Through no fault of his own, Justin Fields has become the 2021 NFL Draft's most polarizing prospect.
Fields, who the 49ers could target with the No. 3 overall pick, entered the season as the unquestioned No. 2 quarterback in the class behind Clemson's Trevor Lawrence, and all he did was throw for 2,100 yards, 22 touchdowns and six interceptions while leading Ohio State to the College Football Playoff National Championship Game. In the pre-draft process, Fields has faced the same racist tropes a number of Black quarterbacks have had to deal with, as he has had his work ethic questioned and his "processing speed" criticized when compared to some of his White counterparts.
Ohio State coach Ryan Day was quick to set the record straight on Fields' work ethic after ESPN's Dan Orlovsky told Pat McAfee that he has heard some NFL teams question whether or not Fields wants to be great and that he's a "last in, first out" type of quarterback.
“The whole idea that he doesn’t have a very good work ethic?” Day told NBC Sports' Peter King. “I mean, to me, that’s crazy. He got done with the Clemson game [the loss in the college football playoffs in the 2019 season] and he came back and all he did was work to get back to that game. And when those other guys are opting out, what’s he do? He petitions to have a season. He put together this petition that the Big Ten athletes all signed saying that they want to play, but they want to play safely and that they don’t accept canceling the season. It was all led by Justin Fields. Where was everybody else? Where were the guys who were opting out then? You know, you don’t love the game if you’re doing something like that. This kid loves the game.
“I heard something about the last one to come in, first one to leave. First off, the scouts weren’t in our building all year. Last one in? Every morning, at least every morning we could be in the building, early, he’s in with [football sports performance czar] Mickey Marotti. The guys who were self-motivated and could do things on their own, those were the ones who made it. He was unbelievable. He changed his diet, he got stronger. He did better than most.”
Day was clear he believes analysts shouldn't just parrot everything they are being told.
“I think some people are being a little reckless with their comments," Day said.
Orlovsky has admitted he should have done a better job of framing the critiques he has heard of Fields and noting that those are things he has heard and might be a concern but it's not fact.
As for the questions regarding Fields' processing speed and ability to read defenses, no one should critique Fields in that area unless they understand the offense Ohio State was running and what Day wanted Fields to do. A lot of the Buckeyes' passing game involved option routes which asks the quarterback to wait longer to see where the receiver will break. Fields demonstrated quick processing ability many times throughout the Buckeyes' shortened season. He can get faster at moving through his progressions, but if anyone is viewing him as a "one-read quarterback" they don't know what they are talking about.
As Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch survey the top quarterbacks in the class, Fields should be at the top of their list. Not only does he have elite athleticism that allows him to make plays outside the pocket and move the sticks on the ground, but he has top-level arm talent and is incredibly accurate. Fields' talent also fits perfectly with what Shanahan has told us he wants in a dual-threat quarterback if he were to go that route.
Fields might have the highest ceiling of any of the top-five prospects, and I'd argue that, of the quarterbacks the 49ers will choose from at No. 3, he and Mac Jones have the highest floors.
The criticisms of Fields are rooted in racism that Black quarterbacks have had to overcome for decades. None of it rings true about Fields.
All you have to do is turn on the tape of his evisceration of Clemson in the Sugar Bowl to see how much he wants to be great and the elite, can't-miss talent he is.