With Carson Wentz traded away and the Eagles’ clearly in a position to add to their bare quarterback cupboards, the city of Philadelphia is once again turning to the QB Draft class. It is an excellent year to hold a Top-10 pick and need a quarterback, as multiple high-level starters are available in this class.
I’ve already covered BYU QB Zach Wilson through the framework of his strengths/weakness, his scheme fit in Philadelphia, and the price they’d have to pay to add him; now, I’m turning my eyes to Ohio State QB Justin Fields.
When looking back on the Carson Wentz era in Philadelphia, Eagles fans and personnel will reflect on how living with Wentz’s mercurial accuracy made even the good times more difficult than they needed to be. Because of mechanical inconsistencies in his huge frame, including lazy footwork and a long release, Wentz missed easy throws more often than you’d like in an NFL quarterback — even going back to his 2017 season. He could make up for it with outstanding explosive plays, but the weakness was still there.
No such issue persists for Justin Fields, who is the most accurate quarterback in the 2020 NFL Draft. Ian Wharton, who has done NFL Draft QB charting for several years, has Fields not only as the most accurate quarterback in this class, but as one of the most accurate quarterbacks on throws 10+ yards down the field in the last several classes.
Finished charting Trevor Lawrence, Justin Fields, Zac Wilson and Trey Lance for catchable passes. I compared to my database of 88 QBs and color-coded the results into quartiles. Green is top-25%, yellow 26-50%, orange is 51-75%, red is bottom 25%. Film and numbers match well IMO pic.twitter.com/l2m8zOePcL— Ian Wharton (@NFLFilmStudy) February 27, 2021
(Fields’ numbers are in the second row)
Fields' career accuracy ranked 7th overall in 0-10 yards, 6th in 11-19, 14th in 20+ attempts, 4th in throws past the line of scrimmage, 1st in throws over 10 yards, 3rd under pressure, 13th on 3rd/4th down, and 3rd-best touchdown rate-per-pass percentage, compared to 88 QBs— Ian Wharton (@NFLFilmStudy) February 27, 2021
It may sound foolish to say in this caliber of a strong quarterback class, but the ball goes where Justin Fields wants it to go, every single time. He has success hitting closing windows in the shallow and intermediate areas of the field, lacing the ball with touch in between levels of the defense, and hitting streaking receivers downfield from a variety of launch points. He is a sharpshooter with every throw in his quiver.
It is ludicrous that a player as accurate and talented a thrower as Fields is also built like a linebacker, but here we are. At 6-foot-3 and 230+ pounds with a great build, Fields is an absolute tank as a runner. He regularly survives incidental contact, can break tackles in tight areas, is a nightmare for defensive backs to address in space, and has surprising quicks to boot.
The Buckeyes did not deploy Fields often as a designed-run player. They worked him into some red zone packages and loved using him on sneaks, but generally only postured with a “keep” threat on runs that looked like read options, but really weren’t. Such an approach was similar to the Eagles’ approach with Carson Wentz at quarterback: he can do it, and we want to scare defenses with that idea — but we don’t really want to do it.
With that said, Fields should be used more as a designed runner, and has shown an attractive willingness to tuck and run as his own checkdown on passing plays. Fields has a good field for space developing underneath and will tuck early when he knows he has a chunk gain. He can extend plays with his legs, though he doesn’t often throw on scramble drills like Zach Wilson, preferring instead to take a gain with his legs and live to fight for the next down.
The only wrokable comparison for Fields’ dual-threat ability is 90% of Cam Newton. For a player of his density and height to be as explosive and physical of a runner, while also representing a threat to launch a 60-yard bomb at any time, is ludicrous. It is also extremely stressful on a defense.
Pre-Snap Recognition/Processing (+)
Much has been made of Justin Fields’ pre- and post-snap processing during the pre-Draft process. The flashpoint for the discussion was a sourced quote from Tony Pauline of Pro Football Network, who shared that an NFL team charted Fields as only throwing beyond his primary target seven times in the 2020 season.
This is hokum, clear as day. Anyone can watch Justin Fields and see him get to his checkdowns enough to know that number is exaggerated. But there is a larger, warranted conversation about how Fields reads defenses and processes the field. He has strengths and weaknesses here.
For my money, Fields knows what he’s looking at. In the arenas of coverage recognition and decision-making, more was put on his plate than the average college quarterback. Fields was given “full-field reads” more often than any other top quarterback in this class, and was successful in riddling out pre-snap looks to determine where the ball should go.
