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NFL Draft

How Well Did Justin Fields Go Through His Progressions?

  • The Draft Network
  • April 11, 2021
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How many times did Justin Fields throw beyond his first read? If you ask unnamed NFL executives, he apparently did it seven times. On 200-odd passing attempts this season, that’s a concerning number.

If you ask me, 42 times—good for 19% of his throws. I’ve created this helpful table to help explain the difference.

Justin Fields Throwing Beyond His First Read
Who Said It Throws Beyond First Read Are They Right?
Some Unnamed Source 7 Probably Not
Me 42 Most Definitely

Of course, these are just numbers in a table, and what exactly they mean is tough to define. Is Fields throwing beyond his first read on a scramble drill? How can we be sure he really was reading that curl/flat defender? When we just ask “How many times did Justin Fields throw beyond his first read?” we’re really leaving a lot of undefined meat on the bone.

That’s the thing about the question: “How many times did Justin Fields throw beyond his first read?” It’s fundamentally not interesting, nor is it helpful. It’s neither actionable nor revelatory. It kinda sucks.

Wondering how often Fields—or any college quarterback—threw beyond his first read only gestures to a question that is actionable toward making a pro projection: “How well did Fields work his progressions in college?” That’s a far more complex question and accordingly creates far less buzzy headlines. Let’s be honest: you opened this article up to see how many times I think Fields threw beyond his first read. And I gave it to you at the top. I know the game.

“How well did Fields work his progressions in college?” forces a lot of subsequent questions. “What offense did he run?” is a big one. “How were his progressions taught?” is another. “Is he consistent/did he show growth over time/how likely is he to improve?” is a whole blend of semi-related questions that get good scouts paid and bad scouts fired. These are tough questions, so everyone trying to answer them has different conclusions. Makes sense.

The question that I want to ask is a natural follow-up to all of these: “How well did Fields go through his progressions in college?... and how much does it matter?”

It’s important to put Fields’ season into context here. Fields faced the toughest schedule of all CFB defenses by SP+’s metrics, including his four final games (Indiana, Northwestern, Clemson, Alabama) against top-15 defenses. No FBS quarterback drafted in the last 10 years has had a more difficult defensive schedule than Fields. Across this season of unprecedented competition, the Ohio State passing offense was sixth in EPA/play, notably behind the BYU and Alabama passing offenses. Mac Jones was just behind Fields in terms of oppositional staunchness; Zach Wilson was remarkably low. For Fields to have produced as he has, while also only attempting seven passes beyond his first read, would plainly be the most ludicrous quarterbacking season in history. 

Let’s take Jones as a foil to Fields. While Fields has been criticized for his rate of attempts beyond his first read, I charted Fields as attempting more passes beyond his first read than any of the other top quarterbacks in the class; it was Jones, who is regularly credited for his processing speed, smart eyes, and decision making, who had the fewest attempts beyond his first read. In terms of performance after that first read, Jones was again remarkably worse.

Attempt Share Completion % Accuracy Placement
Justin Fields 19.09% 69.05% .881 .724
Trevor Lawrence 16.99% 43.40% .842 .709
Trey Lance 16.61% 64.71% .885 .516
Kellen Mond 16.55% 52.08% .617 .498
Sam Ehlinger 14.37% 47.13% .601 .442
Zach Wilson 14.20% 59.57% .851 .686
Kyle Trask 13.95% 40.68% .792 .462
Davis Mills 12.18% 56.76% .764 .519
Jamie Newman 10.76% 38.24% .687 .473
Mac Jones 9.72% 31.58% .526 .197

Again, we should immediately ask: is this actually interesting, revelatory, or meaningful? While it does tell us that Jones’ offensive coaching staff and teammates were astronomically helpful and effective, it doesn’t prove that Jones is a bad processor by any means. Good processing allowed Jones to identify the defense he was facing, make strong decisions on RPOs, and anticipate the opening of Alabama’s downfield passing game. Smart decision-making ensured that Jones didn’t waste open looks or get frozen by sudden defensive shifts—he always had an answer.

And by the same token, in that many passing attempts went beyond his first read, does not ensure that Fields is a good processor. I think he is. But it’s clear given the discourse on Jones—and, to a lesser extent, players like Davis Mills (who also rarely throws beyond his first read)—that just attempting passes beyond your first read does not correlate one-to-one with being considered a good field processor.

So this data doesn't really tell us much about processing—at least, not in a vacuum. And trust me, I’m more disappointed in that than anyone—it’s my data after all. I wish it completely solved quarterback evaluation outright; that’d be great for me.

So let’s watch some film. Fields gets knocked for poor processing in large part because of his playstyle, in my opinion. Fields is an arrogant passer who regularly believes that his first read will be open, and if it isn’t, is confident that he has the physical tools to escape and survive pressure, as well as the quarterbacking acumen to work to another read or make a play-saving throw.

