NFL

NFL Draft: Justin Fields is primed to silence his doubters

By Sports Desk April 27, 2021

Justin Fields will have heard all the noise; it’s hard for a prospect in his position, as one of the top quarterbacks in the 2021 NFL Draft, to ignore the cacophony.

The chatter has been as bemusing as it has been loud, with wildly off-base critiques levelled at a quarterback who has delivered on college football's biggest stages in successive seasons.

Of those criticisms, the most prominent has surrounded Fields' ability to process quickly, with many viewing him as a quarterback who needs significant work reading the field and too often gets stuck on his first progression.

Yet, as those who espouse Fields' merits have been quick to point out, any unwillingness to come off his first read is likely the symptom of an Ohio State offense highly reliant on long-developing downfield routes.

It appears, though, that both the New York Jets and San Francisco 49ers are among his doubters. Picking second overall, the Jets are expected to take BYU's Zach Wilson, while the 49ers, following their massive trade up from 12 to three, are reportedly deciding between North Dakota State's Trey Lance and Mac Jones of Alabama.

Fields' apparent slide from the second-best quarterback in the draft to one that may not even go in the top five is a truly befuddling development in this year's edition of an event partially defined by head-scratching decisions.

The team who benefit from the questionable evaluations of Fields by those above them in the draft order will land a player ideally gifted to thrive in the NFL having outperformed his contemporaries in this draft class in several key areas.

Through the lens of Stats Perform data, we look at why perhaps the most underappreciated quarterback in the class is primed to silence his critics.

Busting the narratives

The narratives around Fields have always seemed flimsily constructed, and they are not reflected by the numbers.

Critiqued by some for holding on to the ball too long while waiting for his reads to come open, Fields had an average snap-to-release time of 2.81 seconds in 2020.

While that is considerably slower than Trevor Lawrence (2.36) and a fair way behind Jones (2.55), it is slightly faster than Wilson (2.82).

Why is that significant? Because Wilson is a prospect who has received regular praise for his ability to get the ball out quickly and accurately during his time at BYU.

The reality is that Fields was on par with Wilson in that regard.

Beyond the time it took to get rid of the ball, the biggest debate around Fields pertains to how he works through his progressions to find the open man.

Yet if Fields had just been staring down his first read, it stands to reason defenders would have had frequent success jumping routes and gaining opportunities for interceptions.

His interceptions did double from three in 2019 to six last year, but Fields only threw eight 'pickable passes' in 217 attempts, his pickable pass percentage of 3.69 was the worst of the first-round quarterbacks to have played in the Power 5 but was not miles behind Lawrence (3.38).

Over the course of the past two seasons, Fields threw 16 pickable passes in 556 attempts for a percentage of 2.88. In essence, he was not a quarterback who regularly provided defenders with opportunities for takeaways, and he only got more accurate and more careful with the ball on the more difficult throws.

Downfield success

In 2020, Fields recorded a well-thrown percentage – which measures how often throws are an accurate, well-thrown ball – of 80.18 per cent.

That number was inferior to Lawrence, who led the Power 5 with 84.31 per cent, and Jones (83.21). However, of quarterbacks with at least 200 pass attempts who averaged 10 or more air yards per attempt last season, it was second only to Sam Howell of North Carolina (81.31).

Only Wilson (10.29 air yards per attempt) was more aggressive in pushing the ball downfield than Fields (10.10), with Lawrence (8.67) and Jones (8.52) lagging behind.

And when it came to making those deep throws that can flip the script in an instant, it was Fields who stood out ahead of his contemporaries last year.

Indeed, on throws well past the sticks of 15 or more air yards, Fields led the way in well-thrown percentage by a wide margin.

Of Fields' throws of that distance, 76.47 per cent were accurate, well-thrown balls, compared to 71.43 for Lawrence, 69.41 for Wilson and 67.39 for Jones.

Wilson (3.53) was the sole quarterback of the other three to post a better pickable pass percentage on those attempts than Fields' 7.84.

When he attacked downfield, Fields was superior to the man who is a lock to be the first overall pick to the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Fields beat Lawrence in the College Football Playoff semi-final last season and outplayed him in the eyes of many in their meeting at the same stage a year earlier.

Looking at their respective career numbers, there is plenty to suggest they enter the NFL on equal footing.

