How Amended Season Will Impact Justin Fields’ Draft Stock in 2021

Justin Fields is widely regarded as one of the best players in college football. But how will this shortened season affect his draft status, and where do we see him ending up in April's draft?
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There is no need for an explanation on how the Big Ten’s leadership decisions on a Fall 2020 football season have influenced the fans and players who have maintained their morale in hopes of watching their teams compete for a national championship. 

While several players on most teams across the league initially opted out of a potential spring season, the vast majority of those same players have opted to participate in the eight plus-one regular season. Most of the opt-outs were names like Rashod Bateman, Rondale Moore, Wyatt Davis, and Shaun Wade -- all players with hopes of becoming an early-round NFL Draft selection next spring. 

Notably, Justin Fields was not a name on that list.

Widely regarded alongside Clemson's Trevor Lawrence as the most highly-touted quarterbacks in the country, an 8-game season could create one of two scenarios for Fields as he prepares for his post-collegiate football career.

First, NFL scouts could throw out most of the tape on this season as a whole. Preparations prior to this season changed vastly, and as NFL teams have seen in their own locker rooms, even maintaining a regular schedule now that the season is underway has been a challenge itself. Nebraska, who Ohio State just defeated last week, won’t be playing this week due to a COVID-19 outbreak in their opponent’s locker room. The postponement of college and professional games across the nation has been dealt with inconsistently and practice preparations leading up to those games have changed immensely. There is a real scenario that this year as a whole is looked at as an outlier, and scouts rely more heavily on past film from Fields in 2019.

The other scenario, which I believe to be more accurate, is that there is a microscope placed on Fields every time he suits up. With only one full season under his belt as a starter, each game is incredibly important to put on film, and his performances have to match his overall hype every single week to keep his draft stock from slipping. 

We’ve seen quarterbacks, even from Ohio State (i.e. Dwayne Haskins, Cardale Jones) enter the draft circuit as successful quarterbacks from a well-respected college program and get drafted as such, but find difficulty in adjusting to the NFL due to a lack of starting experience. While this scenario is more likely than the first, I still hold firm that Fields will be the second quarterback taken in the 2021 NFL Draft if he foregoes his final year of eligibility.

With the importance of the quarterback position heightened in recent years due to the NFL’s surge into collegiate-style offenses, Fields will be a first-round pick in the 2021 draft. The question then becomes: who would take him? For these purposes, I have included a list of teams that fit the build for a selection of the Ohio State quarterback.

Criteria for selection included: 

  • Teams that don’t have a long-term answer at the quarterback position in the NFL
  • No teams that have an aging quarterback starting this season (i.e. Buccaneers, Saints, Steelers, Colts) -- it is volatile to predict retirements and re-signings for these teams (or their plans at quarterback for the next two years), and we will assume that Fields will be an instant starting quarterback for the team he goes to
  • Teams with a likely top-15 draft selection without trading up, as the quarterback position is too valuable for a quarterback like Fields to slip past this marker
  • (P.S., we’re going to assume the Jets get the first overall pick, select Trevor Lawrence and deal Sam Darnold to a team with an aging quarterback)

Here is the list of teams I’m eyeing for Fields

New England Patriots

This may be the most interesting (and best) fit for Fields in my mind. For the first time in 20 years, the Patriots have major question marks surrounding the quarterback position. While starter Cam Newton looked worthy of a contract extension after his outstanding performance against the Seahawks in Week 2 of the season, he has since fallen from grace. One thing is clear: Cam is a placeholder for the next guy in that locker room, and they don’t have that player there yet.

Accustomed to winning at the highest level on a yearly basis, there will be major pressure on head coach Bill Belichick from owner Robert Kraft to find that player if the Patriots are picking in the top 15 for the first time since 2008.

With a framework in place for a mobile quarterback the likes of Newton, Fields’ superior decision-making and pass-first mentality make him the perfect fit for an offense run by Josh McDaniels ... and his mentality at the podium sounds like a Patriot already. Needing a lot of help in other areas on the roster, New England could pick up Fields early in the draft and trade other capital (i.e. LG Joe Thuney, who is playing on the franchise tag, and Stephon Gilmore, who just put his house on the market) to surround him with an offensive cast that would put the Patriots back in contention after a down year the likes of 2002.

Atlanta Falcons

Somehow this has fallen under-the-radar, but Matt Ryan is in a contract year and a deal has yet to be made with the 34-year-old. Head coach Dan Quinn and general manager Thomas Dimitroff got the axe after an 0-5 start, and this roster has too much talent to be consistently underperforming.

