NFL draft winners and losers: Ohio State's Justin Fields completely changes outlook with one heroic outing

Eric Edholm
·13 min read

The first 18 picks of the 2021 NFL draft are set. And now that we know the order up top, there appears to be a fascinating storyline developing on where the draft’s most highly rated quarterbacks end up.

The drama appears to begin with the second pick with the New York Jets, as the Jacksonville Jaguars are heavy favorites to make Trevor Lawrence the first overall pick.

And with one thrilling game this weekend, Ohio State’s Justin Fields has reentered the chat at No. 2.

Fields got called out for his sub-par performance against Northwestern in the Big Ten title game, a contest he barely finished while playing with a thumb injury that made it extremely difficult to throw. That game, along with his struggles against Indiana earlier in the season, appeared to shift the tides toward BYU’s Zach Wilson as the favorite to be QB2 in this class.

Fields seemed to erase all the talk of his limitations with one of the gutsiest performances of the season in the Buckeyes’ 49-28 thrashing of Clemson in the playoff semifinals. After being knocked out of the game via shot to his midsection by Clemson linebacker James Skalski, Fields reentered and delivered a heroic masterpiece for the ages.

With a Sugar Bowl-record six TD passes on 22 of 28 completions for 385 yards — many of those with a noticeable limp and many grimaces of pain — a hobbled Fields did more for his draft stock in one game than anyone could have imagined coming in.

Doing so against a multiple-look, pressure-happy defense such as the one coordinator Brent Venables runs made it all the more impressive. Dealing with pressure was an issue that has cropped up more than once during the season prior to this game.

Ohio State QB Justin Fields was masterful against Clemson in the Sugar Bowl, answering a lot of questions that had cropped up. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Ohio State QB Justin Fields was masterful against Clemson in the Sugar Bowl, answering a lot of questions that had cropped up. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

Perhaps this is not a vintage Clemson defense, and Fields’ performance in the title game against Alabama surely will carry a lot of weight with NFL scouts, too. But bouncing back and throwing dime after downfield dime without being able to fully drive into his throws is the type of effort that could brand Fields as one of the toughest and most naturally skilled customers available.

And while Lawrence is almost certainly the first pick, if you knew nothing about either player coming in and watched only this game of the two QBs, you couldn’t be blamed for thinking Fields was the superior talent.

Naturally, NFL people don’t grade prospects off of one game. They’ll dissect Fields, Lawrence, Wilson and the remainder of the ballyhooed 2021 QB class deeper than any of us could imagine. But for as bad as the Northwestern game was for Fields’ rep, this game was enough to offset that setback.

With the talk that Urban Meyer (or perhaps Ryan Day) are on the Jaguars’ wish list as they reportedly try to make themselves the “Ohio State of the NFL,” there’s at least a remote chance that Fields will be in play for No. 1.

No, Jets fans, we don’t want you to get overly excited about that. Lawrence is still the guy at No. 1.

More likely, Wilson and Fields are set to battle for QB2 honors. We wouldn’t even rule out quarterbacks going 1-2-3 for the first time in the draft since 1999.

The fact that we’re even discussing that possibility speaks to what Fields showed, potential-wise, in that scorching game. Repeat that against the Crimson Tide in a week and that volume will be cranked up even louder.

Now let’s check out a few winners and losers from the second round of bowl games and the playoff semifinals:

Winners

Ohio State WR Chris Olave

What a game for Justin Fields’ security blanket, and that’s not an insult to Olave’s skills. But with Olave out in the Big Ten title game, Fields looked lost at times, trying to squeeze the ball in to Garrett Wilson most of the time and appearing to not fully trust his other options.

Olave’s return was spectacular, with six catches for 132 yards and two TDs. He beat potential first-round cornerback Derion Kendrick for a gorgeous 56-yard score (despite the ball being thrown slightly behind him) to break the game open at 42-21 midway through the third quarter.

Olave’s four fumbles this season were eye-opening after he didn’t put a single ball on the ground his first two seasons. But there’s a lot of technical subtlety to Olave’s game that should make him a productive pro.

Another big performance such as this against a good Bama secondary would make the junior wideout’s decision on the 2021 draft much easier, but our guess is that Olave will come out either way.

Notre Dame OT Liam Eichenberg

Not much more to say here other than Eichenberg once again looked terrific, even if the Irish got worked in the semifinal game against Alabama. It certainly wasn’t Eichenberg’s fault, as he looked like the most effective Notre Dame blocker in that game, handling the Bama pass rush well and paving some good running lanes.

