Among those who have moved BYU’s Zach Wilson ahead of Fields is NFL.com’s Daniel Jeremiah, a former NFL scout whose real-world experience in such a role gives him a leg up on most of the numerous NFL Draft evaluators in the media who have popped up over the past 20 or so years.
He also has North Dakota State quarterback Trey Lance ahead of Fields and offered some nuance to the discussion in a conference call with reporters this week.
After saying the choice between Fields and Lance is a tossup, Jeremiah broke down the difference between Fields and Wilson as a matter of production vs. potential.
“I think both those guys are going to be really good players at the next level,” Jeremiah said of Fields and Wilson. “I would say I don’t think there’s a debate in terms of who played better last year when you just watch all the tape. To me Zach Wilson played the best, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a slam dunk he’s going to be the best player.”
In 12 games for the Cougars last season, Wilson completed 73.5 percent of his passes while Fields completed 70.2 percent of his passes in eight games for the Buckeyes.
Wilson also had the superior passer rating last season, though both finished in the national top 10.
While both operated passer-friendly offenses, Ohio State faced five of the top 25 defenses in the country as ranked by FootballOutsiders.com.
BYU, on the other hand, saw only one, and that is just one of the variables in evaluating Fields and Wilson.
While Wilson had the benefit of playing more games, Fields enjoyed the higher recruiting pedigree.
Though both are mobile, Fields is bigger and stouter (a listed 228 pounds vs. 210) and presents a greater threat as a runner.
“The evaluation is you’ve got Zach who threw the ball better, somebody who made better decisions, but you look at what Justin brings to the table — first of all, let’s start with his toughness,” Jeremiah said. “We saw that in the Clemson game. That’s nothing to be diminished there. He is extremely tough.”
Despite taking a helmet to the side early in Ohio State’s College Football Playoff semifinal matchup with Clemson, Fields threw for 385 yards and six touchdowns against a top 10 Tigers defense.
Considering the opponent and the stakes, that was in all likelihood Fields’ best college game.
It also happened to come right after his worst game, a 144-yard, no-touchdown, two-interception performance against Northwestern in the Big Ten Championship game.
After the torching the Tigers, Fields turned in a so-so performance against Alabama (194 yards, one touchdown) in the National Championship Game, leaving plenty for evaluators to pick apart for better or for worse between early January and the draft in late April.
All three of those defenses show up among the best in the country according to Football Outsiders with Northwestern No. 1 in the site’s F+ rating followed by Clemson (No. 6) and Alabama (No. 8).
(F+ combines ratings of efficiency and explosiveness measured via play-by-play data as well as drive data.)
Wilson threw for over 300 yards and three touchdowns against San Diego State, the No. 7 defense in the country and the best he faced, but was not at his best (240 yards, one touchdown, one interception) against Coastal Carolina, whose defense ranked No. 33 and was the next-best Wilson saw last season.
(The 6-4, 226-pound Lance, who like Wilson was a three-star recruit in the class of 2018, played only one game as the rest of the Bison’s season at the FCS level was postponed to spring.)
“You look at somebody that can make those throws, make every throw, somebody that is a dynamic runner, obviously that’s a big plus for (Fields) over Zach Wilson, but to me I think the reason why I end up going with Zach Wilson is really simple,” Jeremiah said. “It’s just I thought he was a better decision maker and I thought he threw the ball more accurately.
“But again, somebody is going to draft Justin Fields and they’re going to mix in some design quarterback run game and they’re going to let him get on the move and make things happen and we’re going to continue to see him grow and develop, and I think he’s got a chance to be a really good pro as well.”