How Did Justin Fields Fall in the NFL Draft?
The unfair reality of how Justin Fields fell to the 11th pick in the NFL draft.
Reading Time: 6 minutes
The college football world watched in wonder as Ohio State dominated the top-seeded Clemson Tigers to win the College Football Playoff Semifinal on New Year’s Day 2021. In a major upset, senior quarterback Justin Fields threw seven total touchdowns, completely outplaying generational superstar Trevor Lawrence and booking a spot in the Championship Game. The Buckeyes ended up losing that game to juggernaut Alabama, but Fields had solidified himself as the front-runner for the number two overall pick in the 2021 NFL draft. Fast forward to May, and Fields is the starting QB for the Chicago Bears, who selected him at number 11 overall. You would think Fields must have gotten hurt, had off-the-field problems, faced a bad pro day, or did something else to hurt his draft stock, but he didn’t. So, what happened to cause the slide?
To start, let’s look at who replaced him. With the second pick in the draft, the New York Jets selected Zach Wilson out of Brigham Young University (BYU). Wilson was lauded for his strong arm and acrobatic pro days, rocketing up to the top of people’s draft boards. However, picking Wilson was a risky prospect. BYU is currently an independent team, not in any of the Power Five conferences, which meant he played very weak competition, only playing two games against top 25 teams, one of which he lost. Additionally, he often used his team’s superior talent to his advantage, repeatedly throwing high 50/50 balls and letting his receivers make acrobatic plays. There is concern that NFL defensive backs will capitalize on these passes and create turnovers. Wilson also has clear durability issues, having suffered a torn labrum and broken wrist in college. These injuries led to horrendous statistics in 2019, when he had a measly 2,382 yards, with 11 touchdowns and nine interceptions.
While Wilson was the eventual pick for the Jets at number two overall, he was not the only one who surpassed Fields. The eventual number three pick was a quarterback drafted by the San Francisco 49ers, Trey Lance. Lance comes from FCS powerhouse North Dakota State. He spent one season as the starting quarterback with the Bison, obliterating his incredibly weak competition en route to the FCS title. He has only played 17 games and had over 25 pass attempts twice. His lack of appearances and weak schedule made him a gigantic unknown to scouts, who were hoping that his outrageous athleticism was a sign of a good career.
Mac Jones, on the other hand, is a clear-cut prospect. Mac Jones played in the SEC, the best conference, for Alabama, the best team. He used a high completion percentage and a strong cast of weapons to dominate college football, going undefeated and winning the National Championship. The concerning part of that accomplishment is how strong the weapons were. Mac Jones was throwing to DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle and handing the ball to Najee Harris. With the three of them joined in the first round by offensive tackle Alex Leatherwood, their offense had the most top-end talent in the nation. However, it did not just stop there, with ninth overall pick Alabama CB Patrick Surtain II highlighting their strong defense. Mac Jones certainly has skill, but it was enhanced by throwing to an NFL caliber team. The question that his talent hinges on is how strong that enhancement was. The other question is of Mac Jones’s athleticism. With the NFL being dominated by athletic quarterbacks such as Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen, and Lamar Jackson, Mac Jones’s play style would stick out. He is very much a pocket passer more reminiscent of Tom Brady and Dan Marino than the top talent today.
As these other players rose in the eyes of scouts, Fields was criticized in several areas, the first one being his performance against good defenses. As Todd McShay, an ESPN draft expert, said on ESPN’s Get Up, “If you go back and study games against Indiana [and] Northwestern and then the College Football Playoff National Championship Game against Alabama, he completed around 52 percent of his throws with five interceptions in those games.” These facts are all valid, but they omit some key information. The most glaring error in this assessment is his performance against Clemson mentioned above. He only played one drive in the whole second half and still put up gaudy numbers against a Clemson defense that was ranked as the number three defense by Football Outsiders, only behind Northwestern and Cincinnati (who is not in a Power Five conference). Additionally, Fields’s weapons lagged significantly behind those of Lawrence and Mac Jones, the only other first round quarterbacks with similarly difficult schedules. In the 2021 draft, Ohio State only had five offensive players drafted, none of which were wide receivers. When compared to Alabama’s seven offensive players (two receivers) and Clemson’s five (two receivers), it is understandable that Fields would struggle against teams with several NFL caliber players on defense.
Fields was also criticized for his going to Ohio State. Ohio State has produced three NFL quarterbacks in the last 10 years (Terrelle Pryor, Cardale Jones, and Dwayne Haskins). All three subsequently became busts and have struggled to play to the level they did at Ohio State. This result, however, is similar to the performances from Mahomes at Texas Tech, Aaron Rodgers at Cal, and Jackson at Louisville. Other than Jackson, Mahomes, and Rodgers, Louisville has had five quarterbacks (one combined Pro Bowl appearance), Texas Tech has had two quarterbacks (zero Pro Bowls), and Cal has had three quarterbacks (two Pro Bowls) go to the NFL since 2000. Yet, these three quarterbacks, Mahomes, Rodgers, and Jackson, are the last three league MVPs and are standout players. To judge players off their almae matres is absurd and has no basis in reality.
The last detraction is perhaps the strangest. Fans have slapped Fields with having “character concerns” the likes of which aren’t found in good players. This criticism is odd, because of the five quarterbacks in the first round, he is not even in the top two in character concerns. Wilson has had people accuse him of being entitled, and looks the part, and point out his failure to be voted captain by his college teammates as a three-year starter. For reference, all NFL starting quarterbacks are captains, along with almost all college quarterbacks. That reputation pales in comparison to that of Mac Jones. As a freshman at Alabama, Mac Jones was arrested for a DUI at age 19. As a teenager, Mac Jones wore a “Nobama” costume that showed a blatantly racist depiction of former president Barack Obama. Yet, Fields is the one labeled with character concerns due to a supposed “lack of passion and drive.” The Undefeated’s Martenzie Johnson wrote that this ridiculous labeling is due to Fields’s race. In responding to quotes for league personel criticizing Fields’s attitude, he said “According to these anonymous personnel, Fields, a Black man, struggles to ‘process things’ and is both selfish and doesn’t have the work ethic of a white man. The dog whistle is screeching.” He then brought up last year’s draft, saying, “Take for instance the draft profiles of the first four white and Black quarterbacks to be drafted in 2020. Joe Burrow and [Justin] Herbert, both white, had ‘off-the-charts football IQ’ and could ‘[scan] crisply through [a] full slate of progressions without panic,’ respectively. But Jordan Love had ‘below-average decision-making against zone looks’ and Jalen Hurts had ‘slow recognition of early-throw opportunities.’”
His assessment of the situation is absolutely correct. The league has a long history of unfairly evaluating Black players that has not stopped. Criticizing Fields for his character, when compared to Wilson and Mac Jones, should be a joke, and yet it is the reality of today’s NFL.
As the number 11 pick, Fields will be paid a projected $18.9 million yearly. Wilson will receive a projected $35.1 million. I’ll do the math for you. That is a $16.2 million difference, $16.2 million ripped out of the hands of a man who has suffered a punishment for doing nothing wrong. In a sport where the average player has a four year career, these monetary discrepancies have large impacts on the rest of these young men’s lives. It is time we stop unfairly evaluating players like Fields because not only is it wrong morally, but it is also hurting the teams who listen to these evaluations.