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Justin Fields Has the Potential to Be a Top-Five NFL Quarterback

Most teams would still take Trevor Lawrence over him right now, but he is coming along very well. Plus answering your questions on the Bills’ offense, Derek Carr’s future, ACL rehabs, future international games and more.

Ten weeks in, and the picture of this season is getting clearer. As for what’s not as clear, your questions this week covered a lot of that ground. Let’s dive into them …

From JT Barczak (@jtbarczak): Is Justin Fields to this point now the best QB in the 2021 class? What is his ceiling?

JT, I still think Trevor Lawrence is the best one. I also believe 32 of 32 teams would take Lawrence over the rest of them, if given the choice today. I don’t think it’d be nearly as resounding if you ask the same 32 whom they’d take second. But I think that second choice, as of today, would be Fields.

Justin Fields on one of several long runs through the Lions defense in Week 10.

Fields ran through the Lions’ defense all day in Week 10. So what does his ceiling look like right now? 

Traits are the reason why, and they’re why I never backed off my feeling that Fields could, under the right circumstances, become a top-shelf NFL player. He has natural accuracy. He has plus arm strength. He has elite athleticism. He’s as tough as it gets at his position. He’s got a quiet, effective leadership style that players gravitate toward. And he works his butt off. All of that doesn’t guarantee anything, but I’ve felt all along that it should give Fields a chance.

What he really needed was snaps, and game reps. And most quarterback coaches will tell you there’s nothing that can accelerate the building of things seen in a quarterback’s mental library other than playing time. The more snaps you’ve taken, the more things you’ve seen, the more that stuff becomes committed to muscle memory. To that end, someone sent me some staggering numbers on Fields. Between his time as a varsity QB in high school, and three college seasons, Fields had 1,024 pass attempts. Lawrence, by comparison, had 2,273.

Want more? Raw as Patrick Mahomes was coming into the NFL, he actually had 2,262 attempts between Whitehouse (Texas) High and Texas Tech. And so that meant he and Lawrence simply had more to draw back on than Fields did, and Fields was going to have to build his library up to get where he was going.

Now, you’re seeing what can happen when he’s got a staff that’s stable and committed to creating an offense for him, and his playing experience is starting to catch up with that of his peers. Bears offensive coordinator Luke Getsy is getting him moving more, both in the passing game and on designed runs. And while some of that stuff might not be sustainable in the long run, it can buy him time to produce, build confidence and develop as a quarterback.

So as to his ceiling, I think if he can make the leaps Jalen Hurts made in anticipation and pocket presence, Fields can be a top-10 and maybe top-five quarterback in the NFL. Now, the floor may be lower than it is for some other young quarterbacks, but the ceiling is sky high.

From Me (@Justme19772): Wouldn't the Browns be smart to not activate Deshaun Watson against the Texans? Avoid the negative PR where it all happened AND Watson doesn’t play six games this year and therefore his contract wouldn’t officially count as a year of service?

No, absolutely not. First of all, it would look blatant and kind of weak—like they knew what they were doing when they traded for him, and now they’re trying to avoid taking the heat for it. Second, the contractual benefit to such a move is not what you’d think it’d be with a fully guaranteed contract in play. Third, the Browns need to get Watson every rep they possibly can this year to get him back up to NFL speed.

And that last point isn’t to be ignored. It’ll have been 700 days between game snaps taken for Watson when he returns Dec. 4. The Browns’ investment in him isn’t just for 2022. It’s for 2022–26, and even if this season doesn’t prove salvageable, it’s still very important that GM Andrew Berry, coach Kevin Stefanski and the crew have Watson ready to hit the ground running in ’23.

Every snap he takes should be a step toward that, so they’re all important.

From stuart wolf (@WolfStuart): When is Bill going to give Mac his freedom to audible?

Stuart, I do not think this is a matter of Mac Jones’s power to change things at the line—my sense is he’s still got what he had last year in that regard. More so, it’d be what’s available to him at the line vs. last year from a scheme standpoint—with Josh McDaniels gone—and then the readiness of everyone around him to execute those things. And that brings us back to the questions surrounding all the change on offense in New England.

There was sound logic to what Bill Belichick, Matt Patricia and Joe Judge did at the time. There was one coach leftover from McDaniels’s inner circle going into the spring and summer (tight ends coach Nick Caley), and so Belichick saw the opportunity there to turn the page. In this case, turning the page meant cleaning out the playbook, with the idea that 20 years of adding to it, without much subtraction, had made the offense too complex and created an unnecessarily high point of entry for incoming skill-position players.

The thought was that with a simpler offense in place, the Patriots could cast a wider net in the future for offensive talent, and get more out of guys—Nelson Agholor and Jonnu Smith—who struggled with the offense’s complexity coming from other places. All of that makes sense. But without McDaniels (or Carmen Bricillo, Mick Lombardi or Bo Hardegree), there was little institutional knowledge of what to build on with Jones, so they were largely starting over altogether.

The results, to this point, with Patricia and Judge lacking offensive coaching experience, haven’t been great. And that’s not about Jones’s control at the line. We’ll see whether it changes. But losing a year of Jones’s rookie contract in the process isn’t ideal.

