers aiming to continue playing into his 40s), Wilson’s New York days are believed to be numbered. The Jets have given him permission to seek a trade, which comes as little surprise given the team’s decision to bench him on a few occasions over the past two seasons. A fresh start for both parties could be beneficial, although value on a deal will come well short of the capital used to draft him. Offers for the 24-year-old have nevertheless been received, so a deal could be struck in relatively short order.

Once that takes place, New York will have once again cut bait with a failed QB project. Wilson could follow Darnold’s path in taking on a backup gig before receiving another starting opportunity with a new team. For the time being, though, he will aim to find the ideal supporting role in an attempt to rebuild his value.

Trey Lance (No. 3, 49ers)

Aggressively pursuing a Jimmy Garoppolo upgrade, San Francisco moved up the board at a substantial cost. The 49ers sent the Dolphins a package including three first-round picks and a third-rounder, banking on Lance’s athletic upside. After a year sitting behind Garoppolo, the North Dakota State product was positioned to take over in 2022.

However, a Week 2 ankle fracture cut Lance’s season was cut short; this proved to mark an end to his San Francisco tenure. In all, Lance made just four regular-season starts with the 49ers, as the 2022 season unintentionally resulted in Brock Purdy taking over the starter’s role. The emergence of the former Mr. Irrelevant paved the way for Lance to be traded, but his injury history and inconsistent play when on the field limited his trade market. The Cowboys won a brief bidding war, acquiring Lance for a fourth-round pick.

Lance did not see the field in his first season as a Cowboy, but Dallas will keep him in the fold for the 2024 campaign. He will thus be in line to serve as Dak Prescott’s backup for a year; the latter is not under contract for 2025, but he remains firmly in the team’s plans. Unless Prescott were to depart in free agency next offseason, a path to a No. 1 role does not currently exist for Lance.

The 23-year-old could nevertheless still be viewed as a worthwhile developmental prospect given his age and athletic traits. The Lance acquisition has clearly proven to be a mistake on the 49ers’ part, though, especially given the success the team has had without him. What-ifs will remain a part of this 49ers chapter’s legacy (particularly if the current core cannot get over the Super Bowl hump) considering the substantial price paid to move up the board and the draft picks not available in subsequent years as a result.

Justin Fields (No. 11, Bears)

Like San Francisco, Chicago did not wait on the chance of having a top QB prospect fall down the draft board. The Bears moved two first-round picks, along fourth- and fifth-rounders, to move ahead of the Patriots and add a presumed long-term answer under center. Fields saw playing time early enough (10 starts as a rookie), but his performance that year left plenty of room for improvement.

A head coaching change from Matt Nagy to Matt Eberflus also brought about the arrival of a new offensive coordinator (Luke Getsy). Fields did not make the expected jump as a passer in the new system, averaging less than 150 yards per game through the air and taking 55 sacks. He became only the third quarterback to record over 1,000 yards on the ground in a season, though, showcasing his rushing ability. The Ohio State product made only incremental progress in 2023, despite an improved offensive line and the trade acquisition of wideout D.J. Moore.

As a result, speculation steadily intensified that general manager Ryan Poles – who was not a member of the regime which drafted Fields – would move on from the 25-year-old. Fields received endorsements from Eberflus, Poles and others in the building, but the team decided to move on and pave the way for (in all likelihood) Caleb Williams being drafted first overall. A conditional sixth-round pick sent Fields to the Steelers, his preferred destination.

In Pittsburgh, Fields is slated to begin as the backup Russell Wilson. Both passers face uncertain futures beyond 2024, especially with the former not on track to have his fifth-year option exercised. Fields could play his way into the starter’s role in relatively short order given the 10-year age gap between he and Wilson, who flamed out in Denver. That, in turn, could see his market value jump higher than that of the other non-Lawrence members of this class given their respective situations.

