Futures: Ohio State QB Justin Fields
Stop comparing Justin Fields to previous Ohio State quarterbacks. At best, it is a lazy dismissal of a prospect without having to put any critical thought into why he may or may not actually succeed. At worst, it is a disingenuous way to add on additional criticism to a player someone may already not like to begin with. There is reason to believe Fields is not a flawless prospect, but the helmet stickers have nothing to do with that.
What makes the Ohio State argument so disingenuous is that none of the previous Buckeyes quarterbacks were supposed to be good, save for Dwayne Haskins. Right off the bat, we can remove anyone prior to the Urban Meyer/Ryan Day era from the discussion. It makes no sense to compare quarterbacks from different systems. Craig Krenzel, Troy Smith, and Terrelle Pryor do not matter in this conversation.
That leaves us with Braxton Miller, J.T. Barrett, Cardale Jones, and Haskins. Miller was eventually moved to wide receiver. Barrett went undrafted, while Jones was a fourth-round pick for little more than having a booming arm and a short miracle run in the playoff. Haskins was a legit first-round prospect and is the only player worth comparing to Fields. Even then, though, it's clear Fields is a different animal, both in terms of tools and play style.
The key difference between the two most recent Buckeyes quarterbacks is that Fields is a big-game hunter. Haskins was a good processor in college, but more along the lines of someone who wanted to keep the train on schedule. Fields, on the other hand, will hold out for every chance he can get to deliver plays down the field. The construct of Ohio State's offense clearly shifted over the past two years to accommodate Fields in that way and it paid off.
Take this laser shot deep down the middle versus Nebraska, for example. To the bottom of the screen, Ohio State is running a fade/flat combination, which more or less works out like a smash concept. Fields opens to that side, sees the safety bail off the hash to play a deep third over a cloud cornerback, and moves on. Next in the progression is the crossing route from the tight end, but the two hook players have this covered. The easy play from here is to just flip it to the checkdown to the right. It's second-and-4, so it's not like forcing anything is necessary.
Fields wants the home run instead. Fields catches the middle-of-the-field safety pinned down on the crosser rather than gaining depth. Fields then knows he's got the one-on-one on the post and shows zero hesitation in hitching up to let it rip for a touchdown. For all the reported concerns that Fields is a one-read processor, he sure looked capable of reading out a full progression there.
Below is another favorite of mine, this time against a much more daunting Alabama defense. Earlier in the quarter, Fields was caught off guard by one of Alabama's split-field coverages and missed a potential shot down the middle. Fields did not let that mistake happen again.
In this clip, Alabama starts with a two-deep look and the field safety immediately flies off the hash. Fields can now operate under the assumption he is going to get a split-field look with nobody covering the deep middle section of the field. He moves on from the covered smash concept to the field and brings his eyes back to the vertical route smack between the hashes. Despite knowing he has held the ball for some time and is in danger of getting popped, Fields delivers a dime right over the receiver's far shoulder for a huge gain.
All throughout Fields' film catalog, there are clips of him getting to back-side vertical routes that many quarterbacks would not dare attempt. And, for the most part, Fields manages his aggression well and does not put the ball in danger. Fields threw just nine picks on 579 attempts during his two years at Ohio State. That's just 1.55% of his passes. When Fields did get in trouble, though, it was usually on these plays where he was hunting for the home run when he did not necessarily need to.
Indiana's defense caught Fields off guard a number of times, and this clip is a good example. The Hoosiers defense comes out in a single-high look with the deep safety shaded towards the boundary. Naturally, Fields checks the deep safety right off the snap for any shenanigans, but the safety turns his hips and slides to the boundary. Fields believes him to be out of the equation for anything over the middle. As such, Fields comes back to the middle and rips the seam route a tick too late, allowing the safety to double back and pick him off. Fields could have thrown the dig in behind the curl/flat player who expanded too far, but as he is often prone to do, he got fixated on the deeper route and forced it. He's usually right on these sorts of plays, but when he's wrong, it does look pretty ugly.
As much as Fields loves to hunt for these big plays, the trade-off is that he often holds the ball in the pocket for a long time. Naturally, Fields will invite more pressure and take more sacks than the average quarterback may, but the idea is that the payoff will be great enough to warrant it. Cam Newton, Ryan Tannehill, and Deshaun Watson are great examples of quarterbacks who play this way. It's not that these quarterbacks do not know what they are looking at, they just choose to index heavily into a high-risk, high-reward play style.
If a quarterback is going to hold the ball, pressure will be inevitable, especially in the NFL. One of the best ways to maximize that play style is to be fearless in handling pressure and athletically capable of escaping it when necessary. Fields quite handily checks the box for being able to maneuver the pocket and manage pressure.
