The opinions and projections all vary greatly.
To some, Ohio State’s Justin Fields might be the NFL’s next great dual-threat quarterback. To others, he’s an intriguing project saddled with questions about his ability to duplicate college heroics on the next level.
He’s the third-best passer in the draft, according to some draft analysts, and the fifth or sixth best to others. Fields, according to some mock drafts, could hear his name called within the first five picks, or he could slide out of the top 10.
One thing’s for certain: Fields and his future rank among of this year’s greatest draft mysteries.
The quarterback certainly has the resume – two undefeated regular seasons as a starter, back-to-back Big Ten Conference championships and a Heisman Trophy finalist campaign – and equally impressive physical traits, including his size (6-3, 228), speed (4.43-second 40-yard dash), accuracy and arm strength.
However, in the lead-up to the NFL draft, Fields has found himself more heavily scrutinized than any other member of his position group. There’s a double standard at play. While his question areas or perceived weaknesses set off alarms in the eyes of some draft analysts, many of Fields’ peers have had their shortcomings minimized or explained away.
Fields is the latest in a long line of draft prospects who have endured attempts to discredit their credentials.
The history of how Ohio State quarterbacks have struggled in the NFL has factored in to how he is viewed. And to think that racial bias hasn’t factored into the assessments would be naive.
But Fields has refused to flinch.
“At the end of the day, there’s always going to be a chip on my shoulder,” Fields said at his pro day earlier this month when asked about the pre-draft criticisms of his game. “But my wanting to be great, my drive, it comes from the inside. I try not to pay attention to outside voices because at the end of the day, they have their own opinions and don’t know what’s going on inside of the building or a certain offense.”
Fields’ standing in the eyes of NFL coaches and general managers truly is all that matters. As history has shown, those assessments can differ greatly from public opinions.
“Every year there is a prospect that turns out to be a punching bag for the media, and it’s kind of like evaluators and the media are on two different spectrums,” draft analyst Jordan Reid of the Draft Network, himself a former quarterback and assistant coach at Coastal Carolina, told USA TODAY Sports. “We saw it with Daniel Jones a couple of years ago. Lamar Jackson is another great example of a player who was a punching bag in a sense.
“I think it’s just kind of people being exhausted leading up to the draft and kind of floating out narratives whether it’s a team wanting him to slip and floating him out there, or people simply seeing stuff that (teams) do not see. I’m a big fan of Justin Fields personally, and I think that he has every single tool and intangible that you want in a quarterback.”
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There seem to be stark discrepancies between how Fields’ stock compared in the eyes of media analysts to how NFL talent evaluators view him.
Everyone agrees on Fields’ athleticism and arm strength. But the division begins after that.
One NFC talent evaluator, speaking to USA TODAY Sports on condition of anonymity to guard against giving away his team’s draft evaluations, said Fields has the strongest arm in the class and a rare blend of toughness to go with his elite-level athleticism. The scout compared Fields’ game to that of the late Steve McNair. Another sees similarities to Cam Newton.
Multiple team executives evaluating Fields, all speaking to USA TODAY Sports on condition of anonymity so as to not reveal sensitive information about their teams’ plans, praised the determination and mental fortitude he displayed when he transferred from Georgia, won the starting job at Ohio State and directed highly successful teams.
They also praise his leadership skills and the physical toughness Fields has displayed while playing through injuries.
NBC Sports analyst and former NFL quarterback Chris Simms has some concerns, however.
“He looks like a Greek god. Might have the strongest arm of anybody. But at times throws too hard,” Simms told USA TODAY Sports. “Lot of one-read throws, lot of open guys. Lot of really good throws, too, here.
“Fields is a first-round pick, no doubt about it. But for me to sit here and say he’s NFL ready at this moment? No. Some games are underwhelming. … Worst short-ball thrower in group. Real inconsistencies in his technique, and that scares me.”
Simms rates Fields fifth in this year’s quarterback class behind BYU’s Zach Wilson, Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence, Alabama’s Mac Jones and Texas A&M’s Kellen Mond.
ESPN’s Mel Kiper projects Fields to go 10th after a predicted New England trade with Dallas. NFL Network’s Charley Casserly has Fields sliding all the way to 24th to the Steelers.
