Justin Fields vs. Mac Jones: Which QB will be drafted first in 2021 NFL Draft?

The San Francisco 49ers pulled off a blockbuster trade last week, moving up from pick 12 to 3 in the 2021 NFL Draft. Immediately, the buzz began, and people and insiders put out the names of Justin Fields or Trey Lance and even Mac Jones as the player the Niners moved up for. Surprisingly, ever since the trade, the buzz about Jones from media has never gone away. Despite Fields being the rather obvious answer, he has undergone a ridiculous amount of calumniation from media members. This has led to a rather heavy debate online between the two of them.

PFN Chief NFL Analyst Trey Wingo and Chief Draft Analyst Tony Pauline examined this narrative in last week’s Draft Insiders episode.

Tony Pauline summed the debate up: “You know you’re taking Mac Jones as a field general because he can command the offense with his decision-making. You’re drafting Justin Fields because he’s got great physical skills and you have to develop the rest of them.

Trey Wingo, later on in the episode, said he really doesn’t see Fields falling that far, “In a worst-case scenario for him, I think he goes four and potentially three [in the draft].”

This article essentially summarizes the “debate” between Fields and Jones and which one should be drafted first. Since we’re pretty much penciling in Trevor Lawrence and Zach Wilson at 1-2, this article’s going to be 49ers-heavy, but it can apply universally.

Is Mac Jones a good fit for the 49ers?

Through the absolute bare minimum — yes. There’s a lot of disingenuous narratives about why Jones fits the San Francisco offense. Most of the time, when some of the media analysts discuss the fit, they point out, “Jones is accurate and he’s really poised in the pocket.” When asked to elucidate any further about the fit, it gets pushed to “look at how Kirk Cousins/Matt Ryan played with Shanahan.” It’s essentially evading the main question at hand to reinforce a well-anchored belief.

So, I decided to dig into how these narratives really look and take them one by one. I’ll be doing the same for Fields.

The problem with Jones and being “pro-ready”

There’s a blatant misinformation piece being thrown around that Jones is the most pro-ready quarterback in this draft. Five years ago, that might be true. Ten years ago, it also might have been. In the year 2021? Not quite. Think of recent quarterbacks who were named “pro-ready.” Those terms popped up for guys like Jake Fromm, A.J. McCarron, Matt Barkley, Teddy Bridgewater, and even Josh Rosen.

Read the scouting reports on all of these quarterbacks and some common denominators crop up. They’re accurate, take care of the football, have clean mechanics, and read and dissected defenses well for the most part. This sounds great — that’s most of what quarterbacks need to do.

On the weaknesses side, however, you’re going to get things like “average to below-average athlete” and “limited arm talent” and “struggles to make tight-window throws.”

“Pro-ready” has taken on a new meaning

They’re “pro-ready” in the era of West-Coast-heavy offenses in the 90s and early 2000s. That stereotype has pervaded into modern evaluation, despite having multiple recent misses at the position. Those quarterbacks who can’t adlib out of structure just aren’t pro-ready anymore. Defenses are getting faster and more complex. A modern quarterback has to work the play and then create if the play breaks down. Jared Goff was essentially cast out by Sean McVay because he could not do anything if the play broke apart.

Quarterbacks who grew up watching Joe Montana (like Tom Brady and Drew Brees) emulated their games around him, and it worked. Now, we’re seeing QBs who grew up wanting to be Favre or Vick or even Aaron Rodgers and emulating their games after him. These guys aren’t the most perfect mentally or mechanically, but they operate out of structure and play loose and aggressive with fantastic arm talent. Teams are trying to chase Patrick Mahomes. It’s a big reason why Wilson is so highly regarded in this draft cycle.

It’s a different game, and that’s no fault of Jones

Jones is a throwback to a different era. It’s ok to say that. It doesn’t mean he’s “pro-ready.” The “safe quarterback” to bank on these days isn’t an accurate but physically limited rhythm thrower.

Just about 27% of NFL throws the last two seasons have come off-platform. Jones was barely at 17% — one of the lowest rates in college football. While being able to throw off-platform isn’t necessarily the key to winning (see Mahomes in the Super Bowl), it’s an effective equalizer. How bad would that game have been if Mahomes was a statuesque pocket passer? Look at Buffalo’s offense with Josh Allen or the newly-revitalized Packers offense with Rodgers. The game’s best today are the ones that create and can win outside of structure, and we know Jones isn’t that guy.

