The immediate football future of Justin Fields has dominated NFL Draft headlines since January.
The Ohio State quarterback should find out where he is going Thursday night before the first round is over.
At that point, the world will learn if much — or any — of the time spent debating Fields’ status had merit.
Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence is still expected to be Jacksonville’s choice at No. 1.
In the three months since the Buckeyes lost to Alabama in the National Championship Game, BYU’s Zach Wilson reportedly became the apple of the New York Jets’ eye, vaulting him to No. 2 in virtually all mock drafts.
After reports began to emerge of the Jets’ affinity for Wilson, many prominent draft analysts talked themselves into agreeing he is a deserving No. 2 pick because of his accuracy, arm strength and play-making ability.
That does not seem to be the case with Alabama’s Mac Jones despite reports the 49ers moved up to the No. 3 spot with the intention of taking him.
Jones put up spectacular numbers with great talent around him as the Crimson Tide went undefeated and won it all last season, but his average physical tools and relatively small body of work meant he was not widely considered a candidate to be a top 10 pick — or perhaps even worthy of a first-round selection — when the season ended.
This week, NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport reported San Francisco is still deciding between Jones and Trey Lance, a more athletic signal-caller from North Dakota State who played only one game last season but had a spectacular 2019 campaign.
Lance has a similar skillset to Fields, but like Wilson has performed against inferior competition.
The choice sets up an interesting comparison between draft analysts in the media and real NFL player personnel departments (or at least the 49ers), although who was right might not be known for a few years.
Online draft rankings are a dime a dozen these days, but when The Athletic put together a consensus board combining the rankings of more than 50 different draft sites and analysts Fields was still No. 5 overall.
He was the No. 2 quarterback — behind Lawrence and ahead of Wilson — while Lance was fourth and Jones came in fifth.
The Athletic’s in-house draft guru, Dane Brugler, ranks the quarterbacks Lawrence-Wilson-Lance-Fields-Jones, as does Vinnie Iyer at Sporting News and NFL Network’s Daniel Jeremiah.
Pro Football Focus has a top three overall of Lawrence-Wilson-Fields with Lance ranked 10th and Jones 14th among all players.
Jeremiah told reporters on a conference call last week he does not see a big difference between the quarterbacks at the top of the rankings.
“To me there’s Trevor, there’s a little bit of a gap, and then to me I end up going with Zach as my No. 2 quarterback,” Jeremiah said.
“I think Zach plays with a little bit more urgency than Justin, just in terms of how quick his hands are, how quick the ball gets out, how quick he’ll make decisions when he has to. When he decides he wants to go, he goes,” Wilson said.
Jeremiah, a former college quarterback who was a scout for the Ravens, Browns and Eagles, also called Wilson “a more gifted thrower” than the others.
“He can just do some unique things — that to me is why I have him up there at No. 2,” Jeremiah said, “Do I wish he was a little bit bigger and sturdier? Sure. That’s definitely a feather in the cap for the other three guys, but this kid’s throwing ability is pretty unique. There’s not many guys that can make some of the throws that you see Zach make, and I think that’s kind of where the game has gone, and I think he fits in beautifully into that system.”
He also explained how Jones could be the No. 3 pick in many mock drafts without there actually being a consensus he is the third-best option on the board.
“The challenge that I have is that I’m not scouting for a team,” Jeremiah said. “I don’t have coaches coming in and saying, ‘This is what we value. If we could tailor our team to what we really want to do here, this is going to help us rank our board.
“I’m scouting for a generic team that doesn’t exist, so I’m going to be a little more inclined to take the guys with more upside that I think fits in more places that can do more things.
“I don’t think Mac Jones fits all 32 teams. I don’t think he fits all the teams that are in the quarterback market, but I understand why the 49ers value what he does because this is really an opportunity for San Francisco to duplicate what Mac Jones had at Alabama, which is you have a really good offensive line, you’ve got guys that can win one-on-one match-ups all over the field, and you’ve got a very creative play caller that’s going to find those match-ups and then rely on an accurate, efficient quarterback to function in that system.”
The reports of the 49ers preferring Jones or of Fields sliding could turn out to be subterfuge — false information floated out by sources looking to muddy the pre-draft waters — but only time will tell.
If Jones or Lance go third, Fields could still be picked by his hometown Atlanta Falcons at No. 4 or another team that trades up.
Fields could also end up with a team such as the Lions or Broncos who are still in need of a quarterback of the future. They pick No. 7 and 9, respectively. There has also been speculation the Patriots, who have the 15th pick, could try to move up if Fields is not snapped up quickly.