Fields in Focus Part VII: Rookie Comparison

| February 22nd, 2022

So far, this series has focused on what Fields did well and where he struggled during his rookie season. Now I want to broaden this to think a bit about what it could mean for his future. In order to accomplish that, I’m going to compare Fields’ stats in a wide variety of categories to those of every other rookie QB with at least 250 pass attempts in the last decade. All data will come from Pro Football Focus (PFF) unless otherwise noted.

Overall Comparison

Including Fields, there have been 37 QBs who attempted at least 250 passes during their rookie season over the last 10 years. The data below shows how Fields compared to the rest of the sample in a variety of wide-ranging metrics. Places where Fields ranked in the top 10 are highlighted in green, while those where he ranked in the bottom 10 are highlighted in red.

A few thoughts:

  • Overall, this matches what we saw with Fields when compared to all 2021 QBs. He holds the ball a long time, pushes it down the field, doesn’t complete a lot of passes, but is generally decent in yards/attempt, big time throws, and turnover worthy plays. He generally ranks a bit better in most areas when compared to other rookies than he did compared to all 2021 QBs, but that makes sense; most rookie QBs are bad.
  • What do these stats mean going forward? I tried to look at a few of them to see if they could project anything.
    • If you do a simple big time throw – turnover worthy play analysis, Fields ranks 5th, and the guys around him are a pretty good list, with Ryan Tannehill, Justin Herbert, Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III, and Mac Jones. That’s certainly not a guarantee, but it’s encouraging.
    • Of course, Fields having the 3rd worst accuracy is not good. Others near him in that category include DeShone Kizer, Geno Smith, Case Keenum, Josh Rosen, and EJ Manuel, which is blech, but Josh Allen and Andrew Luck are right there too, so it’s not necessarily a death sentence on his career.

Data Split By Depth

Like I did earlier in this series, I want to take a little bit closer look at accuracy by splitting it up by depth. It’s harder to throw an accurate pass when it’s further down the field, but those passes carry more value because they gain more yards. Since Fields had a higher average target depth than most, maybe his seeming accuracy issues were really just him throwing deep more often.

The table below shows how Fields compared to the 37 QB sample of rookies with 250+ pass attempts in both frequency and accuracy of passes to different depths of the field. Once again, places where Fields ranked in the top 10 are highlighted in green, while those where he ranked in the bottom 10 are highlighted in red.

A few thoughts:

  • Again, this is generally the same pattern that we saw when comparing to all QBs in 2021. In terms of frequency, Fields rarely threw it behind the line of scrimmage, and threw it pretty often to the medium and deep parts of the field. In terms of accuracy, he struggled in this area pretty much everywhere but throwing it deep.
  • Looking at QBs with similar targeting patterns, others who targeted the medium and deep routes at a similar rate to Fields include Sam Darnold, Marcus Mariota, Baker Mayfield, and Russell Wilson. I think that says more about a QB’s style than their effectiveness.
  • I’m not too concerned about the accuracy behind the line of scrimmage, because that’s a pretty small sample size for Fields, but the short field inaccuracy – which includes nearly half his pass attempts – is troublesome. Players with similar accuracy on short passes in their rookie season were Zach Wilson, Josh Rosen, Nick Foles, Andrew Luck, Blake Bortles, and Mitchell Trubisky. Apart from Andrew Luck, that’s a whole lot of yikes.
    • If you want to feel slightly better, remember that Fields’ short field accuracy improved dramatically after his first few weeks. In weeks 2-5, he was accurate on 55% of his short passes, which would be the worst in this sample by over 10%. From week 6 on, his short field accuracy was 82%, which nearly puts him into the top 10 (though it’s comparing to other QB’s full season data). There, the comparable list would be Carson Wentz, Dak Prescott, Justin Herbert, Kyler Murray, and Teddy Bridgewater.
  • Overall, I think that’s a good caution to reading too much into this data. It’s not fair to say with absolutes that Fields is going to be good or is a bust; instead, I like to think of it as reasons for optimism and causes for concern that will be worth monitoring in 2022.

Under Pressure

We also saw earlier in the series that Fields’ performance varied tremendously when he had a clean pocket compared to when he was pressured, so I want to look at how those stats compared to the rookie sample. The table below shows both how often Fields was pressured and how he performed under pressure compared to other rookies. Once again, places where Fields ranked in the top 10 are highlighted in green, while those where he ranked in the bottom 10 are highlighted in red.

