COLUMBUS, Ohio — When Justin Fields transferred to Ohio State from Georgia in January 2019, he rescued the Buckeyes from a near-lethal lull in their quarterback recruiting.
Can Fields now rescue OSU from its own underwhelming NFL quarterback reputation?
Looking across the NFL you can find former Buckeyes considered among the best players at almost every position. Michael Thomas, Ezekiel Elliott and Taylor Decker on offense. Chase Young and the Bosa brothers, Cam Heyward and Marshon Lattimore on defense.
Looking back through four decades of OSU quarterback history makes journeyman 1990s backup Kent Graham look like John Elway. Most careers either went nowhere or never really started.
The phenomenon is so embedded in Buckeye tradition at this point that Fields was asked about it Tuesday in his interview after Ohio State’s Pro Day. After running the 40-yard dash in 4.44 seconds — almost unheard of in recent NFL Scouting Combine results — and after launching an array of passes around the Woody Hayes Athletic Complex with precision and pop, why did Fields think OSU quarterbacks have struggled in the NFL?
Fields, in his own modest way, danced around the real answer — none of those other quarterbacks had his combination of athleticism, skill and intangibles. Most of the OSU quarterbacks who preceded Fields into the NFL over the past four decades carried legitimate skepticism about their pro potential into draft day.
“He’s a unique talent,” said ESPN NFL Draft expect Mel Kiper Jr., who currently ranks Fields as the second quarterback on his big board for April’s draft. “He’s the ultimate dual-threat quarterback and I love the way he competes. He really wants to be great, and that’s important in the NFL.
“A lot of guys play because they can. He plays because he loves it and he’s passionate about it.”
NFL teams will not bank on Fields purely on feel, however. They will scrutinize his film and analyze the numbers.
|1982||Art Schlichter||1||Known more for his demons than 13 NFL games|
|1987||Jim Karsatos||12||No NFL games|
|1988||Tom Tupa||3||Clevelander transitioned from QB to All-Pro punter|
|1992||Kent Graham||8||Played 81 G in nine seasons, including 38 starts|
|1996||Bobby Hoying||3||Started 13 G but out of the league after 2000|
|1999||Joe Germaine||4||Career comprised of three game as a rookie reserve|
|2002||Steve Bellisari||6||Converted to safety, then played QB in indoor leagues|
|2004||Craig Krenzel||5||Won three games as a Bears rookie in only NFL season|
|2007||Troy Smith||5||Started eight of 20 games in four-year NFL career|
|2012||Terrelle Pryor||Sup 3||After three years at QB became Browns starting WR|
|2015||Cardale Jones||4||Played one game with Bills in 2016|
|2018||Dwayne Haskins||1||WFT released him after less than two seasons|
|2018||J.T. Barrett||UFA||Mostly practice squads for three-time B1G QBOY|
Both support the argument that Fields’ college success should transfer to the NFL. Lest the eyes deceive, though, we can focus on the cold, hard numbers.
In this analytically inclined era of roster management, NFL teams seek correlations between college statistics and NFL success. Way back in 2006, David Lewin published a study on Football Outsiders identifying games started and completion percentage as strong predictors.
Fields completed 68.4 percent of his passes at Georgia and OSU. His 618 attempts do not meet college football references minimum, but only 12 quarterbacks who did complete a higher percentage of those passes.
However, a quarterback who completes a lot of short passes is not necessarily more accurate than one who completes fewer passes but takes more shots downfield. So that original standard was refined to include the average depth downfield of the intended target.
That new stat is called adjusted accuracy. According to Football Outsiders’ Derrik Klassen, Fields’ score of 83.2 is the highest he has charted over the past six draft classes. Higher than last year’s No. 1, former OSU and LSU quarterback Joe Burrow. Higher than Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence, the consensus top pick for 2021.
“What’s fascinating with Fields is if you perfectly need to be led a certain direction to get yards after the catch, he can do it,” Klassen said on a recent episode of Buckeye Talk. “If you need a ball placed perfectly so you can catch it over your shoulder on a fade, he can do it. If you need to put the ball low and away so you don’t get your head taken off by a safety over the middle, he can do that too.
“No matter what the window is or what the situation is, Fields has almost this otherworldly accuracy.”