On a par with Lawrence

Further illustrating the gap between the two when it comes to deep passing, Fields had an air yards per attempt average of 11.0 during his college career, putting him fifth among quarterbacks with at least 500 attempts since 2018, 42 spots ahead of Lawrence (8.87).

Fields' completion percentage on balls thrown 20 or more air yards in that same span of 47.9 was good enough for sixth on the list of quarterbacks with a minimum of 100 attempts, with Lawrence (42.1) coming in seven spots lower.

The former Buckeye had a clear edge on play-action throws, which are a staple of most NFL offenses, especially those that utilise the scheme run by Niners head coach Kyle Shanahan, as the Jets will do in 2021.

Fields completed 67.2 per cent of his play-action throws compared to 64.6 for Lawrence and was similarly superior in a situation where games are often won and lost – on third down.

While Lawrence could only connect on 56.8 per cent of his third-down attempts, Fields completed 65.5, though the script was flipped when it came to making the most of red-zone opportunities.

At Clemson, Lawrence was at his best inside the 20, hitting on 68.5 per cent of his throws, second among quarterbacks with at least 100 attempts and comfortably ahead of Fields (sixth with 63.7).

But Fields and Lawrence performed almost identically when pressure was sent, the latter having a negligible edge facing the blitz, completing 63.8 per cent of passes to Fields' 63.6.

In looking solely at the numbers, they are difficult to separate and, when he and Lawrence squared off, Fields had the upper hand in at least one matchup.

And yet he is seemingly set to slide from being a quarterback some touted as having the potential to displace Lawrence as number one to not hearing his name called until well after the top overall pick is done with his initial plethora of media commitments.

It is a baffling state of affairs that neither the tape nor the stats can explain.

Blessed with the elusiveness to evade free rushers in the pocket, the ability to escape and make sensational off-platform throws on the move and speed in the open field that saw him rush for 1,539 yards and 19 touchdowns in college, Fields has the ideal athletic profile for the modern NFL.

Jones and Wilson outperformed him in some areas in their breakout 2020 campaigns but no quarterback in the class other than Lawrence can claim to have enjoyed Fields' level of success over the course of more than one season among college football's elite.

More consistent than Lawrence when going deep and with the same release time as Wilson, the data should be enough to dispel the lazy narratives around Fields.

Instead, Fields will need to do so in the NFL and it is unclear with whom he will get the chance. Regardless of where he lands, Fields' skill set and track record point to the doubters being drowned out by the jubilation he has the talent to inspire at the highest level.

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    Football can feel like a Formula One race at times, with things moving so rapidly that if you blink for a second, you could miss something.

    For example, few would have been able to predict six months ago that in January 2023, a player called Enzo Fernandez would be joining Chelsea for a British-record transfer fee of £106.8million (€121m).

    Not even many Benfica fans knew much about the midfielder when he arrived from River Plate for a reported fee of €12m in July.

    Fernandez had been making a name for himself in his home country, with a loan spell at Defensa y Justicia under former Chelsea and Argentina striker Hernan Crespo convincing River Plate to give him a chance, which he took.

    After 52 appearances for Los Millonarios, interest from Europe saw Fernandez linked with some big names, and it was Benfica who took the plunge.

    The Lisbon club will be pleased they did after making a profit of well over €100m after just half a season, with the midfielder not only impressing in the Primeira Liga and Champions League, but also starring for Argentina as they lifted the World Cup in Qatar last month, with Fernandez claiming the FIFA Best Young Player of the Tournament award.

    Is he really worth all that money, though?

    Chelsea clearly think so, and in Fernandez they have bought a player who will feel like a dream come true for head coach Graham Potter.

    In his time at Brighton and Hove Albion, Potter delighted in building midfields that could dominate the ball, that could keep hold of possession while also making incisive passes to turn the opposition around.

    Despite being one of the smaller clubs in the Premier League, Potter's Brighton averaged 54.3 per cent possession in league games in 2021-22 (only Manchester City, Liverpool and Chelsea had more), while averaging 496 passes per game, and 59 passes into the final third per game (sixth in the league for both metrics).

    Only Man City, Arsenal and, funnily enough, Brighton have a higher possession average than Chelsea since Potter took charge at Stamford Bridge in September, while only City have attempted more passes than the Blues, which will be where Fernandez comes in.

