2021 NFL draft: Only a few things holding QB Justin Fields back from stardom

Leading up to the 2021 NFL draft, which starts April 29, Yahoo Sports will count down our top 100 overall prospects. We’ll count them down in groups of five for Nos. 100-51, followed by more in-depth reports on our top 50 players, with help from our scouting assistant, Liam Blutman. We reserve the right to make changes to players’ grades and evaluations based on injury updates, pro-day workouts or late-arriving information from NFL teams.

Other prospect rankings: Nos. 100-96 | 95-91 | 90-86 | 85-81 | 80-76 | 75-71 | 70-66 | 65-61 | 60-56 | 55-51 | 50. OT Liam Eichenberg | 49. WR Terrace Marshall Jr. | 48. LB Chazz Surratt | 47. EDGE Joe Tryon | 46. OT-OG Alex Leatherwood | 45. CB Asante Samuel Jr. | 44. DL Levi Onwuzurike | 43. LB Jabril Cox | 42. DT Daviyon Nixon | 41. EDGE Ronnie Perkins | 40. LB Nick Bolton | 39. CB Ifeatu Melifonwu | 38. WR Elijah Moore | 37. OT Jalen Mayfield | 36. EDGE Carlos Basham Jr. | 35. CB Elijah Molden | 34. RB Travis Etienne | 33. WR Kadarius Toney | 32. EDGE Jayson Oweh | 31. LB Zaven Collins | 30. DT Christian Barmore | 29. QB Mac Jones | 28. CB Caleb Farley | 27. RB Javonte Williams | 26. C-OG Landon Dickerson | 25. S Trevon Moehrig | 24. CB Greg Newsome II | 23. WR Rashod Bateman | 22. EDGE Greg Rousseau | 21. OT Christian Darrisaw | 20. RB Najee Harris | 19. LB-S Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah | 18. EDGE Jaelan Phillips | 17. OT Teven Jenkins | 16. EDGE Kwity Paye | 15. CB Jaycee Horn | 14. OT-OG Rashawn Slater | 13. OG-OT Alijah Vera-Tucker | 12. WR DeVonta Smith | 11. EDGE Azeez Ojulari | 10. CB Patrick Surtain II | 9. OT Penei Sewell | 8. QB Zach Wilson | 7. LB Micah Parsons | 6. QB Trey Lance | 5. WR Jaylen Waddle | 4. QB Justin Fields | 3. WR Ja'Marr Chase | 2. TE Kyle Pitts | 1. QB Trevor Lawrence

Here's how we use our prospect grades for the 2021 NFL draft. (Albert Corona/Yahoo Sports)
Here's how we use our prospect grades for the 2021 NFL draft. (Albert Corona/Yahoo Sports)

4. Ohio State QB Justin Fields

6-foot-3, 227 pounds

Yahoo Sports draft grade: 6.25 — possible immediate starter

TL;DR scouting report: High-level traits give Fields the chance to be special if he can speed up his process and anticipation a bit

Games watched: Penn State (2020), Indiana (2020), Michigan State (2020), Northwestern (2020), Clemson (2020), Alabama (2020)

The skinny: A 5-star Rivals recruit (No. 2 nationally, behind only Trevor Lawrence), Fields committed to Georgia out of high school and saw action in 12 games as a true freshman behind starter Jake Fromm. Fields completed 27 of 39 passes (69.2%) for 328 yards and four TDs and ran 42 times for 266 yards with four TDs, earning SEC All-Freshman Team mention in 2018. With Fromm expected to keep his starting job, Fields opted to transfer in January 2019. He was granted immediate eligibility after a former Georgia baseball player directed racial slurs at Fields before being dismissed from the school.

In 2019, Fields won OSU’s starting QB job and completed 238 of 354 passes (67.2%) for 3,273 yards with 41 TDs and three picks and ran 137 times for 484 yards and 10 scores. That season, he was named Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year, second-team AP All-America and was a Heisman Trophy finalist, also taking home MVP of the Big Ten Championship Game before losing to Clemson in the national playoff semifinals.

Fields won Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year again in 2020, completing 158 of 225 passes (70.2%) for 2,100 yards, 22 TDs and six INTs and rushing 81 times for 383 yards and five scores in his eight starts. After struggling in the Big Ten Championship Game, Fields beat Clemson with a superhero effort (22 of 28 passing, 385 yards, six TDs, one INT) despite suffering a rib injury. Fields and OSU came up short in the national-title game vs. Alabama.

Following the season, he declared early for the 2021 draft.

Upside: Well-built frame with plus athleticism. Filled-out body with enough body armor to handle scrambling duties and blindside shots. Great feet (ex-shortstop) and lively arm to attack all parts of the field. Toughness inside and outside the pocket. Special athletic traits allow him to stress defenses in multiple ways — ran a 4.46-second 40-yard dash.

