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Impressions of Justin Fields

CFP National Championship Presented by AT&T - Ohio State v Alabama Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Last week I gave you my impressions of Zach Wilson from watching every pass and run the BYU quarterback had in the 2020 season. There is another option for the Jets with the second overall pick, however. It is Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields.

What follows are my thoughts on Fields after watching every pass and run of his in 2020.

The same disclaimers I had in my Wilson profile apply to Fields. For the sake of brevity I won’t rewrite the entire thousand word preamble posted in that article. You can read it for yourself. I’ll just give you a brief summary.

The following is my opinion based only on Fields’ 2020 performance. These are my own views. I’m not judging intangible characteristics like leadership or work ethic. This is also a snapshot in time telling you what I think about Fields today. What matters more is the player he will be in the future. Finally, I am human and did not have access to the all 22 film in this study aside from when the TV network broadcasting game provided it in a replay. With that in mind, any errors are from incompetence, not malice.

Now let’s begin...

One of the temptations in studying a player like Fields right after Wilson is to compare the players rather than judging Fields on his own merits.

I had to be especially careful when it came to arm talent. Wilson has a special arm that can make all kinds of throws. Fields doesn’t have Wilson’s arm, but that doesn’t make it a weakness. Fields’ arm is plenty strong. He can challenge all parts of the field and get the ball where it needs to be.

Of course some throws require some combination of speed and arc to get where they need to be, and Fields has no issue making those throws.

At the end of the day the best quarterback is not always the one with the most talented arm. Jay Cutler and Jeff George would be in the Hall of Fame, and Matt Simms would be the greatest quarterback to walk the earth if that was the case. It’s always better to have more arm talent. The bigger the arm you have, the more you can get away with. Quarterback is really a thinking position, though. A lack of baseline arm talent hurts you more than excess of it helps. I think Fields has more than enough in his arm to be a viable NFL quarterback. It certainly is not a weakness.

We will discuss Fields’ athletic ability in more detail later, but first I wanted to note that I like his accuracy throwing on the run.

On that last one you can appreciate the touch necessary to get it over the defender and accurately to the receiver.

Many college quarterbacks who are capable runners always look to take off and don’t try to throw once they see a running lane. When he’s on the move, Fields keeps his eyes down the field and throws a good ball.

Fields also shows a talent for picking it up when the defense gives something away presnap.

Here against Penn State Fields calls out a blitzer before the snap.

If Fields is correct with his blitz read, it leaves three defenders against three receivers on that side of the field.

And based on the leverage of those three defenders, if that blitz does happen it will be impossible to defend if the inside slot receiver has a route to the middle of the field.

You can see for yourself what happens.

The outcome of this play was determined before the snap. Fields saw what Penn State was doing. He also saw there was confusion on defense and took full advantage.

Here you have a tight end motioning in and a linebacker following him. This is a clear indicator of man coverage.

On the other side of the field Ohio State is running a passing concept that beats man to man coverage. Essentially this is any sort of concept that creates traffic to impede a defender in coverage.

Fields finds his guy.

Here during his legendary Sugar Bowl performance Fields again points out a blitzer.

He then moves his slot receiver in motion to the other side of the formation.

There’s a good reason for this. With the linebacker blitzing, Fields has created a numbers advantage. The motioning receiver is going to occupy the attention of the circled defender leaving the middle of the field open for the slot receiver (red).

Here you can watch it all play out.

Here you see the slot corner lined up inside the receiver with another defender over the top.

This is the kind of thing that tips off a slot blitz. The slot corner is positioning himself closer to blitzing position while the guy behind him will take the receiver.

Fields doesn’t just anticipate the blitz. He toys with the blitzer.

Frequently in the NFL the play is won or lost in the presnap portions. It is a plus that Fields has shown an ability to pick up on keys and decipher what the defense is doing.

This naturally leads us to discussing postsnap reads which seems to be a source of great contention in Fields’ evaluation. When we talk about prospects, there are two types of criticisms. There are genuine concerns, and there is nitpicking. When it comes to Fields reading a defense, I think the criticisms tend to be more of the nitpicking variety.