The way Jones must win and succeed at the NFL level is to ascend to a mastery of the mental game similar to Brady, Brees, and Manning. That takes time, and teams aren’t that patient anymore.

The rise of “out of structure” signal-callers

Take Mahomes. Mahomes is a transcendent and generational talent. He’s won an MVP and been to back-to-back Super Bowls. Even he still isn’t elite at reading defenses. Mahomes led the NFL in dropped interceptions with a ridiculous 16. Guess what? Nobody really cares because Mahomes is a ridiculous talent and creator. Josh Allen was among the worst QBs in interceptable passes in the NFL last season. It didn’t stop him from being a potential MVP.

Both of them are several years into their NFL careers and still aren’t perfect to the level of Brady or Brees or Manning. Yet, their team takes that because they create so much offense on their own merits.

Rosen got shipped out of Arizona a year in. Darnold’s on his way out of New York. Dwayne Haskins didn’t even last two seasons in Washington. Teams aren’t patient with developing guys, and those guys struggled to create plays enough to offset their mistakes.

Does Jones fit San Francisco schematically?

I mentioned this above, but there’s some odd discourse about Jones’ fit with San Francisco. Jones is labeled as a fit for San Francisco’s offense because he’s accurate and solid in the pocket.

Yeah, name me the scheme that doesn’t fit that. Running a boot off of play-action and throwing in the pocket isn’t exactly exclusive to Kyle Shanahan’s offense.

Diving into the numbers, Jones’ fit with San Francisco gets a little murkier. Sports Info Solutions has a mind-boggling 58% of Jones’ plays as RPOs, screens, or play-action (27% RPO+screens, 31% play-action). To put a number to that, they’ve charted that split outside of those plays to just 181 “standard” plays. For comparison’s sake, Fields had 231 plays (attempts+rushing attempts) in the six regular-season games he played in 2020. 181 plays is a tiny sample size. How sure are we he can read a full field quickly without that Alabama offensive line? Pressure got to Jones a full 6% lower than average.

The 49ers are stingy with RPOs. In 2020, with three different quarterbacks, the 49ers ran 24 RPOs combined and 12 of those were in the 10 games with Nick Mullens. In 2019, Pro Football Reference charted Jimmy Garoppolo with 24 RPO plays in the 16 games he started. Just 5.7% of Jimmy G’s throws in 2020 and just 4.8% of his 2019 throws came off RPOs. That’s a far cry from the 27% rate of Mac Jones.

Jones is comfortable with play-action

As stated above, Jones is comfortable with play-action. 31% of his 2020 plays were off of play-action. The Shanahan offense is fairly play-action-heavy. About 28.5% of Garoppolo’s 2020 throws were off of play-action. Mullens had 26.3%, while C.J. Beathard was a 15.3%. Shanahan understands the value of play-action and setting it up with the run game. It’s the easiest throws to scheme for your quarterback and sets up big plays downfield well.

Again, though, is it just because Shanahan is play-action heavy that makes Jones a scheme fit? Because he has to land in that scheme to be successful? It says a lot about Jones’ evaluation then, doesn’t it?

Is he really Kirk Cousins or Matt Ryan?

First off, leave the Matt Ryan discourse at the door. They aren’t similar players stylistically. Even in college, Matt Ryan had Boston College No. 2 overall in the country in 2007 with just three teammates who were drafted into the NFL. There’s likely going to be at least three teammates of Jones who are first-round picks this year. They’re only similar in the fact that they both play predominantly in the pocket.

Shanahan won with Ryan, but keep in mind that Ryan had been playing for seven seasons and eight before the 2016 campaign. Ryan was Rookie of the Year and made three Pro Bowls before Shanahan showed up — Matty Ice was already successful. The 2016 offense combined an elite play-caller with an already well-established quarterback throwing to Julio Jones and had an excellent run game behind Devonta Freeman. Yes, Shanahan won with Ryan, but he didn’t develop Ryan.

So what about Kirk Cousins? Shanahan worked with Cousins in Washington, right? Shanahan left Washington before the 2014 season, joining the Cleveland Browns. In the 2012 and 2013 seasons, Cousins played in just eight games and started four, going 1-3. Kirk posted more INTs than TDs and posted a 56.1% completion rate. Cousins was only the starter because of RG3 getting hurt. Cousins didn’t “take off” in Washington until 2015 in Sean McVay’s second year.

