Imagine a quarterback. Everyone who follows football recruiting has known for many years that this quarterback is a star. When he is a junior in high school, he commits to one of the most prestigious programs in the country. It then turns out he’s even better than previously thought.
Even more scholarship offers pile up, and soon he decommits from the first school, because now he has interest from literally everyone. Talent evaluators reach a consensus: This player is one of the small handful of best recruits they’ve ever seen, at any position. After a bizarre freshman year, he starts two seasons for one of the best teams in the sport, leading the way to consecutive berths in the College Football Playoff. Both years, he goes toe-to-toe with the future No. 1 overall pick in his NFL draft year. He loses the first time in a nail-biter, then wins big the second time. He declares for the draft himself, and then he puts up some of the best workout numbers any QB has ever recorded in pre-draft athletic testing.
You would think this quarterback would be an extremely high NFL pick himself. In fact, you would think it sounds utterly insane that he might remain on the board beyond the first handful of picks. After all, everything we know about him says he is a generational talent with a good chance to be one of the best pro quarterbacks in a long time.
But that is the situation now facing Justin Fields, the one-time Penn State commit who ultimately signed with Georgia, sat on the bench for a year there, and then had a two-year run of college superstardom at Ohio State. If you believe mock drafts and reports from people who are close to a lot of NFL decision-makers, one of the most productive and gifted QBs to come through the draft in years is due for a fall when the event begins Thursday night. Fields’ Clemson rival Trevor Lawrence is the slam-dunk No. 1 pick by the Jacksonville Jaguars, and the New York Jets are assumed to be taking BYU QB Zach Wilson at No. 2. It is increasingly possible, according to the rumor mill, that the San Francisco 49ers traded up to the No. 3 pick not to take Fields but to grab Alabama’s Mac Jones, who started one season in college and lacks almost all of Fields’ talent. If Fields gets past the Falcons at No. 4, he is likely to fall to sixth or seventh, or further. That would represent a considerable drop for a player who has long been considered a close No. 2 behind Lawrence.
Watching Fields, his abilities become obvious quickly. He throws accurate lasers, whether he’s fitting the ball into a hole over the middle or trying a back-shoulder toss toward the sideline. He also lobs pretty rainbows into his receivers’ arms on deep routes:
That particular throw came after Fields was the victim of a brutal––and illegal––blow to the ribs in last season’s national semifinal against Clemson. While apparently quite injured, Fields got “one or two” injections in the locker room, then played the entire second half and finished 22-of-28 for 385 yards and six touchdowns against the Tigers and legendary defensive coordinator Brent Venables.
Whether he’s hurt or not, Fields executes short, intermediate, and deep throws with similar flair and efficiency. He doesn’t seek out tons of opportunities to run the ball himself, but he’s deadly when he gets a head of steam and requires a defense to account for his legs, or else:
Every draftee can succeed or flop. But by the conventional standards of what makes a dream QB prospect, Fields is closer than most to perfect—among the best the draft has seen this century. That he is not an automatic top-three pick defies belief, unless the reason for his stock falling is more nefarious or complicated than teams simply falling in love with other QBs.
To get why Fields is (or should be) such an appealing prospect, it’s worth going back four years, to when he was a four-star recruit out of Kennesaw, Georgia, There are only a few dozen four-star QB recruits every year, out of thousands seeking scholarship offers. Fields was among the best from more or less the moment scouts noticed him in the suburbs of Atlanta.
His stock only rose as time went on. In the summer of 2017, he was the star of the Opening, which is basically the Super Bowl of recruiting: a four-day-or-so event on Nike’s campus in Oregon, where the nation’s best high school players come to ply their trades in front of reporters like me. Fields was named the MVP of that event, even over Lawrence. When the dust settled, media evaluators hadn’t just made him a vaunted five-star recruit, but one of the most hyped recruits ever. According to the 247Sports Composite, an aggregation of industry player ratings, Fields was a rounding error away from being the best recruit of a rankings era that goes back to around 2000. He’s tied for eighth on its all-time leaderboard. This is not a player who came out of nowhere right before his draft year.
His freshman year at Georgia was closer to a disaster than a success—but that wasn’t his doing. Head coach Kirby Smart buried him on the depth chart in favor of sophomore Jake Fromm, who had less talent but an extra year of experience in the offense and a national title game appearance the year before (not that Fromm had tons to do with it—Georgia leaned on two future NFL running backs and arguably the country’s best defense to carry the load). Fields played sparingly in blowout wins. The most important role Smart gave Fields all year was as a human sacrifice on the most epically doomed fake punt in SEC championship history.
