Trevor Lawrence vs. Justin Fields debate gets new layer

From the moment that Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence shredded Alabama in the national title game to end the 2018-19 season, his destiny to become the No. 1 pick in 2021 draft was obvious.

But Lawrence’s final college game took a bit of a plot twist, as he looked pedestrian in a 49-28 loss to Ohio State. What’s put a new focus on the potential debate for the No. 1 pick in the upcoming draft was the performance of Justin Fields, who threw six touchdown passes while hobbled with a hip injury and delivered one of the gutsiest performances in the history of Ohio State.

With Lawrence all but declaring for the 2021 NFL draft on Wednesday morning and Fields expected to follow after Monday’s CFP title game, they’ll soon be reunited in the draft echo chamber. The question looms whether the order will remain as we expected all along.

Did Lawrence’s uneven 33-for-48 performance against the Buckeyes and Fields’ transcendent six-touchdown night give any pause to christening Lawrence as the No. 1 pick? Not yet, according to scouts and executives.

“We’re talking about a transformative player in Trevor Lawrence,” said Mike Tannenbaum, a longtime NFL executive who covers the draft for ESPN. “One game isn’t going to tip the scales. You can’t ignore the body of work that Lawrence has put together. How Trevor Lawrence played was disappointing, but it’s still not going to prevent me from taking him if I’m Jacksonville.”

Calling around to NFL scouts, what stood out was the rare air in which they consider Lawrence. Two scouts said he’s the best quarterback they’ve evaluated in their careers.

“I hate to be so obvious,” said one veteran NFL scout. “Everything stands out. He’s got a huge arm, he’s super accurate, he’s athletic as hell, he’s big and he’s a great leader. [Teammates and coaches] love him. He’s as can’t miss as I’ll ever see.”

Justin Fields (#1) of the Ohio State Buckeyes looks on before a snap in the first half against Clemson during the College Football Playoff semifinal on Jan. 1. (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

The biggest tangible impact of Fields’ performance will be adding drama to the No. 2 spot. It highlights the crossroads for the New York Jets franchise, which could either take Fields and embark on their latest rebuild around him or stick with incumbent Sam Darnold and see what type of ransom they could receive for the pick.

“It really puts a new light on Fields vs. Darnold,” Tannenbaum said of Fields’ star-kissed night in the Sugar Bowl. “How much value did Fields potentially create with another team looking for a quarterback?”

Nearly half of the NFL is either in desperate need of a starting quarterback or has an aging and expensive quarterback that will need to be replaced in the next year or two. Skepticism had surrounded Fields’ position as the No. 2 quarterback in the draft, as the rise of BYU’s Zach Wilson had put him in the conversation for that spot.

Wilson finished the season with 33 touchdowns and three interceptions, dropping jaws with his improvisational flair. But the lack of competition on BYU’s revised schedule and Wilson’s slight build – a thin frame on his 6-foot-3 and 210-pound body – will remain questions.

Some of the uncertainty for Fields came from uneven performances against both Indiana and Northwestern this season. After a 2019 season when Fields dominated wire-to-wire with 41 touchdowns and three interceptions, he threw five combined interceptions in those two games.

After a regular season riddled with COVID-19 issues and the inconsistent lineups that accompanied them, everything came together for both Fields and the Buckeyes against Clemson. He completed 22-of-28 passes for 385 yards and six touchdowns. He deftly lobbed at least three downfield shots to receivers and threw two sweet touchdowns to tight ends Luke Farrell and Jeremy Ruckert late in the first half. Deep, intermediate and short balls, Fields flashed it all.

Most important, Fields looked confident and decisive in the pocket, even after Clemson linebacker James Skalski delivered a punishing hit with his helmet that limited Fields’ mobility.

“He showed his ability to see the game,” said Quincy Avery, a private trainer who has worked with Fields. “He did things in terms of handling pressures and defensive rotations and playing above the neck. Even after the injury, he was still able to dominate from the pocket.”

What Lawrence has over Fields, and why that No. 1 spot still isn’t much of a debate, is a bigger and more complete body of work. Lawrence emerged as a starter as a freshman in 2018 and helped deliver a haymaker to Alabama in the national title game, 44-16, by throwing for 347 yards and three touchdowns.

Clemson QB Trevor Lawrence passes against Ohio State during the first half of the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 1. (AP)
Clemson QB Trevor Lawrence passes against Ohio State during the first half of the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 1. (AP)

From that point on, he was dubbed the most sure-fire prospect to go through college football since Andrew Luck.

But as Luck showed in returning to Stanford, being a can’t-miss prospect means a lot of attention on all your misses. Lawrence started slow in 2019, which led to a round of doubts that quickly got erased.

What shouldn’t be lost in Lawrence’s rise to this inevitable No. 1 selection is his continual improvement during his entire time at Clemson. He finished this season completing a career-high 69% of his passes and threw 24 touchdowns and five interceptions. That was with a depleted receiving core and missing two games because of COVID-19.

“I think you see more of a playmaker than you did last year,” an NFL scout told Yahoo Sports. “Last year, he could throw it up to Tee Higgins and he went up and got it. Justyn Ross was on the other side. This year, he didn’t have that. He was doing a lot more with less. He showed the ability to extend plays outside the pocket, to process and read the field and throw it. I think he’s taken a big step.”

Lawrence isn’t quite the athlete Fields is, but he’s close. He’s shown in big games his ability to tuck the ball and run it, and he’s athletic enough that the quarterback run game that’s trickled up from college to the NFL in the past decade will be part of his repertory.

That’s helped him this season, as Clemson’s pedestrian offensive line kept him moving more than at any point in his career. “His poise under pressure is outstanding,” said an NFL scout. “His offensive line isn’t great and he’s athletic enough to allude the rush. It’s the combination of athleticism, which he doesn’t get enough credit for, with accuracy, vertical accuracy, touch and just anticipation. He’s the best I’ve seen.”

The other thing Lawrence has on Fields is the three full years of experience. He went 34-2 as a starter, never losing a regular season game. Fields is 20-1 as a starter at Ohio State, and his only loss also came in the postseason. Fields transferred to OSU after backing up Jake Fromm and being mostly used as a Wildcat quarterback his true freshman year. He’s blossomed under Ryan Day, who has experience as an NFL quarterback coach in Philadelphia and San Francisco.

“I think Justin has flashed enough,” Avery said. “You’ve seen enough of the characteristics you want to see from a quarterback. More starts are always more helpful, and I understand why people would say they want him to take more snaps at the college level. But he’s been successful everywhere he’s gone and a leader everywhere he’s been.”

The debate for No. 1 appears fairly benign. But on Monday night against Alabama, Justin Fields has another chance to change the tenor of the rhetoric. Until then, what the Jets will do with the No. 2 pick remains the primary drama.

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