Fields in Focus Part IV: Rookie Progression

| February 17th, 2022

This piece looks at how Fields’ performance changed as his rookie season wore on. All stats are from Pro Football Focus (PFF) unless otherwise noted.

General Overview

Let’s start with a general look at Fields’ stats over the course of the year. A few quick notes:

  • They are split into three groupings (Weeks 2-5, 6-8, and 9-15), because each group showed some clear distinctions compared to earlier games that I’ll point out below.
  • The first and third groups were considered to be 3.5 games for the per-game stats, because Fields played about half of the Cincinnati (Week 2) and Baltimore (Week 11) games.
  • Basic passing statistics are shown in blue, basic running statistics in orange, and advanced passing style statistics in green. Basic stats are from Pro Football Reference; advanced stats are from Next Gen Stats.

A few thoughts:

  • Those first 3.5 games of Fields’ career were rough. He only completed 50% of his passes, got sacked on 17% of dropbacks, and threw into tight coverage (aggressive throw) over 25% of the time. Basically, he didn’t really know what he was doing. It’s fair to think that being thrown into the fire after the coaches went out of their way to NOT PREPARE him to play during training camp and the preseason hurt him in that regard.
  • Starting in Week 6, there are three drastic changes in how Fields operated that made me group these games differently.
    • The first is that the Bears started relying on him a lot more, which you can see by the big jump in dropbacks/game (includes all pass attempts, sacks, and Fields runs, which were mostly scrambles).
    • In the midst of this heavier usage, you can see Fields running the ball far more often and more effectively, which resulted in his sack rate dropping a bit (though it was still high, the league average was 6%).
    • You can also see Fields’ throws into tight coverage drop significantly, which indicates he was doing a better job of finding open players to throw the ball to.
  • All three of those Week 6 changes continued throughout the rest of the year, but two more significant factors changed starting in Week 9, which caused me to group those final games separately.
    • First, Fields’ yards/attempt mark made a significant jump. It had been fairly steady in the first two samples but was drastically different in Weeks 9 and beyond. This wasn’t driven by just one game, either; three of Fields’ four outings in weeks 9+ featured a yards/attempt greater than 7, a feat which he had only accomplished once in his first 7 games.
      • For a little more context, Fields’ 6.3 yards/attempt mark through Week 8 would have been 28th of 33 QBs with 200+ pass attempts in 2021, while that 7.8 mark would rank 5th.
    • Second, Fields’ time to throw took a massive jump as well. Through Week 8, he was around league average in that 2.75 second range, while the 3.15 seconds he averaged from Week 9 on would have been the highest in the NFL in 2021.
      • Holding the ball too long can be a problem, as it opens you up to sacks, but Fields’ sack rate dropped here. He even threw it into tight coverage less frequently.
      • Coming out of college, Fields was known as a guy who holds the ball and likes to push it deep. In those final few games of his rookie year, we see him figuring out how to make that style work. That bodes very well for the future.

Accuracy Issues

Given how drastically Fields improved over the course of the season, I want to look back at the specific areas where Fields struggled – identified in the last three articles – and see how those changed.

In Part I we found Fields struggled with accuracy to several different zones in the field. The table below splits Fields’ accuracy stats to those zones into Weeks 2-5 and 6+ and provides some context in how he ranked compared to 39 qualifying QBs from PFF. Areas where Fields was in the bottom 10 are highlighted in red, while those in the top 10 are green.

(Quick note: I didn’t do the Week 6-8 and Weeks 9-15 split because sample sizes were too small. That would have left many of these with fewer than 10 throws.)

A few thoughts:

  • In most of the areas where Fields struggled with accuracy, we see him go from being the literal worst in the NFL (or really close to it) to an average to slightly below average passer. This is a 39 QB sample, so 20th would be the literal middle. That would seem to indicate most of the inaccuracy issues were due to Fields being uncomfortable throwing to WRs he had never been allowed to practice with during the first few games he played, and they went away a bit as he got more familiar with them.
    • With that said, Fields was billed as a QB with elite accuracy coming out of college, so average to below average is still not what we’d like to see. This is an area that still needs to be better for Fields in 2022.
  • One zone where Fields did not improve was throwing to the middle of the field in the medium distance (10-19 yards). This has actually been highlighted as an area where QBs typically improve the most from year 1 to year 2, so hopefully we see that from Fields in 2022.

Non-Play Action and Quick Pass Struggles

In Part II, I found that Fields struggled mightily in non-play action (NPA) situations, as well as with quick passes that were thrown in under 2.5 seconds (U2.5). The table below shows how Fields did in those categories compared to the 39 qualifying NFL QBs. This time, the sample sizes were large enough that I could split into the three weekly groups. Once again, areas where Fields ranked in the bottom 10 were highlighted in red, while those in the top 10 were highlighted in green.