It has been that way all season. Eichenberg was named the winner of the Jacobs Blocking Trophy, given to the best blocker in the ACC — over players such as Virginia Tech left tackle Christian Darrisaw.

Notre Dame offensive lineman Liam Eichenberg played well against Alabama in the Rose Bowl. (AP Photo/Michael Ainsworth)
Notre Dame offensive lineman Liam Eichenberg played well against Alabama in the Rose Bowl. (AP Photo/Michael Ainsworth)

Eichenberg is in the second tier in what looks like a good group of tackle prospects this year (although not as top-heavy as the banner 2020 OT crop). Still, that gives him a chance to be a top-50 overall selection and a possible Day 1 starter for a needy team.

He compares favorably to the Falcons’ Jake Matthews.

Ohio State DT Tommy Togiai

One of the Buckeyes’ best defenders from the Clemson game can’t be overlooked. He’s one of their unsung heroes from this season.

Togiai led an outstanding OSU presence up front, erasing the Tigers’ run game and making them more one-dimensional as they got in a hole. After being a bit player on last season’s defense, Togiai stepped forward as one of the major difference makers.

He used his quickness to get off the ball, disrupt the timing of the Clemson combo blocks and defeated more than one double team that we saw. It was how you want a nose tackle in today’s game to play.

Like Olave, Togiai has eligibility remaining, and selfishly we’d love to see what he could become with another year of seasoning up front. It also wouldn’t be a stunner if he left school. Games such as this one and the Indiana performance in which he basically pitched a tent in the Hoosiers’ backfield will make Togiai an interesting prospect.

Ohio State LB Justin Hilliard

Here’s a Buckeyes backup who has turned in some eye-opening performances of late. Stuck behind perhaps the best linebacking trio in the country the past few years, battling multiple injuries along the way, Hilliard has worked to find a spot on this defense.

Better late than never. Hilliard made eight tackles (one for loss) and recovered a fumble in the Sugar Bowl win, following up another strong game in the Big Ten championship, in which he made an interception, a fumble recovery and nine tackles. You could argue he has been Ohio State’s best all-around defender the past two weeks.

Hilliard might be on the outside looking in as far as being drafted, but the sixth-year senior certainly put out some good tape the past few games to give himself a chance. What a terrific turn of events.

Ball State CB Antonio Phillips

It has been a heck of a few weeks for the Cardinals program, first beating Buffalo in the MAC championship for the first school title in 24 years. Then Ball State romped a shorthanded San Jose State team that entered the game ranked 17th in the country.

One of the big contributors to BSU’s strong finish was Phillips, one of the best defensive prospects in the conference. Phillips got off to a great start in the Arizona Bowl by knocking away a deep shot 45 yards downfield on the third play from scrimmage and followed it up with a pick six two plays later.

In the MAC title game, Phillips had an impressive pass breakup downfield, closing fast and timing his jump perfectly. He didn’t see much time against the Spartans’ best receiver, Tre Walker, but Phillips had great coverage overall.

At a shade over 5-foot-11 and 187 pounds, Phillips looks like a good off-man outside corner in the NFL. He might never be a team’s CB1, but Phillips has good arm length (32 inches), solid speed (estimated 4.5 40) and nice instincts to defend the pass, which have been on display consistently the past few seasons. He also is a willing tackler.

He’s similar to 2018 Cincinnati Bengals fifth-rounder Darius Phillips (no relation), who had a strong 2020 season after his 2019 campaign was cut short. The MAC develops decent talent every year, and the Cardinals’ Phillips has a chance to be a very respectable Day 3 pick and perhaps a surprise performer.

Losers

Mississippi State WR Osirus Mitchell

In the season-opening shocker over LSU, Mitchell was one of the stars with seven catches for 183 yards and two TDs. That was a snapshot of the potential scouts saw in previous seasons when some teams stamped third-round summer grades on the 6-foot-4, 206-pound wideout.

However, the Bulldogs’ operation fell apart at the seams, as Mike Leach lost his grip on the offense, there was a QB change, star running back Kylin Hill opted out and just about everything else you could imagine happened.

Mitchell suffered because of it. He never topped the 61-yard mark in any of the 10 remaining games and totaled only two TDs the rest of the way.

