LAKE FOREST — Last offseason, former Bear Akiem Hicks showed how important Justin Fields’ development would be to Chicago’s rebuild hopes with a sharp criticism of his time in the organization.
“When I came into the league, I had Drew Brees and Tom Brady as my first two quarterbacks. And then I went to Chicago. It wasn’t Drew Brees and Tom Brady,” Hicks said during his introductory press conference after rejoining Brady with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. “I feel spoiled to have somebody on the other side of the ball that can deliver all the time. He has proven that over the years.
“It was definitely a draw,” Hicks continued when asked if playing with an established quarterback was a goal. “It benefits a defense to have a quarterback that can control the clock, the ball, and field position. That’s what we have here.”
The ability to attract top free-agent talent is an under-the-radar benefit of having an elite quarterback. While Fields still has a lot of work to do as a passer, the step forward he took as one of the NFL’s best playmakers last season clearly caught the eye of many around the league.
It also played a role in the Bears’ free-agent haul this offseason as the allure of playing on the same team as Fields helped general manager Ryan Poles land several new members of a new-look defense.
“I think if you pull up his stats it speaks for itself,” new linebacker Tremaine Edmunds said Thursday. “Obviously it presents challenges in different ways whether he’s running the ball or throwing the football. I know obviously when [the Bills were] preparing for him we was like, ‘we’ve got to make sure we bring it this week,’ but definitely a guy that I’m excited to play with. You know, obviously that goes into the decision of making that decision to come here.”
Like Edmunds, T.J. Edwards is a new member of the Bears’ linebacking corps who faced Fields last season. While preparing to face Fields and the Bears as a member of the NFC champion Philadelphia Eagles, Edwards got a good sense of the type of team Poles is building with Fields starring in the lead role.
“We came and played here, it was a really tough team, man,” Edwards said Thursday. “It was a game that was all the way to the end and obviously I can speak more from the defensive side going against the offense, just a lot of weapons and trying to contain Fields was a big part of what we were trying to do. You saw what happened on one of the plays where he got loose, so he’s definitely a special player for sure and you can tell just by the way the game was going that it was no quit at all. That’s definitely something that I want to be a part of.”
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When you have an elite quarterback, you automatically enter yourself into the Super Bowl picture. The truly elite guys with rings on their resume — (ret.) Tom Brady, Patrick Mahomes, etc. — attract quality veteran talent to join them on their title quests.
Guys like Hicks are often willing to take less to play for a team with a certified “dude” at quarterback. At the very least, having a playmaker at quarterback is a ticket into the sweepstakes for quality veteran additions. Teams without a viable quarterback aren’t permitted entrance.
Just ask DeMarcus Walker. During his career, the 28-year-old defensive end has played with a who’s who of subpar quarterbacks. From Brock Osweiler and Paxton Lynch to Brett Rypien, Brandon Allen, and Malik Willis, Walker has been on that side of the NFL fence.
In coming to Chicago, he chose to see how the other half lives by throwing in with Fields.
“Excuse my french. Abso-f—ing-lutely,” Walker said Thursday when asked if the quarterback influenced his free-agent decision. “Justin Fields is definitely, you know, someone that I can’t want to go to battle with.”
Fields did enough in Year 2 to put the Bears on the radar of potential free agents. Some came to Chicago to join him. If he takes another giant leap in 2023, the floodgates might open and accelerate the Bears’ rebuild into a different stage than the infancy in which it currently resides.
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