From karalot73 (@karalot73): Does Josh Allen need a slot receiver à la Cole Beasley?

Karalot, I like the question because I do remember exactly what the logic was in signing Beasley in the first place in 2018—the Bills wanted Allen to learn to take the easy-money throws that were on the table for him. Then coordinator Brian Daboll drilled the point home by showing him how often Tom Brady, whom Daboll was with over two stints in New England, was doing it. It worked, and Allen was more efficient.

Beasley had 82 catches in each of the last two seasons. Isaiah McKenzie, his more-explosive-but less-experienced replacement in the slot has just 24 catches in eight games this year. Does that mean Buffalo made a mistake? It doesn’t, because Beasley came back this year for a brief run with the Buccaneers, then retired. Does it mean they miss him still? To this point, I’d say it does.

Now, the more important question is where all this stands when we get to January. I think ideally they’d have someone better suited to playing the slot down-to-down helping out, and McKenzie moving around as a gadget guy more often. And that guy, in theory, could be rookie Khalil Shakir. Absent that, Allen will continue to rely on his outside receivers, Stefon Diggs and Gabe Davis, constantly, which means fewer layups and more chances for the mistakes we’ve seen crop up over the past few weeks.

From Brian Renick (@brenick77): The Dre Greenlaw ejection in the Niners–Chargers SNF game was egregiously bad. The 49ers had to play a man down the rest of the game. Is there any accountability or punishment for officials when they make such terrible rulings?

Brian, this is one where I kind of feel for the officials. There was clearly helmet-to-helmet contact. Do I think it was egregious? I actually don’t. But the NFL has decided (and I get this) to take intent out of these sorts of rulings. So, really, I’m not sure there was much the officials would be sanctioned for in this sort of situation.

That said, there absolutely should be more accountability for officials across the board. I hate they don’t have to face the media when they screw up the same way a coach or player would—the pool reporter system only works to protect them. As do the rules that disallow any player or coach criticizing them publicly. And just about every other rule governing the officials. For some reason, they’re protected in a way no one else is.

I don’t know why.

From Sacramento_OldMan (@CaliforniaOld): Do you see the Raiders drafting a rookie QB and trading Carr?

Sacramento, I think the Raiders will have their eyes and ears open on draftable quarterbacks for the next few years, without question, and with or without Derek Carr on the roster. Carr turns 32 in March, and I’ve said from the time that Josh McDaniels and Dave Ziegler got there that the right way to look at Carr’s situation in Las Vegas is to look at what Alex Smith was for Kansas City—a good starting quarterback who buys you time to find a better one.

That’s not a shot. Smith was incredibly valuable to Andy Reid. The Chiefs made the playoffs in four of five years with him as the starting quarterback, and allowed them time, and patience, to wait for the right quarterback to come along, one they’d be willing to sell out to get. In the meantime, Reid and John Dorsey built and built and built. And as a result, they wound up with not only Patrick Mahomes but a great situation for him.

From there, to me, the question for the Raiders becomes whether Carr is the best version of Smith they can get. Which only gets more interesting when you consider that two former McDaniels quarterbacks, Jimmy Garoppolo and Tom Brady, could be available this offseason.

As far as that goes, we won’t have to wait too long to see which way the wind is blowing. On the third day of the 2023 waiver period (Feb. 15), three days after the Super Bowl, there’s $40.4 million in Carr’s contract that vests and becomes fully guaranteed. So by mid-February, we’ll see exactly where Vegas stands on Carr.

Odell Beckham Jr., wide receiver for the Rams, talks with reporters on Super Bowl Media Day at William Rolland Stadium.

Beckham may end up at another Super Bowl podium, given that he can choose his team so late in the year.

From SomeoneOnTheInside (@SOTINYG): Where does Odell end up? Thanks.

Inside NYG, I don’t know, but I can say that Odell Beckham Jr.’s decision will ride, in large part, on his finding a winning situation. He saw what playing for the Rams did for him and his image across the league. He also knows that because of that, had his knee held up better, he’d have gotten another big payday as a result. So getting to a team that Beckham knows will be playing in high-stakes situations will probably be important to him.

The Bills are obviously in that group. So are the Cowboys, with more bells and whistles. The Buccaneers bring the chance to play with Brady, and Tampa Bay has looked like it’s on the come-up the past two weeks. The Packers, with Aaron Rodgers, and improving young receivers, could have similar upside. The 49ers would bring championship opportunities and probably a lot of single coverage. Going to the Ravens could prove his ability to be a difference-maker, given their dire receiver situation. The Giants have a lot of wins and nostalgia.

I don’t think it’ll be the easiest call. There should be plenty of opportunities for him.

But give me the Cowboys just because I know Jerry Jones loves him some sizzle.

From Brad (@bhesch34): Why isn’t Tre White playing? Is he O.K.?

Brad, this is something I’m going to be exploring some more in the coming month—I have 100% noticed that teams seem to be taking a lot more caution than we’ve seen in the recent past in bringing guys back from ACL surgeries.

