A Closer Look at Justin Fields’ College Production

| May 18th, 2021

Today, I want to take a closer look at Justin Fields’ advanced statistics in college to see what they can tell us about his playing style, comparable quarterbacks, and forecast to the NFL.


Pass Location and Accuracy

To start out, let’s take a look at where Fields throws the ball and how accurate he is to different areas of the field. This data is pulled from Derrik Klassen, who has charted 28 draft-eligible QBs across 2019, 2020, and 2021. The table below shows how frequently and effectively Fields threw the ball short (5 yards or less), medium (6 to 15 yards), and deep (16 or more yards). It also compares each value to the average of the 28 QBs.

A few thoughts:

  • Fields is generally a very accurate passer. He’s one of the top 10 in accuracy to each range of the field, and ranks 1st among the 28 in “True Accuracy,” which is Klassen’s distance-weighted accuracy summary.
  • Fields also did not throw short passes all that frequently. It’s often hard to evaluate college QB production because so much of it comes from schemed short passes that don’t require much from the QB. Fields was one of the QBs who threw short the least, which means more of his production came down the field than a typical college QB.
  • Fields also didn’t throw it deep all that much, but he was really good when he did. I’ll look in more detail below at how well that translates to the NFL.
  • Where Fields really stood out, both in frequency and accuracy, was the midrange game. Fields’ 80% accuracy tied with Mac Jones, and nobody else in the sample was above 75%.


Translation to NFL

So Fields is really accurate and likes to target the middle range of the field often. How well do those traits translate to the NFL?

I’m actually going to focus on two slightly different traits here, because they’re ones where I have easy access to the data (using Pro Football Reference’s Game Play Finder). That lets us view deep passes, which travel 15+ yards past the line of scrimmage, separate from short passes, which travel less than 15 yards.

When it comes to deep passes, Fields threw them at a slightly lower than average frequency in college, but was one of the most accurate passers in the last 3 drafts. How well do those traits translate to the NFL?

It’s hard to say for sure, because the advanced college data I’m using only goes back to 2019. Only 9 QBs of the 28 in the sample have had meaningful NFL playing time so far. That’s a really small sample size, especially considering 4 of them have less than 100 deep pass attempts in the NFL. With those caveats, a quick look suggests that there doesn’t seem to be much translation, at least based on this limited data set.


Deep Pass Frequency

The deep pass rate in college vs. so far in the NFL has a correlation of only 0.18, suggesting there isn’t much of a relationship between how often a QB throws deep in college compared to the NFL (correlation ranges from 0 to 1, with 0 meaning there is no relationship and 1 meaning they are completely related to each other).

Full data can be seen here, but the graph above bins deep pass frequency rates for college and the NFL compared to the average for each, and you can see that only 4 of the 9 passers clearly follow the same trend in both college and the NFL (2 don’t fit neatly into any bin, while three changed from college to the NFL).


Deep Pass Effectiveness

Deep pass effectiveness can be measured in two ways: completion percentage and yards per attempt.

Neither has a very strong relationship with accuracy on college deep passes, as evidenced by their correlations of 0.21 and 0.11, respectively. Using a binning type graph, like the one above, shows that fewer than half of the 9 QBs in the sample follow their college pattern, regardless of whether you are looking at completion % or yards per attempt.

It’s worth noting that the majority of QBs in this sample have struggled throwing the ball deep early in their NFL careers. This makes sense, as the degree of difficulty on these passes in the NFL are likely higher given that defenders do a better job of staying close and contesting the catch. Some of what worked in college will no longer work in the NFL, and it takes young QBs time to figure that out. This will almost certainly be true for Fields, who Pro Football Focus noted only attempted 54 tight window throws in college, less than 9% of his pass attempts. The NFL average for this is around 16%, according to Next Gen Stats, and only 2 QBs in the last 5 years have been below 11%.

One side note: there does seem to be a strong relationship between how accurate you are on deep passes in college and playing time in the NFL. All 8 QBs in 2019 or 2020 who were at least 55% accurate on deep balls in college have seen significant playing NFL playing time already, while only 1 of the 11 who were accurate on 54% or less of their college deep balls has played in the NFL. That one is Daniel Jones, who ironically has been an effective deep passer in the NFL. Fields’ deep accuracy fits the profile of somebody who will play early.


Comparable Players

Finally, let’s parse through the advanced statistics to figure out who might be comparable players to Fields. I’ll start by looking at accuracy data from college. The table below shows those who are most similar to Fields from the last 3 drafts.

Notice all three of these players are pocket passers, not runners. They combined for over 22,000 passing yards and only about 1200 rushing yards in college. Fields, by comparison, had 5700 passing yards and 1100 rushing yards in college, so his legs are an added weapon that none of these three possess. However, Fields’ accuracy being comparable to three highly drafted players who can’t run can only be seen as a positive. Don’t think of Fields as a running QB, but as an accurate passer who can also run when needed.

Next, I want to look at a few other advanced stats about Fields from Pro Football Focus. These will tell us more about his play style than anything else. Fields generally holds the ball for a long time, as his 3.11 seconds to throw was the 3rd longest mark in college last year. He also generally throws it deeper than expected, though not necessarily always bombs away, as we saw above. Still, his average 2020 pass traveled 10.4 yards past the line of scrimmage, which was the 24th highest mark in college football.

It’s difficult to make an exact comparison to the NFL with those numbers, since the average values will vary quite a bit. Still, looking through the Next Gen Stats database gives 4 comparable QBs in 2020, who generally held the ball a long time and threw it deeper than average, as you can see in the table below.

Let me reinforce that this is intended to find QBs who play a similar style to Fields, not QBs who will be similarly effective. There’s nothing about efficiency in this table.

Generally speaking, however, notice that the QBs who hold the ball for a long time are usually mobile ones that can use their athleticism to buy time. That should be expected from Fields, but it can also lead to issues with taking too many sacks; the average NFL QB takes a sack on about 7% of dropbacks, and all from this group but Allen were above that in 2020. Despite playing behind an offensive line that dominated most games at Ohio State (all 5 starters were 1st, 2nd, or 3rd team All-Big Ten in both 2019 and 2020), Fields took a sack on 8% of dropbacks as a starter. It is safe to think that will be an issue for him in the NFL, especially early in his career.

I also threw the ratio of run to pass attempts for each QB in college into the table above, to illustrate that they are actually quite different as prospects. Lamar Jackson had more rushing attempts than passes thrown in college, and Jalen Hurts was quite run heavy as well. Fields was more in line with Russell Wilson and Josh Allen in terms of how frequently he ran the ball. Pro Football Focus had Russell Wilson as their player comparison for Fields, and that seems to fit pretty well from a stylistic standpoint.

Bears fans can only hope that comparison proves to be accurate in the NFL.

Tagged: , , ,