Take this touchdown against Nebraska early in the season. Fields will have five in the concept — all eligible receivers available on this play — so there’s a lot of optionality to go through.
Before the snap, Nebraska is showing two safeties deep, and they have a huge cushion on Garrett Wilson, the receiver to the top of the screen. Nebraska played an aggressive defense who moved their safeties around freely, so there are a lot of coverage shells they could get to from this set.
If they keep the deep shells they’re showing now, this could end up a Cover 3 Cloud look, which would offer safety help to the vertical route at the bottom of the screen, while also leaving a deep safety in the middle of the field to take away Wilson’s post. Against that look, Fields would likely work to the TE breaking across the middle of the field, and try to throw him open between zones.
The Cornhuskers could also spin those safeties, dropping one into short zones or man coverage, and placing the other in the deep middle. On a Cover 1 man look, Fields would take the vertical shot to the bottom of the screen, which would no longer have safety support.
And if Nebraska is using both of those safeties in a match coverage to deal with all four receivers to the bottom of the screen, Fields knows there will be no post safety, and he can take a one-on-one shot to Wilson against man coverage.
That is what ends up happening. As Fields executes the play fake, he checks both safeties. Neither has bailed to the deep middle; both are squatting on routes with their eyes on receivers developing in front of them. By the time Fields reaches the top of his drop, he has set his hips and eyes to the backside post, which he knows won’t have safety help.
It’s a great read and an even better throw. Fields drives the ball on a low trajectory for 45 yards, ensuring that there’s no chance a safety can quickly bail and get back involved, or that the corner can recover and close on a jump ball. This throw offers little margin for error, as it’s not in the air for long and the receiver won’t have much time to adjust to it — but it’s right on the money.
This isn’t the only example of Fields’ successful pre-snap recognition and post-snap decoding, which are pro-level traits that will translate well to the next level. But we’ll continue that conversation in the framework of his weaknesses.
Play Speed (-)
You know the saying “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach?” It’s a helpful adage when watching Justin Fields film, in that it reminds us that knowing the chalkboard rules of a concept and coverages isn’t enough. You have to be able to execute.
Fields is not a hasty player. He is methodical, confident, and at times, even robotic. He does not feel the urgency of high-intensity situations and is so unfazed by pressure, it becomes a weakness at times (more on that later). Fields has a slow release and likes to keep his feet tethered to the ground in the pocket, so he often looks like he’s playing a slower game than other quarterbacks, like Zach Wilson or Trevor Lawrence, who are constantly re-setting their feet and throw with a more aggressive, whiplike release.
As such, even while Fields is processing coverages well, it often looks like he’s stuck in molasses on his first read. Fields’ first read is almost universally the right read, because he knows how to dissect coverages pre-snap and find the route with the advantage — but because of his pocket and throwing process, he’s often just staring down the route.
That usually doesn’t cause any problems. He’s too accurate, has too strong of an arm, and is, as I said, generally right. You can easily find plays in which other quarterbacks would have hit a three-step drop, kept their eyes in the middle, then snapped to a route and delivered the ball. Fields just one-steps it, stands tall in the pocket, watches the route develop, and hits it — on-time and accurately.
However, there are times in which his rhythm is off; in which the route isn’t perfect; in which the defender has a key on what’s happening; or in which Fields is just wrong. Happens sometimes, man.
And on those plays, Fields’ slower and more deliberate process hinders him. It telegraphs to defenses where the ball is going and tells defensive linemen he’s about to throw, which lets them get their hands up and bat passes. It’s not necessary a lazy process — it’s a confident one, and that confidence can swell into arrogance. “Even if you know what I’m going to do, I can still beat you, because I also know what you’re doing, and I’m better at football than you” sorta vibes.
The good news is that Fields is growing out of this habit. It burned him in the 2019 College Football Playoff semifinal, against an aggressive and intelligent Clemson Tigers defense coached by Brent Venables — but he excelled in the 2020 College Football Playoff semifinal, against an aggressive and intelligent Clemson Tigers defense coached by Brent Venables. USA Today’s Mark Schofield put together an excellent video comparing Fields’ urgency — his speed of play — from 2019 to 2020 — and I’d encourage you to give it a watch to understand more about the differences between processing, and actual execution.
Pocket Management (-)
Fields inarguably has some Wentzian traits to him: he’s a big body, a confident thrower, a physical runner. That doesn’t mean he’ll be bad — Wentz was going to be really good there for a second! — it just means the coaching staff that drafts Fields (Philadelphia or otherwise) must be aware of his weaker tendencies.