For years, it seemed like the time line was shrinking. What was once a full-year rehab process shrunk to 11 months, then 10 months, then nine months. And it got to the point, a couple of years back, where even if a player was hurt at the very end of the season, you could count on him being ready to go for Week 1 of the following season. So what once was an injury that took a year to come back from, and two to be yourself again, had become a whole lot more manageable for athletes at the highest level.

This year, it sure feels like that’s gone backward. Some facts …

• White tore his ACL on Nov. 25, 2021, and still hasn’t returned to the field.

• Chase Young tore his ACL on Nov. 14, 2021, and is slated to return Sunday.

• Jameson Williams tore his ACL on Jan. 10, and he’s not even back on the practice field.

If the Bills, Commanders and Lions are being overly careful, I see that as a good thing. But I also wonder what the motivating factors are here, taking into account all ACL tears aren’t created equal (recovery can be complicated by damage to other ligaments, the meniscus, etc.). It’s also worth mentioning the case of Beckham, whose 2020 ACL surgery was botched to the point that both he and the Rams knew the knee was a ticking time bomb last year, as he helped L.A. get to the Super Bowl before tearing his ACL again when they got there.

Is it possible more of these surgeries go sideways than we know, with infections and setbacks along the way, even when they’re all termed “successful” in the immediate aftermath? Sure it is. And, like I said, it’s something I’m planning to look into soon.

From Tyler Hergert (@TylerHergert): How does the NFL decide what European cities get to host NFL games? Do they plan to play games on other continents?

Tyler, I asked about this years ago—because it seemed a little strange in the early years of the International Series that the league was putting all its eggs in one basket (London). The logic they had for doing is, well, logical. They wanted to focus on one market, build something lasting there and create a template in doing so that they could bring to other markets. So from 2007 to ’15, the league was focused solely on London (the games in Toronto were run by the Bills). Then, in ’16, it went back to Mexico, and this year to Germany.

The decision to go to London first, as I understand it, had to do with television distribution in the U.K. being more analogous to the U.S.’s—and thus easier to monetize—and of course the size and wealth of the market itself. Going to Mexico and Germany is about popularity of the game in those places, with those two the NFL’s strongest markets outside of the U.S. and Canada. And as for where it goes next … I think the way you have to think about that question is what places add the most value for the league and its teams.

That’s why I actually think Brazil might be the play. It’s a massive country, has an entry into South America, the travel is manageable and the time zone is very workable (Rio is two hours ahead of ET). And it opens a new part of the world for the league, which going into Paris or Amsterdam or Barcelona wouldn’t do.

So give me a game in Rio in, say, 2027, as the next step.

There’s an interest, to be sure, in going to China and Australia, too. But the political issue in the former, and logistical issues with both, I think, are too much to overcome right now.

From Tate Ers (@ers_tate): Will the Broncos trade Russell Wilson?

Tate, no one is trading for that contract, unless it’s at a major discount. First of all, to deal him after this year, Denver would take on $40 million in dead cap next year. His new team would then inherit $67 million fully guaranteed for 2023 and ’24. And it’d be locked in through ’25 for another $37 million (a three-year total of $104 million), because his $37 million for that year vests and becomes fully guaranteed in March ’24 (and you’re not giving up real draft capital to get a guy and dump him after a year).

If things get worse, could Denver dump Wilson like the Colts did with Carson Wentz? Maybe. If we’re talking about a smaller package of picks going back, another team could look at it as having a one-year, $28 million deal with Wilson, with a de facto two-year, $76 million option for 2024 and ’25. Or the Broncos could pay Wilson’s $20 million option bonus, cutting his ’23 price down to $8 million for a new team, to buy back picks (and, thus, pay $77 million for a single year with Wilson).

Of course, all this is worst-case-scenario stuff. Best case is that Wilson and the Broncos could turn the corner, finish strong and have a more optimistic outlook going into 2023. Absent that? I still think Wilson will be on the team in ’23, but next season then becomes an important year in Wilson’s career, with that decision on the ’25 money coming in March ’24.

From Dalen Erickson (@dderickson3): Do Kliff Kingsbury and Kyler Murray have any type of future together after this season?

Dalen, the contractual realities we just outlined on Wilson exist here, too. Murray, because of the deal he signed in the summer, is going to be the quarterback for at least another year or two beyond this one. Kingsbury, likewise, is under contract through 2027, which makes firing him difficult but not impossible (one caveat to add: I’ll be interested to see whether the influx of new television money changes owners’ attitudes on eating contracts to fire coaches).

From Matt Heydt (@MatthewHeydt): Who’s going to be in the mix in Denver if (when) Hackett is gone at the end of the year?

Matt, it’s way too early to get into that, and I think Nathaniel Hackett’s going to show improvement as a coach and get a second year—the potential for what Hackett can be, and the reasons for his hire in the first place, are still there. In the Monday column, I threw out the possibility of a Dan Quinn–Brian Schottenheimer combination if things really go south, because of the background those two have with Wilson, and Quinn’s relationship with Broncos GM George Paton. But that was purely hypothetical.

When you hire a young, first-time head coach, you have to give him some runway. I think the Broncos will give Hackett that, even if the fact that the team’s new owners didn’t hire him gives me a little pause on that.

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