Justin Fields hasn't officially declared for the 2021 NFL draft, but there's no doubt he will, and the conversation around how good a pro quarterback he can be, and whether he should be the second quarterback taken, is at a peak.
Against Alabama's defense in the national championship Monday night, Fields didn't come close to replicating his transcendent six-touchdown Sugar Bowl performance, but he earned points for gritting through a hip pointer and playing the full game, even when Ohio State fell behind by 28 points at the end of the third quarter. His draft stock will get a boost from playing on the College Football Playoff stage.
"The more exposure, the better," said one scout who has evaluated Fields. "He is in the spotlight because of these last two games."
Quincy Avery, a private quarterback coach who has worked with Fields since high school, says Fields is the best quarterback he's ever worked with in terms of physical gifts. (And Avery works with Deshaun Watson.)
"He is 6'3", 225. He is going to run a high 4.4 [40-yard dash]. He has a really strong arm. He has all the physical characteristics you want, which I think makes him really, really special," Avery said. "When you are creating a QB in the lab in 2021, it looks really, really similar to Justin Fields."
Take a look at the four AFC quarterbacks left standing in the postseason: first-round picks Patrick Mahomes, Baker Mayfield, Josh Allen and Lamar Jackson.
Three of the four, Mahomes, Allen and Jackson, were drafted primarily for their elite athletic traits and ability, not because they had shown complete command over that ability in college, put up big numbers in terms of accuracy or wins or even played against top competition. They were drafted for what they could become, in the right system and with the right coaching.
The debate between traits vs. production seems to be leaning toward traits as recent quarterback draft classes take shape as professionals.
From the '20 draft class, Justin Herbert was not asked to do much in Oregon's offense. When he was, he sometimes overthrew receivers and struggled with accuracy. But he had the height, arm strength and speed to make him the perfect prospect in terms of traits. This season with the Los Angeles Chargers, he set NFL rookie records for completions (396), passing touchdowns (31) and total touchdowns (36).
In his third year, Allen has made a huge jump in accuracy and is having a career season. Multiple sources wondered how the recent success of Herbert and Allen and the other trait quarterbacks will impact future draft classes. Is it an outlier or a trend?
As Avery pointed out, Fields has every trait of a modern quarterback, and those dynamic abilities will likely see him drafted as the second quarterback in this draft class, after Clemson's Trevor Lawrence.
Multiple NFL sources agreed that at this point in the process, Fields is likely the No. 2 quarterback, though it's too early to say definitively since it's a close contest with BYU's Zach Wilson.
Interviews will be a crucial component to setting prospects apart, and, of course, it could come down to how a team plans to use Fields in conjunction with its coaching staff. (And three of the quarterback-needy teams at the top of the draft have yet to make head-coaching hires: the Jacksonville Jaguars, New York Jets and Atlanta Falcons.)
Fields' production has been impressive, but his record is limited to one full season and one shortened season. He was 20-2 as a starter, was a Heisman Trophy finalist in 2019, won two Big Ten titles and made two College Football Playoff appearances. His stats at Ohio State: 396-of-579 (68.4 percent) passing for 5,373 yards, 63 touchdowns and nine interceptions. He also rushed for 867 yards and 15 touchdowns.
Scouts agreed that Fields' Sugar Bowl performance against Clemson on Jan. 1 was the best of his collegiate career, coming against a top team in a pressure-packed environment. He completed 22 of 28 passes for 385 yards, including several NFL-quality "wow" throws, six touchdowns and one interception.
It helped quell some concerns about his NFL readiness, and scouts took note of Fields' toughness. He was hit hard in the back of his ribcage in the second quarter, received injections to ease the pain and returned to play the rest of the game, throwing four more touchdowns and leading the Buckeyes to a 49-28 win.
In his postgame awards ceremony interview, Fields delivered a line that surely stole the hearts of general managers across the 32 clubs, regardless of their need for a quarterback. "I took a big shot," he said. "But what really kept me going was my brothers, the love for them. I'll do anything for these guys."
"Toughness seems to be lost at that position, and it's a big thing to have because he's going to get hit as hard or harder in the NFL," the scout said. "To be able to stand in and take those hits is huge. Availability is where it is. "
Fields struggled in the Big Ten Championship Game against Northwestern's talented defense. He threw for 114 yards and no touchdowns, completed 44.4 percent of his passes and threw two interceptions. The performance felt similar to his struggles against Indiana this season when he completed 18 of 30 passes and tossed three interceptions.
During the Big Ten Championship Game, another scout texted, "I've had concerns. That certainly escalated them."
Scouts agreed that the biggest question mark on Fields is how he will adjust to a pro-style offense and playing NFL defenses. NFL scouts want to see him get through his progressions quicker and make pre-snap coverage reads decisively.
"Playing in Ohio State's system, it seems like all their guys coming out, they seem to struggle initially because they haven't seen a lot of that stuff," the first scout said.
Avery argues that Ohio State's offense is actually more like a professional offense than any other in college football, and scouts agreed it does utilize some pro concepts. Avery pointed to how much responsibility is put on the quarterback to read the defense and call out the protections for each play.
Some of Fields' struggles in quickly making his reads this season have led scouts to wonder if it was too much responsibility for him, how big a transition he'll need to diagnose NFL defenses and how much time he will need while making up for a shortened college career.
Fields started just 22 games over two seasons with the Buckeyes, and he played in 12 games his freshman season at Georgia when he backed up Jake Fromm. Jackson and Herbert each started at least 32 college games. Mahomes started 29 and Allen 25.
"You are betting on his continued development for sure," said another scout who has evaluated Fields.
Fields' limited starting experience isn't as much of a concern for scouts as it is for other prospects with limited starts because, as that scout pointed out, "Fields' running ability gives you comfort as he learns the offense."
It's not fair, but Fields may be hurt by the recent and public failure of the last Ohio State quarterback to be drafted in the first round. Dwayne Haskins came out of the same Ohio State system as Fields, and he was released not even two years later. Multiple NFL sources agree that precedent could influence Fields' stock.
Ohio State doesn't have much history producing NFL quarterbacks. Three have been drafted since 2010: Terrelle Pryor (third round, 2011 supplemental draft), Cardale Jones (2016 fourth round), and Dwayne Haskins Jr. (2019 first round).
Scouts point out it's wrong to bring up Haskins because Fields is a dynamic athlete, whereas Haskins is more in the mold of a pocket passer. Haskins also entered a situation with the Washington Football Team that one NFL team executive referred to as "horrific."
Assuming Lawrence goes first to Jacksonville, the market for Fields could take a number of forms.
Will the Jets decide to move on from Sam Darnold and draft a quarterback at No. 2? Their head-coach hire will shed more light on that, but in conversations with scouts around the league, no one has argued that the Jets trading Darnold is the clear move or best option.
The Miami Dolphins pick after the Jets and likely won't be thinking quarterback again. The Falcons sit at No. 4, which is a possibility for Fields as they need to think about who is up next after Matt Ryan.
A number of other teams might target Fields if he drops or they move up, like the Detroit Lions (No. 7), Carolina Panthers (No. 8), Denver Broncos (No. 9), New England Patriots (No. 15), Washington (No. 19) and Indianapolis Colts (No. 21).
One way or another, if recent quarterback draft trends pan out, Fields' traits will make him a coveted prospect.
Editor's note: This article has been updated to correct the sourcing on select passages.