A few thoughts:

  • In the non-play action situations (top half of the table), Fields had three main areas of weakness identified earlier: accuracy, turnovers, and sacks.
    • Accuracy clearly improved after the first few games, but still was not all that good. He went from terrible to bad here.
    • Turnovers, it turns out, were actually only a huge deal in the middle sample, and that was really driven by one game, against Tampa Bay in Week 7. That game was responsible for 4 of the 13 turnover-worthy plays Fields was credited with in non-play action situations on the season. Removing that game drops Fields from 5th worst to just a little below average. We’d still like it to be better, but it doesn’t seem to be as much of a consistent problem as originally thought.
    • The area where we see clear improvement comes in sacks. Fields was the most sacked QB in non-play action situations through Week 8, and then the least sacked QB in those situations after that. I’m sure the truth lies somewhere in the middle, but he clearly figured out how to better avoid sacks late in the season.
  • There were also several areas of concern identified in the quick passing game (bottom half of the table).
    • Accuracy on these quick passes remained an issue for Fields throughout his rookie season. It did improve a bit after those initial few weeks, but still remained generally bad (averaging the last two samples together would leave Fields at 74%, still towards the bottom among NFL QBs).
    • Fields did see his yards/attempt mark go from abysmal to around average, however, which indicates he at least got more efficient in these quick passes.
    • Fields did not improve in making quick big-time throws (generally high accuracy passes that result in big gains), and he actually got worse at risking turnovers in these quick spots.
    • All in all, I would say Fields’ struggles in the quick game based on year-long stats were valid. This is an area of weakness that he needs to work on. And this makes sense, as Fields’ main growth late in the year came from being able to hold the ball longer. He’s a big game hunter, and he figured out how to do that in the NFL, but he also needs to figure out how to do the quick stuff less badly.

Pressure and Blitz Concerns

Part III in this series found that Fields had difficulty holding up under pressure and when blitzed. The table below shows how that changed as his rookie season progressed. Once again, Fields’ stats are shown relative to 39 qualified NFL QBs, with top 10 highlighted in green and bottom 10 highlighted in red.

A few thoughts:

  • Let’s start with Fields when pressured (top half of the table), where we initially identified three areas of weakness. Let’s see how they changed.
    • Accuracy: Wow, was that terrible those first few weeks Fields played. But it got steadily better as the season progressed, to the point that Fields was average in this measure for the later part of his rookie season.
    • Turnovers: these were really bad for the first two samples, but above average in the final one. Again, we see clear growth from Fields.
    • Sacks: we’ve already seen that Fields took fewer and fewer sacks as his rookie season progressed, and that shows up here when we look at how many of his pressures turned into sacks. He was unconscionably bad in the first few weeks, better but still terrible midseason, and then above average late.
    • Add it all up, and we see a QB who figured out how to play under pressure as his rookie season wore on. By the end of the year, Fields was an average to above average passer under pressure.
  • Now, let’s look at how Fields did when blitzed (bottom half of the table), where we also found three stats that stood out.
    • Time to throw + sacks: Fields actually took longer to throw against the blitz late in the season, which surprised me.  His sack percentage when blitzed creeped back up compared to a pretty solid showing in the middle of the season, which probably goes hand in hand with holding the ball longer. Fields needs to improve getting the ball out quickly when the blitz is coming, but the high sack numbers were mostly driven by those awful first few weeks.
    • Turnovers: one thing Fields clearly improved late in the year was not turning it over when blitzed. He was really, really bad at this through week 8, and then really good at it starting in week 9. Let’s hope that can continue going forward.

Lessons Learned

Fields clearly improved throughout his rookie season, and we can see that some of the apparent weaknesses found in his year-long data were no longer weaknesses late in the year. I wish he could have stayed healthy to give us a larger sample size in those last few games and confirm that those improvements were real. If we look only at Fields’ later season performance, we have a rookie QB who was:

  • Overall efficient moving the ball through the air, an elite running QB, and somebody who gets sacked at an above average (but not astronomical) rate.
  • An excellent deep ball passer who is below average (but not terrible) in the short game.
  • An elite passer in a clean pocket who is average to above average under pressure.
  • An elite passer in play action who is below average-to-bad in non-play action situations.
  • Bad in the quick game.
  • Average to below average facing the blitz.

There are clearly still areas for improvement, but that’s a much more promising profile than you would expect given Fields’ abysmal rookie statistics. I think that provides plenty of reason for optimism around Fields heading into 2022.

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