It’s NFL Draft season, and the picks happen tonight. Whatever happens, is going to either validate the insiders and make fans look silly, or Shanahan is going to right the wrong from his draft and truly take the most talented quarterback after Trevor Lawrence: Justin Fields.
Since the end of the college football season, analysts have been shoving draft evaluations down our throats, saturating the airwaves. Since the 49ers traded up to pick three, insiders have been peddling information they’re getting from league “sources” and saying anything and everything that will generate clicks and content for their websites and Twitter engagement. A range of rumors can be read on a given day with takes like “X player doesn’t work hard” or “Scouts are worried about his commitment” and a variety of others.
The more pervasive takes are the ones being given about the quarterback class and, in particular, about Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields. The quotes above are paraphrased and were uttered recently by ESPN analyst Dan Orlovsky who casually just listed them off on the Pat McAfee show but did not do the work of confirming if they were true or not. He later clarified the rumors he heard were not true when he spoke to coaches whom Fields closely worked with this offseason.
Fans have latched onto these narratives to peddle their takes to anyone who will listen in the comments of myself and others who break down the film. “The film shows…” or, “this analyst said…” are often uttered by people who should know better but don’t so that no matter how many films you show of Fields going through progressions, playing from the pocket, throwing with anticipation, etc., they simply refuse to believe it.
The need to be right is so ubiquitous that people have managed to intertwine two fact-free statements that are both illogical and incongruous at the same time: that Fields is both a 1-read and run quarterback and that he holds onto the ball too long.
But what does the film say? First, you should read Niners Nation site editor Kyle Posey’s analysis of the draft quarterbacks. Kyle breaks down his rankings for traits such as accuracy, pocket movement, throwing under pressure, and throwing out of structure. Fields is at or near the top of each category. Here, we’ll try to shatter the stereotype of Fields as a quarterback who does not progress past his reads or throw with anticipation.
More than just a 1-read quarterback
The catalyst for this is a report from ESPN analyst Todd McShay who regurgitated a stat that said Fields only progressed to his second read seven times in 200 throws, and he mentioned the “research” was done by scouts for an NFL team. That’s bizarre, if not downright alarming and reckless considering most serious and credible analysts can show you more than seven throws.
In his study of the draft quarterbacks progressing beyond their first reads, The Draft Network’s Benjamin Solak charted Fields progressing beyond his first read on 19.09% of his passes while Mac Jones actually came in last at 9.72%. That’s not necessarily a bad thing for Mac because the sign of a healthy offense is one that gets the first receiver open the majority of the time. The problem is, that’s not ever the case in the NFL, and the quarterback must be able to progress through.
What does it look like when a QB progresses through his reads? One way to tell the quarterback is going through his reads to look at his footwork. Eyes are an indication as well, but sometimes they can be looking off a safety to get him to move rather than making a read.
Hitch steps at the top of a quarterback’s drop give the clearest indication of a given play’s route progression because they are used to sync up the timing of the quarterback’s drop back to the route developing downfield.
On the play above, Ohio State runs a smash variant to the field side and two boundary verticals to the short side that ends up distributing like the “989” concept. To get a feel for his progressions, at the top of his drop, Fields takes a hitch. That first hitch allows a route to develop before throwing. As he hits the hitch, he’s peeking the safety who zones off over the slot vertical. The throw isn’t there.
Instead, on his first hitch, he resets, and his eyes go to the right. The next two reads are the verticals to the boundary. Fields resets, hitches a second time, comes off the slot receiver, hitches a third time, and his eyes go to the boundary vertical before throwing a deep moon shot for a touchdown.
Fields also shows an ability to read progressions at all levels of the field. Here, Ohio State is running its “Spread” concept. From left to right, the spread is a quick out/flat route (1st read), vertical go route on top of it to the same side (2nd read), high cross by the slot or tight end (3rd read), and deep post route (4th read/alert).
The play is a good quarters coverage/cover-6 beater but has answers for other coverages as well. In the first clip against Nebraska, the Nebraska defense is in cover-6 (cover 2 to the boundary, quarters/cover-4 to the field). Fields must determine pre-snap if he has a favorable match-up on the alert post. If he does, he can peek at the route while scanning the other progressions. In all of these clips, Fields can maneuver while scanning.
As he drops back, he can see the cloud/force corner squat on the flat route with the deep half safety pushing over the vertical. No throw there. He shuffles, resets to the crosser, sees the safety playing top down over it, and moves onto his fourth read, the deep post, where he uncorks it for a touchdown.
He threw the same play for a 60+ air yard touchdown versus Clemson in the semifinal game as well.
It’s not just the deep passing progressions that he excels at reading either, and he frequently shows he is skilled at reading the field at all levels.
Ohio State is running a half-field smash concept with a double dig combo to the backside of the formation. Versus the Rutgers 2-high safety coverage, Fields correctly reads the boundary smash concept first. The corner to that side initially sinks to the flat pivot route then begins to drop under the corner route as Fields peeks at it. Fields moves off the read and comes back across the field.
Fields decisively fires the ball between the weak seam defender and the middle of the field zone dropper. The pass is expertly placed slightly behind the receiver due to the positioning of the defender on the seam.
