We are just about a week away from the NFL Draft in Cleveland, Ohio. It’s a moment of hope and sheer optimism all around; for college athletes looking to live out their childhood dreams, mediocre teams trying to improve their on-field product, and the fans hoping to finally see their much maligned squad give them something to root for. You can always expect mock draft boards, hours of repetitive TV speculation, and nitpicking by scouts and analysts around this time. And every year, there’s a heralded Black quarterback who bears a disproportionate and illogical brunt of that criticism.
This year it’s Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields. The junior signal caller came into the year as the clear number two passer in the draft behind Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence. He met the hype, completing over 70 percent of his passes against elite competition. He led his team to the College Football Playoff, putting on an absolute showcase of his talent by torching the Tiger’s defense for six touchdowns while fighting a rib injury.
Yet, Fields’ draft stock has gradually plummeted since. He has fallen in every mock draft board. Players who weren’t even on the national radar in 2020 have leap frogged him. The latest from NFL.com’s Charley Casserly predicts Fields as the fifth quarterback taken off the board, going No. 24 to the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The reason for this slide can be attributed to an ugly whisper campaign many Black signal callers before Fields have had to overcome. It makes the tough task of preparing for the draft an even more uphill battle.
It started in February when Pro Football Network’s Tony Pauline said an NFL source he spoke with had concerns over Fields perceived tendency to target his primary wide receiver in passing plays. Being able to go through progressions is a top metric for scouting pro signal callers. And according to metrics from Pro Football Focus, Fields does a better job at that than any other 2021 quarterback prospect.
ESPN analyst Dan Orlovsky out of thin air claimed teams had concerns about Fields’ work ethic. He said he heard Fields was “a last-guy-in, first-guy-out type of quarterback,” and teams were worried he didn’t have the “desire to be a great quarterback,” just a “great athlete.” Orlovsky later apologized and even called Fields personally to clear the air. The comments drew plenty of backlash, since it was Fields work ethic and leadership that pushed The Big Ten conference to even have a football season.
Just last week, ESPN’s Chris Mortensen reported that scouts are questioning Fields’ throwing mechanics, suggesting that playing baseball in high school “messed with” his ability to make a pass. Yet, Pro Football Focus metrics show he made more pro-level throws than the quarterbacks he trails in mock drafts.
The discrediting of Black signal callers is a tradition as old as the draft itself. Implicit biases centered around race paint Black quarterbacks as flashy athletes first and foremost, who don’t put in as much study into the position as their white counterparts.
Warren Moon, the only African-American quarterback in the Pro Football Hall Of Fame, had to win multiple championships and shatter passing records in Canada before getting a shot, and thriving immediately, in the NFL. Before then, coaches told Moon he would have to play a different position. He told The Undefeated, “in football, the thinking positions down the middle – quarterback, center, linebacker- were the ones that we weren’t allowed to play.”
Legendary NFL head coach Tony Dungy faced that reality head on. Dungy was quarterback for the University of Minnesota from 1973 to 1976, finishing his career owning the school records for passing attempts, completions, passing yards and touchdowns. Yet, he went undrafted. Like Moon, Canada was an option for Dungy. But he opted to switch his position to defensive back and play for the Steelers, where he went on to win a Super Bowl.
There has been notable progress with more Black men behind center in the league today, but they have faced many of the same coded critiques.
Scouts doubted Deshaun Watson’s ability to throw in the pocket. In 2020, he made them look ridiculous, leading the league in passing with nearly 5000 yards through the air.
Russell Wilson slid down to the third round of draft boards despite stellar numbers at Wisconsin. He remains the most successful quarterback of his class. Remember Brandon Weeden?
Former Front Office executive Bill Polian infamously said Lamar Jackson should move to wide receiver because he’s “clearly not the thrower that the other guys are.” His league MVP award says otherwise.
There are numerous other examples of African-American passers succeeding amid the draft time smears. Now, Justin Fields is handed the burden that not just Black quarterbacks, but Black Americans, have had to carry for decades; the feeling of having to be twice as good to get half as far. Within that legacy is where Black excellence shines. Many things have to go right for any college player to have success in the NFL, but Justin Fields has as good a chance as any to be an absolute star, no matter what the mock draft boards say.