You can see such a play here. This is a sick throw, but it comes late in a play in which Fields looked nowhere else. He had to buy time in the pocket, take a dangerous hit over his back, and deliver a throw into a tight window. Against an NFL-caliber cover man who doesn’t get absolutely waxed by Garrett Wilson, even a perfect throw like this could have gotten broken up, and the third-down conversion would have been lost.

While this is certainly sticking on his first read, this is still the right read. Against a single-high defense, a flag route from one of your top receivers working from the slot is expected to open so long as the field corner stays low. Once Fields sees that Penn State is in man, the right throw is to Wilson on the flag.

You might watch this play and think Fields is processing poorly; I’d argue that you’re wrong. Even though he only stays on one read, and stays on it for a while, he’s on the correct matchup and feels pressure in the pocket as he’s reading the field. That, plus the throw, is straight delightful quarterbacking.

What isn’t good quarterbacking is this.

Fields takes a sack here because he didn’t understand what the defense told him. In an empty set, he knows he’s responsible for any extra rushers. After opening to the right and seeing the outside linebacker (34) drop into coverage over the slot receiver, Fields should already smell something funny. That’s not a matchup the defense wants; there’s a reason it’s happening. Fields should also note the off-ball linebacker opening to his blind side, offering coverage support for any in-breaking routes to that side. What happened to the other two linebackers to that side? Where did they go? Why aren’t they in coverage?

Fields never sniffs anything amiss, and accordingly holds onto the football, happy to read a route combination that looks stymied from the start. Here, again, he’s “staring down his first read” and never gets beyond it, as he’s immediately sacked.

When defenses pitched curveballs like the one above, Fields delivered a mixed bag. Against Alabama, the Tide bracketed the isolated backside receiver—a receiver the Buckeyes loved to target in third-down situations—and played man with a split-field safety on the other side of the field. Fields is looking to the tight end at the snap and sees the deep-half safety bailing to the numbers but elects not to make a tough, but manageable throw up the seam. As the pocket breaks down, he tries to escape. But against Alabama-caliber athletes, he wasn’t able to avoid the sack.

On the very next drive, Fields gets another seam-running tight end against a two-high look. Here, he has to come off of his first read, where Alabama is trying to trap him into throwing a smash concept. Fields wisely comes off of that read, works to the backside seam, and throws one of the most impressive balls of any prospect in this class.

Against an initial two-high look from Rutgers, Fields wants quick game to the tight end, sees that he’s out-leveraged, and bounces in the pocket toward space, stepping calmly into a free blitzer while delivering a nice ball on the backside dig in front of the single-high safety.

Against another rotation to single-high, Fields identifies he has a one-on-one on the seam route, but must deliver the ball before the safety arrives. The receiver takes an inside release on what is typically a mandatory outside release route, but Fields still delivers a catchable football before the safety could make a play on the ball.

So even when defenses invite chaos and look to disrupt, Fields still has positive plays—both throwing to his first read and beyond it. This is why I ask: “How does Fields go through his progressions… and how much does it matter?” In some instances, Fields sticks too long on his first read and is able to get away with tremendous throws. In others, he sticks too long on his first read and gets burned for it. In others, he’s quick off his first read and able to work progressions to find advantageous matchups for his receivers.

In other words, Fields is just like… well, he’s just like any other quarterback prospect that’s ever come out of college and gone in the first round. Impossibly talented, he has developed some bad habits—as I said, he’s an arrogant passer and must learn to respect the defense more. That’s something that, if he can’t grow out of it, he’ll get burned by in the league.

But he’s already shown reps of growing out of it—and even when he sticks to his guns, he remains one of the best quarterback prospects of recent memory in terms of arm talent, accuracy, and sack-breaking ability. In this way, he is not like every other quarterback to come out: he is a better blend of accuracy, arm talent, and physical tools. To be concerned with Fields’ work through progressions is to be concerned with the way Michael Phelps wears his goggles. The man has somewhere between 10 and 100 gold medals. I’m not looking it up.

The draft cycle is a ravenous beast, and it demands narratives to chug along to the finish line. We’re only a few weeks away, and still, for the rest of the month, we’ll pretend that Fields is uniquely bad at reading the field; uniquely averse to secondary reads; uniquely incapable of handling an NFL offense. This is also codswallop. It is a malarkey of the highest order. It is utter claptrap.

But the worst news is this: it is not even interesting codswallop. Whether or not Fields threw to his second read seven or 700 times just doesn’t really tell us anything about him as a prospect, as it doesn’t encapsulate anything about his playstyle, his offensive requirements, or his room for growth. Without a legitimate and honest investigation of Fields’ film, it’s just empty words filling space.

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