Justin Fields did not make a ton of overly complex NFL style reads at Ohio State. Guess what. Neither did Zach Wilson. Neither does practically any college quarterback. You could say Fields will need to grow more sophisticated as a passer. That’s true, but it’s just as true of any quarterback. What happens going forward will be a combination of going to the right team with the right coach with the right system, and Fields having the ability to grow along with the willingness to work. I don’t see what sets him apart from any other high pick at quarterback in this area, and I don’t see why this is viewed as an alarming proposition for Fields when it’s an understood part of the process for other quarterbacks.

Even if they aren’t the type Tom Brady is making two decades into his career, Fields is still making reads. This isn’t Bryce Petty at Baylor in a video game offense being asked to go out there, not worry about what the defense does, and just sling the ball.

Ohio State’s offense threw a relatively low proportion of screens relative to the typical “college style” offense. A lot of responsibility was on Fields to push the ball down the field.

Here against a Cover 2 defense Fields sees that the outside corner is staying with the short receiver, which means the slot receiver running a deeper out route will be open.

On this play he reads man coverage off the snap. Even though this defender is technically in his throwing lane, because it is man coverage, Fields knows his path will take him away from the slant he is throwing.

Fields is also good at understanding the leverage of defenders.

Take this play.

The stem of the route by the receiver makes the defender take a false step to the inside while the route is breaking outside.

The ball is gone before the receiver has separation because Fields knows there’s no way the defender is going to be able to change his direction and get to top speed fast enough to catch up.

Here you see Fields once again do a good job reading leverages.

He throws this ball at a point where the Clemson defender has pretty much no chance to get his body around quickly enough to make a play.

The talent on Ohio State generally limited the number of difficult tight window throws Fields had to make, but he did flash the ability to make them.

And while the offense wasn’t based on a ton of complex progressions, you could say there was also flashes of ability when Fields was called upon to make them.

Perhaps the most consistent criticism of Fields reading defenses is that he has a tendency to stare down open receivers.

I think there are two causes when this happens.

The first is when the defensive line gets a push, and a lineman either constricts Fields’ vision or the quarterback is afraid the pass will be batted down.

The second cause of this is when a defense disguises its look and rolls into something Fields isn’t expecting after the snap. We talked a bit earlier about how Fields has a lot of the basics of the presnap game down, but some of the more advanced concepts he likely hasn’t seen before bring out hesitancy.

Here Michigan State comes out in what appears to be a Cover 2 zone.

Ohio State is running what is known as a smash concept. The outside guy runs a short hitch. The inside receiver runs a corner route. Against a Cover 2 the outside corner is the only player in the vicinity. Fields’ job would be to throw to the guy the corner doesn’t cover. If he takes the deep guy, throw it underneath. If he drives on the underneath receiver, throw the corner deep.

The outside corner drops at the snap which means the short hitch should be open.

However, Michigan State is not actually in Cover 2. The slot corner blitzed, and Michigan State rolled into a coverage with three underneath zones and three deep. The defenders who have responsibility deep are the two outside corners and one safety. Suddenly one of the underneath defender shoots out laterally to take the hitch.

There’s still a window to throw this ball, but it doesn’t seem like Fields feels comfortable with what he sees so he doesn’t fire.

Here Indiana drops an edge guy into man coverage against a tight end.

Again there is a window, but Fields is surprised to see it and perhaps for that reason doesn’t throw it.

Instead he takes a hit and is lucky to be able to throw the ball away.

Indiana is able to generate pressure up the middle, which makes this play difficult to execute. Still, a throw with anticipation could produce a positive result here.

Is this concerning? I’d say yes and no. Fields will have to learn how to recognize more complex postsnap coverages in the NFL. If he doesn’t he won’t be a successful pro.

At the same time this is something you could say about practically any first round quarterback prospect. When I wrote about Zach Wilson I showed plays where he looked just as (if not more) lost against more advanced defensive concepts. Most college teams don’t run super complex schemes. There’s an adjustment in the NFL. With Fields this stuff seems to be treated as some sort of existential threat while in reality it’s a pretty common part of the learning curve. Unless you can procure a time machine and figure out how to get the Rams and the Browns to beat the Jets, this is something any rookie quarterback the Jets can draft will have to figure out.

