Former NFL player and scout Bucky Brooks knows the ins and outs of this league, providing keen insight in his notebook. The topics of this edition include:
-- The top five draft unicorns in the Class of 2021.
-- How one recent signing could take an AFC contender to another level.
But first, a look at the bizarre pre-draft takedown of an outstanding prospect ...
The most polarizing quarterback prospect in the 2021 NFL Draft class appears to be Justin Fields. The Ohio State standout has been a hot topic throughout the pre-draft process, but it feels like he's really been put through the ringer in recent weeks. And frankly, I find the growing skepticism completely baffling.
Yes, I have Trevor Lawrence as the top quarterback in this draft class, like just about everyone else under the sun. But Fields is my No. 2 prospect at the position, and I feel strongly about that. It's OK if others disagree -- that's the nature of draft analysis -- but I just can't for the life of me understand this emerging narrative that Fields could slide down the board and be the fourth or even fifth signal-caller selected, behind the likes of Zach Wilson, Trey Lance and Mac Jones. The nitpicking of Fields has reached nonsensical levels, and I just don't get it. Especially considering how closely he's aligned with everyone's top dog, Lawrence, going back to their high school days.
In fact, Fields was listed as the top overall recruit in the Class of 2018 by ESPN, while occupying the No. 2 spot behind Lawrence on 247 Sports and Rivals. As an Elite 11: The Opening counselor, I can vouch for Fields' five-star status after watching him win MVP honors at the event with a series of dazzling 7-on-7 performances that showcased his ability to diagnose coverages and make reads within a system that featured advanced NFL concepts. Moreover, I had a chance to see him excel under the direction of current NFL offensive assistant Jerrod Johnson (offensive quality control coach for the Indianapolis Colts), with Fields executing a scheme littered with pure progression reads and triangle concepts. The five-day performance left a positive impression on me as I took mental notes on most of the 2017 Elite 11 class based on their talent, potential and possible road to the NFL.
Fields began his college career at Georgia, backing up Jake Fromm as a freshman, but then transferred to Ohio State and immediately made his presence felt in Columbus. In his first year as the Buckeyes' starter, he passed for 3,273 yards with 41 touchdowns and just three interceptions, leading OSU to a 13-1 record. That impressive season culminated in a spectacular quarterback duel between Fields and Lawrence in the College Football Playoff semifinal. While Lawrence got the win, Fields matched him blow for blow from an individual standpoint.
This past season, which was abbreviated to eight games due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Fields passed for 2,100 yards and 22 touchdowns (against six interceptions). While he did have a couple rough outings in high-profile games (SEE: a top-10 showdown vs. Indiana and the Big Ten title game against Northwestern), he still led the Buckeyes to a 7-1 record and shined during the College Football Playoff. In the semifinal, Fields avenged his loss to Lawrence with one of the most impressive individual performances of the season. Despite taking a crushing blow midway through the second quarter against Clemson, Fields guided the Buckeyes to a 49-28 blowout win, completing 22 of 28 passes for 385 yards and six touchdowns. Oh, and he piled up 42 rushing yards, for good measure. While the Buckeyes lost in the ensuing national title game to a loaded Alabama team, Fields definitely held his own with another inspired effort.
Those two semifinal showdowns against Lawrence not only showcased Fields' immense talent and potential, but they provided evaluators with the rare opportunity to see a pair of generational talents battle between the lines. I know the phrase "generational talent" is tossed around loosely these days, but I believe Lawrence isn't the only quarterback in this class who deserves such hype. And that's why I just can't comprehend all of these overcooked critiques coming Fields' way of late.
Now, to be clear, I don't think Fields is the perfect prospect. The 22-year-old definitely has some areas for improvement. But an honest film study reveals far, far more good than bad -- and rare ability NFL teams should be drooling over in today's league.
When I recently reviewed the tape from Fields' Ohio State career, I came away even more impressed with his combination of skills as a dual-threat quarterback. He has a number of blue-chip traits -- size (6-foot-3, 227 pounds), arm talent and athleticism -- offering a dynamic game that shines when he works inside or outside of the pocket. Fields is capable of throwing with touch, timing and anticipation on scripted plays or operating outside of structure as an improvisational playmaker. He adds another dimension to the offense as a rugged runner on designed quarterback runs and option plays in the backfield. But while he blazed 40 times in the mid-4.4s at Ohio State's pro day, Fields is not a run-first quarterback intent on making the bulk of his plays with his legs. He sits in the pocket and executes the game plan like a veteran. From old-school play-action passes to hitting receivers on option routes or progression concepts, Fields can make all of the throws required in most NFL systems. Plus, he has the ability to make the second-reaction plays when the pocket breaks down. As a result, Fields finished his two-year run at Ohio State with 78 total touchdowns (63 passing, 15 rushing) and a highlight reel that should captivate the minds of evaluators looking for the next big thing at the position.
