Quarterback Charting: Can Buckeyes quarterback Justin Fields be the first pick?

What will it take for Ohio State Buckeyes quarterback Justin Fields to be drafted first overall in 2021?

There is growing rhetoric circulating that Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence could be dethroned for the first overall selection in the 2021 NFL Draft. Last season, Ohio State Buckeyes quarterback Justin Fields threw 41 touchdowns to just three interceptions on his way to a second-place finish in the Heisman race.

He added 10 more touchdowns on the ground and impressed with a 67.2% completion rate. And remember, not long ago it was a two-horse race for the top high school recruit in the country.

Related | Quarterback Charting: Is Trevor Lawrence a “generational” prospect?

Fields took the consensus away from Lawrence as he was heralded as the top overall recruit by ESPN. 247Sports graded the two just .0001 away from one another, with Lawrence garnering an overall score of .9999, which is just a fraction away from perfect in their eyes.

They’re regarded as two of the best to ever do it at the high school level, and they aren’t keen on slowing down in college, as the stats, team success, and individual accolades show.

But at the end of the day, it all comes down to their individual pro prospects. So, how does Fields compare to Lawrence, who was put under the microscope just last week and surprised with some of the struggles he showed in his overall ball placement?

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Justin Fields’s ball placement and play charting

Overall placement 

Well, like their high school reputation and college success, there was much of the same disappointment in Fields’ passing as there was with Lawrence. His overall placement numbers ended up even lower than Lawrence, with 153 of his 227 overall attempts deemed a plus on placement. That makes his placement numbers and his completion percentage nearly identical. What can be surmised from this sample size is that he’s more of a generally accurate passer than pinpoint placer of the pigskin.

buckeyes quarterback justin fields
Photo Credit: Thomas J. Russo

Using the same exercise we did with Lawrence, let’s look at how he performed pushing the ball down the field. He threw the ball past 10 air yards 101 times, accurate placing 61 of those throws. That puts him behind Joe Burrow, Justin Herbert, and Jordan Love on such passes, and about two percent better than Lawrence, who struggled mightily past 20 yards.

Interestingly enough, it was his throws toward the sideline that hit their mark at a higher rate from 10-20 yards, which could explain coach Ryan Day’s unwillingness to gameplan that area as a point of attack. After all, of the 227 attempts, the middle of the field only saw 39.

Ball placement by situation

Are we sitting down? Maybe we should sit down for this. Make sure to continue breathing in through the nose and out through the mouth — deep breaths. At 62.4% placement success, he fell five points lower than Herbert as the low man on the totem pole on throws from 0-20 yards. He was actually less precise on throws from 0-10 yards as he was from 10-20. That doesn’t make sense, right?

Remember that as distance increases, there is more leniency on what is and is not good placement. However, he struggled mightily in one area inside 10 yards that really takes his overall placement to the cellar.

0-10 yards by grid:

Left: 22/26, 84.6%
Middle: 12/15, 80%
Right: 27/48, 56.3%

Those 48 attempts were 21 more than the next highest grid area, which was also to his right from 10-20 yards downfield. The Buckeye passing attack was very right-handed overall, with that side garnering 28 more attempts overall in the nine games charted. A difference of just over three attempts per game difference may not seem like much, but it’s a bigger difference than any of the other offenses I charted in 2019 outside of Washington State.

Fields struggled to throw short right, only placing 27 of the 48 passes properly, and with far too many attempts completely uncatchable. But while all this sounds troubling, the fix is actually quite simple, at least on attempts from the pocket.

Fields simply does not get his lower half to the correct position. He keeps his hips wide open, steps far too wide, and when that happens, the ball tends to float high and outside. If, and most likely when, he becomes more deliberate in his footwork, his accuracy should mirror the ability he showed throwing left.

That area didn’t just plague him from the pocket, though. He only properly placed 11 of his 22 attempts to that area on half rolls, full rolls, and scrambles that landed in that area. His arm isn’t as natural on the run as Lawrence, but outside of that one grid, he was great, properly placing 25 of his 33 other attempts on the hoof.

It’s just that one pesky area. That one area they decided to throw to the most, for some reason.

Of the 21 attempts on third down that were 10 yards to gain or less, he made plus plays on 13 of them. 12 of those 13 were away from his problem area, where he went one for seven. He also threw the ball away on four other third downs and was sacked five times. But those sacks are a part of Fields’s game because his internal clock is completely non-existent, and he will throw the ball to the stick much more often than not. He’s a controlled gunslinger.

Additionally, when things tightened up in the red zone, Fields showed some of that same inconsistency in how he leveraged passes away from defenders, how he processed space, and where he took sacks. He went 17/28 in the red zone, where he threw a few absolute dimes mixed in with some missed opportunities and late decisions.

Fields’s passing ability

His ability to generate velocity through his core is fantastic. Even when he’s unable to fully step into throws because of pressure, he’s shown he can still push the ball downfield, even when it has to get there with some pace. He’s really adept at throwing from multiple arm angles to create throwing windows, and he gets great extension on his release. And his release is pleasantly quick, even when he has to drive one home into a tight window.

His arm isn’t eye-popping, but it’s definitely a plus arm, even for the next level. Far hash throws aren’t an issue for Fields. And he can throw some really pretty deep balls when he’s working in rhythm.

This, of course, brings me to my biggest issue with Fields. As a processor, he must improve his confidence in his eyes post-snap.

Early in the season, he held the ball for excruciatingly long periods of time, to the point where coach Ryan Day could brew a pot of coffee on the sideline. He was, and still is very much a “see it, throw it” quarterback. That made the offense more one dimensional than it did with Dwayne Haskins (Fields’s legs made up for it).

There was not as much middle of the field work versus zone coverage in 2020. There was less quick game and complimentary route concepts and more isolation routes. And all of that is okay as a sophomore and first-year starter, but will need to be improved upon if he wants to take the top pick home.

On the flip side, there was some promise. His clock got better as the year progressed, and even though he only threw for 188 yards against Penn State, his tape in the contest was his cleanest of the season. His feet were improved, he was decisive and even displayed some really nice anticipation and awareness of cornerback leverage on a few deep out routes from the far hash. He even threw a few nice passes splitting windows in zone coverage. That type of efficiency is important because we know the physical side of the game is there for Fields.

Fields’s athletic ability

The preface to all this is that Lawrence is a better runner overall than Fields. It’s not by much, but he’s a bit faster, and his vision and decision making in option situations are both better as well. His overall running ability is reminiscent of Philadelphia Eagles QB Jalen Hurts, although with a bit less vision and a bit more fluidity in his change of direction. Both are tough runners who aren’t the Kyler Murray or Lamar Jackson style jitterbugs.

He’s also shown the ability to feel blind pressure and set up unblocked blindside rushers with a slight step up and spin out left. He can and will escape in all directions, which was displayed a few times in tight quarters against Clemson in the playoff game. His snap-to-snap consistency in his pocket awareness and ability to manipulate the pocket to his advantage is still very hit or miss.

In summation, Fields looked like a uniquely gifted talent playing as a first-year starter who is raw above the shoulders but showed flashes of brilliance, which should build confidence toward a high projection moving forward. He’ll have to take some drastic steps in his junior season to match the pro prospects of Lawrence. But on a physical level, they are about as neck-and-neck, and special, as any duo we’ve seen.

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