With the NFL Draft upon us, former Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields is jockeying for position in a draft class loaded with outstanding quarterbacks. Though he ended the college football season widely viewed as the No. 2 quarterback in the class, Fields’ stock has dropped throughout the offseason, despite a great pro-day and a lack of off-field drama.
There are certainly the non-football questions that have come to light in recent weeks, like the revelation that Fields has epilepsy. That being said (and I’m no expert), Fields has already been playing with epilepsy, and it hasn’t seemed to adversely affect his performance.
At least Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield has Fields’ back, with the former No. 1-overall pick sending a pre-draft message to support Fields.. And of course, Fields might benefit from his draft stock falling because at least it means he doesn’t have to go to the New York Jets…
There is a reason Fields came out of the season so highly rated, and that’s because his on-field performance in the last two seasons has been nothing short of outstanding. In just eight games in the 2020 season, Fields posted 2,100 yards passing and 22 touchdowns to just six picks. He also had nearly 400 yards rushing and five more touchdowns on the ground.
In total, in his two seasons as a starter, Fields posted a 20-2 record, never losing a conference game. The QB has benefited from being in a system that, since Ryan Day came to Columbus, has favored the quarterback and posted strong numbers at the position. While other Ohio State quarterbacks of the past, like JT Barrett, posted similar records as starters, Fields’ impact on achieving that record was undeniable in the last two years.
There’s something defining about putting together a complete game, especially when it comes to questions about NFL Draft stock. Let’s get into it.
Best game: Clemson, 2021
There are a lot of performances from Fields that could be defined as “better” than that against Clemson from a statistical perspective - but stats don’t tell the full story, and a Sugar Bowl victory over the Tigers while battling through injury shows the sort of grit that elevates statistically strong quarterbacks into champions.
Again, there were a lot of options to choose from here (that’s what happens when you have 20 wins in two seasons). In 2019 alone, Fields had five games where he threw for four touchdowns and no picks - including against Michigan. In 2020, there were also near perfect games, like when Fields threw for five touchdowns and no picks against Rutgers.
This year’s Sugar Bowl was a defining moment for the Ohio State football program as a whole, but also for Fields. Fields went head-to-head with Trevor Lawrence, the de facto No. 1-overall pick, for the second straight year, and came out on top. He overcame a rib injury from a hit that led to the eventual ejection of Clemson linebacker James Skalski.
Fields finished the game going 22-for-28 passing for 385 yards, six touchdowns and a pick. He added 42 yards on the ground on eight rushing attempts. Chris Olave was the main beneficiary, catching six passes for 132 yards and two touchdowns. Fields also found his tight ends in the red zone, connecting with Jeremy Ruckert and Luke Farrell for three more touchdowns. Sure, he had that one interception, but the remainder of his performance was pristine, and against a good defense at that.
Fields’ performance against Clemson came out on top here because it showed his ability to rise to the occasion on a massive stage - one where he’d fallen just a year before. It also came on the heels of Fields’ worst performance as a Buckeye, showing his ability to get out of his own head and move on to the next game. Which brings us to...
Worst game: Northwestern, 2020
Fields hasn’t lost that many games as a starter - two, to be exact - but the quarterback’s performance on its own, while not enough to win the game, wasn’t that bad. However, there is a clear example of a time when his performance was that bad, and a defense that had had a lot of question marks all season stepped up to secure the win.
That game, of course, was the Big Ten Championship against Northwestern. Fields completed just 12 of his 27 pass attempts for a season-low 114 yards, zero touchdowns and two interceptions. It was Fields’ only game as a Buckeye without a touchdown pass.
Yes, Fields and Co. were going against one of the top scoring defenses in the nation (Northwestern would finish fifth in the NCAA in the category in 2020) with a scary secondary that featured what could be the Wildcats’ ninth first-round draft pick of all time. But NFL defenses will be a heck of a lot better than Northwestern’s.
One of the hallmarks of Fields’ season in 2019 was his lack of mistakes, as demonstrated by a high completion percentage and low, low interception count. Obviously by throwing interceptions, offenses lose a possession while putting their defenses in danger. When Fields threw two picks in a narrowly fought game against the Wildcats — a game which the Buckeyes won 22-10 — those picks actively placed Ohio State’s win in jeopardy.
Further, while he didn’t throw as many interceptions against the Wildcats as he did, say, against Indiana, there were also no bright spots in his performance in the Big Ten Championship. With no touchdowns (on the ground or through the air), it was up to running back Trey Sermon to post a record-setting performance with 331 yards rushing and two second-half touchdowns. While Fields should certainly be able to rely on teammates, this performance did not position him as the talent that he really is heading into the draft.
Sure, every player will have some down days. In Fields’ case, it’s obvious that the ups are much more consistent. What does that mean for his NFL Draft stock? The fact Fields was so highly rated at the conclusion of the 2020 season would indicate that it should have a much greater impact.