Justin Fields vs. Trevor Lawrence: Why This Absolutely is a Debate
Photo by David Petkiewicz/ Cleveland.com
It is well-known by now that I have Justin Fields ranked ahead of Trevor Lawrence for the upcoming 2021 NFL Draft (go to my Twitter bio for proof). I've been asked to break down my process and describe what led to such an *outlandish* conclusion, mostly by those who struggle to find flaws in Trevor's game. I'm not going to get into every last detail of my process, and I know there will be folks who dispute what I write in the next few minutes. I won't talk about my college football fandom (mostly because I don't have a favorite team) and I won't talk about biases. I will present an objective, seemingly-controversial argument that doesn't fit a narrative that's been pushed for three years.
If you haven't read the breakdown of my concerns with Trevor Lawrence yet, please do so here. A lot of what I will say in the following paragraphs will reference this post. They are intertwined, they are one, they are now forever linked; much like the two quarterbacks we're discussing right now. Let's dive in.
I've already discussed the sheer inaccuracies that are ever-present in Trevor Lawrence's film. His placement is often less-than-ideal, missing easy screen routes, short slants at the goal line, and more prominently, deep throws into tight coverage. And quite frankly, the inaccuracies aren't that bad. But when stacked up against Fields' three-level accuracy, they look even lesser than ideal.
This second one can probably also be filed under 'off-platform,' but because of the laser-beam accuracy, it's also filed under placement. I'm not going to link videos of Trevor Lawrence's placement, because I did that in the last article. But the sheer fact is that Trevor is simply more inaccurate than Justin Fields, in every sense of the word. He leaves throws high, he sails them 5 yards past streaking receivers, and ultimately, he completes less passes despite throwing downfield less.
”But Christian, Fields was bad and inaccurate during the national championship game.” Yes, absolutely; good observation. Hips matter (and they don’t lie.. ayo). Fields was unable to properly snap through his hips because of his injury, thus lacking drive on throws and thus, leaving them high. If you’re a baseball fan, a pitcher getting tired has this same effect. Once he returns to 100%, I fully expect the placement to return to elite status.
Advantage: Justin Fields
College quarterbacks often don't throw with a ton of anticipation; meaning that they are waiting for their receivers to get open before they let it fly. The problem that we have with Trevor Lawrence's film is that most of his throws are designed to be extremely quarterback-friendly. In the six-game sample from my Trevor Lawrence analysis, I discussed how 31% of Trevor's throws came behind the line of scrimmage on screen passes to Amari Rodgers and Travis Etienne, mostly. An additional 35% of his attempts came within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage, totaling 66%. Justin Fields' attempts came in these two areas at a rate of 64%, so not a drastic difference.
But Justin Fields' throws within ten yards are mostly unaccompanied by RPO, college-style plays. Most of them are either snaps from under center or in shotgun, with a mix of play action and straight dropbacks; the two more prominent types of dropbacks in the NFL. And when you start to factor in the read progressions that these quarterbacks are asked to make, a clearer picture emerges; Justin Fields reads the field better than Trevor Lawrence. Does he often hold onto the football too long? Absolutely; he's always trying to see the big play and sometimes forgets to just hit his checkdown. His internal clock is something that has gotten better as he's gotten more experience, but he still has a lot of work to do on it. Does he hold onto the ball because he's locked into one read? Mostly, no. Ohio State's vertical offense often has two guys running intermediate to deep routes. Their scheme allows for Justin Fields to progress through his reads just fine. And hitting a checkdown is often a lower-value play than him pulling down and running, because he's so dynamic in the open field. He attempts a pass downfield around one in every 6 attempts, and completes them at a high rate.
Meanwhile, Trevor's playbook was designed to slowly chip away at defenses and get them to cheat the underneath routes and screens, opening up a big play (mostly throwing to guys with 3+ yards of separation) downfield one in every 9 or so attempts.
Here are the passing by direction charts, via PFF:
As you can see, Trevor thrives behind the line of scrimmage. He struggles in the 0-10 area of the field, comparative to Justin Fields. Meanwhile, Justin Fields has just 6 less deep completions in 2020, despite Trevor Lawrence having 142 more total pass attempts. I have harped on Clemson's reliance on screen passes, and that's evident in this chart. Furthermore, 3 touchdowns coming strictly on YAC plays is not ideal; that's not always going to happen at the next level. 14% of all of his touchdowns and 21% of all of his yards were the result of passes that Sam Ehlinger could effectively make (Fields is at 0% and 8%). Not great. Not Trevor's fault. But not great.
Advantage: Justin Fields
Both of these players have plus-athleticism, and an argument can be made that Trevor Lawrence is as good a runner as Justin Fields at this point in their college careers. The read-option has actually been more beneficial to Trevor's success in big games than to Justin's. But when discussing off-platform playmaking, one of these players has natural ability and one has.. well.. ability.
Trevor Lawrence often looks uncomfortable as he's scrambling. While he's definitely a plus athlete, his lack of pulling the trigger on the run here leads to a sack. This isn't absent from his film, and it's certainly not an anomaly; plenty of similar instances like this happened in the CFB Playoff Semifinal matchup against Justin Fields and the Buckeyes. Does he make some great throws on the run or fading away? Sure. Some of his wrist-flick throws off of his back foot work. But quite often, when you force Trevor outside of the pocket (and not up the middle), you're able to create discomfort.