And after a solid game against Mizzou (five catches on five targets, 44 yards, touchdown), Mitchell struggled in the bowl game win over Tulsa, catching one 3-yard pass on two targets. He played about half the game.

Mitchell has intriguing potential given his length and bursts of production. But he’s not a great separator, played almost exclusively on the right side of MSU’s Air Raid system, doesn’t offer much after the catch and wasn’t used as a deep threat.

Mitchell could return to school with the new COVID-related eligibility rules. If not, he leaves Starkville as a tricky prospect to evaluate.

Kentucky C Drake Jackson

Jackson has become something of a crush prospect for Draft Twitter, and it’s sometimes easy to see why. The highly respected Wildcats center has good technical skills and smarts for the position. He also can surprise defenders with his quickness and ability to reach his landmarks despite lacking great length or burst.

Following a mostly strong final season, Jackson had a so-so performance in the Gator Bowl. It came against a North Carolina State defense that was missing four key performers, including All-America tackle Alim McNeill.

We appreciated Jackson’s two snaps after defenders jumped offsides, earning a free 10 yards of field position. The Wildcats also ran behind their veteran pivot on their first two fourth-and-short run plays in the game.

Kentucky center Drake Jackson (65) blocks North Carolina State Wolfpack linebacker Jaylon Scott (2) during the TaxSlayer Gator Bowl. (Photo by David Rosenblum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Kentucky center Drake Jackson (65) blocks North Carolina State Wolfpack linebacker Jaylon Scott during the TaxSlayer Gator Bowl. (Photo by David Rosenblum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

However, Jackson appeared less effective getting into space and leading the ground game against the Wolfpack’s 0 technique nose tackles. He lacks great power and will lose the leverage battle at times simply because of his stumpy frame (a shade over 6-foot and about 305 pounds). Jackson also was guilty of a strange unsportsmanlike conduct penalty at the end of the third quarter as he threw the ball down while the game clock expired.

Overall, that type of play is uncharacteristic for Jackson. He’s a very smart, capable, bump-and-steer blocker for a predominantly zone-scheme team in the NFL. Jackson should interview very well and get a bump when the coaches get involved in the scouting process. But there are physical limitations that limit his draft appeal overall.

Oklahoma State LB Amen Ogbongbemiga

Ogbongbemiga was a strong performer most of the season for the Cowboys, earning second-team Big 12 mention and turning in a whale of a performance (three forced fumbles, two recoveries) in OSU’s loss to TCU in which he did everything possible to will his team to victory.

He was noticeably less effective in the Cowboys’ bowl game win over Miami, showcasing a tackling issue — three missed tackles — that was more of a story for him in 2019 than it had been this season. Two of those misses could have prevented third- and fourth-down conversions for the Canes. Ogbongbemiga was also beat on a 16-yard catch and appeared sucked in on play-action passes more than once.

Overall, Ogbongbemiga is a good player who earned his captaincy and will be on the Day 3 radar for the NFL. This game, however, showed some of his limitations in space and he also will be a highly regarded CFL prospect because of his Canadian citizenship. (One CFL source says Ogbongbemiga even has a chance to be the first pick in that league’s 2021 draft.)

Ogbongbemiga deserves NFL looks for the solid body of work he amassed in Stillwater. If the NFL doesn’t work out, Ogbongbemiga certainly will be highly regarded up north.

Clemson CB Derion Kendrick

It was a brutal night for Kendrick and the Tigers’ secondary, which played the first half without safety Nolan Turner (following his targeting call the week before).

A year ago against the Buckeyes, Kendrick was a standout with nine tackles and two pass breakups. This game was tough for him as he allowed a 56-yard score to Olave, a 47-yard catch to Garrett Wilson and couldn’t make a play on Luke Farrell’s first touchdown.

Clemson cornerback Derion Kendrick, left, was burned for two TDs in the Sugar Bowl. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)
Clemson cornerback Derion Kendrick, left, was burned for two TDs in the Sugar Bowl. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)

Kendrick has received some first-round mention, and he has a lot of potential after switching over to cornerback from wide receiver only a few years ago. He also appears to have work to do.

Kendrick missed three games this season for what appeared to be disciplinary reasons, although coach Dabo Swinney refused to say that his junior cornerback was in the doghouse. Swinney instead called it “the Love Shack.”

Either way, Kendrick’s evaluation would be tricky if he declared this season. He started the season on fire, preventing a single catch against him the first four games, but was less effective as time went on and clearly wasn’t following team rules as well.

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