NFL.com analyst and former NFL scout Daniel Jeremiah takes a "first look" at some of college football's top players for 2020. This is the first in a series of scouting reports that will run throughout the offseason.
I first learned of Justin Fields while covering Nike's The Opening all-star event in 2017, prior to his senior year of high school. I was blown away watching him compete over those two days. Physically, he looked more like a third- or fourth-year college player than a prep athlete, and his poise was extremely impressive. He took home the MVP award that week (beating out Trevor Lawrence, among others) and joined us on the NFL Network set to discuss his thoughts on his performance and recruiting (he had decommitted from Penn State a month earlier).
Since that time, Fields has been on quite a journey. He began his career at Georgia in 2018 and earned Freshman All-SEC honors, playing in 12 games as a backup to Jake Fromm. However, he announced in January of last year he would be transferring to Ohio State. The NCAA granted him immediate eligibility with the Buckeyes, and he had a sensational sophomore campaign. He was a finalist for the Heisman Trophy and led OSU to the College Football Playoff. As you might expect, he's highly regarded by NFL personnel departments. I recently had a chance to study three of his games. Here are my takeaways:
Height, weight: 6-foot-3, 228 pounds (school measurements).
2019 statistics: 238 of 354 (67.2 percent) for 3,273 yards, 41 TDs and 3 INTs; 137 carries for 484 yards (3.5 average), 10 TDs.
Game tape watched: Michigan State (Oct. 5, 2019), Wisconsin (Oct. 26, 2019), Michigan (Nov. 30, 2019).
What I liked: Fields has a full skill set. In the passing game, he's at his best when he's on time and in rhythm. He shows the ability to deliver the ball with anticipation and accuracy on drive throws down the field. He throws from a 3/4 arm slot, and the ball has plenty of life/velocity. He is accurate on the move to both his right and left. He has a good feel in the run/pass-option game. He also has the athleticism to extend plays and create.
He's very effective as a runner. When he sees a lane open up, he's quick to take those free yards. (Remember, the NCAA counts sack yardage against a quarterback's rushing total, so some of those running statistics above are misleading.) He doesn't always make the right decision on zone-read plays, but he is incredibly elusive and can make the free defender miss. He has outstanding lower-body power to finish runs in short-yardage and goal-line situations. His overall competitiveness is excellent.
Where he needs to improve: Vision is the main area where Fields needs to improve. It's most glaring in blitz recognition. He was consistently late last season when opponents sent extra numbers at him. He froze up, held the ball for too long and took bad sacks. The good news is, I believe he can improve in this facet with increased reps and experience.
He also needs to clean up some footwork issues. He's very accurate on the move, but his accuracy suffers when he resets after being moved off his spot inside the pocket.
There were also a few times when I noticed him getting a little too aggressive trying to jam the ball into heavy traffic. This isn't a huge issue, in my opinion. I'm OK with aggressive mistakes at certain points in the game.
Biggest takeaway: Fields has a lot to work with at the position. He can make every throw and he's an incredible athlete. For someone who was operating in a new system and environment last season, his production was outstanding. I thought his play did slip a little bit at the end of the year, due to a knee injury suffered against Penn State (he said he suffered an MCL sprain on the final play of the game). His return to full health, plus the added time in head coach Ryan Day's offense, should lead to an even better season in 2020.
He reminds me of: I see a lot of similarities to Dak Prescott when he was coming out of Mississippi State. Both play the position with a physicality and toughness that I admire. Dak was similarly effective in the QB run game, and they both possess the playmaking skills to bail out a bad play call. Dak made tremendous strides as a passer during his final season in college, and I expect to see similar improvement from Fields in 2020.