Meanwhile, Justin Fields has virtually pinpoint accuracy when operating off-platform. His throwing on the run is special, and Ryan Day's offense certainly puts Fields in positions to showcase that. Above are two good examples of Justin Fields operating on the run.
Off-platform talent is exactly what people have cited to place Zach Wilson ahead of Fields; the reality is that Fields is better than Lawrence off-platform, so does that mean Zach Wilson should enter this debate?
The answer is absolutely not, by the way.
Advantage: Justin Fields
I've seen a ton of people questioning Justin Fields' arm talent in recent weeks, saying that he doesn't have enough arm strength to be such a great prospect. I've got to tell you, tape is subjective, but it's not that subjective. Justin Fields has a cannon. I'd argue that when you incorporate accuracy into the cannon, Trevor probably has the third-best arm strength in this draft class (behind Fields and Lance). Justin Fields threw a 53-yard touchdown pass to Chris Olave in the CFB Playoff Semifinal, but the air yardage probably sat around 56-yards. It was a rope. Factor in that Justin Fields is able to incorporate different arm angles at times, and you have yourself an incredibly, physically-gifted thrower of the football.
Trevor Lawrence's overall arm strength is very good; there are times he overthrows on 50-yard bombs. But that's the problem; Lawrence leaves a lot of plays on the field because he fails to incorporate touch on downfield passes. His arm talent is great, but it sure as hell isn't generational if it's not the best in his own class. Obviously, arm talent has a different meaning for everyone; does having plus-arm talent simply mean you can throw like a shortstop instead of a pitcher or outfielder? Accuracy matters, especially when it is downfield. There are only 8 more accurate downfield throwers than Justin Fields, according to PFF. But this isn't meant to disparage Lawrence. He makes some outstanding throws, he has a cannon attached to his torso, and the downfield ball placement will come.
Metrics that Matter
Someone could look at touchdowns, interceptions, or yards and say "Player X is better than Player Y" and they'd get scolded (and most of the time, rightfully so). Face value stats are often not indicative of success at the next level. Advanced metrics or just deeper-dive stats often do indicate success at the next level, however, and I decided to figure out which of those stats were included.
I ran correlation values for the top-10 quarterbacks in the NFL over the last five years according to both PFF Rank and Football Outsiders' DVOA with respect to their college stats in their final year in school. The college stats included:
The metrics that correlated at the highest rate:
TD% (r-value average of 0.33)
Rating (r-value average of 0.30)
QBR (r-value average of 0.18)
So why does this matter?
The good: both quarterbacks are comfortably above average when compared to top-ten quarterbacks in the NFL (reinforcing the point that these are two top-tier quarterback prospects).
The bad for Trevor Lawrence: in the three most translative statistics, Justin Fields blows him out of the water. It's not remotely close in anything except QBR; and Justin Fields holds the 9th- and 13th-best QBR seasons of all-time in his two seasons. Trevor Lawrence's peak is 32nd-best.
The moral of the story: face-value statistics only can get you so far. People talked themselves into Mitchell Trubisky over Deshaun Watson because he threw 30 touchdowns one year and had all the tools. What they didn't discuss was the fact that Deshaun had a better TD% and QBR (and frankly, more tools), albeit a lower Rating.
I'm not one to harp on quarterback statistics being the end all, be all for translation to the next level. I don't believe that. And this sample isn't large enough to draw drastic conclusions from (though, it has statistical significance and can't be written off as flukey, either). I think physical tools are far and away more important, and statistics should be used to pose questions or provide clarity. What is clear from the stats is that Justin Fields is analytically likely to have more success at the next level, even if both of these stud quarterbacks will quite likely have a great deal of success.
Advantage: Justin Fields
Both Trevor Lawrence and Justin Fields are going to succeed in the NFL. Let me repeat: I believe that both Trevor Lawrence and Justin Fields are going to succeed in the NFL. When everything settled, Trevor Lawrence came in at my all-time QB3 (I've only been film grinding since 2016 or so, but still). He's a stud. But Justin Fields came in at my all-time QB1. If you're comparing prospects to Andrew Luck, the conversation should start with Justin Fields, not Trevor Lawrence. I struggle to find something that Trevor Lawrence does better than Justin Fields. From analytics to film to tools, Justin Fields is the superior quarterback. Am I going to disparage someone who has Trevor Lawrence at one? No... well maybe jokingly. Both of these kids can ball. They're tiers above Lance and Wilson, in my opinion. And that's why the debate of Justin Fields vs. Trevor Lawrence is warranted. It's not outlandish. And in my opinion, the answer doesn't match what you've heard for three years. Time will tell which one of these quarterbacks prevails, but I'm more willing to bet on Justin Fields.
Remember to follow me on Twitter (@FFBaldMan) and subscribe to the podcast to hear some more objective, probably-not-consensus-so-it-makes-you-mad breakdowns.
Until next time!