By BRYCE ROSSLER
Around this time last year, it was all but a foregone conclusion that Tua Tagovailoa would be the first quarterback taken in the 2020 NFL Draft.
We all know how that story went.
Tagovailoa was the prohibitive favorite entering 2019 and even improved his efficiency on a per-snap basis despite dealing with injuries. This was enough to distance himself from other first-round quarterback prospects like 2017 Academic All-American Justin Herbert and Jordan Love, but it wasn’t enough to win him the Heisman and it’s wasn’t enough to get him drafted first overall, either.
Those honors were claimed by Joe Burrow, whose pedestrian 2018 had painted him as yet another LSU quarterback destined to become a practice squad refugee at the NFL level. But 5,671 yards and 60 touchdowns later, he’s the No. 1 overall pick.
If you missed out this time around, fear not — you’ll get another chance to bet on the first pick of the NFL Draft with Trevor Lawrence opening as the heavy favorite for next year. In fact, Lawrence has been the favorite for some time, as some oddsmakers enticed bettors with even money for his chances to go first overall just hours after he hoisted the National Championship trophy.
Simply put, Lawrence, who was the top-rated high school recruit in the 2018 class, has been destined to go first overall for some time. But, as we’ve seen, destiny has a funny way of working. Take the case of Justin Fields, the second-rated high school recruit in the 2018 class. Fields played his high school ball just half an hour away from Lawrence’s school, chose to stay in-state, and committed to Georgia.
Despite his apparent confidence that he would usurp Jake Fromm, Fields was limited to package plays and garbage- time duty and summarily transferred. As differently as their college careers may have begun, Lawrence and Fields are inextricably linked and the race to be the best at the next level is once again neck-and-neck.
In fact, Total Points suggests that Lawrence and Fields are already much closer than one might think. Fields outperformed Lawrence in 2019, adding 39.9 Total Points/100 Dropbacks to Lawrence’s 30.3.
While Lawrence had some early-season struggles, the sophomore slump narrative has been overblown and it is a testament to Fields that he outperformed Lawrence across the season, even if Lawrence did get the best of the Buckeyes in the semifinals. Having to languish on the bench for a year may have hindered his development, so the fact that Fields performed comparably is a great sign.
From a physical perspective, Fields was ready to compete in the NFL yesterday. At 6’3”, 228 lbs, he has a pro-ready frame and plenty of gunpowder to make all the landmark throws. Although the hashes are tighter in the NFL, Fields has demonstrated the willingness and requisite arm strength to drive the ball towards the sideline from the far hash with velocity and timing. Seven percent of all his throws struck between 10-20 yards downfield and outside the numbers when the ball started on the opposite hash. That figure, which excludes fades, ranked 8th out of 165 qualifying players (minimum 5 attempts).
Fields has shown similar aggression going downfield and found success doing so. Among quarterbacks with at least 100 attempts, Fields ranked 21st in deep throw percentage (20%) and 19th in catchable rate (66%) on such throws. He does have a tendency to step into the bucket when going long to his non-dominant side, as reflected by the dichotomized catchable splits of 58% to the deep left and 69% to the deep right.
More generally, Fields’ middling on-target numbers belie his vertical orientation and the difficulty of his throws. His ADOT of 11.7 was 12th-highest among QBs with at least 100 attempts, so it would be unreasonable to expect raw accuracy metrics to cast him in a favorable light.
This is where predicted Completion Percentage Plus/Minus (pComp +/-) is valuable. Fields completed his passes 10.1% more often than you would have expected based on throw depth and location, the fourth-best mark in college football last season. For comparison’s sake, Trevor Lawrence ranked 19th (+5.4%).
Most of Fields’ errant short-to-intermediate throws on film stem from timing and not arm talent. And while he is still honing his anticipatory skills, it’s important to note that 2019 was his first year as a starter at the college level. Furthermore, Ohio State’s offense is more advanced than a lot of other college systems. Its heavy utilization of shotgun, the rate at which the team tags runs with reads and screens, and its check-with-me calls are noticeably amateur but should not distract one from the number of concepts they use that are seen on Sundays.
Classical west coast triangle reads litter Fields’ film and looking beyond the four-open formations reveals a system that – while still distinguishable from a pro offense – is more thoughtful than the simplistic spread-and-shred philosophies that have dominated the college ranks the past decade. With that said, another year to internalize the offense and further develop rapport with teammates could strongly benefit Fields’ development as a passer.
One of Fields’ biggest selling points will be his ability to extend plays, as he reportedly ran a 4.42 in the 40-yard dash last spring and is a dangerous runner who averaged 7.7 yards on scrambles. He showed great play strength and suddenness to make rushers miss, ranking 13th in the country with a broken sack rate of 36% (minimum 30 sack opportunities), and showed a propensity to keep his eyes downfield and maintain a good base while stepping up in the pocket or throwing on the move.
Old school evaluators and analysts may ultimately dock Fields for his propensity to void structure, though, as he had the 30th-highest scramble rates under pressure in the NCAA this past season (16%). Of the pressured dropbacks that did not result in scrambles, just over half ended within the pocket — effectively a coin toss. That was one of the lowest rates in college football last year, but it should be noted that Russell Wilson (55%) and Deshaun Watson (53%) have made it work in the pros and that Kyler Murray (50%) improvises similarly and was the No. 1 pick regardless.
Murray is also one of the three most recent No. 1 picks who weren’t even in consideration prior to their final college seasons. Baker Mayfield was a system quarterback who was too short to play in the NFL. Murray was a professional baseball player with no meaningful college football production. Burrow was a sub-60% passer who played in yet another outdated, dysfunctional LSU offense.
Fields, on the other hand, is a rising player with good production, an exciting pedigree, and a tantalizing skillset, and if recent history is any indication, we shouldn’t write anybody’s name in ink for 2021.