A year later, after Fields transferred to Ohio State, he somehow exceeded the upside he’d shown as a recruit. He threw 41 touchdowns and three interceptions his first year, averaging 9.2 yards per throw and running in another 10 touchdowns en route to finishing third in Heisman Trophy voting. He was similarly dominant in 2020’s pandemic-shortened season. He brought Ohio State within spitting distance of the national title in both seasons. Advanced stats loved him, too; they suggest he is the clear No. 2 QB in the class, behind only Lawrence.
The post-college, pre-draft workout circuit looked solid for Fields as well. His 40-yard dash time at his pro day in Columbus was 4.45 seconds. While that’s an unofficial time in a year without an NFL combine, it puts Fields in the top five quarterbacks this millennium, according to Sports Reference, behind only Robert Griffin III, Michael Vick, and Reggie McNeal. And he did it at a reported 6-foot-2 and 227 pounds, which is bigger than any of those QBs. (Sure, Griffin III and McNeal did not go onto the superstardom their combines portended. But still: The numbers are extraordinary.) Fields’ workout in front of teams and media drew all kinds of rave reviews; his throws spoke for themselves:
Nothing in Fields’ résumé says he is anything less than a megaelite QB prospect, the type who usually only comes around every few years. Prospects with his track record and physical tools aren’t supposed to fall until someone picks them. They’re supposed to get snapped up rapidly.
That is not the story being told about Fields ahead of this draft. Setting aside Lawrence—who virtually everyone agrees is a special player worthy of the No. 1 pick—it’s harder to poke holes in Fields than in any of the other rising quarterbacks. Wilson and Jones each had one great college season compared with Fields’ two. Wilson’s came against much worse competition, while Jones’ came with one of the best sets of offensive weapons in college football history. North Dakota State’s Trey Lance played in the Football Championship Subdivision, the lower half of Division I, where he rarely saw defenses as capable as the ones Fields faced weekly.
The most significant knocks on Fields have imposed upon him the racist tropes that Black quarterbacks often face in the draft process. As chronicled by the Ringer’s Kaelen Jones, those include the notion that Fields has tunnel vision and cannot read defensive coverages, that he doesn’t love football, and that he has a subpar work ethic. The criticism of his in-play processing doesn’t hold up on film, and the criticism of his motivation and effort doesn’t match what the people close to him have told reporters. In fact, the opposite is true.
The most charitable reading of the Jones-over-Fields hype is that 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan, who picks third, simply likes pocket passers more than dual threats like Fields. Shanahan has reached Super Bowls with statue QBs Matt Ryan and Jimmy Garoppolo, and he doesn’t care about involving the quarterback as a runner. But it’s not clear Jones exceeds Fields even as a pocket passer, and even if they’re nearly equal in that regard: Shouldn’t a smart offensive coach draft the most talented players and then fit his scheme around them? That’s the standard expectation of modern coaches, but it appears it might be lifted for Jones, at Fields’ expense.
Theories for why the draft scuttlebutt around Lance has been better than what Fields has received vary. Two ideas: Lance’s lack of experience in a high-major college program might actually reflect more upside than people realize, or, as ESPN’s Bomani Jones has surmised, some people might not know Lance is Black. Few of his games in North Dakota were on national TV, and even casual college football fans might not have known who he was until recently.
There might be a non-bullshit reason for Fields’ potential draft slide, and for media reports treating that slide as a purely football thing, but believing that requires giving the benefit of the doubt to a class of people—NFL executives and coaches—who have not earned it. These include the same people who very nearly let Lamar Jackson fall into the second round just a few years ago (after suggesting he should move to wide receiver) and who took Mitchell Trubisky second overall in 2017. This is not a new phenomenon.
None of that is to say Fields is a perfect prospect. He sometimes holds the ball for a long time, heightening the risk he’ll be sacked or miss a throwing window. A couple of strong Big Ten defenses made him look out of sorts for long spells. But these are the sorts of nitpicks that don’t seem to be costing Jones, who never played a college game without a historically great cast of skill position players and multiple future NFL linemen helping him. For instance, we haven’t read many anonymous coaches defending Fields on the grounds that he didn’t make life too difficult for Ohio State’s receivers, like this anonymous coach is doing for Jones:
Again, it comes down to who gets the benefit of the doubt. Fields has not gotten it, despite a longer track record of success and more ostensible talent than both Jones and Wilson. The treatment of Fields is akin to spending weeks searching for the smallest scratch on a diamond, while the treatment of Jones in particular feels like a prolonged effort to make a nice rock look shinier. That is not on Jones, a fine player who probably should not be a top-three pick.
Draft insiders—the nebulous blob of coaches, execs, scouts, and the reporters who take their talking points as teams jockey for whatever edge they can find—have spent an inordinate amount of time calling Fields’ bona fides into question. If he falls in any significant way on draft night, it will be hard for anyone who has watched his career closely to wrap their head around a legitimate football reason for his descent. It will say little about the player, but a lot about his new league.