Now that the unprecedented 2020 NFL season is over, we get to look forward to the offseason.
While the veteran quarterback movement this offseason could be unlike anything we've seen since the dawn of free agency, the story is and should be on the 2021 NFL Draft. Trevor Lawrence is in all likelihood the top pick and is priced at -5000 on DraftKings Sportsbook to go No. 1 overall in the draft.
It’s a little less certain after that, as Zach Wilson’s impressive final year at BYU has vaulted him into the conversation as the second pick just a year after Justin Fields’ impressive showing as Ohio State’s quarterback put him firmly in that spot.
The 2020 college season was awkward for Fields and the Buckeyes, as the Big 10 season was canceled in late July, only to be resuscitated by late October, giving Fields five regular-season games — along with three postseason games — to work with.
[Editor's Note: PFF's new college-to-pro projection system is powered by AWS machine learning capabilities.]
The returns were up and down for Fields in his 578 snaps. He earned a 90.0-plus passing grade in each of his first three starts but then threw three interceptions in a game where Indiana almost beat them as three-touchdown underdogs.
After an OK performance against Michigan State, Fields stunk it up in the 2020 Big 10 Championship Game, earning just a 55.4 passing grade while completing fewer than 45% of his passes, throwing two interceptions and averaging 4.2 yards per attempt. It was after this game that Wilson had a brilliant performance against UCF in his bowl game, leapfrogging Fields for the second spot.
Then, despite a rib injury that would have knocked most quarterbacks out, Fields’ Buckeyes slaughtered Lawrence’s Clemson Tigers in the College Football Playoff Semifinal, with Fields earning a 94.6 PFF passing grade and throwing six touchdowns. His PFF grade (82.9) was a lot better than his statistics in the championship game loss to Alabama, which ended his college career and left Fields with a 92.0-plus PFF passing grade in both of his seasons as a starter.
So why is he viewed as the third-best prospect in this class, given everything we’ve seen? For one, there’s certainly some selection bias between the data of Wilson and Fields. Because Fields played so well against Clemson, he had to play against Alabama in his last game. Such data is not available for Wilson, who played one of the easier college football schedules in 2020. So, while Fields’ warts were apparent, they don’t serve as proof that Wilson has no such shortfalls.
However, there is a stark difference in arm strength between Wilson and Fields. There’s also the fact that Fields holds the ball longer against the blitz than not against the blitz, which suggests some issues with processing that need to be ironed out at the next level.
Here's the stat from the article that I believe is most indicative of Fields' biggest weakness:
When blitzed this season, Fields average time to throw has *increased* to 3.21 seconds from 3.07 when not blitzed. The highest in the NFL this season when blitzed is only 2.80 seconds
— Mike Renner (@PFF_Mike) December 23, 2020
Alas, below we look at Fields using our college-to-pro projection system, which looks at how a player graded in a number of different categories and projects their first five years of NFL play under varying conditions. First, here’s what Fields’ projections look like if he was used the exact same way in the NFL as he was at OSU: