NFL draft season is a strange time to be a fan and to be a member of the media covering the sport. The college games featuring the top prospects who many hope will change the fate of their professional franchise were played months ago. The tape is unchanged. And yet every year, those of us who watch narratives unfold year-round feel like what we know is flipped on its head by draft day.
Were I to take a guess at why that is, there are two main reasons. One, with nothing to do except watch old tape over and over, people find new things to either praise or criticize that they didn't have the chance to catch when there was a new game's worth of film to check out every week in the fall. That holds true for prospects going at the top of the first and the bottom of the seventh. Sometimes those newfound flaws or strengths are valid, and sometimes they're just the result of watching the same player too many times and hold no water once the prospect in question gets on the field.
Two, NFL teams are happy to help spread misinformation about why they do or do not like a prospect for the purpose of masking their true draft intentions. This is commonly referred to as a smokescreen. These franchises enjoy thinking they are closer to a shadowy government agency than a football team and work to spread rumors that they are very interested (or not) in one player while planning to pick another all the while.
The reason I explain all that is because I don't really understand which of the two can be blamed for the current overriding conversation that Justin Fields isn't actually a great NFL prospect. For the last two seasons, he has been the undisputed No. 2 behind Trevor Lawrence. And Lawrence was so outlandishly good at Clemson that in any other year Fields would have a great case to be the No. 1 prospect. He put up huge numbers against elite competition on the biggest stages time and time again while displaying NFL-caliber athleticism and a rocket arm. His final college game, a loss against Alabama in the national championship game, was disappointing but nobody walked away from that game believing he had hurt his draft stock by failing to drag his team to a win against another stacked Crimson Tide unit. He even beat Lawrence on his way there after taking a spear to the ribs that would have knocked out pretty much anyone!
Yet here we are, three months after that game, and many mock drafts from insiders and draft gurus have Fields going as the fourth, at best, quarterback. Lawrence is No. 1, as expected. BYU's Zach Wilson has been pegged as the inevitable Jets pick for months, reinforced by the Sam Darnold trade, which is surprising but not overly so. Wilson is more of a prototypical QB than Fields and based on game tape and mechanics and what have you could be considered a toss-up with Fields in terms of who will be a better pro, even though one played in the Big Ten and the other in the FBS.
After that is when it gets baffling. Everyone from your local Twitter user with eight numbers in their handle to Adam Schefter believes the Niners gave up a fortune in draft picks to trade up to No. 3 in order to take Mac Jones, he who had one quality season with Alabama playing with a Heisman winner at receiver and multiple top picks blocking in front of him. The consensus pick for next QB taken after him is Trey Lance, who also played in the FBS, didn't play last year, and everyone unilaterally agrees he needs at least one, if not two, years on the bench before being starter-ready. All that before Fields, a guy who accounted for 51 total touchdowns and three picks in his first year as a starter and followed that up with a 27 TD/6 INT season and hung 385 yards and six touchdowns on title favorite Clemson in the Semifinals.
It just doesn't make sense. He's a runner as a quarterback but isn't slight of stature like many of the same prototype. Fields weighs in at 6-foot-2, 227 pounds. His arm is outstanding. The two biggest critiques of Fields that have come to light since he entered the draft are that he struggles to progress through his reads (even though there is evidence to the contrary and it's difficult to evaluate that without a total grasp of Ohio State's playbook) and that he doesn't have great work ethic (a narrative started and ended by Dan Orlovsky over the course of two days last week).
Pat McAfee noticed the same pattern and wondered aloud who, exactly, is benefitting from this narrative on his show today.
There isn't a through line to prove anything like this, of course. And it's not like mock drafters who have Fields as the fifth QB taken in the back half of the top-10 are on some mysterious team's payroll. But there is a reason that some executives told Orlovsky it's unclear if Fields loves football despite mountains of easily-available evidence that clearly state that is untrue. They knew Orlovsky would say it in a public forum and knew the narrative would get legs.
Are the Niners trying to convince everyone they would take any QB other than Fields, only to take the Ohio State product? How does that benefit them considering neither the Jets nor the Jags are trading down and their picks seem set in stone? Is it perhaps the Lions or Broncos, picking No. 7 and No. 9, respectively? As McAfee points out, is it even worth the effort? How much stock does an NFL front office put into media narratives leading up to the draft?
Answers will remain hidden until draft night finally rolls around. Even then, we may look back upon this time as bizarre if Fields succeeds at the next level. For now, we're left to wonder.