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Justin Fields, the Player and the Story Line

How can the Ohio State quarterback be ‘dropping in the draft’ when the draft hasn’t happened yet? Putting the Fields narrative in context.

Justin Fields was a phenomenal quarterback at Ohio State. He might become a phenomenal NFL quarterback. He has become the most discussed prospect in this year’s draft, and he is the player most likely to be the story of draft night.

Fields, in a way, sums up the story of the modern draft itself. There is the media narrative, which happens outside NFL offices, and then the team evaluations. Sometimes the two overlap. But often, they don’t.

Consider this phrase, which has been uttered in recent weeks, and could be uttered a lot Thursday night: Justin Fields is dropping in the draft. No, he isn’t. Nobody “drops” in the draft. That is an illusion. Teams rank players and keep those rankings private. Media outlets do their own rankings—through a combination of reporting, independent evaluation, educated guessing and uneducated guessing—and produce mock drafts that reflect that. When a player appears to “drop,” it is because media rankings differed from team rankings, or because of circumstances—like a 10-pick stretch where no team is looking to fill a certain position.

This phrase is especially silly when people use it before the draft begins. We still do not know where Fields will be picked. I think the lowest projection I have seen is 15th, and most people seem to think he will go in the top 10, which is still quite high. Again: Mock drafts could be wrong. But as they relate to Fields, they could be wrong in either direction. Maybe he’ll go 20th, but maybe he’ll go in the top seven. Before we scream that Fields is getting drafted too late, let’s see him actually get drafted.

If he does go late in the first round, is that too late? Well, quarterback evaluations are notoriously difficult, and anybody who screams that they know which quarterbacks will pan out is fooling themselves. Every quarterback in this draft will have to do things they never did in college. Answers take years to reveal themselves. Robert Griffin III and Carson Wentz looked like stars until they didn’t. Ryan Tannehill was a bust until he wasn’t. So we don’t know where Fields “should” go. We have opinions, which are part of the fun. But they are just opinions.

Justin Fields jogs off the field at the 2021 college football championship

Looming over all of this is the other story line about Fields in the predraft season. Fields—through no fault of his own—morphed from quarterback to narrative: Black Quarterback Whose Work Ethic and Intelligence Get Unfairly Questioned.

That story line blew up when ESPN’s Dan Orlovsky said some teams had wondered about Fields’s commitment, and it took off from there. There has been a lot of discussion about whether Fields focuses too much on his first read or has the hunger required of NFL stars, and the odor of racism lingers over both.

It’s a sadly familiar story and people are right to push back on it. But right now, that’s a media story. We don’t know how much (if at all) that will actually affect Fields’s draft position.

It is easy to assume the NFL under-drafts Black quarterbacks. For most of NFL history, almost every quarterback in the league was white. Racist stereotypes clearly factored into franchise decision-making. In the 1980s, zero Black quarterbacks went in the first round. In the 1990s, two did: Andre Ware and Steve McNair.

Combine that with the NFL’s blackballing Colin Kaepernick, and that understandably contributes to the perception of how the league treats Black quarterbacks. But look at recent data and you see a different story. In the last decade, seven quarterbacks went No. 1. Four were white, and three were Black. Of the 31 quarterbacks who went in the first round, 20 were white and 11 were Black. Recent numbers are even more balanced—in the last four drafts, 15 quarterbacks went in the first round. Eight were white, six were Black and one was a Samoan from Hawaii (hi, Tua).

We don’t know exactly what will happen in this year’s draft. But there is a strong chance that five quarterbacks will go in the top 15, and two (Fields and Trey Lance) will be Black. The league’s track record with Black coaches continues to be appalling, but its recent track record with Black quarterbacks is, objectively, much better.

It is, of course, possible that the NFL has improved drastically in this area and still under-drafts Black quarterbacks. This is hard to prove, one way or the other. Statistical analysis of the draft is difficult, especially as it relates to quarterbacks, because so many factors determine their success. Partly because we can’t quantify it, and partly because the most compelling narratives develop around individuals, it is easy to use each case as representative of a trend. This has happened with Fields, just as it happened with Lamar Jackson in 2018.

You probably remember retired Hall of Fame executive Bill Polian wondering whether Jackson should switch to receiver (Polian has since owned his mistake), and Jackson was the fifth quarterback taken, at the bottom of the first round. He has since won MVP. That’s a relevant discussion point, but it’s not the only one.

Cam Newton was a one-year starter in college, he was a dual-threat quarterback, and there were people questioning his character because he was caught with a stolen laptop at Florida and had to transfer to a junior college. In 1990, Newton might have gone completely undrafted. In 2011, the Panthers wisely picked him No. 1 overall, and Newton became a star.

Kyler Murray is 5' 10" and started in college for only one year. Yet the Cardinals astutely believed in him enough to draft him first, a year after using their first-round pick on a white quarterback, Josh Rosen.

Perhaps most encouraging: Teams used first-round picks on Black quarterbacks who were not particularly mobile. Jameis Winston, Teddy Bridgewater and Dwayne Haskins all fit that description. That tells you are willing to consider that the next Peyton Manning or Tom Brady might be Black.

The NFL’s four highest-paid players are all Black quarterbacks. Dak Prescott, Patrick Mahomes, Russell Wilson and Deshaun Watson are elite players at the game’s most valuable position, and so teams paid them like it. But their success is both the result and cause of a trend: As the league started to give Black quarterbacks opportunities that they should have received years ago, some became stars, and their stardom made teams more likely to ignore those old racist tropes.

But while the league recognized the professional greatness of Prescott, Mahomes, Wilson and Watson, it also under-drafted each of them. Prescott went in the fourth round, Wilson in the third. Mahomes and Watson went 10th and 12th in a draft when Mitchell Trubisky went second. These four quarterbacks represent a small sample size, but a relevant one. It is very hard to find a white quarterback drafted in the third round or later who became a star. Kirk Cousins comes closest. (We are not counting Tom Brady because he was drafted so long ago; the league and the draft have changed drastically since then.)

We should not overreach with conclusions here. The NFL is an ever-shifting league with a limited number of quarterbacks—for all we know, the next four drafts will be dominated by white quarterbacks. But the conversation about Fields should take place in its proper context.

At some point after the draft, Justin Fields the story line will give way to Justin Fields the player. This will probably be a relief for him. Maybe for us, too.