  • Again, we see similar trends as when we looked at this compared to all 2021 QBs. Fields was really, really good in a clean pocket, and not nearly as good relative to his peers when under pressure. He also was under pressure way too often, which we have already seen was not his fault, and let too many pressures turn into sacks, which was his fault but got significantly better as the season wore on.
  • Looking at QBs comparable to Fields from a clean pocket gives a short list, as the only remotely comparable passers in terms of big time throws and turnover worthy plays were Russell Wilson and Baker Mayfield.
  • If you do the same comparison when under pressure, however, the list is much less fun: Blake Bortles, Gardner Minshew, Joe Burrow, Mike Glennon, Austin Davis, Sam Darnold, Josh Rosen, and Geno Smith. Joe Burrow’s presence there says that is not a death knell, but otherwise that list is a big yikes. Again, I wouldn’t look at this as proof Fields is a bust, but rather a cause for concern that should be monitored going forward.
  • A major contributing factor to Fields’ turnover worthy play rate here is fumbles, as he finished 4th in the NFL with 12 fumbles in 2021. I was curious how common fumble issues are for QBs, and found that there have been 68 instances in the last 10 NFL seasons where a QB had at least 10 fumbles in a year (found using Pro Football Reference’s Player Season Finder). QBs who appear on that list include Aaron Rodgers, Lamar Jackson (2x), Russell Wilson (4x), Peyton Manning, Andrew Luck (2x), Cam Newton, Deshaun Watson, Dak Prescott (2x), Matt Stafford, Derek Carr (5x), Josh Allen, Ryan Tannehill (2x), and Matt Ryan (3x). Five of those QBs won an MVP during that decade, so this isn’t something to be super concerned about.
  • The only other QB with 10+ fumbles and fewer than 300 pass attempts in a season was Lamar Jackson as a rookie. Like Fields, he only started for part of the year, and he had 12 fumbles in 7 starts. He’s had 21 fumbles in 3 seasons (42 starts) since, so fumbling has remained something of an issue but gotten a lot better (that includes 9 fumbles during his 2019 MVP season). It seems likely something similar happens with Fields, where fumbles will always remain something of an issue but will probably not be as bad as they were in his rookie season.

Lessons Learned

Reasons for optimism and causes for concern to be found, depending on what you want to look at, but overall I don’t think there’s anything in this study that really tells us where Fields is headed in his career.

PFF also did a study looking at all of the 2021 rookie QBs and trying to forecast their possible career outcomes. Some of it is behind a paywall, but there are a few things I found interesting and want to pull out.

First, PFF has identified a number of their metrics that stay the most stable from a QB’s rookie season to future years. The table below shows how Fields performed relative to other rookies (since 2006 in their study) in those metrics.

Generally speaking, Fields did pretty well. The only metric where he was below average was negatively graded plays (and taking a long time to throw, but that’s more of a stylistic thing than being good/bad). It should be noted, however, that each of these have a pretty low year-to-year correlation, so this doesn’t mean for sure that Fields will be a good QB.

PFF also did a really interesting clustering, where they grouped QBs across the years who are really similar. Fields’ rookie season ended up getting him placed in the “risk-taking” group of QBs who are willing to take chances in order to make big plays. The three names they mention him being similar to are Lamar Jackson, Josh Allen, and Jalen Hurts, which is not a bad list, and they said QBs like this typically make a larger than average jump between their 1st and 2nd seasons.

Finally, if you’re looking for some concrete numbers on Fields’ career outlook, PFF did some advanced forecasting to say what the % chances are that he ends up in a variety of categories compared to all NFL starting QBs. This only looks at those who get at least 1500 career pass attempts, so basically cuts off anybody worse than the Mitchell Trubisky’s and Nick Foles’ of the world. PFF’s algorithm predicted Fields still has about a 1 in 3 chance of being better than average among that group, with about 7% odds of becoming an elite QB. That certainly doesn’t seem very encouraging to me, but they did note that several QBs in a similar spot to Fields after their rookie season have ultimately turned out quite well.

Overall, PFF has found that we don’t really know what a QB will be in NFL after rookie season, which is why their forecasting is so murky. We do, however, have a good idea what they will be by the end of year 2. 2022 will be a big season for Fields, and I can’t wait to see what it looks like.

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