NFL Draft analysts have loved Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields since he was a high school star. His appearance on Netflix’s “QB1” solidified him as an upcoming star. The second-best player in the country as a high school prospect behind Trevor Lawrence, Fields has seemingly been unable to dodge the shadow of the star Clemson quarterback. As the draft has neared, it’s become clearer to see through reports from around the league that other quarterbacks are valued more than Justin Fields.
It’s a deep quarterback class too. With Lawrence and Fields is high upside FCS star Trey Lance from North Dakota State. Then the “Morman Manziel” in Zach Wilson from BYU has stolen much of the spotlight and is expected to go second overall. Lastly, Alabama quarterback Mac Jones appears primed to be the league’s next “Matt Ryan” style quarterback. Betting favorites have leaned heavily in Jones’ favor.
Early Thursday morning, Senior Bowl director Jim Nagy took to Twitter to offer insight on Alabama wide receiver DeVonta Smith, who weighed in at NFL medicals at just 166 pounds. Analysts have begun the knocking process of the Heisman Trophy winner, citing size concerns as the main factor to not like Smith. Nagy’s insight, as usual, is eye-opening and thought-provoking.
As I pondered on Nagy’s tweet, I had to ask myself – what does the NFL not like about Justin Fields? It’s not his size. He doesn’t lack arm talent. He thrived in one of the top two conferences in America. Fields made the Playoff his first year, and then appeared in the National Championship his second year. People around Fields speak highly of his work ethic and ability to understand the game. So what is it?
Studying Justin Fields game film
I dug deep into the National Championship game against Alabama, Justin Field’s final game as a Buckeye. I charted every throw, drew up every play design, and studied how Fields attacked the Alabama defense. This, to me, would be the best gauge of how Fields would perform against an NFL defense because everyone who started that game is a projected NFL player.
Here’s the deal with Fields. His game tape is very, very good. His natural feel for the pocket, his footwork, his mechanics all lack real upside because he’s already very good at it. There will not be future development required in those categories. That’s good, and with production in these areas (making correct reads, good throws, etc), Fields is easily a first-round pick.
Justin Fields is incredibly athletic on top of all of that too. He moves extremely well outside of the pocket and ran a 4.44 forty-yard dash – the fastest in the last twenty years by a quarterback. He has a big, strong arm and can push the ball accurately downfield. Again, from a physical standpoint, Fields checks the boxes as a first-round, top-five pick.
My quarterback grades were posted earlier this month on NFL Sapient. Justin Fields holds the second-best quarterback spot, just edging Mac Jones.
So why the hesitation to draft him? Why are the first three picks presumably Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson, and Mac Jones?
The Scheme Ohio State ran
What I found while breaking down the scheme design that Ohio State ran is that Ryan Day and the company ran a very quarterback-friendly scheme. 75% of what the Buckeyes ran last season are what you call “half-field reads.” Most of you readers are looking at this going “What the *#^@ is that supposed to mean?” No worries, I’ll explain it to you.
A half field read is when the play runs two different concepts on each side of the field. The quarterback reads the coverage pre-snap and determines which side of the field to run through progressions with. Based on the look that the defense gives him, the quarterback picks the concept to go with pre-snap, and it allows him to get through his progression faster.
Above is an example of an Ohio State half-field concept. Ohio State ran this late in the second quarter. Ohio State is running a deep switch concept to the far side, and a curl concept to the near side with the check-down behind it. The defense is showing a base cover-two look. Curls aren’t a good match against cover two, so the correct read would be to read the switch and go after whoever the safety leaves alone.
The switch concept downfield top forces the deep safety on that side of the field to pick a player to cover. The post is ideal because that’s where the deep coverage is susceptible. One safety hands off the zone to the other and the deep middle is where the boundaries are for both of the safeties. However, if the deep safety bites on the post – knowing that that portion of the field is exposed, the corner route will be open in the back of the end zone.
How often does the NFL use half-field concepts?
In college, half-field concepts work very well because they attack different basic coverages. While doing that, it makes the progression for the quarterback simpler and easier to read. In our example above, one side of the field beats zone (the switch) while the other side beats man coverage (the curls). So based on that alone – Fields knew to go up top with the deep switch concept.
However, the NFL doesn’t use a lot of half-field concepts because of the number of snaps that NFL teams run disguised coverages. Running a disguised coverage requires agility and athleticism – something that a lot of schools lack. At the NFL level – it’s a little bit different. On a half-field read, it destroys the disguised coverage. By the time the quarterback has recognized that the coverage read pre-snap was incorrect, he’s a second or two behind his progression. The concept above ruins his ability to take the curls below because they are a timing concept, and the defensive backs have already taken away the curls.
Half field reads are limited because they divide the play in half and the quarterback plays one side of the field, not the whole field. This would be one of the concerns that the NFL has about Fields – his lack of experience playing full field concepts.
What NFL teams have to ask themselves
Let’s bring Jim Nagy’s tweet that I mentioned earlier back to the forefront. The question that NFL teams have to ask themselves is “What do we not like about Fields other than the scheme he played in?”
Justin Fields has the arm talent. He has the ability to throw accurately and on time. He is mechanically sound and offers little room for improvement. Coaches and players around him say he understands football extremely well. He passed an athletic aptitude test higher than any athlete that had ever done it.
“What do we not like about Justin Fields other than the scheme that he played in?” The latest on @NFLSapient and @NFLDraftSapient.Tweet
Fields spells success at the next level, on and off of tape. If Fields ends up being one of the biggest steals in NFL history, I’m here for it. I think the chances that he succeeds are very high, and whoever ends up taking him will be very blessed with a long and successful career.