Shanahan has been an outspoken advocate for Cousins as a player. Yet, even he said Cousins wouldn’t be how he drew up his perfect quarterback: “There’s a number of quarterbacks like that, but that’s the only one I’ve been associated with because people thought I was trying to bring him here, which I was at the time. It’s not because that’s how you draw it up. If you’re going to draw it up, you’re going to draw the biggest, fastest, strongest, and best quarterback in the pocket. So, I think that’s pretty ridiculous to say that.” 

Is Jones the kind of quarterback Shanahan wants?

This talking point also doesn’t take into account that Shanahan drafted RG3 in 2012. He also worked with Johnny Manziel in Cleveland and Donovan McNabb in Washington before RG3. The “he worked with Matt Ryan and Kirk Cousins years ago, so that’s the quarterback he likes” is a poor talking point, too.

Mike Shanahan himself said after the 2012 NFL Draft that he and Kyle both liked Russell Wilson and Ryan Tannehill. Mike even said they were thinking about drafting Wilson in the third round but went in a different direction with G Matt LeRibeus. Wilson probably would have been their pick at 102 over Cousins if he was still on the board.

Jones is essentially in the same mold as Garoppolo, where he can operate the San Francisco offense but won’t elevate it. He’s not the quarterback that makes those big-time throws that flip momentum. He’s not a playmaker at quarterback. Look at the top quarterbacks in the NFL, and all of them are. If a team trades up to the third overall pick, chances are they want a quarterback that can be one of the best in the game.

If Jones is such an elite, pro-ready QB, why is he not being projected second overall to the Jets? After all, they just hired Robert Saleh from San Francisco and Mike LaFleur, the Jets offensive coordinator, is from the Shanahan tree. LaFleur worked with Ryan in Atlanta, too. Mike’s brother, Matt, was the Washington QBs coach with Cousins, so why are we not looking at him there? Why is it him only with San Francisco this starts, and it’s “he fits the Shanahan scheme”? LaFleur was hired to bring the Shanahan scheme to New York.

Shanahan wants change

Shanahan lost the Super Bowl because Mahomes uncorked a pass off his back foot to Tyreek Hill that sealed the game and flipped the momentum Kansas City’s way. It’s a throw that neither Garoppolo nor Jones could ever hope to make. Josh Allen roasted the 49ers last season to the tune of 32 of 40 for 375 yards and 4 touchdowns. After that game, Shanahan was upfront with how his evaluations of quarterbacks are changing.

“How I evaluate everything is always changing. Things change, people change. You start to see you can win football games with any type of quarterback as long as they are good enough and you can be good enough in hundreds of different ways. So, I evaluate quarterbacks in terms of trying to find people who can have a chance to be one of those elite-type guys and there’s lots of different ways to do it….. You’re just trying to find a guy who is better than about 98-percent of the people on this planet or in this country and when you find that, you get him and you adjust to him.”

Shanahan explicitly stated that his methods to evaluate quarterbacks have changed. He said that months ago. And yet, there’s this pervasive conventional wisdom that seems to think Shanahan will go back to the same ol’ song and dance.

If Garoppolo had been traded like Jared Goff in Los Angeles, would we believe this same narrative? No, it’d be assumed that Shanahan wants a new type of QB. If we kept that thought process true, why would McVay trade for Stafford when he had Goff? Why would Andy Reid trade up for Patrick Mahomes if he had Alex Smith? Sean McDermott and Brian Daboll in Buffalo trading up for Josh Allen when they went 9-7 and could have stuck with Tyrod Taylor?

Do Shanahan and the excellent 49ers front office strike you as the group to trade three first-round picks and a third-rounder to stick with the same old, same old?

So how good is Jones?

It’s unfortunate for Jones that he’s being drawn into this media buzz and hype. It creates a lot of untruths and narratives that aren’t in his tape.

Here’s what we can definitely say about Jones. He’s extremely accurate in the short and intermediate areas. Jones passes with precision, with the ability to put the football where it needs to be for the most part. He displayed an ability to throw with anticipation and throw guys open as a result. There are instances on tape where he properly identifies blitzes and adjusts for it. He has good footwork in the pocket to make minute adjustments to give him that extra half-second to get the ball out.

If Shanahan wants a change, Justin Fields is that guy

The thing is — every strength of Jones is amplified with Fields. Fields is one of the most accurate passers I’ve ever evaluated (since 2014). If Jones’ accuracy makes him a scheme fit with San Francisco, why is Fields not considered as such?

