The Ugly Narratives Surrounding Justin Fields’s Tumbling Draft Stock

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Just a couple months ago, Ohio State’s Justin Fields looked like one of the best quarterback prospects of the past decade. While he was never going to go no. 1 overall in this particular class—Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence locked up that honor years before—Fields seemed like much more than a consolation prize for whichever team ended up picking no. 2. But then the calendar flipped. Fields, once his class’s unrivaled QB2, dropped into a battle for positioning with BYU’s Zach Wilson and Alabama’s Mac Jones. And those two QBs seem to have overtaken him.

Wilson is all but locked in as the Jets’ no. 2 pick, and the 49ers, who traded a treasure chest of assets to move up to no. 3, are reportedly enamored with Jones. Suddenly, Fields looks like he could be the fourth QB drafted—and possibly the fifth if a team falls in love with North Dakota State’s Trey Lance. How did we get here?

Fields’s tumble is strange. He was the 2018 class’s no. 2 prospect (behind only Lawrence, per the 247Sports Composite), more than lived up to his lofty billing, and led his Buckeyes to a national championship appearance. Yet, he’s not the consensus no. 2 passer. Credit Wilson and Jones for their respective rises, but how Fields amassed such a fantastic college career as a high-pedigree recruit and found himself jockeying for draft positioning with players who were barely on the radar a year ago is puzzling. The drop raises questions about what’s caused his tumble, how Fields’s race influences critiques of his play, and why narratives—even unfair ones—are so hard to shake.

“I’m confused at some level of what is the criteria needed in order for guys to move up the draft,” said Quincy Avery, the Atlanta-based QB trainer who’s worked with Fields since he was in high school. “Because if it’s ‘big, strong, fast, throws well, makes good decisions’—all those things that we were told were important for understanding if someone was a good prospect or not—Justin checks those boxes. So I’m missing it.”

On Wednesday, Fields will participate in a rare second pro day. John Beck, who trains a number of quarterbacks and scripted Fields’s first pro day, said that he expects Field’s workout to be similar to the first with minor adjustments, such as flipping plays he executed on one side of the field during his last session. With QB-hungry teams such as the 49ers, Jets, Broncos, and Patriots all expected to be in attendance, the workout presents an opportunity for an additional, in-person look at Fields in a year where private workouts haven’t been possible.

The stakes could be high. Fields’s first pro day last month occurred the same day as Jones’s second, and San Francisco’s Kyle Shanahan—who’s worked with Fields before—chose to attend the Crimson Tide workout that day. As abnormal as a second pro day might be, giving teams an additional look is an opportunity worth taking.

“Teams have reached out and said it’d be great if they could see [certain] things in the second pro day,” Beck said. “So he’s adding those in. But for the most part, he’s gonna be throwing throws that he’s comfortable with, that he’s practiced.”

Pro days are considered a necessary piece of the assessment puzzle for NFL teams, but not the most important. Measurables cemented by pro day workouts are distributed to every NFL team, present or not, making attendance unnecessary to learn them. And it shouldn’t be a surprise that teams value tape more than throws against air. The Rams, as The Athletic’s Jourdan Rodrigue recently detailed, are an example of a franchise that is shifting away from archaic pre-draft evaluation standards by traveling less and leaning heavily on in-game data and tape evaluation to determine their draft board.

Fields’s film is as good as just about any other player in the 2021 class. At 6-foot-3 and 227 pounds, his ability to survive contact and deliver accurate, layered throws made him one of college football’s most nuanced pocket passers. Across two seasons (22 games) as Ohio State’s starter, Fields completed 68.4 percent of his passes for 5,373 yards (9.3 yards per attempt), 63 touchdowns and nine interceptions, while finishing third (2019) and seventh (2020) in Heisman voting.