The biggest thing separating Fields from the top tier of quarterback in this class (i.e. Lawrence, Trevor) is his pocket management. Fields is such a big and strong player that he likes to plant his feet in the pocket and ignore the bodies flying around him. Certain he can make free rushers miss or survive glancing blows from rushing linemen, Fields — like Wentz — would rather hold onto the ball and let his downfield routes develop for another second than check it down.
Fields isn’t always wrong — free rushers literally do bounce off of him — but we’ve seen what the attrition of that play style does to quarterbacks like Wentz and Roethlisberger, both of whom have a history of playing through minor injury. Fields had to much the same with throwing hand and rib injuries after hits against Northwestern and Clemson this year. Longevity matters when selecting a franchise quarterback in the Top-10, and Fields must learn how to avoid hits — both inside and outside the pocket — to ensure his long-term health; as well as discover the value of the checkdown against NFL-caliber defenses, which was something he grew in this year as the season progressed.
Fields’ fit with Nick Sirianni’s offense is imperfect, but workable. The biggest concern is the varying reliances on the quick game. Sirianni’s quarterbacks typically get rid of the ball quickly, distribute to underneath patterns, and let their receivers do the work for them in generating explosive, chunk gains. At Ohio State, Fields worked plenty of West Coast-inspired quick game — concepts that will translate into the Sirianni playbook — but with his deep accuracy, tremendous arm, aggressive mentality, and pocket endurance, Fields is at his best in an offense that lets him drive the ball vertically. Fields’ slower throwing process can make the quick game harder to execute, as those extra split seconds of telegraphing bring underneath defenders to his targets, limiting YAC.
Sirianni would likely have to reach into his 2019 playbook to best build around Fields. With Jacoby Brissett at quarterback for the Colts — big body, strong arm, not a quick game guy — the Colts ratcheted up their play-action rates, worked the intermediate areas of the field more, and cut down on running back targets (i.e. checkdowns and quick game).
So it’s imperfect — but it’s plenty workable. There were undoubtedly times during the 2020 season in which the Colts wanted to drive the football downfield more, but Rivers’ arm prevented them from doing so. Sirianni does a great job at scheming up deep patterns off of run-action looks (especially from under center, which Fields has experience doing), that will allow Fields to rollout, read safeties, and take some deep launches.
The Eagles must find a legit deep threat (for like, the 15th season in a row) to make it work. But just because Fields isn’t a nickel-and-dime surgeon shouldn’t worry the Eagles. He’s a limitless player when confident in his reads, and deep passes are more valuable anyway. He isn’t a custom-made Sirianni quarterback, but he’s plenty workable.
It would seem that Justin Fields and North Dakota State QB Trey Lance are the two top quarterbacks with best chance of sitting on the board at 6 overall, when the Eagles select. Fields entered the year as QB2 and had a strong season, but has lost that spot according Vegas odd and NFL insiders, as BYU QB Zach Wilson has risen in the national eye.
For my money, Fields is still comfortably the better prospect. I imagine the Eagles would prefer Wilson to Fields, but they will still love Fields. As a team that values running ability, starting experience, high levels of competition, and strong analytic profiles (many catch-all quarterbacking metrics have Fields contending for QB1 in this class), Fields projects strongly as an Eagles quarterback. Far more so than Lance, who is only a one-year starter at the FCS level.
Fields may still cost a small trade-up, however. Even after the Jacksonville Jaguars at #1 overall and New York Jets at #2 overall, the Eagles have a long wait before #6 overall. The Dolphins (#3 overall) and Falcons (#4 overall) are both long-shots to draft a quarterback, but could trade back with other QB-needy teams that may rank Fields highly. Trading up into the Top-5 is no easy task though, so a team like the Broncos (#9 overall) or 49ers (#12 overall) would have to be extremely motivated.
As it is, I think Justin Fields will be on the board for the Eagles at #6 — and if he is, I expect them to take him. I’m not sure they’d trade up — they need more than just a quarterback, of course, and trading back could reap a ton of capital — but Fields is the current leader in a crowded pack of options for the Eagles’ first-round pick. I wouldn’t take him over the field, but if you make me commit to one name that I believe the Eagles will draft come April, he would be my pick.
And if he is the pick, he would beat out Jalen Hurts for the starting job and play as a rookie. He may not be immediately dominant, in the way that last year’s sixth overall pick, QB Justin Herbert was — the Eagles’ WR room is bad and their offensive line is aging — but Fields projects as a high-quality pro with a Deshaun Watson/prime Cam Newton ceiling. This would be a home run selection.