FLORHAM PARK, N.J. – For months, Trevor Lawrence and Justin Fields were recognized as the top two quarterback prospects in the 2021 NFL draft (April 29 – May 1, on ESPN and the ESPN app). The New York Jets tended towards Lawrence until they won a game – and another – and were able to design the 2021 QB2.
Aside from one major surprise, the number 2 jet won’t be Fields.
At some point during the preliminary draft, New York General Manager Joe Douglas had a hard time Zach Wilson. He is not alone. The scouting community loves the former BYU star very much, but there are those who still rate Fields higher than Wilson.
That’s the great thing about talent scoring: beauty is in the eye of the team holding the draft card.
Because of the widespread belief that the Jets are Wilson-tied, there hasn’t been much Wilson Fields debates regarding the number 2 overall pick, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth investigating. You can bet if Fields somehow ends up with the New England Patriots it’ll be a hot button issue.
Fields is a rare NFL prospect. Not only does it have a strong and precise arm, but it’s built like a linebacker (6-foot-3, 227) and runs like a wide receiver (4.4 seconds in the 40-yard dash). In the state of Ohio he competed on the biggest stages against the best competition.
And yet the Jets apparently prefer Wilson, which tells us they believe his advantage is off the charts.
“I would take Zach Wilson,” said former NFL quarterback and ESPN analyst Dan Orlovsky. “He had the most tapes this year that got me to say ‘Holy Cow!’ He’s got a couple of throws like, man, you just can’t teach that, he’s got uncoordinable traits.
“He’s got the FOMO [fear of missing out] Style. Patrick [Mahomes] has that. Russell [Wilson] got that. They feel like they can make any throw in the field, and they are able to to make a throw in the field. They’re looking for something like, ‘I might be able to launch that ball 400 yards behind the field.’ “
There is a split among the top analysts in the industry. Todd McShay (ESPN), Daniel Jeremiah (NFL Network) and Dane Brugler (The Athletic) rate Wilson on Fields. Mel Kiper Jr. (ESPN) and Matt Miller (ESPN) have it the other way around. ESPN interviewed two scouts and an offensive coach from three different teams. There were two votes for Wilson and one for Fields.
“If I want to bet on the head, I want the tallest man with the strongest arm and the best athlete who has never lost a game in the Big Ten and played against Alabama, Clemson, Notre Dame,” Miller said. “I’d rather have the battle-hardened, two-year-old Big Ten starter who has the best arm in this draft class and is arguably the roundest athlete – over Zach Wilson who it is [6-foot-2, 210 pounds] and had surgery on the limb, broke his throwing hand and had good production against really bad teams for a year. “
Stephen A. Smith has questions for Mel Kiper Jr. about Zach Wilson, whom Kiper put 2nd on the Jets overall.
Everyone agrees that both quarterbacks would fit nicely into the jets’ new system modeled after Kyle Shanahan’s version of the West Coast crime. The San Francisco 49ers value pre-snap movement, game action, and a poseable bag. First-time offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur, who worked under Shanahan, plans to incorporate these concepts into the jet attack.
In college, Wilson and Fields recorded huge numbers of game actions and out-of-pocket throws. What the Jets like about Wilson, according to sources, is his ability to improvise and make second-reaction games that display rare instincts for the position.
“Zach plays with a little more urgency than Justin, just in terms of how fast his hands are, how fast the ball comes out, how quickly he’ll make decisions when he has to,” said Jeremiah.
“It fits nicely into this system,” he added. “Justin and Trey [Lance] would add a twist to this offense. I think what Zach can do is going to be pretty remarkable because he was built to play in that system, with the stretch boots and all that stuff. [He has] Some of the fastest hands I’ve seen from a quarterback prospect. If the ball separates from his left hand, just look at the time between when he separates from his left hand and the ball is out. It’s pretty impressive. “
College stats should be done with a grain of salt, especially in a season that was hit in many ways by the coronavirus pandemic, but Wilson rates Fields as an advantage in situational passing categories – red zone, third relegation, fourth quarter / Overtime, against the lightning bolt and under pressure.
There were big differences in the latter category. Neither quarterback faced much pocket pressure in 2020, but Wilson scored a QBR of 46.9 – the fourth of 125 qualified passer-bys in the FBS. Fields’ QBR was just 14.6, finishing in 40th place. He had a tendency to hold the ball for too long and pressurize 21 sacks on 85 dropbacks, according to ESPN Stats & Information Research. Wilson only had 11 of 83 dropbacks, partly due to a quick release.
Orlovsky said his main concern at Wilson is that his 2020 season be relatively stress-free. As he put it, “His assignment to play quarterback has been the easiest of the Big Five in the last year,” including Alabamas Mac Jones and North Dakota State’s Lance in that group.
Wilson, surrounded by a strong supporting cast, went 11-1 against a soft schedule that had no Power 5 opponents. He had only two close games, including a 22-17 loss to Coastal Carolina. Over time, tossing and opening wide receivers, it looked like pitch-and-catch at times. How easy it was. He never had four incomplete passports in a row.
“He’s got Baker Mayfield in terms of skill, style of play and size,” said an AFC team scout of Wilson’s comparison with the Cleveland Browns quarterback. “He has some streetball instincts and improvisational skills.”
A scout from another AFC team said: “[Wilson] does some crazy things, but I’d trust Justin a little more to last longer. You can’t question its toughness and durability. “
But it looks like the jets made their decision.