Meet the mystery man of the 2021 NFL Draft

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Peter King
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So ESPN’s Dan Orlovsky, a former quarterback and good young analyst, went on “The Pat McAfee Show” and threw out some red flags on Fields. Major ones. Because he’s a respected voice, Orlovsky’s words got huge. “I have heard that he is a last-guy-in, first-guy-out type of quarterback,” Orlovsky told McAfee. “Like, not the maniacal work ethic . . . Where is his desire to be a great quarterback?”

Orlovsky told me Saturday that people from a couple of teams did question Fields’ work ethic, but he regrets not having more “clarity and specificity” in his comments. In other words, he should have said something like, This is not what I know first-hand, but in talking to people I know in the league, two teams questioned Justin Fields’ work ethic, and that could be a concern. It’s important that Orlovsky be free to pass along information he finds credible, but it’s equally important to put that information in context.

Also: The problem with questioning Fields’ desire is everyone saw Fields take a kill-shot to his ribs in the second quarter of this season’s Clemson playoff game and he responded by having the game of his life. To me, Orlovsky—as a guy who played the position—needs to clap back when someone questions the desire of Fields after watching that Clemson game. Fields took an all-time shot from a Clemson linebacker midway through the second quarter, looked to be in agony, missed a play, returned to throw four TD passes in the next 22 minutes, and outplayed Trevor Lawrence. How do you do that if you’re low on desire? Give me 10 of those guys on my team.

Orlovsky has talked to both Fields and Day in the wake of his comments. “Justin didn’t have to take my phone call,” Orlovsky said. “He could have said, Screw that guy. I told him exactly what happened, said I wasn’t good enough in that moment, and that’s on me. He was like, I get it. It’s okay. I watch, and I know you’re someone who’s had my back. I appreciate you calling me. I felt like he was really mature, and I appreciated him hearing me out.”

What I know: In conversations with people from two teams that are studying the quarterbacks atop this draft, I didn’t hear any negatives on Fields’ work ethic or drive. One of these teams could well be in position to take one of the top quarterbacks, and this team has dug deep into the top passers. One of our problems in this business, particularly before the draft, is many of us don’t cover the college game. (And I will put myself at the head of the line, because I am not a big college football watcher during the fall.) Many years, my first contact with the draft prospects is at the combine—I’m never around them as college players. So it’s tricky for me to be authoritative on prospects. I ask those I’ve trusted in my years covering the NFL. In the case of Fields, those I trust say he’s got zero work ethic issues.

Fields is Black. What made the criticism more noticeable is the infamous narrative that Black quarterbacks are inferior to their white counterparts, or not as clever, or not as hard-working. With two recent Black-QB MVPs (Patrick Mahomes, Lamar Jackson) and three others in the NFL’s top 10 (Russell Wilson, Deshaun Watson, Dak Prescott), we don’t often hear the tropes anymore. But Orlovsky’s comments opened some wounds there. I agree with what Dominique Foxworth—a former player and current ESPN analyst, who is Black—said here: “It does not mean it’s not a fair and true criticism of Justin Fields, but it’s important to be specific . . . I’m not saying that it’s not true, but it’s understandable that the racial biases that we have often leak into all parts of our lives, including football analysis.”

I would add this about prospects of any color: If some of the things an analyst hears from one or two coaches/scouts/GMs seem off-key based on what he’s seen (such as questioning Fields’ desire after his valorous performance against Clemson), then I’d say don’t use those criticisms until vetting it with two or three more people he knows well in the game.

Of course, Day is going to be pro-Fields and stick up for him. But Day made two other points I thought were interesting:

• On reads and game-plan prep. “He’s very, very intelligent. He reminds me a lot of [former Buckeye] Joe Burrow when it comes to that. Tell him something once, and he absorbs it,” Day said. Fields’ 56-yard TD pass to Chris Olave in the January playoff game came on his fourth read in the progression, and it was thrown 62 yards in the air, to Olave at the Clemson goal line. Over their time together, Day said Fields has become more comfortable telling him what he likes and doesn’t like in a game plan.

• On what he needs to improve: Day said there were a couple of times in 2020, most notably in a too-narrow win over Indiana, when Fields needed to show “better understanding when to create and then when to cut your losses.” Fields threw nine interceptions in his 22-game Ohio State career, and three came against the Hoosiers.

“In that Indiana game,” Day said, “I think he would tell you, he was trying to force it, and I think it’s . . . he never really said it to me but you know in a short season, he’s got pride too. We went up big in that game early and he wanted to go win the Heisman Trophy—that’d be my guess. It’s a lesson learned. It really bothered him for a while afterwards, but I told him that’s gonna happen as a quarterback. The question is, how do you respond? He responded well.”

That’s mindful of Josh Allen trying to do too much in his first two years in Buffalo, and settling in as a far less mistake-prone passer in 2020.

Orlovsky thinks Fields’ mechanics need to be streamlined so he can play a little faster in the NFL. After his impressive college run, Fields seems to be getting passed in the pre-draft run-up by Zach Wilson, Trey Lance and Mac Jones. In an ideal world, Fields goes to a team with no pressure to play right away and a good teacher of the position: Atlanta (head coach Arthur Smith) at four, New England (offensive coordinator John McDaniels) at 15 or with a trade-up, or New Orleans (Sean Payton, though the Saints pick 28th). Before the draft, players want to be taken as high as possible. Then they find out it’s more about where you go, not how high you go. The golden spot for a young quarterback is Atlanta. Smith’s a good teacher, and Matt Ryan’s a perfect tutor for a season or two. But it’s no sure thing the Falcons—who could take a franchise tackle or perhaps the best overall player in the draft in Florida tight end Kyle Pitts—will even take the heir to Ryan. So Fields will be a man of mystery in the next 24 days, till the first round is picked.

A postscript on Orlovsky, a Kornacki-type, full of information and dying to get it out: I know him as an earnest, hard-working analyst, still young in his chosen profession. He made a mistake—not in criticizing a first-round choice, but in how he did it, and then in not pushing back on what seems like a foolish narrative about desire. He’s good at what he does, and I’d bet he takes the L here and gets better from it.

Read more from Peter King’s Football Morning in America column here.

Meet the mystery man of the 2021 NFL Draft originally appeared on NBCSports.com