The same statistic should have given the now-dubbed Washington Football Team pause about Dwayne Haskins in 2018. He ranked only 13th among Big Ten quarterbacks in average depth of target, per Pro Football Focus. WFT took Haskins in the first round anyway and moved on less than two seasons later.
Completion percentage and depth of target were major components of a quarterback prospect model designed by fivethirtyeight.com in 2019. Applying it retroactively, the top QB over the previous seven draft classes was Russell Wilson, who was only a third-round pick.
The model wasn’t perfect, as it ranked Johnny Manziel second and Lamar Jackson 18th. But the methodology predicted NFL success for DeShaun Watson and Jared Goff but was skeptical about Marcus Mariota and Blake Bortles.
That same study said ESPN’s Total QBR metric for college quarterbacks correlated with NFL success. The only QBs to finish ahead of Fields the past two seasons? Burrow and Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa and Mac Jones.
Making the reads
For much of 2020, conventional wisdom said Fields would contend with Lawrence for the honor of being taken either No. 1 or No. 2 in this draft. It now seems possible Fields will not be among the first three quarterbacks taken, and could possibly fall farther. BYU’s Zack Wilson, North Dakota State’s Trey Lance and Jones have been mentioned as potentially going ahead of Fields.
As Fields’ Pro Day passing performance unfolded, PFF’s Austin Gayle reminded everyone that Fields led all Power 5 quarterbacks in air yards — the percentage of his passing yards that came before the catch — in each of the past two seasons. Fields hit 70 and 72 %, blowing 2017 J.T. Barrett (48 %) and 2018 Haskins (51 %) out of the water. He also ranked well ahead of some of the other potential 2021 first-round quarterbacks, including Jones (47 %) and Lawrence (43 %).
Those mock drafts may have been influenced by one pre-draft narrative in particular. Some analysts critiqued Fields over his tendency to throw to his first or second read as opposed to tracking deeper into his progressions.
Ohio State coach Ryan Day said he has not heard this same critique from the NFL scouts and coaches to whom he has spoken. Nevertheless, Fields came to his Pro Day interview prepared to respond.
“We have some of the best receivers in the country,” Fields said. “So if my first or second read is there, I’m not going to pass up that first or second read to prove that I can read past my first or second read. I’m just not gonna do that. That’s not gonna put my team in the best position to win. That’s just being selfish, to show people that I can do it.”
Any NFL teams with similar concerns can ask Fields about those reads directly. He said he has already held Zoom video calls with teams who will call up a situation from the past two seasons and ask Fields to recall the play call and formation, his read on the defense, what he saw as the play developed and any other detail.
Klassen published an extensive film breakdown at Football Outsiders that pushed back against criticisms of Fields’ ability to make his progressions. He called Fields a “big game hunter” — a quarterback confident in his and his receivers abilities and willing to take chances others would not. On occasion, it burned him. Much more often than not, his explosive efficiency made him a Heisman Trophy finalist and a two-time Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year.
Day cannot be considered an unbiased observer. He was, however, an NFL quarterbacks coach for two franchises. He can evaluate Fields with the perspective of someone who used to influence these draft-day decisions.
He predicted whichever NFL team pulls the trigger will have “a franchise quarterback for a long time.”
“When you combine the talent, the size, the arm strength, his competitiveness, his toughness, his intelligence — I mean, it kind of checks all the boxes,” Day said. “And if you’re trying to design a quarterback, to me, Justin fits that prototype.
“Now, he hasn’t played four or five years of college football, so the good news is he’s got a really, really high ceiling. Whoever drafts him, if they have a really good plan for him and are continually developing him, then the sky’s the limit for Justin Fields. … Everything you invest in that kid, you’re going to get back.”
You don’t have to take Day’s word for it, though. You can look at the objective data. You can watch the Sugar Bowl, where Fields carved up a Clemson defense led by one of the nation’s best coordinators in Brent Venables. That performance came after Fields was so wounded by a first-half targeting hit that he wheezed as he slumped into his chair for the postgame interview.
Fields is the best bet yet to avoid the OSU quarterback pitfalls because he is not the typical OSU quarterback. He is something better, and potentially a new, higher standard for the next Buckeye to live up to in the NFL.
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