Justin Fields Is Setting Up to Be Steal of the 2021 NFL Draft

Chris Roling@@Chris_RolingFeatured ColumnistApril 27, 2021

Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields warms up before the Sugar Bowl NCAA college football game against Clemson Friday, Jan. 1, 2021, in New Orleans. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)
John Bazemore/Associated Press

A month out from the 2021 NFL draft, the idea Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields could be the steal of the entire event would have been classified as foolish. 

With a few days to go, not so much. Now, it's almost starting to feel like a guarantee. 

For the better part of a year, if not longer, Fields' name sat comfortably alongside 2021 class heavyweights such as Trevor Lawrence and Zach Wilson and it wasn't much threatened by the rise of North Dakota State's Trey Lance or Alabama's Mac Jones. He was never a challenger to go No. 1, but he was right there. 

But something has shifted over the course of the last few weeks when it comes to Fields and Thursday's first round. 

Mock drafts, flimsy as they can be, have been all over this perceived stock drop. CBS Sports' Jonathan Jones, for example, has Fields falling to 14th overall, where the Chicago Bears trade up with Minnesota and make him the fifth quarterback off the board and the only one to fall out of the top 10. 

Elsewhere, NBC Sports' Chris Simms has Fields falling all the way to No. 32, eliciting shades of Lamar Jackson in 2018, where he'd learn behind Tom Brady before taking over the starting role. 

Keep in mind we're talking about a 6'3", 228-pound passer who completed 68.4 percent of his 396 attempts at Ohio State over 22 games, tallying 5,373 yards and 63 touchdowns against nine interceptions in the process. His 2020 performance alone was worth a 93.6 Pro Football Focus grade.

It's more than stats, of course. Fields does some uncanny things with his body and arm despite natural mechanics that make him a wonderful fit for a West Coast scheme or otherwise. He's flashed on the run via rollouts, in option looks and when taking it upfield, never mind some wicked highlights that make for fun viral posts: 

PFF Draft @PFF_College

Justin Fields could be picked top-10 and still be the steal of the NFL Draft https://t.co/VcTVJgeq3x

So where did the hype train fall off the tracks and abruptly throw Fields into the steal category? Some could point to the reputation of Ohio State passers in the draft lately, most recently befouled by Dwayne Haskins.  One minor detail that recently popped up was the revelation he's told teams he is managing epilepsy and has been since he was a child, according to NFL Network's Tom Pelissero and Ian Rapoport

But that's a minor, albeit necessary anecdote to the bigger factors at play. 

And just as much as some might want to hand-wave this entire ordeal as a product of what most commonly refer to as "smokescreen season," these past two weeks or so are also when very real information starts to slip out now that teams have finalized draft boards. 

That's not to say this isn't all hogwash spurred up by teams that hope Fields falls—it certainly could be. But the truth is probably somewhere in the middle. With certain teams simply liking specific quarterback prospects more than others for their specific systems or whatever else, Fields could absolutely fall and not be one of the first four quarterbacks off the board. 

Here's a fun wrinkle to all of this—a fall could be the best thing possible for Fields. Not from a monetary standpoint, of course. But schematically? If he doesn't come off the board second to Atlanta or third to San Francisco, landing in a Chicago or Carolina could be better for his development than joining a team that desperately needs him to uplift rosters. 

In Chicago, he'd get to lean on Anthony Miller, Allen Robinson II and David Montgomery. In Carolina, he'd probably best Darnold for the starting gig and get Christian McCaffrey, Robby Anderson and DJ Moore. 

Heck, look at Washington, should he fall to No. 19 or a trade happens—he'd team up with Terry McLaurin, Curtis Samuel, Adam Humphries and Antonio Gibson. 

Unfortunately for Fields, at least in the short term mere hours before commissioner Roger Goodell waltzes to the podium, he's become the spectacle. It happens annually, and this year he's the embodiment of just how silly things can get when the hype machine reaches a boiling point. 

What we do know? Fields has all the potential in the world to be a franchise quarterback in the NFL for a long time. There's an outside chance he could even end up as the best long-term passer from this class. And it's a pretty safe bet that if a team in need that scoops him up or even trades up for him will build around him and his skill set, upping the odds he succeeds. 

Paul Vernon/Associated Press

And that team lucking into a falling Fields would get the unquestioned steal of the event. He'd go from the predraft headline item to the post-draft headline item that pronounces him not only the steal, but his team as the bigger winners of all. 

Those takes would be correct, too, given the factors above creating a marriage between a huge-upside prospect and a team willing to do whatever it takes to make the fit work. No position in the NFL, let alone sports as a whole, is as important. Backing into the potential second-best quarterback prospect anywhere after the fifth pick is—simply put—a steal. There isn't another hypothetical that comes close outside of Lawrence falling, which has as much of a chance of happening as Joe Burrow falling last year (meaning, zero).

Of course, given how the draft and its many machinations go each year, all this hot wind could zip away like a deflating balloon as Fields' name rings out with one of the top three picks. 

Either way, that's the point—Fields is an immense value no matter when he goes. He's deserving of a top-three slot, but if it's outside the top five, the narrative changes. Regardless, Fields is going to start etching his own narratives at some point during Thursday night's opening round.