Third-and-7 against Nick Saban's defense is not a fun place to be, yet Fields delivers in this instance. As was common for Ohio State throughout the season, a free rusher slips through right away and has to be picked up late by the running back. Credit to the running back for getting there in the nick of time, but the free rusher still gets some depth and forces Fields to relocate. Without fret, Fields slides up while keeping his eyes downfield, then resets and delivers a perfect throw through a keyhole 15 yards past the line of scrimmage to move the sticks. Managing the pocket and delivering over the middle like that against Alabama is as close to NFL film as it gets for a college quarterback.
The cherry on top for this area of Fields' game is that he is also an excellent athlete who can break the pocket to make plays when he needs to. Now, to be clear, Fields is not someone who will scramble around like a chicken with its head cut off and try to make hero plays. He is not Russell Wilson, Josh Allen, Carson Wentz, Patrick Mahomes, or whoever. Fields is instead very good at moving outside the pocket and keeping his eyes up to look for safe throws, often opting to take off himself rather than forcing a potentially dangerous ball. Fields is not a coward, per se, but rather he does an excellent job of identifying which risks are truly worth it versus when to just take a free chunk of yardage on the ground.
This play exemplifies Fields' escapability and reasoned passing mentality outside the pocket. After successfully escaping the pressure, Fields could direct his eyes back to the middle of the defense and try to go for the hero throw further down the field. Instead, Fields recognizes the best thing to do is take the yards he can, so he moves towards the sideline to throw to the wide receiver doing a good job working back to the ball. It's not a sexy play, but every single coach in the league will take a quarterback who can convert a pressure into a safe first-down throw.
Sometimes passing is not really an option, though. Pressure can be so chaotic that the only option is to take off immediately and hope for the best. With Fields, the "best" is often huge chunk gains, because he is a phenomenal athlete. Fields' straight-line speed is more than threatening, but as this clip highlights, his real calling card as an athlete is how explosive he is. It's so easy for Fields to stop, reset his feet, and explode in a different direction, which just makes him a menace to tackle considering he is a sturdy 6-foot-3 and 228 pounds. No pocket is too broken for Fields to somehow wiggle his way out of.
Fields does everything you want to see from a quarterback in terms of getting to the throw. He can read the field, is willing to be aggressive, understands how to manage the pocket, and has all the physical tools to keep plays alive. In many ways, that does not sound all too different from the last quarterback featured in the Futures series, Trey Lance. What separates Fields from a player such as Lance, however, is that Fields is one of the most accurate quarterback prospects in recent history. If Fields gets to the throw he wants, it is almost a certainty that he will complete it.
I have personally charted quarterback prospects dating back to the 2016 class. I chart the entirety of a player's final season, as well as a portion of the previous season, which serves as a sort of anchor for any improvement or decline during their final year. Fields' adjusted accuracy (weighted by depth of target) of 83.2% is the best rate I have recorded in those six years. To every level, Fields' accuracy is simply phenomenal.
If Fields needs to lead a receiver across the field to enable yards after catch, he can do it. If he needs to fight a tight red zone window, he can do it. If his receiver needs the ball low and away in order to be protected from taking a hit, Fields can put it there. And so on and so forth.
This throw from the 2019 semifinal game is a great example of how thoughtful Fields' placement can be. Fields puts enough arc on the ball to clear the hook player dropping over the right hash, yet low enough and tight enough to the hash so that the receiver can get down without taking a hit from Isaiah Simmons (11) who is playing as a deep-middle defender. Fields also has to put that perfect arc on the ball while ensuring there's enough juice for it to get there before the deep defender can turn and make up ground. It really does not get prettier than that.
It's not just throwing with touch that makes Fields capable of hitting nearly every throw either. Fields delivers with more than enough heat to fit tight windows, especially in the red zone. This ball against Clemson is among the most impressive throws of Fields' career. The window is nearly nonexistent, yet Fields manages to rifle this ball in between a safety and the outstretched arm of a cornerback.
Now just over a month away from the NFL draft, it is absurd the kind of pushback a prospect of Fields' caliber has received. Even though he is still a first-round quarterback to most, he has been dropping down the list of available quarterbacks when he should be nothing other than QB2. BYU's Zach Wilson is an exciting gunslinger and North Dakota State's Trey Lance is an intriguing gamble, but Fields is a legitimate first-overall caliber prospect. In a class with Trevor Lawrence, Fields should not actually go first overall in 2021, but he is good enough to have been the first quarterback off the board in almost every draft class over the past decade.
Fields is a former five-star recruit with two years of excellent production at an elite program. He has great size for the position, has A-tier physical tools, and has proven himself capable of making NFL reads and throws to every level of the field. Getting hung up on having a few instances where he holds the ball too long or knocking him down a peg because he is not the savant playmaker that Mahomes is just feels a classic case of missing the forest for the trees. Every team even somewhat considering drafting a quarterback should be snapping at Fields as soon as Lawrence comes off the board.