With receivers like Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley, paired with Todd Gurley in the backfield and newly-acquired Hayden Hurst at tight end, the Falcons have an outstanding group of skill position players on the offensive side of the ball. The lack of mobility from Ryan at quarterback, paired with poor coaching and performance, has put the Falcons behind on other teams in a hyper-competitive conference. 

The NFL has largely moved on from statues in the pocket, and Fields’ mobility would bring a new dimension to an already tough to defend set of players lining up for Atlanta. They may be that one missing piece away from contending with the other elite offenses in the NFC, and will likely have the draft position to acquire the Kennesaw, GA product.

Dallas Cowboys

Jerry Jones can say that he loves Dak Prescott all he wants, but a deal still hasn’t been made for the quarterback of America’s team. Eyebrows were raised after the signing of Andy Dalton, and while it hasn’t worked out to this point, nothing seems to be going right this year for the Cowboys. Still, it’s difficult to look at this roster and not be in awe of the talent they possess at nearly every position on the field.

Signing Dalton was a leverage play in ongoing negotiations on a long-term extension for Prescott, and it is hard to believe that an injury just five weeks into the season would grant the quarterback an extension. While Prescott was leading the league in many passing categories through that point, they weren’t translating to wins, and their all-pro running back in Ezekiel Elliott has become a forgotten member of the offense. With the pay bump it would cause on a salary cap that will certainly be lowered for 2021, I don’t see Jones signing Prescott to another tag.

As unfortunate as it is, the writing could be on the wall for a new face of the Dallas Cowboys, and who better than Fields? A similar style quarterback with a much higher ceiling, Jones has shown he loves to take shots at guys just like this, and they’ve paid off more times than not. Fields could be the missing piece to propel Big D from mediocrity to contender, as they’ve expected to be for the last several years.

Jacksonville Jaguars

The Jaguars need help. A lot of help. Luckily, they’ll have draft positioning to find that assistance on the offensive side of the ball, and promising young players that a fresh face a QB can grow with. Gardner Minshew has been lightning in a bottle throughout his young career, but in recent weeks, it looks like the lid on that bottle has been sealed. A former sixth round pick from Washington State, Minshew’s leash is much shorter than if he were a first or second rounder, and he's been threatened of being benched if his play does not improve. Jacksonville would be benching Minshew for Mike Glennon, and that tells you all you need to know about the Jags quarterback struggles.

Rookie running back James Robinson has been an incredible surprise for the team, as you know if you picked up the undrafted free agent in your fantasy football league this year. And while it may seem glim in Jacksonville elsewhere, their talent on the perimeter has flashed from different players at different times. D.J. Chark, Keelan Cole, Dede Westbrook, and rookie Laviska Shenault have all had their moments in recent years, but inconsistency has plagued that room as well. Maybe steady play from the quarterback position would help, and Fields could provide that for a team looking for answers at QB.

Washington Football Team

Finally, we head back to the infamous NFC East, where the Washington Football Team still hasn’t found their guy. Dwayne Haskins was their original hopeful at the position, but he has essentially been removed from the quarterback group by Ron Rivera, and the team is looking to move on from him. That leaves Washington with perennial backup Kyle Allen and an aging, miraculously recovered Alex Smith, but no long-term plan at the position. Finding great talent in the draft has not been a problem for Washington, however, and they’ve shown a love for former Buckeyes in recent years with their selections of Chase Young (2020) and Terry McLaurin (2019).

The biggest question I have with Washington is their eagerness to draft another OSU quarterback after the struggles they’ve had with a turnover-prone Haskins. At Ohio State, Haskins played in 22 games and held a 54-9 TD/INT ratio… with limited experience starting, the Buckeyes QB did not show a glimpse of the problems he would eventually have throwing to the wrong team in the NFL. With nine games of Big Ten play this season and hopefully two post-season games for the Buckeyes, Fields will enter the draft with 25 games played for Ohio State, and currently holds a 43-3 TD/INT ratio with the Buckeyes. This will be enticing for many teams, but I wonder if management in Washington will shy away from the prospect because of their experience with Haskins, who posted similar numbers in those categories.

If selected by Washington, I do believe that Fields will succeed on a much higher level than the former. With talent like McLaurin on the outside, and a young running back and tight end group, the scenario would be similar to Jacksonville, and Washington would need to be patient through the growing pains of a young roster. It would be interesting to watch, but I wonder if Washington elects to sign one of the potential free agent QBs in Ryan or Prescott if they’re on the market to bring a veteran presence into the locker room.

Those are my prospective fits for Justin Fields in the upcoming draft following an amended fall 2020 season. What do you think? What teams will be eyeballing Fields next spring? Will this season have a higher impact on his draft stock than other years would? Let us know in the comments.

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