Of course, player assessments go beyond statistics. Back in February, Pro Football Network’s Tony Pauline mentioned that an NFL team representative he spoke with at the Senior Bowl asserted that Fields moved to his second read—meaning he targeted a player who wasn’t the primary receiver on a play—seven times out of 225 attempts. This narrative coincided with the beginning of a drop in his perception. Take a look at the below graph from Benjamin Robinson’s Grinding the Mocks site, which has tracked more than 1,000 different mock drafts, to see how Fields’s standing has changed in comparison to Wilson and Jones:

While the tunnel vision narrative has stuck, further analysis casts doubt on the idea that Fields struggled with advancing through his reads. USA Today’s Doug Farrar detailed how Ohio State’s scheme prominently features advanced route progressions, including option patterns, which at times require the quarterback to hold onto the ball longer than usual. Furthermore, per The Draft Network’s Benjamin Solak, Fields threw beyond his first read 42 times, for a rate of 19.09 percent. That mark is higher than those of the other four QB prospects who are likely to go in the first round: Lawrence (16.99 percent), Wilson (14.20 percent), Jones (9.72 percent), and Lance (16.61 percent).

Following Ohio State’s first pro day last month, Buckeyes coach Ryan Day said that he hadn’t heard from any NFL personnel suggesting Fields struggled reading the field. “I know there’s some people who are saying that in the media,” Day added. “I haven’t spoken to them. But I think it’s interesting.”

“To be honest, we have some of the best receivers in the country,” Fields said following his first pro day workout. “So if my first and second read is there, I’m not going to pass up that first or second read to get to [the third, fourth] or fifth read to prove that I can read.”

The idea that Fields is slow at processing surprised Avery, who recalled a scene from the 2017 Elite 11 competition when players were asked to memorize a vast playbook resembling NFL concepts.

“Justin was the only guy of the 24 quarterbacks there who was not only able to do it, but he was able to have the mental flexibility to flip calls on-demand without seeing it,” Avery said. “He had the highest grade of not only going through the correct read, but getting off things in the correct order. And he took the least amount of sacks. So for him to be able to do that at 18, it’s undoubted to me that he has the tools to do that a few years since then.”

Day’s offensive scheme tasked Fields with the responsibility of managing complex reads in addition to facing elite competition. Per NBC Sports Edge’s Derrik Klassen, 75 percent of Fields’s career opponents rank in the top 20 in defensive SP+. That’s by far the highest average of any QB in this year’s class. That difficult schedule never hindered Fields though—the Buckeyes finished second in offensive SP+ last season, up from fourth in 2019.

Another narrative that has stuck with Fields is that he doesn’t love football. Two weeks ago, former NFL QB and current ESPN analyst Dan Orlovsky referenced NFL sources who’d expressed concerns over Fields’s work ethic, stating he’d heard Fields is “a last-guy-in, first-guy-out type of quarterback,” and there are concerns over whether he has the “desire to go be a great quarterback” or only “a desire to be a big-time athlete.”

There doesn’t seem to be any reason to think Fields lacks motivation. In fact there is plenty of evidence of the opposite. Fields was the most prominent player advocating for the Big Ten to play a fall 2020 college football season after the league initially canceled it because of the pandemic. He could have easily opted not to play since at the time he was widely considered the upcoming draft’s no. 2 QB prospect; instead, he petitioned to play. As he led Ohio State to the College Football Playoff, he shook off a huge hit that injured his ribs, necessitating pain-killing injections for him to return to the game. He went on to throw four more touchdowns (finishing with six total) and lead the Buckeyes into a national title game.

Avery called any condemnation of Fields’s work ethic “patently false.” Last year, when the pandemic upended football players’ offseason training routines in March and April, Fields joined Avery for workouts, driving an hour and a half to Avery’s QB Takeover practice fields in Atlanta.

“I don’t think anybody who’s had any real time around him would say that Justin wasn’t a hard worker or wasn’t putting in the work necessary,” Avery said.

After making his comments, Orlovsky spoke with Beck and an Ohio State assistant to learn their thoughts on Fields’s drive and issued an apology the next day. Orlovsky also told NBC Sports’ Peter King that he even reached out to Fields. But the issue with Orlovsky’s comments was that he flung them into public circulation without interrogating why his NFL sources might believe them in the first place.