From a critical standpoint, Fields will lock on to his primary receiver before moving on to his next read. The hesitancy can lead to turnovers (see: Indiana and Northwestern games) and questions about his processing speed, particularly under duress or facing post-snap coverage changes. Now, part of this could be due to Ohio State's offensive structure, which is heavy on option routes, but Fields will need to be able to read the field at the next level. In addition, Fields must continue to work on dominating the pre-snap game with improved diagnostic skills and blitz anticipation. Development in these areas comes with more experience and game reps within a system that enables the quarterback to make audibles or adjustments based on pre-snap reads.
Overall, though, I'd have a very difficult time bypassing a five-star talent with so many blue-chip traits. Fields is a freak athlete with arm talent and passing skills that could make him a star in a system that features a mix of traditional play-action passes, bootleg/movement throws and quick-rhythm concepts. He also adds a dimension as a runner with big-play potential on designed quarterback runs and options. Fields compares to Josh Allen as an athlete and player, but enters the league with a more refined game from the pocket. If he partners with a creative offensive coordinator who runs a flexible scheme, Fields could become a superstar at the position and lead a team into title contention as a new-school QB1 with electric skills.
So, where would he fit in best? Here are three enticing destinations:
Pairing the Ohio State standout with Kyle Shanahan could produce fireworks for the Faithful. Fields would provide a dynamic signal-caller to a lineup that features a collection of explosive hybrid playmakers on the perimeter. Combining the ultra-athletic quarterback's unique skills with the versatility of Deebo Samuel, Brandon Aiyuk, George Kittle and Kyle Juszczyk would give the 49ers' head coach an opportunity to add designed quarterback runs and RPOs to a stretch-bootleg scheme that challenges opponents at every turn. Fields' ability to sneak out of the back door on bootlegs or deliver pinpoint moonshots on play-action passes would enable Shanahan to stretch the field horizontally and vertically with his QB1. Given the offensive wizard's success with one-dimensional field generals like Jimmy Garoppolo, Kirk Cousins, Matt Ryan and Matt Schaub, the opportunity to work with a five-star athlete possessing high-end passing skills could be a game-changer for Shanahan and Co.
While Drew Lock has flashed here and there over his first two NFL seasons, Denver could view Fields as the long-term solution at the position. The two-time All-Big Ten quarterback is not only a better athlete and more polished passer than the Broncos' incumbent starter, but he has a dynamic game that would put Denver in a better position to win against division rivals, particularly if the game becomes an offensive shootout. Fields brings more ammunition to a duel between gunslingers, and that matters in showdowns against Patrick Mahomes, Justin Herbert and Derek Carr. Given an opportunity to upgrade the most important position on the field, the Broncos could give offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur another young quarterback prospect to develop in Denver.
Bill Belichick could fully embrace the athletic quarterback movement by doubling down at the position with Fields joining Cam Newton in the Patriots' quarterback room. The addition of the Ohio State standout would enable offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels to go all in on a quarterback-centric running game/play-action pass attack. As a defensive wizard, Belichick certainly understands the challenge of defending a dual-threat QB, especially given his recent battles against Josh Allen and Lamar Jackson. He could opt to fight fire with fire by adding a dynamic playmaker with top-notch running skills and arm talent. Although it would represent a drastic departure from the Patriots' traditional draft approach, the addition of Fields would give the team a young QB1 for the future.
DRAFT UNICORNS: The top five in this class
The 2021 class features a number of blue-chip prospects, but astute evaluators are fascinated by the unicorns in this class. If you are not familiar with the term, it refers to prospects with rare physical tools that will enable them to dazzle as pros in roles that accentuate their unique talents as hybrid playmakers.
Given some time to review my top-five lists and revisit my scouting reports on each of the premium prospects in this class, I decided to pick out five unicorns with the potential to make an immediate impact on the game.
To state the obvious: You just don't find guys with NBA power forward size and wide receiver playmaking ability. Pitts is a super-sized pass catcher with outstanding balance, body control and ball skills. Moreover, he is a mismatch creator with the capacity to blow past linebackers and defensive backs in space. As the NFL continues to evolve, with offensive hybrids featured prominently in game plans to exploit favorable matchups, Pitts becomes the chess piece that every play-caller covets.
