Chicago Sun-Times



- BY PATRICK FINLEY @patrickfin­ley

INDIANAPOL­IS — Quarterbac­k Justin Fields wants the Bears to draft wide receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba, his former Ohio State teammate. SmithNjigb­a would love it.

“Since he’s been in Chicago, we’ve always talked about it,” Smith-Njigba said Friday at the NFL Scouting Combine. “Him being like a big brother to me, I definitely appreciate it coming from a guy like that . . . .

“We definitely had a little connection back in the day. Hopefully we can maybe do it again.”

Despite Smith-Njigba’s claim that he sees himself as “a top-five player, not just receiver,” the Bears would have to maneuver back in the draft to find a spot where picking him makes sense. They own the first pick but don’t choose again until No. 56 overall. They’d add more picks between the two if they, as expected, trade out of the top spot.

Nonetheles­s, they need to find Fields help. The best free-agent wide receivers are uninspirin­g: Jakobi Meyers, JuJu Smith-Schuster, D.J. Chark and Odell Beckham, who missed last season with a knee injury. Saints wide receiver Michael Thomas could join them soon.

Keenan Allen won’t. He’s “not going anywhere,” Chargers general manager Tom Telesco said this week.

The Bears could consider trading for the Cardinals’ DeAndre Hopkins — a source said this week the asking price could be a second-round pick — or hope another high-profile pass catcher tries to force his way off his team. It probably won’t be the Bengals’ Tee Higgins, who has been the subject of trade rumors with a year left on his deal.

“I’m not in the business of making other teams better; I’m in the business of making the Cincinnati Bengals better,” Bengals director of player personnel Duke Tobin said this week. “They want a receiver? Go find your own.”

That leaves the Bears looking toward the draft for help. It’s not a strong draft class, but, given the increased emphasis put on the position, TCU’s Quentin Johnston, USC’s Jordan Addison, Boston College’s Zay Flowers and SmithNjigb­a could be drafted in the back half of Round 1.

Pairing them with Fields would be compelling, though it would take creativity for the Bears to land in that part of the draft.

The receivers seemed on board with the idea.

Despite statistica­l support, those who question Fields’ passing prowess “aren’t very smart,” Smith-Njigba said.

“I would say they should do some more research, more film and more something — do something different,” he said. “He’s whatever you need him to be.”

Johnston said he gravitates toward Fields and the younger generation of NFL quarterbac­ks.

“He’s very versatile, very athletic,” said Johnston, whose 1,069 receiving yards ranked 22nd last year. “Good on the run and in the air. That’s something I’m used to. I’ve had a running quarterbac­k since high school. I could see myself fitting in there very well.”

So could Flowers.

“He was really a throwing quarterbac­k, but he just had to use his legs last year,” said Flowers, whose 12 touchdowns were tied for fifth-most in the FBS last year. “Being able to play with somebody that dynamic would just help my game. I think we can complement each other.”

In 2021, Smith-Njigba led all Power 5 receivers with 1,606 receiving yards — a Big Ten record — and was tied for sixth with 95 catches. He was the best receiver on a team that included Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave, who were drafted 10th and 11th, respective­ly, last year.

The slot receiver was too young to declare for the draft, though, and watched his stock drop in 2022 after a Week 1 hamstring injury limited him to only three games all season. The same injury will keep him from running the 40-yard dash at the combine, though he’ll do all other drills.

“I was 100% maybe two weeks ago,” he said. “Just trying to [be careful] so I can close the book on this nagging hamstring.”

And maybe, eventually, start a new chapter with Fields.

 ?? GETTY IMAGES ?? Jaxon Smith-Njigba
GETTY IMAGES Jaxon Smith-Njigba
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