Here’s the thing about Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields: he’s quite good at football. That might seem like an obvious statement, but it’s one that’s apparently been lost somewhere through the draft process. We have visual proof for this.
Fields had long been considered the second-best quarterback in this draft class behind Trevor Lawrence, who was anointed QB1 from the time he stepped on the field at Clemson and did nothing to relinquish that title. While Fields was playing football in 2020, he was still considered the second-best in this class and then suddenly, when the football stopped, so did Fields’s draft stock as QB2.
It could be argued that a quarterback with Fields’s resume would be considered the QB1 in most other draft classes. But as of now at the start of April, Fields has been mocked as the QB4 in this class, per data from Grinding The Mocks.
So since most of this fall has come since the football stopped, maybe it’s time for a reminder that Fields was really good at the whole football part of being a football player.
ESPN has college QBR going back to 2004. While QBR does adjust for situation, it doesn’t fully encapsulate the change in eras, which gives a bit of a boost to more recent seasons when passing efficiency has skyrocketed. But even with that caveat, it’s still a more than serviceable metric for quarterback production.
Only three quarterbacks have two seasons within the top-15 of QBR — Baker Mayfield (eighth/12th), Tua Tagovailoa (fourth/seventh), and Fields (ninth/13th). Mayfield was the first overall pick in 2018. Tagovailoa was the fifth pick and second quarterback selected last season. Fields, again, is considered QB4 in his own draft class.
The reported hang-ups in Fields’s game don’t even really make that much of an impact in his actual play. The biggest “knock” has been his processing speed and a tendency to hold onto the ball too long. That process comes from the structure of the Ohio State offense. It’s been widely mentioned that the Buckeyes have their receivers run option routes, which forced Fields to wait on the receiver to make his move before the ball was thrown.
But outside of that, the overly vertical element of the Ohio State offense was something that played into Fields’s time to throw. His career average depth of target and average depth of completion are both highs among the top five quarterbacks in this class, according to the 2021 SIS Football Rookie Handbook.
Career aDOT & ADOC, 2021 NFL Draft
|Player||Avg. Depth of Target||Avg. Depth of Completion|
This entire class excels at deep passing but Fields separated himself by being one of the best intermediate throwers in college football. Fields’s 73% completion percentage in 2020 on throws between 11-19 yards past the line of scrimmage was the third-highest figure among 542 quarterback seasons with at least 35 such attempts since 2016. His 65.4% completion rate in 2019 ranked 18th among that group. He is the only quarterback with two seasons in the top-20.
Top-20 Comp% On Intermediate Throws, 2016-2020 (min. 35 att)
|2020||Matt Corral||Ole Miss||51||74.5%|
|2020||Justin Fields||Ohio State||37||73.0%|
|2016||Mitchell Trubisky||North Carolina||93||67.7%|
|2020||Sam Howell||North Carolina||68||67.6%|
|2020||Drew Plitt||Ball State||38||65.8%|
|2019||Patrick O'Brien||Colorado State||61||65.6%|
|2019||Justin Fields||Ohio State||81||65.4%|
|2017||Shea Patterson||Ole Miss||43||65.1%|
If processing or staying on his first read was so much of an issue for Fields, how was still consistently completing passes to the most valuable part of the field at rates among the best passers in the game?
Per PFF, Fields averaged 3.11 seconds to throw in 2020, which was tied for the fifth-highest rate among 144 qualified quarterbacks in college football last season. A long time to throw does not necessarily mean poor processing. Last season in the NFL, Josh Allen had the third-highest time to throw, according to NFL Next Gen Stats (3.04). Patrick Mahomes had the seventh-highest at 2.89 seconds.
Extending the play should be seen as a positive, especially if it doesn’t come with a high risk attached. On plays that lasted 2.5 seconds or longer in the pocket during the 2020 season, Fields’s 3.1% turnover-worthy play rate was tied for the 31st-lowest. Compare that to Mac Jones, who was 59th at 4.3%.
To label Fields’s time in the pocket as a weakness also takes away his ability to read defenses before the snap. Take the play below against Penn State. Before the snap, Fields walks up to the line, identifies the coming blitz from the linebacker, and adjusts the protection. From empty, that reworks the blocking assignments so the quarterback is responsible for the rusher off the edge with the interior pressure covered. When the blitz comes, Fields knows he has an open window to hit for a touchdown.
One of Fields’s actual weaknesses was in the quick game, but he showed the ability to quickly process and get the ball out quickly when he was in empty. In 2020, Fields was 13-of-15 for 155 yards (10.3 yards per attempt) when in empty, according to Sports Info Solutions. That was the third-highest YPA figure among 81 quarterbacks with at least 10 attempts from empty.
Fields’s legs are also a legitimate weapon. While some young quarterbacks have used their athleticism to make up for some shortcomings as a passer, Fields’s ability enhances it. Here’s a play from the playoffs against Clemson that’s basically Leak set up by Clemson having to account for Fields moving the pocket to the left with his legs.
That was part of a game against Clemson when Fields threw six touchdowns (four after a serious hit to the ribs) and averaged 13.6 yards per attempt. Eight quarterbacks had at least 20 attempts against Clemson in 2020, the second-best yards per attempt figure was 8.7. Somehow in the Fields discourse, one of the most bananas-impressive performances has been overlooked.
As a runner, Fields was also one of the best in college football last season. On 51 non-sack rushing attempts, Fields averaged 9.0 yards per carry, which was tied for third among 65 quarterbacks with at least 40 carries.
He can make defenders miss in open space:
His athleticism can also be a get-out-of-jail-free card. Against Indiana, Fields turned what would have been a sack for maybe 90% of quarterbacks into a rushing touchdown.
From what Fields has shown when he played, he has everything a team should be looking for in a young quarterback. He does the passing things at a high level with the additional layer of being a player who can run in the 4.4’s.
The further away we’ve gotten from Fields playing in games, the more the masses have lost sight of how good he was — and how good he can be. This is your casual reminder that Justin Fields is very good at football.