At the very least Fields seems to have the recognition that something is wrong and isn’t willing to put the ball into harm’s way. That’s not the worst place to start.

Now I don’t think any discussion of Fields would be complete without discussing his abilities as a runner, and they are vast.

When I judge the talent of a runner I like to look beyond the numbers. I want to see what they actually do. A quarterback who can’t outrun college linebackers in the open field probably isn’t going to be an impact runner on the next level.

Fields shows the ability to outrun defensive backs, who are typically the fastest players on the field.

It’s not just about raw speed either. Fields makes guys miss as a runner.

There’s an expression called expanding the playbook, and Fields’ abilities as a runner should do just that for whichever team picks him in the Draft.

Take this play. Fields has the option to hand the ball off if he likes the blocking matchups he has in the box.

One defender remains unblocked. If he overpursues the handoff or Fields thinks he can beat the guy to the corner, he can tuck the ball and break it outside.

Once he’s to the edge, he can run it if he sees daylight. He also has two options to pass the ball.

It’s like two or three plays in one made possible by Fields’ talent as both a runner and a passer.

Just the threat of Fields as a runner opens things up for his teammates. Watch the hesitation here from the defender at the end of the line as he has to respect the threat of Fields keeping the ball. It opens up a hole for the running back to exploit.

This is modern football. When the quarterback can run, it makes the run game into 11 on 11. You can leave somebody unblocked and use the threat of Fields to occupy somebody.

For years there has been a debate about the use of the quarterback in the run game. I am here to tell you today that the war is over. The running quarterbacks have won. If you have somebody who can add this element to the offense, it only makes sense to utilize it.

There’s always talk about how using the quarterback as a runner is an injury risk, but data doesn’t support the idea that a quarterback rushing the ball is in greater peril than on other plays.

Fields is also an interesting case for a mobile quarterback. As I mentioned earlier, one of the biggest issues with talented running quarterbacks is they frequently trust their legs too much. If their first read isn’t there, they take off and run. Fields isn’t like that. If anything I think he’s too hesitant to rely on his legs.

Here are just a couple of the lanes he passed upon running through on plays that ended in sacks.

I think his ability as a runner is the kind of thing that can sustain Fields as he develops.

When we talk about young quarterbacks I think we sometimes forget the emotional side of things. Failure can be overwhelming. It can be difficult to survive if you experience nothing else. People like to opine about a quarterback not being tough enough to survive, and to be certain you need a level of toughness to be willing to shake off failure.

No quarterback is capable of surviving if the failures come too frequently. For the moments all young quarterbacks experience feeling lost, the ability to make positive plays with your legs can come in handy.

In the game Ohio State played against Indiana, Fields was seeing a lot of those complex coverage disguises I was mentioning. They clearly left him seeing ghosts for lack of a better description. He got to a point where he just simplified his game, dropping the hesitancy to run.

Look at that last run. How is that not a sack much less a touchdown? Who can turn that situation into a positive play?

Fields’ willingness to take over as a runner helped Ohio State take control of that game. I think his legs can be a powerful tool to prevent tough days from turning into confidence ruining catastrophes.

I’d like to see more assertive running from Fields. That ties together with my last observation. It happens to be my biggest concern with him. I think this is the area that could have a major impact on Justin’s quality as a pro quarterback. His pocket presence needs to get a lot better.

There are too many times where Fields is in the pocket and just doesn’t have a feel for pressure.

Sometimes it’s navigating the pocket. Sometimes it’s the internal clock. Sometimes it’s both. There’s a lot of work to be done in this area for Fields.

Even worse, he has this tendency once he’s in the grasp of a defender to throw the ball up for grabs.

Justin Fields has tremendous potential as a pro prospect. As with Zach Wilson, I am not here to make definitive predictions about how he will do in the NFL. There are numerous unknown factors that will impact Fields’ growth and development greatly.

If he happens to be the second overall pick, I do think there’s a lot for Jets fans to be optimistic about.