Mac Jones (No. 15, Patriots)

Drafted to become the Tom Brady successor of both the short- and long-term future, Jones was immediately installed as New England’s starter. Coming off a national title with Alabama, he appeared to set the stage for a long Patriots tenure by earning a Pro Bowl nod and finishing second in Offensive Rookie of the Year voting. Nothing went according to plan for team or player beyond that point, however.

Jones saw Josh McDaniels depart in the 2022 offseason, leaving head coach Bill Belichick to hand the offensive reins over to Matt Patricia and Joe Judge. That move resulted in widespread struggles on offense, and Jones regressed. Following a 2021 playoff berth, the inability to venture back to the postseason the following year led to increased speculation about the team’s future under center. That became particularly true amid reports of tension between Jones and Belichick.

With both coach and quarterback under pressure to rebound, optimism emerged when the Patriots hired Bill O’Brien as OC. That move did not produce the desired results, though, and by the end of the year Jones was benched in favor of Bailey Zappe. With a Belichick-less regime set to start over at the quarterback spot, the former was dealt to the Jaguars for a sixth-round pick.

Jones has publicly stated the deal (which sent him to his hometown team) was a mutual parting of ways. A backup gig behind Lawrence could allow the pocket passer to regain some of his confidence generated by his rookie success, but his showings over the past two seasons will no doubt give teams considerable pause with respect to viewing him as a starter down the road. Jones’ athletic profile is also a less favorable one than that of Wilson, Lance and especially Fields, something which could further consign him to QB2 duties for the foreseeable future.

Four quarterbacks are considered locks to hear their names called on Day 1 of the 2024 draft, one in which each of the top three picks may very well once again be used on signal-callers. Other QB prospects are also in contention for Round 1 consideration, meaning they and their new teams will be subject to considerable scrutiny. To put it lightly, all parties involved will hope the top of this year’s class pans out better than that of its 2021 counterpart.

Bears GM Ryan Poles Addresses Justin Fields Trade; Latest On QB’s Preferred Destinations

In moving on from Justin Fields earlier this month, Bears general manager Ryan Poles accomplished his stated goal of doing right by the former first-round quarterback. The latter recently spoke about the tepid trade market which was in place and the efforts made by the team to send Fields to a situation with a potential path to a starter’s role.

The Steelers moved quickly in acquiring Fields for a conditional sixth-round pick not long after adding Russell Wilson. The decision to trade away Kenny Pickett after Wilson’s arrival set the stage for the Fields swap and with it the complete overhaul of Pittsburgh’s QB room. A recent report indicated the Steelers’ offer was not the best one made to Chicago, something Poles confirmed when speaking at the league meetings.

“There were other teams,” Poles said, via Josh Schrock of NBC Sports Chicago“The Steelers were just an opportunity where it was almost like more of a… they have a starter with Russ, but there was more of an open competition it felt like from my perspective where 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.”

Fields is already known to have preferred going to Pittsburgh, but further clarity on his other potential landing spots has emerged. ESPN’s Brooke Pryor reports the 25-year-old was also considering the Vikings, Raiders and Falcons prior to the start of free agency. Kirk Cousins‘ decision to depart Minnesota and join Atlanta left the Falcons as a backup-only destination; the same could have held true in the case of the Vikings given their addition of Sam Darnold as a short-term Cousins replacement.

The Raiders (previously connected to a Fields trade) already have Aidan O’Connell in place, and the team added veteran Gardner Minshew as a bridge starter or high-end backup. Vegas could be in the market to draft a passer next month, and as a result a Fields deal would have left the Ohio State product in a murky situation. That also would have been the case, of course, had Poles elected to keep Fields while still selecting a quarterback with the first overall pick in the draft.

“I know there was a lot of talk about having Justin there and drafting a quarterback as well,” Poles added. “We had a lot of deep conversations and 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 and we felt like it was best to probably move on and allow a young quarterback to come in and work into that role.”

With Fields no longer in the picture, Caleb Williams remains on track to hear his name called first on draft night. A QB room featuring both passers would have created an awkward situation, but the former is now in place to compete for a No. 1 in a new environment while Chicago is positioned to start fresh under center.