Here’s the first story of our position-by-position 2021 NFL draft series. Today we’ll look at the top quarterbacks.
With the NFL draft approaching, there’s still a storm circulating around Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields, the former Georgia and Harrison High product.
Despite guiding his team to the College Football Playoff Championship game and having perhaps one of the greatest performances in college football history in the semifinal against Clemson, Fields is projected to be the fourth or fifth quarterback taken in the draft, which is set for April 29 through May 1 in Cleveland.
When reports about Fields’ work ethic and ability to read defenses came out, his defenders, including Ohio State coach Ryan Day, quickly spoke out on behalf of the dynamic quarterback.
But the damage may already have been done.
“That’s not a good thing because sometimes when you’re talented, you just think your talent can carry you,” a longtime NFL scout and personnel executive told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “I’m hoping that’s not his approach. When that stuff starts leaking out, that means somebody is talking.”
Sometimes it’s a former coach and/or an agent of former teammates.
“All it takes is a couple of teammates to say to their agent, man, he’s talented, but he doesn’t study the game like he should,” the executive said. “That’s all that needs to be said, and then it will catch fire like a California mountain fire. Spread like you don’t know what.”
Normally, teams will keep the information they have under their hats, but sometimes there’s a leak. Teams will want to know why he didn’t beat out Jake Fromm at Georgia and why he transferred.
“I’m hoping that’s not the case,” the executive said. “It (ticks) me off when people want to beat up on some of the (Black) quarterbacks and play that, ‘He’s not a student of the game’ card. Like him, and the North Dakota State kid (Trey Lance), to me, both of those kids are talented athletically and arm-wise.”
Day said Fields progressed to his fifth read twice in the 49-28 playoff win over Clemson. He completed 22 of 28 passes for 385 yards and six touchdowns. His passing yards were an Ohio State postseason record and the touchdowns tied him with Iowa’s Chuck Long for a postseason record by a Big Ten quarterback.
“What I have to say to that is to be honest with you (I’m throwing to) some of the best receivers in the country so if my first or second read is there, I’m not going to pass up that first or second read to get to the three, four, fifth read to prove that I can read past my first or second read,” Fields said. “I’m going to put my team in the best position to win.”
Fields is not used to receiving any criticism.
“Of course there’s always going to be a chip on my shoulder, but I think my drive, my wanting to be great, my willingness to be great just comes from inside,” Fields said.
Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence, BYU’s Zach Wilson and Alabama’s Mac Jones are expected to go one-two-and-three in the draft to Jacksonville, the New York Jets and San Francisco.
Under that scenario, Fields would be on the board with the Falcons set to pick, but they could have a deal worked out to move back with Denver or New England. Lance played only one season and will need some NFL seasoning.
“Both of those guys have a shot,” the executive said. “They are going to have to put in work. If I was a GM and I’m sitting in that chair, and I’m hearing all of this study-habit stuff, I’m going to research it to the cows come home. I’m going to know all about it even before it’s hitting the fan. See, I would have known all about it all ready.”
Lawrence is a near-consensus No. 1 overall pick.
Wilson, who lost a game to Coastal Carolina last season, did not have a better run than Fields.
“I’ve seen other quarterbacks picked higher than him that I was not nearly as high on as I am on Zach Wilson,” the executive said. “I like Zach Wilson better than when Mitch Trubisky got picked or where he got picked. Zach Wilson is better than that.”
Jones, a one-year starter, was considered a possible first-round pick at the beginning of the draft process. Alabama coach Nick Saban even called him a “game manager.” But reportedly San Francisco coach Kyle Shanahan wants Jones, and the 49ers traded three No. 1 picks to move from 12th overall to three to make sure they get him.
“To put Mac Jones in the same class as the Clemson quarterback and the BYU quarterback, that is totally wrong,” the executive said. “If they are saying those guys are 1,2,3 ... come on man. That’s just not right.”
Saban tried to explain that being a game manager is a good thing.
“I know that when you say a guy does that, everybody thinks he’s not a very good player,” Saban said. “He’s not capable of anything else, but managing. But to me to be a good quarterback you’ve got to be a good manager, and then your ability to make plays sort of goes from there.”
Saban believes Jones will be fine in the NFL, especially in Shanahan’s system, which is close to what former offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian ran at Alabama.
“Mac has the ability to make plays because he’s smart,” Saban said. “He accurate. He’s going to throw the ball in the right place, and he’s going to always help the offensive team be in the right situation, whether it’s a run or a pass or whatever.”
Jones waited his turn at Alabama and may have to do the same behind Jimmy Garoppolo with the 49ers.
“This quarterback class is a really good class,” Jones said. “I’m just blessed to be a part of it. Honestly, you can watch on tape and see that we all have great tape. What separates me is preparation and take what I’ve learned from the coaches’ meetings and my own meetings and apply it to the field.”
After the top five quarterbacks, there is a group that includes Florida’s Kyle Trask, Stanford’s Davis Mills (Greater Atlanta Christian), Texas A&M’s Kellen Mond and Wake Forest’s Jamie Newman.
“Trask is going to be a good quarterback,” the executive said. “The Stanford quarterback is a good quarterback. A few of those guys are good little players. They are going to be in the league for a long time. They are going to be backups until they have to start and produce.”
Newman transferred to Georgia, but opted out of the season before it began. That’s a red flag for some teams. He had an opportunity to prove his worth, but now some think he was losing the battle to be the starter and left.
“He’s more developmental, but he’s got some talent, though,” the executive said. “I like his arm. He’s big-time mobile. He’s just got to fix a lot of things. He’s going to have a chance because he’s going to get drafted right there in the middle.”
Teams want to know why he opted out.
“I don’t know the guy, the person, but … it bothers me when a guy transfers and he’s supposed to be the guy, then he opts out,” the executive said. “He quit. To me, he had a chance to step up and be the guy. Show the nation that everybody is talking about Fields, this and that, (but) I’m going to be that guy.
“It bothered me … I don’t know. There are different type of bailouts. ... I’m wondering if he was just trying to fight to keep the job at Georgia. Maybe he was going to be on the bench, and he was like let me opt out before I get beat out. That’s what I’m wondering.”
Falcons’ 2021 draft position: Here are the top 10 picks in D. Led’s Mock Draft 4.0:
1. Jacksonville Jaguars: Trevor Lawrence (QB, Clemson)
2. New York Jets: Zach Wilson, (QB, BYU)
3. San Francisco 49ers: Justin Fields (QB, Ohio State)
4. Atlanta Falcons: Penei Sewell (OT, Oregon)
5. Cincinnati Bengals: Ja’Marr Chase (WR, LSU)
6. Miami Dolphins: Kyle Pitts (TE, Florida)
7. Detroit Lions: DeVonta Smith (WR, Alabama)
8. Carolina Panthers: Jaylen Waddle (WR, Alabama)
9. Denver Broncos: Trey Lance (QB, North Dakota State)
10. Dallas Cowboys: Patrick Surtain (CB, Alabama)
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