    The man who only turned 22 earlier on January 17 is a passing machine, having completed 1,431 in total in just 17 Primeira Liga games, over 200 more than the player with the next most in the Portuguese top-flight.

    It is not simply quantity over quality either, as Fernandez has also made 248 passes into the final third, at least 51 more than any other player.

    Not only do they lead the league in terms of the table, but Benfica are also league leaders in averages for possession (66.0 per cent), passes per game (623) and passes ending in the final third per game (70.6). Their style enables Fernandez, but in turn, his ability allows them to execute it, which must have Potter salivating. 

    Fernandez showed similar form in the Champions League as Benfica surprisingly won a group that included Paris Saint-Germain and Juventus, before going on to star in the World Cup as well.

    Several big clubs had already taken a shine to him, but the astonishing figure shelled out for him by Chelsea was no doubt rubber-stamped after his performances in Qatar, with Fernandez leading all players in the epic final between Argentina and France for touches (118), successful passes (77) and tackles (10). His 10 tackles were the most of any player in a World Cup final since Gennaro Gattuso in 2006 (15).

    But is he better than what Chelsea already have?

    In the Blues' midfield this season, Mateo Kovacic leads the way in terms of number of passes per 90 in Premier League games (69.0), ahead of Jorginho (61.7), with no other player to have played more than five games averaging even 50.

    Fernandez has been averaging 84.18 successful passes per game in Portugal, though consideration must be given to the difference in strength between the Premier League and Primeira Liga. In fact, it is the second-most of any midfielder in any of Europe's top 10 leagues this season, behind only Manchester City's Rodri (84.58), and ahead of Paris Saint-Germain's Marco Verratti (78.06) and Real Madrid's Toni Kroos (74.53).

    There is also the Argentine's creativity to take into account, with Chelsea struggling to score goals this season having only managed 22 in 20 league games so far.

    In league games, of those to have played more than twice, Conor Gallagher is averaging the most chances created from open play of Potter's midfield options at 1.59 per game, followed by Carney Chukwuemeka (1.38) and Mason Mount (1.24). Fernandez has averaged 1.62 per game.

    When you consider that Potter already had Kovacic, Mount, Gallagher, N'Golo Kante, Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Denis Zakaria, Lewis Hall and Chukwuemeka to choose from, with Jorginho having departed for Arsenal on deadline day, you might think spending nine figures on another midfielder to be somewhat indulgent.

    With the early promise and potential trajectory of Fernandez though, Chelsea have quite probably taken the next step in a long-term rebuild. Jorginho and Kante are both 31 years old and out of contract at the end of the season, and investing in the future rather than the past makes sense for a team that always wants to be challenging for the biggest trophies.

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    A dogged competitor with an eye for the magnificent, Fernandez featured in all seven of Argentina's games in Qatar, starting five of them after he came off the bench to net a superb goal against Mexico in the group stage.

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    Fernandez, who was named Young Player of the Tournament after helping Argentina win the 2022 World Cup, was strongly linked with Chelsea earlier in the transfer window before talks broke down.

    However, the big-spending Blues went back in for him with the end of the window drawing closer, signing Fernandez to a long-term contract – rumoured to run until 2032 – with confirmation arriving an hour and a half after the transfer window closed.

    Chelsea submitted the relevant paperwork in time and Benfica were first to announce details of the deal on their official website on Wednesday.

    His arrival takes Chelsea's spending to a reported £288.5m (€328.5m) this month alone, with the midfielder becoming their eighth signing of the January transfer window.

    Fernandez only joined Benfica from River Plate last year but has played a starring role for them since making that move, helping the Portuguese giants top their Champions League group.

    He had looked likely to remain in Lisbon at least until the end of the season, but Chelsea revisited the deal with head coach Graham Potter reportedly keen for midfield reinforcements.

    The fee surpasses the previous Premier League transfer record, set by Jack Grealish's £100m switch from Aston Villa to Manchester City in 2021.

    Fernandez could make his Chelsea debut against Fulham at Stamford Bridge on Friday, as the Blues look to climb the table after a poor run of form saw them drop to 10th position. 

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    Fernandez boasted a duel success rate of 58.8 per cent, winning 40 of his 68 engagements at the tournament.

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