Drives the ball downfield naturally and with ease — can uncork one 60-plus yards in the air. Higher-end arms talent to attack the entire field. Excellent ripping the ball to the far side of the field with velocity — allows him to be a hair late and still deliver the ball on time.

Nice touch, especially on middle-field throws, and great ball placement on deep shots — can get it up over the underneath defender. Throws a very clean, catchable ball. Accurate to all parts of the field. Completed nearly 60 percent of his deep shots (20-plus air yards) last season.

Consistent, relatively clean throwing mechanics. Doesn’t abandon his base when throwing on the move. Smooth, effortless delivery. Operates cleanly inside and out of structure. Pocket reader asked to scan the field and attack vertically — reads touchdown-to-checkdown and didn’t benefit from much screen action or short passing game. Moves and holds safeties with his eyes. Comfortable getting to his second and third reads. Hit the “honey hole” shots against zones well. Great play-action ball mechanics and effectiveness.

If Ohio State QB Justin Fields can quicken his process a bit, he has franchise-quarterback potential. (AP Photo/John Bazemore, File)
If Ohio State QB Justin Fields can quicken his process a bit, he has franchise-quarterback potential. (AP Photo/John Bazemore, File)

Took some vicious shots last season and hung tough. Rebounded from wicked rib injury vs. Clemson and returned after a few plays to deliver a gem — maybe the best QB tape of the entire 2020 college season. There were major protection issues in the Indiana game, where he struggled, along with in other games. Cleaned up his fumbling issue from 2019 (nine) with only two in 2020. Career interception rate is low at 2%.

Strong running weapon who can escape the pocket and carve a defense up. Tough, physical runner who can bounce off would-be tacklers. Elusive enough to make a man miss in space. Works the read-option series well and is a threat to keep it every time. Creative scrambler who can shape change and seemingly teleport at times — escaped a few sacks that most QBs have no business getting out of. Escorted his back (Trey Sermon) to the end zone with a clean block 50 yards downfield — tremendous effort.

Competitive toughness and confidence shine in his play. Possesses the mental toughness to rebound from mistakes and rally his team. Some of his reactionary play was what was coached into him by Ohio State’s staff. Came out of his shell more as a leader in 2020, allowing his personality and communicative skills to blossom.

We know of at least two teams (including one that could be in play to draft him) whose doctors have cleared his epilepsy and deemed it a non-issue.

Downside: Entire process could speed up. Elongated throwing motion. More of a see-it, throw-it passer. Too methodical — needs to anticipate and release his passes sooner. Will hold onto the ball to allow deep options to open up — average time in the pocket of 3.11 seconds, per PFF, which is simply way. too. long.

Passing vision can be questioned. Missed some wide-open opportunities. Leaves a few throws on the field and will try to do too much to keep plays alive. Gets skittish vs. certain pressures when his hot read is covered early in the rep (see Indiana game). Drops his eyes too soon and bails the pocket early on some reps. Didn’t always make it to his third read in the progression. Might need a little more time to master protection calls.

A few ugly tapes — Indiana and Northwestern, especially, but even the Michigan State and Alabama games raised questions. Took a step back in some respects in 2020, even if his high notes were stronger overall. Looked lost in the Big Ten title game when his trusted receiver (Chris Olave) left with injury.

Took more sacks and hits than he needed to. Did a little better job throwing the ball away amid pressure in 2019 — flashes of overconfidence in 2020 tape, wanting to make the tough plays happen. Relied heavily on his athletic gifts against pressure and didn’t always sense backside pressure quickly enough. Had some balls tipped at the line. Battled through a left knee injury down the stretch in 2019.

Played in an offense replete with talent. Had some wide-open looks that were essentially layups. Not really asked to make a ton of tight-window throws. Will pass up free yards to go for the carotid artery. Seems to operate better pre-snap than post-snap when things don’t go according to design.

Best-suited destination: When Fields arrived at Ohio State, sources said he was quiet and almost standoffish in some respects. That thawed over time, and he appeared to evolve as a leader and teammate. What will it be like in his new NFL home?

Fields might be best-served not handed the starting position right away — not because he can’t handle it, but because it might allow him to grow naturally and see how a veteran handles his business before Fields is thrust into the spotlight.

We envision him thriving in a newfangled NFL system that highlights RPOs, zone reads, play-action, moving pockets and half-field reads, attacking the intermediate and deep parts of the field. That’s where he thrives.

Fields is a pocket passer who just happens to have great athletic traits to make plays on the move. He’s a Pro Bowl-caliber talent all day long who might need a little seasoning and incubation before he’s ready to break out.

Did you know: His father, Ivant “Pablo” Fields, played football at Eastern Kentucky in the mid-1980s and eventually worked as a police officer in Atlanta for more than 20 years.

Player comp: His rise as a passer, as well as his talent and athleticism, are highly reminiscent of Dak Prescott. But there are times when you see some Jalen Hurts, Cam Newton and Ben Roethlisberger in Fields’ play.

Expected draft range: Top-15 pick

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