How NFL Scouts Convinced Themselves That Justin Fields Was A Bust

Arguably the most important role of an NFL team’s front office is talent acquisition. Whether through the draft or free agency, it’s the job of the front office to ensure that their team has the teeth to win football games. Of course, not every pick is going to be a slam dunk, but nobody’s perfect; occasionally whiffing at a good prospect is just part of the business. But if there’s one pick you *need* to hit, it’s the quarterback. It’s the most important position on the field, and making the wrong choice will set back any Super Bowl-aspiring team by years (I have to assume most Bears fans know this). Most drafts, you’ll be lucky to find two or three good quarterback prospects coming out of college. However, the 2021 draft was not like most years.

The 2021 quarterback class was once hailed as generational. Five quarterbacks were selected within the first round, a number that has only been matched in three other drafts over league history. Almost two years removed from it at this point, it’s safe to say that the class’ lofty expectations haven’t exactly been lived up to; and while that’s a good topic for another day, something I find interesting is how the narratives surrounding the quarterbacks developed in the months leading up to draft day. Before building a narrative that we can analyze, it’s important to first find data that best captures how the public opinion regarding the quarterbacks changed during this time. To accomplish this, I went ahead and sampled over 50 mock drafts in the months leading up to the 2021 draft, sorted them by month, and then calculated the average position that each quarterback left the board. The results were more than interesting:

The graph above describes roughly how the public (and to an extent NFL scouts) seemed to feel about the quarterbacks leading up to draft night. At a first glance, we can make a few immediate observations:

  • Barring something catastrophic like a gas-mask bong video surfacing, Trevor Lawrence was never at any risk of falling from the #1 overall pick. Jets and Jaguars fans spent the entire 2020 NFL season rallying behind “tank-for-Trevor” chants, often rooting against their own team if it meant pushing them closer to that goal. In fact, I only found a single mock draft that still had Lawrence on the board after the first pick, which happened to be right after his loss to Ohio State in the Sugar Bowl, a mock draft which saw Lawrence losing his spot to none other but the man who beat him: Justin Fields.
  • Mac Jones seems to skyrocket out of nowhere in the month of March, and continues to rise on boards throughout April. This can be explained by the fact that on March 26, the 49ers acquired the third overall pick from the Dolphins, and were rumored by many to be interested in using it to draft Mac Jones.
  • Broadly speaking, the predictions in April seem to line up pretty well with what actually occurred on draft night. The biggest shift from expectations would be in the landing spots of Trey Lance and Mac Jones, who were predicted to be taken at #6 and #7 respectively, but actually ended up going at #3 and #15. This discrepancy can be explained by the way the statistics were measured – since at the time there was still debate over whether Mac Jones or Trey Lance would be taken at #3, there was a lot of variation in mock draft positions between the two. Sometimes Jones would be taken at #3, sometimes Lance would, but regardless of the scenario, the other would almost always fall past pick #10. Thus, the averages that were calculated from the mock drafts hover around the range you see on the graph.
Okay, now to address the elephant in the room: Justin Fields was the only quarterback who fell significantly on boards leading up to the draft. The graph shows a consistent and drastic fall over the course of the five months, from around the #3 pick to the #8. Knowing what we know now, I’m sure a few of the teams who passed on Fields would like to have that pick back, but what exactly happened over the course of those five months that turned teams off of Fields? The draft lead-up is always chaotic and unpredictable, but here’s a rough timeline of events that negatively impacted Fields’ draft stock during that time:

  • January 11, 2021 – Justin Fields throws for less than 200 yards and only one touchdown in the CFB National Championship against Mac Jones. While the Alabama team he faced is widely regarded as one of the most complete and dominant college teams in recent memory, people would have still felt more comfortable if Fields had put up a more impressive stat line. Something else to note is that Fields was playing with broken ribs during the game as well.
  • March 26, 2021 – Zach Wilson hosts a pro day for NFL scouts. During this pro day, a particular rep of his goes viral, demonstrating Wilson’s off-platform deep-ball accuracy. As a consequence of Wilson’s draft stock rising, Fields’ draft stock tumbles.
  • March 31, 2021 – On the Pat McAfee Show, analyst Dan Orlovsky describes Fields as a “last guy in, first guy out” sort of player, and leads many to question Justin Fields’ work ethic and character. Dan Orlovsky has since walked back this statement.
  • April 21, 2021 – Reports circulate that Justin Fields was diagnosed with epilepsy as a child. While it certainly seemed to have no effect on his play during his college career, the revelation still invited scouts to question whether or not managing the condition would be an issue in the NFL.

The tumbling of a quarterback’s draft stock is obviously a more complicated topic than what a few bullet points can describe, but looking at the little details together can usually help indicate the larger story at play. But from what I can gather – and what is most interesting to me about this story – is that there really isn’t one. The truth is, scouts just didn’t trust Justin Fields. Keep in mind, the crash and burn of fellow OSU alum Dwayne Haskins was still burned into recent memory; an affirmation that Ohio State quarterbacks just don’t do well in the NFL; a reminder that Ohio State’s offense doesn’t reward and nourish skills that translate at the professional level. Couple this fact with a few errant rumors regarding work ethic and concerns about a neurological condition, and enough eyebrows will be raised in draft circles to differ to small-program boy-wonders like Zach Wilson and Trey Lance.

There’s a principle in problem-solving called Occam’s Razor. To put it simply, it states that when faced with a complex problem, oftentimes the simplest solution will be the correct one. To apply this to the 2021 quarterback class, all we need to do is remember how the public felt about the quarterbacks immediately following the 2020 college football season. Trevor Lawrence was regarded as the top dog, Justin Fields followed, and the rest were placed on a tier below. Then, over the course of months of scrutiny and rumor-circulation, NFL scouts convinced themselves that Justin Fields was in fact, not the prospect he was made out to be. Knowing what we know now, it’s not a stretch to say that Justin Fields should have been taken at #2 or #3, where he was originally projected. Almost two years into his career, he is currently on the path to stardom, while many of his contemporaries have floundered. While I would say that this story should act as a cautionary tale against over-scouting quarterback prospects, Justin Fields looks too good in blue and orange for me to dwell too long over it.
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