There is an undeniable racial element in these criticisms of Fields, something that is familiar for Black quarterbacks. Athletic Black QBs can still be undervalued or draw coded descriptors, despite the presence of so many current successful NFL QBs in that mold. There’s still a double standard that Black QBs face, and it always surfaces during the NFL draft cycle. Former NFL QB J.T. O’Sullivan, whose insightful “QB School” YouTube channel includes prospect breakdowns, spoke about the importance of discussing implicit biases that unfairly scrutinize Black QBs during an appearance on Pro Football Focus’ PFF Forecast podcast.

“If you don’t talk about the race dynamic of this, you’re doing yourself a disservice,” O’Sullivan, who is white, told PFF. He added, “To have these white-savior quarterback moments [as] the norm, the narrative across multiple platforms and it be OK, [to] not mention anything about how these quarterbacks that aren’t white get treated differently is just not cool. I feel like we’re past this. I feel like you have to [address it].”

The NFL’s issues addressing racism within its league were on the forefront during the last coaching cycle, but implicit bias still permeates the league. Representation is perhaps the most adequate way to combat it, but progress over the years hasn’t been resounding. There are five Black NFL GMs (Washington’s Martin Mayhew, Atlanta’s Terry Fontenot, Cleveland’s Andrew Berry, Detroit’s Brad Holmes, and Miami’s Chris Grier). There are four full-time Black offensive coordinators (Detroit’s Anthony Lynn, Indianapolis’s Marcus Brady, Kansas City’s Eric Bieniemy, and Tampa Bay’s Byron Leftwich).

“I think there’s a level of inherent bias that people in the quarterback space and football space operate with,” Avery said. “Until we get enough Black decision-makers or people of influence who are of color to start being more involved in this process, we’ll continue to see it.”

The draft’s other quarterbacks haven’t faced the same type of scrutiny. Hardly anyone has noted the tangible flaws of Lawrence’s game, and legitimate reasons for concern haven’t slowed the hype for Wilson (he didn’t play against the best competition and lacks some size) or Jones (he lacks physical attributes and has benefited from a talent-laden supporting cast). Fields is the only QB in this draft who appears to be moving backward, and the reasons why echo old, tired tropes that Black football players aren’t smart enough or motivated enough to play quarterback.

“There’s always going to be a chip on my shoulder,” Fields said after his first pro day. “But I think my drive, my wanting to be great, my willingness to be great is just coming from inside.”

Of course, it’s possible that Fields’s drop in public perception won’t ultimately matter. He’ll still likely be selected in the top 10 of the draft, perhaps falling into a better environment that could help his long-term career development. Beck, a former second-round pick, said that it’s routine for a top prospect to be scrutinized, but those on the outside aren’t sure of what’s going to happen on draft day.

“In my mind, Justin has done nothing that could hurt his prospect, his value. Nothing,” Beck said. “He’s only done things that have solidified it and helped it. Maybe certain teams that, as they go further into their evaluations, they place him on a certain spot on their board. But that doesn’t mean Justin has dropped in his value or that people are viewing him any less.”

It’s somewhat silly that mock drafts and draft boards give the public its best idea of how teams view players. However, the speculation of experts is often informed by the thinking of the teams themselves. Following the Niners’ trade up to secure the no. 3 pick, ESPN’s Adam Schefter told NBC Sports’ Matt Maiocco he “would guess Mac Jones [is San Francisco’s pick] today.” After the Jets traded Sam Darnold to the Panthers, Schefter said Wilson would “seem to be the obvious choice” for New York, which picks second overall.

Schefter and other experts can’t say for sure who will be taken on draft night, but his guesses were in step with most other draft analysts. It seems unlikely that Fields will go higher than the third quarterback taken, an idea that was unthinkable just a few months ago. It’s fair to wonder how special a talented Black QB prospect has to prove himself in order to avoid unfair negative narratives, especially in a competitive draft cycle.

“What really matters is what the NFL GMs, presidents, and head coaches think in the organizations,” Day said. “And really, at the end of the day, it’s how well (Fields) does in the NFL. He’s gonna end up on a team, and he’s gonna have to produce. That’s what it comes down to. But some of the stuff I’ve read offhand doesn’t seem to fit.”