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What to like and dislike about Justin Fields for 49ers

© Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

The college football season ended on a particularly bland note on Monday. Alabama blew Ohio State out of the water by the end of the first half, which at least provided us with DeVonta Smith doing otherworldly things against a defense which was content to, or dare I say set on, being embarrassed.

On the other side of that was Justin Fields, who, for most of the last two years has been the projected No. 2 quarterback. Against Clemson, in a gutty six-touchdown performance in which he possibly cracked a rib, he showed all the best parts of his game; patience in the pocket, the ability to scan the field, set and deliver pure moonshots to his targets, and when needed, get out of trouble.

He didn’t have much of a chance on Monday, and finished 17-for-33 with 173 yards and this touchdown (below). The loss was firmly on the defense. Fields missed chances, but was hurried constantly by Christian Barmore and stifled by two veteran Alabama corners in Patrick Surtain II and Josh Jobe, who settled in during the second half. Still, he made some spectacular throws, was playing with reported hip pointer, and was coming off a 6 TD semifinal win over Clemson.

What we’re looking at with Fields, from the 49ers perspective, is a question of whether Kyle Shanahan would assess him and conclude that he is a polished enough prospect to start instead of Jimmy Garoppolo from Day 1. Or, his ceiling is high enough to draft him and bring him in either behind Garoppolo or another veteran quarterback.

The conclusion I’ve come to from watching myriad Fields tape is that the first scenario is unlikely. Fields, as of this moment, is not polished enough to provide the confidence to give him the keys to the franchise from the start, at least in Shanahan’s scheme. So what you are more likely talking about is drafting him to compete with Garoppolo or another quarterback in camp, which is an exceedingly tricky proposition from a salary cap perspective, and would be equally tricky to navigate if you keep Garoppolo around.

This is coming from someone who loves Fields’ traits and believes many of his flaws are correctable. I also believe he can be ready to start by the season opener.

But despite last season, the 49ers’ roster is constructed to win now, and Shanahan, having bitten the bullet for his first two seasons and endured the weirdness of 2020, is not a likely candidate to want to start from scratch.

Obviously the unknown wrinkle here is whether Shanahan has simply seen enough of Garoppolo and is finally willing to swing on raw talent. There are elements of Ohio State’s offense, like the play-action bootlegs, which the 49ers also use, and where Fields consistently excels. And when you bring in a mobile quarterback, the playbook can evolve; while Shanahan hasn’t loved running the read-option, having that available makes the defense account for the quarterback as a runner, and stacks numbers in the offense’s favor.

But there is one key area where Fields has concerns, and it’s same area where the 49ers’ offense has thrived over the last few seasons: short-yardage, quick throws.

One thing Garoppolo excels at is taking a three-step and firing. If nothing else, he’s an elite short-throw quarterback. That might sound like a backhanded compliment, but being reliable on the “easy” ones is a necessity, at least in the current state of this offense. Many of Shanahan’s play designs revolve around taking the snap, setting and delivering right on time.

With Fields, that’s a massive question mark. He was almost never tasked with doing that in college. The deliberate pace with every drop back is almost maddening because you get so few opportunities to see if he’s actually capable of consistently hitting those sub-2.5-second time to throws. Nearly every throw takes more than three seconds to deliver.

And because he knows he can escape with his feet, he often tries to escape pressure by running instead of throwing the ball. He also frequently puts his head down, fully committed to running and sometimes fails to look for late throws at the boundary like Aaron Rodgers or Patrick Mahomes. That’s correctable, but correcting tendencies and timing in a complex offense is a harrowing challenge for a player who you’ll need to trade away at least next year’s first-round pick to acquire.

This is the stuff that he’ll be asked to do consistently (timestamped):

Garoppolo’s average time to throw was 2.57 seconds in 2020 and 2.65 seconds in 2019. It’s plays like this where Garoppolo is at his best.

But what you’re getting with Fields that you’re not getting Garoppolo is everything else. Elusiveness, running ability, and for the first time in a while, the ability to attack the deep third of the field. When Garoppolo attacks vertical patterns, they are so frequently underthrown, even when completed. His overthrow of Emmanuel Sanders in the Super Bowl was clearly an overcorrection.

Garoppolo was poor on throws more than 15 yards down the field this season.

Last year wasn’t exactly incredible, either:

With Fields, this is a constant:

And this:

Aaaand this:

To recap, here’s where Fields excels:

  • Eye manipulation: Leads defenders away from the play with his eyes, scans the field well when he has time
  • Pocket presence, footwork: Keeps his feet moving, and sets a wide base before throws
  • Arm talent: Elite. Pushes the ball downfield with stunning accuracy and hits on most of his deep shots, and balls to the boundary.
  • Size: Perfect frame at 6’3, 228 pounds, bulky enough to take hits
  • Athleticism: Escapes the pocket consistently, has shown he can make off-schedule plays, provides opportunities for designed runs. Sometimes fails to look downfield once he’s decided he’s going to run.

And where Fields struggles:

  • Anticipation: Ball often comes out as receivers are getting out of their breaks, instead of before
  • Identification: Fields misses too many reads, where he locks onto his No. 1 or decides to run, not finishing his progressions and finding his No. 2 or even No. 3 target.
  • Timing: Tied in with anticipation, his drop is slow and he’s too deliberate with his movement
  • Short accuracy: Has a tendency to try these dinky touch passes that flutter, or overthrows the ball (throw it way too hard) in short yardage
  • Running: Doesn’t tend to slide, needs to get down

This isn’t a “the 49ers shouldn’t trade up to take Fields,” take or saying they should. It’s looking at what the 49ers have in Garoppolo and the gaps in Fields’ game. If given time, Fields should become a far better quarterback than Garoppolo. And when you take a rookie quarterback, you free up, effectively, $20-plus million every year for the life of that rookie contract.

The proposition that’s facing Kyle Shanahan, though, is, can you afford to spend valuable, cheap draft picks on taking a guy who is going to need time to develop, when this team is still prepared to win in the present. If you bring him in with Garoppolo, that only tightens the cap without adding pieces around the team, like a young defensive end (Dee Ford may not play another down) or corner (the entire secondary aside from Jimmie Ward and Tarvarius Moore is expiring).

The upside, though, is raising the ceiling of this team immediately, and permanently, for the next decade to bring in a modern quarterback. You know, one who can throw the ball more than 15 yards down field and run. As much as we like to play general manager, it’s not a simple choice.


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