Asked about concerns about Fields’ fundamentals, one pro talent evaluator who has followed Fields since high school described the quarterback as impressive and told USA TODAY Sports he can make all the necessary throws at the next level.
Debunking the ‘one-read’ label
Some draft analysts predict early NFL struggles for Fields, classifying him as a one-read quarterback at Ohio State. However, four different NFL talent evaluators disagreed with that assessment, and dismissed concerns about his ability to work through progressions. They attribute his decision-making to Ohio State’s system, what was asked of the quarterback and the caliber of receivers Fields threw to.
However, another NFL scout acknowledged concerns that because of the simplistic offense he ran in college, Fields – like several Ohio State predecessors, including Dwayne Haskins, who served as the Buckeyes’ starter prior to Fields and was cut by the Washington Football Team less than two years after becoming a first-round pick – could struggle in his transition to a pro-style system.
Asked about the less-than-stellar Ohio State quarterback track record, Fields said, “I’m not sure. I don’t know those guys personally, I don’t know their work ethic or what they were taught. … But I think I’m different from all of those guys. I know my work ethic is unmatched and just my dedication to wanting to be great is just another level. So, in terms of the past quarterbacks, I can’t control that. The main similarities that me and those guys had was we wore the same uniform, but if (critics) want to say that, then that’s on them and I’m going to focus on myself and continue to get better in every aspect of the game.”
Ohio State coach Ryan Day has readily defended Fields and his abilities.
“I think when you look at Justin’s body of work, when you’re throwing to Chris Olave, Garrett Wilson and some of the guys we have and the first read is open a lot, that’s not his fault,” Day told reporters at a spring practice news conference. “There’s a reason we put certain plays in, and if the first read is to go to Garrett Wilson or Chris Olave – we have a lot of receivers who are really good – that’s where the ball goes. Part of that is good recruiting. Some of it’s good game planning, whatever.
“But there was a lot of times where Justin got back to two, three and sometimes four, five. He has the ability to do that. He’s very, very intelligent; really sharp. It doesn’t take much for him to learn a play and get it.”
Former NFL quarterback John Beck has worked with Fields in preparation for his pro day performances and seen his comprehension skills up close.
“When we throw concepts – and we do this a lot. I try to get guys to be able to see a lot of different offenses they may see – and in all of those situations, (Fields) absorbed that information,” Beck told USA TODAY Sports. “If you give him an opportunity to continually soak those things in, you can tell it matters to him. And to me, it’s all about does it matter?
“The thing I know about Justin: he’s going to invest himself. I believe in him, and whoever picks him is going to get a guy they’re going to be impressed with, and they’re going to value him in the locker room and value him as a coach.
Former Buckeyes standout Terrelle Pryor, who started 10 games in the NFL at quarterback for the Raiders from 2012-13 before moving to wide receiver, said he has no doubt that Fields will be able to make the jump from Ohio State’s offense to a pro system. According to Pryor, Fields’ future will hinge not on his ability to grasp NFL concepts but instead what kind of support he receives early in his career.
“If he goes somewhere with a great defense and he doesn’t have all the pressure, I believe he will be awesome,” Pryor told USA TODAY Sports. “Young quarterbacks need help by others early in my opinion. … Overall, kid’s a stud.”
Pryor, who believes Fields could develop an NFL game similar to that of Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson, makes a good point about the importance of a strong supporting cast to ease a rookie’s transition to the NFL.
Although multiple NFL talent evaluators who spoke to USA TODAY Sports view Fields as extremely bright and capable of thoroughly grasping NFL offenses and an understanding of how to read pro defenses, they said the best situation for him is to join a team with a veteran roster and quarterback in place to ensure a thorough education period. A number of teams in the market for a quarterback this year seem to fit this bill – the 49ers (picking third overall), Falcons (fourth), Patriots (15th), Washington (19th), Bears (20th) and Steelers (24th), to name a few. So whether he does indeed go in the top five or slide, things could wind up playing out favorably for the quarterback in the long term.
Fields’ true standing in the eyes of NFL teams and the mystery of his next destination soon will work itself out.
But until then, the quarterback’s focus remains squarely on preparing for his next chapter and tuning out the noise. Truthfully, he has only a select few he must impress.
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Mike Jones on Twitter @ByMikeJones and listen to the Football Jones podcast on iTunes.