Fields in Focus (2/8): Where and How Effectively Fields Threw the Ball

| May 4th, 2023

Today is the second of eight articles taking a closer look at Justin Fields’ 2022 season.

  • Part 1: Comparison to rookie season and growth throughout 2022
  • Part 2: Where and how effectively Fields threw the ball.
  • Part 3: How Fields did on different types of plays (play action, quick vs. slow developing).
  • Part 4: How often Fields was under pressure, and who was to blame.
  • Part 5: How Fields performed under pressure.
  • Part 6: How efficiently Fields produced explosive plays.
  • Part 7: How Fields did against man and zone.
  • Part 8: Fields’ future outlook.

All data comes from Pro Football Focus (PFF) unless otherwise noted, and Fields’ stats are only from week 5 on, as was explained in part one of this series.

Sorting by Depth

The table below shows information splitting the field into four areas, which I will refer to as behind the line, short (0-9 yards), medium (10-19 yards), and deep (20+ yards downfield). Fields’ pass frequency, accuracy, completion percentage, and yards/attempt are shown, as well as how he ranked compared to 33 NFL QBs with at least 240 pass attempts. The best, average, and worst value from around the NFL is given, and any areas where Fields was in the top 25% are highlighted in green, while areas in the bottom 25% are highlighted in red.

[Quick note: I realize the numbers for frequency don’t add up to 100%, but this is PFF’s data, and it’s the same data for everybody, so I’m just rolling with it for a fair comparison. My guess is that they are excluding throwaway passes that didn’t have a clearly defined target, which account for the missing percentage.]

A few thoughts:

  • Like we saw in his rookie season, Fields likes to throw the ball deep; he was among the most frequent deep ball passers for the 2nd year in a row.
    • Unfortunately, Fields’ effectiveness was only around average on these throws. That still has real value, since these are valuable passes when they connect, but a combination of high volume and high efficiency on deep passes – which his college profile suggests is possible for him – would be ideal.
      • It’s worth wondering here whether improving his pass protection and the trust he has in his pass catchers could help further unlock this part of his game.
      • DJ Moore should be an excellent fit in this regard; according to Pro Football Reference, 29% of Moore’s targets over the last 3 seasons have come at least 15 yards downfield, the 7th highest rate of 41 WRs with at least 250 targets in that stretch. His efficiency on those passes has been stellar as well; he’s caught 42% of deep targets for 12.3 yards/target, compared to all other Carolina pass catchers catching 35% for 9.3 yards/target. Fields is – by far – the best deep passer Moore has ever played with, and Moore is – by far – the best deep receiver Fields has gotten to throw to in the NFL. In that regard, their strengths line up quite nicely.
      • We don’t know for sure how well this will translate to the NFL, or how big of a role he will play in Chicago’s offense as a rookie, but 4th round pick Tyler Scott was also quite a deep ball threat in college.
  • Fields was one of the most effective passers in the NFL targeting the medium range of the field, but he threw there slightly less than average, which limited the positive impact from that efficiency.
    • The lack of volume is a stark change from his rookie season, when he targeted this range at the 4th highest frequency in the NFL. I’m unsure whether to attribute this to the scheme change or the poor weapons around him; most likely it is some combination of both.
    • DJ Moore has been one of the highest-volume intermediate pass catchers in the NFL the last few years, so this is yet another way where Fields and Moore see their strengths align.
  • Fields didn’t throw to the short area of the field very often compared to his peers, and he was pretty ineffective when he did. Both of these trends line up with his rookie season and highlight a continued need for growth heading into year three.
    • It’s worth noting that Fields was also very accurate on short passes in college, so he should be able to improve here. This suggests to me that his issues in the short game are more about being comfortable with the offense and players he’s throwing to, which should be fixable.
  • Fields threw behind the line of scrimmage much more in year two, more than doubling his 8% from his rookie season, but his effectiveness there remained below average.
    • In my view, this is a combination of QB play, scheme, and pass catchers. The accuracy and completion percentage are mostly on the QB, while the ability to gain yards after the catch is mostly on the scheme and pass catchers. Fields was average to below average in all areas, suggesting everything involved needs to improve.

Detailed Breakdown

Finally, I want to break up each depth into left, center, and right in order to get a feel for whether Fields’ strengths and struggles were focused on any part of the field horizontally in addition to vertically. The table below shows how frequently Fields targeted each zone as well as how effectively he threw it there, as measured in accuracy rate and yards/attempt. As in the table above, all data is compared to 33 total qualifying QBs, with green cells indicating Fields ranked in the top 25% and red cells indicating he ranked in the bottom 25%.

[Side note: if the image won’t show up properly, click on it to open it in a new window that will let you see the full thing. Sorry about the formatting issues.]

[Quick note: like in the first chart, the total frequency doesn’t quite add up to 100%, but it’s that way for everybody, so I still feel ok about doing comparisons between QBs.]

A few thoughts:

  • Pay attention to the % of throws before getting too worked up about any efficiency stats. We’re starting to divide up the overall sample into smaller sizes, so some of them will not carry a ton of weight. For instance, when looking behind the line to the right, 80% accuracy and 3.2 yards/attempt looks bad, but that’s only 10 throws for Fields, so it’s a pretty small sample to draw grand conclusions from.
  • In terms of where he threw, Fields likes to go outside the numbers, and avoids the middle. Only 31% of his passes were targeted to the middle of the field, while 60% went outside, with an even split to left and right. The average NFL QB threw 45% of his passes to the middle and 46% on the outside (again, with an even split). That’s a significant difference.
  • Fields especially avoided throwing short middle, which is the single most common targeted zone for most QBs. Fields threw here less than half as often as an average QB, and struggled with accuracy when he did target this area. The lack of volume is new from his rookie year, but the accuracy issues are not.
    • This is likely due to a combination of factors. First, Fields needs to get more comfortable with the speed of NFL defenses, as the short middle of the field will have the most congestion. Second, he needs to have receivers that he trusts to be in the right place at the right time and catch the ball.

Lessons Learned

In case you got lost in all the words, here are the main takeaways from this article:

  • Fields generally likes to push the ball down the field and is pretty good at doing so. The DJ Moore acquisition should make him even more productive in this category.
  • Fields struggles on short passes and needs to improve here, which is a repeat pattern from his rookie year, but not something that was an issue for him in college, giving hope that issues are more mental than physical and can be improved. Again, the DJ Moore acquisition should aid in this improvement.
  • Fields avoids the middle of the field and needs to get better at attacking this area to improve as a passer overall.

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