In addition to this, Fields skillfully navigates the pocket to find his next progressions, something that cannot be overlooked. This is what you want to see a quarterback do, and Fields does it perhaps better than anyone in the draft class.
Fields never takes his eyes off the field here, first looking for the deep post. He sees the corner and safety bracketing the route, so he eliminates it, and as he does, he has to avoid the rush. Coming front the backside, he has two dig routes coming across the middle as his backside reads.
Alabama is rotating from single to 2-high with a five-man pressure (cover-2 “roll”) where the corner plays the deep half, the buzz defender to the boundary robs under #1 since there’s no flat route, and the deep safety pushes over the trips side. Fields reads go from left to right since the coverage rotates to 2-high: the skinny post to the backside dig/levels routes. The post-snap blitz by the linebacker tips him off to the rotation as he takes the snap.
The plays above aren’t the only plays Fields has that shows him going through his reads. This isn’t cherry-picked either. The problem with saying that is I cannot possibly break down every single play where this happens, so instead, I made cut-ups of a bunch of times where it does happen. In the cut-ups above, you can see various plays where he does progress through his reads, and it’s more than seven. But for some reason, I feel that you have to show a wide swath of these plays for anyone to truly believe it.
Racially coded language and how we talk about white vs. black quarterbacks
Are there plays that Fields misreads or misfires? Yes, absolutely, there are throws like that. In fact, all quarterbacks in the draft have them. But unlike some of the other quarterbacks in the draft, they are few and far between, yet Fields is the only one who takes the criticism for it. He’s been labeled a “one read quarterback,” a “quarterback who doesn’t process fast enough and locks on to his reads,” and as a “quarterback who doesn’t fit what Shanahan wants.”
None of that is true. And Trey Lance doesn’t even really get the same criticisms. Sometimes his positives seem weirder in that he’s being pigeon-holed into a quarterback who has the “highest upside” because he ran a “pro-style offense.” Even that feels like it’s being projected onto fans as being what the standard of quarterback play should be, all traits we associate with white quarterbacks.
Instead of talking about these quarterbacks' tangible stuff or don’t do well, we segregate them by boilerplate jargon and characteristics that typically only black quarterbacks get. Tony Dungy, speaking to Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle (link is paywalled), recently stated that:
“You rarely hear people talk about Mahomes, at 25, being poised,” Dungy said. “And processing information. And his decision-making. … It’s always the athleticism and the arm, and all of that’s there, and that’s true. But he’s definitely more than that.”
As I and others have shown, Fields (and a lesser extent Lance) check all the boxes for traits you want to see in a quarterback at the next level. The footwork, the arm talent, the ability to process the game in front of them, hit the tight windows and difficult throws are all there, and yet some fans and some in the media have a hard time seeing it.
Yet there’s almost no mention of how RPO-heavy Mac Jones's offense at Alabama was. Against Notre Dame alone, Jones threw 11 passes off RPO-based concepts and arguably was in a more favorable situation for a quarterback than Fields.
Then there is almost no mention of Mac Jones DUI history, and criticisms of Zach Wilson’s wealthy background and bad attitude were roundly rejected on the spot and never mentioned again. Even Trey Lance, widely viewed as a project quarterback who needs to sit and develop (he doesn’t) has as many career collegiate starts as Mac Jones, who’s viewed as the most “pro-ready.”
Recently, Fields’ history with epilepsy was the center of debate and how it could affect his pro career or cause him to slide in the draft. Again, there’s no mention of how Wilson’s injury history will impact his career or draft stock (he passed a physical for whatever that’s worth). And no mention of Mac Jones's dad bod/baby fat (it is a highly charged debate on Twitter, but Twitter isn’t the NFL media and its mouthpieces, and they aren’t talking about it).
It’s not hard to see what is going on here. On some level, these rumors and whisperings could be the work of NFL teams trying to get players to slide, knowing that it’s to their benefit to infusing the debate with racially coded language, stereotypes, or character concerns. On another level, NFL executives and their media mouthpieces are, for the most part, old and white and are talking about young black quarterbacks who could end up dominating the league for the next decade.
That might scare some people. The NFL in general and fans, in particular, can be resistant to any kind of change that evolves the game. And this is largely the result of its own making as the shift focuses more on offense and finding players whose traits can help a team bend the rules in their favor. It’s also no secret that maybe some executives are just flat-out racist (the late Bob McNair?).
But any mention of the R-word is met with claims that one is a “race-baiter,” as one observer called me in a Twitter exchange. Yet, the only people making these bizarre arguments are the same ones labeling the black quarterbacks in every draft class with the typical stereotypes they usually garner.
It’s frustrating, even after going through the tape extensively and breaking down play after play after play and seeing fans and analysts unconsciously parrot the same talking points without questioning their validity and equally if not more frustrating seeing media analysts do it like Orlovsky, who should know better.
I don’t have a solution, and neither does anyone else. But at the very least, if something sounds cliché or makes you internally question the premise of the argument, then dig into it on your own and formulate your own conclusion. Until that starts happening and fans start pushing back on these ridiculous narratives (bullying works), then it will happen year after year.
What should the 49ers do?
Draft Justin Fields. No questions asked. Get the quarterback who can elevate your scheme from day 1 (for what it’s worth, I think Lance could and should also start day 1). That’s Justin Fields.