By all the criteria listed about being pro-ready, Fields should be considered even more so. He’s poised in the pocket. He reads the field well, despite reports to the contrary. Ohio State’s offense had the most QB-demanding scheme of all of the 2021 prospects. There aren’t a lot of simple, predetermined reads in the Ohio State offense. Fields actually had to go through progressions.

He had one of the lowest RPO rates in college football. 70% of Fields’ yards came before the catch in 2020. Jones? Just 47%. Fields is far from a “one-read” quarterback, and the fact that that narrative exists for him but not Jones is negligent and ignorant.

Fields makes the 49ers an elite offense

When drawing up his perfect quarterback, Shanahan said it’d be “the biggest, fastest, strongest, and best quarterback in the pocket.” Well, what about an almost-6’3″ guy who ran a 4.46 at 227 pounds?

As stated above, Shanahan was a big fan pre-draft of Tannehill and Wilson. He was a voice behind Washington drafting RG3. Fields is the closest to that mold of dual-threat quarterback in this draft class. If it’s a debate of Fields vs. Jones, Fields wins that case every time.

His mobility and arm talent add a totally different element to the San Francisco offense. When Shanahan had RG3, RG3 was fourth in the NFL in EPA/play and third in CPOE. RG3 was seventh in the league in DVOA and eighth in QBR while leading the Washington offense to sixth place in Offensive DVOA and sixth in Pass DVOA. RG3 outpaced Garoppolo’s 2019 season by virtually every metric, despite playing in just 11 games.

Fields elevates the passing offense

One of the biggest knocks on Garoppolo is he wasn’t aggressive enough as a thrower. In 2019, Garoppolo had an aggressive throw % of just 15.3, edging out Tom Brady and Marcus Mariota. He rarely threw downfield and preferred avoiding tight windows (mainly because of his arm). Think Fields has that problem?

Fields is an excellent athlete with a great arm and the accuracy to nail throws at every level. He has the athleticism to make big plays with his legs. He can make full NFL reads and operates the system closest to the NFL of the big quarterbacks. Quite frankly, if  Lawrence weren’t in this class, Fields would be my pick at No. 1, and there are areas he’s better at than Lawrence.

Fields isn’t perfect

There are legit criticisms of Fields to knock on. Part of the reason people think he’s a one-read quarterback is that he holds onto the ball too long for a few plays while he’s looking for the big play. Naturally, that’s going to invite pressure. There are instances where he becomes essentially too aggressive and trusts his gifts to win. He tests windows he probably shouldn’t, relying on his arm and accuracy to create the big play.

The reliance on WR-option routes for a few plays a game also makes these plays stand out because Fields can’t make the decision and throw while he’s waiting on his receiver to choose.

Fields can seem methodical through his reads, but I think it’s more of the case I stated above: Fields covets the big play, so he’ll keep it on that receiver and push the windows when he could have checked it down or scrambled for yards.

Fields vs. Jones

It’s an easy choice, honestly. I can only say so much about this whole situation. Fields surpasses Jones in virtually every area. Jones is being propped up on some shifty narratives that accidentally or willfully ignore the situation.

It’s OK to acknowledge what Jones is or isn’t. He’s a hyper-accurate quarterback. He won’t make many mistakes and turn the ball over enough. As it stands right now, his ability to generate big plays is more dependent on his receivers than his own ability. Yes, the quarterback has to get the ball to the receivers. Watch these two throws, and you’ll know what I mean.

There’s a disparity between getting the ball to your receivers and making the big throws. Daniel Jones’ “league-leading deep ball QBR” was boosted by his WRs adjusting to his underthrows much like Jaylen Waddle. There are several instances like that in the Alabama tape, but I’ve already proclaimed enough skepticism on Jones.

Featured | NFL Draft Prospects 2021: Pauline’s updated big board, player rankings

There’s no real reason on film to suggest anybody, Shanahan especially, should take Jones over Fields. Every strength of Jones is outdone by Fields in that area, and Fields’ weaknesses are less glaring than Jones’. Fields projects better to the pro game and is honestly more “pro-ready” than Jones.

Many are going to read this as a hit piece on Jones and a puff piece of Fields, but it’s me being honest. The takes on both sides have become inequitable. Both prospects are suffering from a truly insane pre-draft discourse about their abilities, and it’s painting an unfair picture for both of them, for good and for worse.

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