The B-Gap: Justin Fields, CJ Stroud and the backwards debate around floors and ceilings

By Sam Robb O’Hagan

Ask any evaluator before the 2021 NFL Draft, and the consensus surrounding soon-to-be Chicago Bears quarterback Justin Fields was clear.

Fields was a polarizing prospect — many argued he should’ve been the second overall pick, many argued he should’ve been the last of the five quarterbacks eventually selected in the first round. Warm or cold, every evaluation of Fields subscribed to one consistent theme: the floor was low, but the ceiling was unimaginably high.

It was a simple calculus. Fields’ dazzling athleticism gave him limitless potential, but his under-refined technical chops put him at risk of being an immediate flame-out. He’d need to keep his head above water before he reached for the stars, and without a sound infrastructure around him — a life jacket, if you will — he’d sink before he got a chance to swim.

“He should quickly become a top-tier NFL starter,” read ESPN’s final draft profile on Fields. But only “if placed in the right system and situation.”

Fields fell victim to the backwards philosophy that has infected quarterback evaluations throughout the modern draft era — that tantalizing athletic traits only contribute to a passer’s future potential, and technical refinement only to their present capability.

Take Fields’ replacement in Columbus, now the betting favorite to become the first overall pick this April. CJ Stroud lives on the opposite pole — a wonderfully polished passer with precise accuracy and sound process in all required areas. Stroud’s superpower is the technical refinement that Fields lacked, and in the NFL’s eyes, that makes him a safe bet, a “high floor” prospect that, if nothing else, won’t fail in the pros. 

If Vegas is right, Stroud’s low risk-factor is about to make him worth two-first round picks, two-second round picks and DJ Moore.

But there are questions with Stroud. His mobility, and even his willingness to use it, was absent all over his Ohio State film, save for a heroic cameo in the National Semifinal against Georgia. Stroud isn’t a remarkable athlete — Next Gen Stats gives him an Athleticism Score of 73 after the combine, a cumulative grade of his performance in measurable drills. His score isn’t even among the 10 best in this year’s class at the position. 

These questions regarding Stroud’s athleticism are being asked, but they aren’t being aimed at the vulnerable aspect of his projection to the NFL. Stroud’s ceiling is under serious scrutiny, but his floor — the perceived chance that Stroud outright fails at the next level — is still almost completely untouched. 

Stroud remains almost universally viewed as a lock to be at least a solid starter. But in the last five drafts, the only first-round quarterback with an Athleticism Score below his 73 that remains the undisputed starter for the team that drafted him is Joe Burrow. The four others that failed — Baker Mayfield, Sam Darnold, Josh Rosen and Dwayne Haskins — all aligned with Stroud as a prospect, and all collapsed under the same stresses that Stroud will inevitably face.

Mayfield, Darnold, Rosen and Haskins were all drafted into offenses anywhere between talent-deficient and dysfunctional. All four lacked the athleticism to make up for it — to figure it out when things fell apart around them, when the offensive line in front of them couldn’t hold up long enough or the receivers down field couldn’t get open quick enough. All four were true pocket passers like Stroud, a valuable and important skill set, certainly, but one that really, really needs a functional pocket — a functional structure — to stay above water. But it was Fields, the athletic marvel with an Athleticism Score of 99 out of 100, that still had to carry the caveat that his success hinged on “the right system and situation” into a draft that eventually saw him drop out of the top ten picks.

Two seasons after he was drafted, through their foregoing of the opportunity to replace him with No.1 overall pick in the upcoming 2023 draft, the Bears have declared Fields’ head above water.

In Fields’ first season, the Bears threw him into the deepest of deep ends, trotting him out in an offense orchestrated by an outcast head coach along with one of the league’s worst offensive lines and a receiving corps led by a completely disinterested former star. In Year 2, the Bears threw him right back in. Luke Getsy’s offense gave Fields more of a chance than Matt Nagy’s, sure, but the offensive line was still leaky and the receiving core, once middling with no clear direction, was now barely a professional unit. 

1,143 rushing yards and 25 total touchdowns later, Fields is Chicago’s guy. So much for needing the right situation.

Fields has established himself as an NFL starter, like the line of unathletic yet somehow risk-averse prospects that preceded him couldn’t. And he did it on the back of his jaw-dropping ability out of structure, the same plays that were only supposed to contribute to his mouth-watering ceiling without touching his floor. 

Fields is a case study into what really makes young quarterbacks stick in the NFL. But he’s also a case study into what really makes them ascend into stardom. It doesn’t feel like a coincidence, for instance, that Fields hasn’t yet reached his star-studded ceiling, just the same as he hasn’t fully developed the technical polish that eluded him throughout the draft process.

About the only quality that Fields and Stroud share as prospects is the logo on their Pro Day helmets, yet both have an equal hand in the backwards philosophy that is relentlessly applied to their position. Stroud is the perceived “high-floor” prospect, clearly already on his way to mastering the coachable intricacies of the position. Fields was the apparent “high-ceiling” prospect, teeming with physical gifts that can’t be taught.

Yet a quick glance at the recent history of prospects like Stroud, and the ongoing success of Fields, tells us that the superpowers of both former Buckeyes are found in their assumed weaknesses. Stroud doesn’t have the uncoachable natural talent that has kept Fields afloat. But he does have the black belt in quarterbacking technique that still prohibits his collegiate predecessor from assuming his own vaunted potential.

Stroud isn’t a “low-risk” prospect. He might immediately sink in the NFL. Recent history tells us it’s even likely he will. And that’s okay — NFL teams have been willingly taking swings at the quarterback plate for the last century. 

So Stroud is risky. But that isn’t a fatal flaw; so long as the team that drafts him realizes they aren’t drafting a guarantee.