After watching Lamar Jackson rack up wins and claim an MVP award as a "running" quarterback, more scouts are embracing the thought of an athletic QB1 running the show. Lance, who's still just 20 years old, could be the next quarterback to post a 1,000-yard season on the ground as a dual-threat playmaker with the size, strength and wiggle to terrorize opponents on a variety of designed quarterback runs and option plays in the backfield. Considering the 6-4, 224-pounder chalked up nearly 2,800-plus passing yards (with a 28:0 TD-to-INT ratio) and exactly 1,100 rushing yards (with 14 scores) during his one full season as the starter at North Dakota State, the ultra-athletic playmaker could terrorize opponents with his unique playing style.
The NFL scouting community has been buzzing about Parsons since his freshman season. The 6-3, 246-pound linebacker with 4.39 speed displays a freaky combination of athleticism, instincts and playmaking ability that enables him to wreak havoc on opponents as a sideline-to-sideline tackling machine. With Parsons also flashing A+ skills as a pass-rushing specialist from the second level, it is easy to see why the blue-chip linebacker earns high marks from scouts looking for a difference-maker at the position.
Every defensive coordinator in the NFL is searching for a defender with Swiss Army Knife capabilities on the second level. JOK's combination of blitzing, tackling and coverage skills could allow him to become the next young defender to play like Jamal Adams or Derwin James in the box. As an aggressive defender with a strong nose for the ball and a natural knack for slipping past blockers, particularly on blitz attempts, the Notre Dame standout has the potential to become a human highlight reel as a designated playmaker within a creative scheme.
The 6-foot-1, 232-pound running back could follow in Le'Veon Bell's footsteps as a backfield standout with the capacity to thrive as an RB1/WR2 in a creative offense. Harris is a big back with the size, strength, balance and vision to carve up defenses as an inside runner while also displaying the agility and route-running skill to win on the perimeter as a pass catcher. The combination of skills makes Harris a unique find as a "banger" with playmaking potential in the passing game.
BROWNS: Clowney signing further reveals plan
Defense! Defense! Defense!
If you were wondering how the Browns were looking to make the jump from good to great in 2021, general manager Andrew Berry tipped his hand with his offseason maneuvering. The savvy exec has made a concerted effort to upgrade the Browns' defense at every level. While we can debate the merits of some of the players added to the lineup, there is no disputing Cleveland's commitment to retooling the defense with more speed, athleticism and playmaking ability.
With the free-agent signings of safety John Johnson III, linebacker Anthony Walker, nickel corner Troy Hill, defensive tackle Malik Jackson and -- most recently -- edge rusher Jadeveon Clowney, the Browns have the potential to field a defense that could go toe-to-toe with their division rivals. Optimism for the unit is warranted, especially based on the potential of the front line. Clowney joins forces with Myles Garrett to give Cleveland a disruptive tandem of former No. 1 overall picks on the edges. Although Clowney is more of a run stopper than a pass rusher, he is a disruptive force when he is healthy and engaged. The ultra-athletic defender is a shop wrecker with relentless energy and a non-stop motor. When Clowney decides to turn up, he is nearly impossible to block off the edge, particularly as a run-and-chase defender.
"We love his relentless style of play," Berry said in a press release following the signing. "He's one of the more disruptive players in the game and we think he's going to add an element of ruggedness along our defensive line.
"The other thing we love about Jadeveon is his versatility, his ability to play all across the front and impact the game regardless of his alignment."
Berry's comments about Clowney's versatility could reveal the Browns' plans for maximizing his talents as a disruptor. The 6-5, 255-pounder is capable of aligning anywhere from nose tackle to defensive end to take advantage of a weak blocker at the line of scrimmage. This utilization of Clowney as a queen on the chessboard could unlock Cleveland's disruptive potential at the point of attack. Considering Clowney has been one of the most doubled-teamed defenders in the league over the past few years, the Browns' supporting cast -- which also now includes former first-round pick/free-agent signee Takkarist McKinley -- and mobility plan could result in the front line controlling the game. And pressure from the defensive line will create more opportunities for the team's improved secondary.
That said, Clowney's arrival alone does not guarantee an improved pass rush from the Browns. The 28-year-old has never reached double-digit sacks in a season, only notching three QB takedowns over the past 21 games. This is partially because he has always relied on natural athleticism over technique. With Clowney lacking a vast repertoire of pass-rush maneuvers, offensive tackles are able to sit on his primary move and stymie his pass-rush attempts.
With injuries also impacting his availability and disruptive potential, the three-time Pro Bowler is more of a mythical figure than a real superhero. Perhaps things change when he plays in the Dawg Pound, though. Clowney's presence needs to be accompanied by production for Cleveland to overtake the competition and snag the AFC crown.