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SportsColumnistsBob Glauber

NFL Draft: Justin Fields, one of top QBs in this year's class, won't let critics bring him down

Justin Fields of the Ohio State Buckeyes reacts

Justin Fields of the Ohio State Buckeyes reacts after throwing a touchdown pass against the Clemson Tigers in the second quarter during the College Football Playoff semifinal at the Allstate Sugar Bowl at Mercedes-Benz Superdome on Jan. 1 in New Orleans. Credit: Getty Images/Sean Gardner

Justin Fields has seen the criticism, has felt the skepticism and has heard the doubters loud and clear:

He locks on to his receivers. He doesn’t go through his progressions the way he should. His work ethic may be in question.

So yes, the Ohio State quarterback enters this week’s NFL Draft with a fair amount of irritation.

But not necessarily over what you might be thinking.

"Of course, there’s always going to be a chip on my shoulder," Fields said.

Of all the players in this year’s draft, none might be drawing a more polarizing set of opinions than Fields. Despite leading the Buckeyes to the national championship game against Alabama, despite showing plenty of heart after taking some big hits through much of the season and despite showing touch and accuracy that only a select few quarterbacks possess, Fields has had his game picked apart more than most.

And more than it should.

Regardless of the criticism, though, it’s what he believes at his core that drives him, not what he’s hearing from the outside.

"I think my drive, my wanting to be great, my willingness to be great just comes from inside," he said. "To be honest, if everyone on the outside was telling me how great I was and I haven’t reached the level of potential I think I can reach, that drive and that willingness is coming from inside of me."

Fields is dealing with perceptions that other prominent Black quarterbacks entering the NFL have faced. When his ability to read defenses is questioned, that can be taken as code for his intelligence being questioned.

Same with issues about whether he has the kind of work ethic quarterbacks need at the NFL level.

"It’s important for all analysts, do not be unaware of the history of Black quarterbacks often getting pegged with this criticism," former NFL cornerback Dominique Foxworth said recently on ESPN. "It’s important to be specific about what you’re seeing. Just throwing out generalizations like, ‘Well, he has trouble processing, he has trouble reading the defense, he has off-the-field or character concerns.' Those are the tropes that are often stuck to Black quarterbacks. I’m not saying that it’s not true, but it’s understandable that the racial biases that we have often leak into all parts of our lives, including football analysis."

For his part, Fields is trying to keep the noise out and just worry about what he can control.

He’s about to find out where he’ll be headed — it’s almost certain he’ll be selected in the top 10, given the unprecedented need at quarterback — as he embarks on an NFL journey he believes ultimately will be successful.

"I try to not pay too much [attention] to the outside voices," he said, "because at the end of the day, they have their opinions, but they don’t really know what’s going on inside of the building or inside of a certain offense. My dedication and my passion to be great just comes from within."

The numbers tell a promising story about the 6-3, 228-pound quarterback. After throwing for a whopping 41 touchdowns two years ago, he had 22 touchdown passes last season, but the Buckeyes were limited to eight games because of COVID-19 issues.

As for the knock against him for not going through his progressions the way some NFL scouts prefer, Fields has a perfectly sensible explanation.

"We have a lot of reads where they’re pure progressions across the board where I’m going 1 to 2 to 3 to 4," he said of his passing targets. "What I have to say to that is [I’m throwing to] some of the best receivers in the country. So if my first or second read is there, I’m not going to pass up that first or second read to get to the three, four, fifth read to prove that I can read past my first or second read. I’m going to put my team in the best position to win."

And the work ethic?

"I know my work ethic is unmatched," Fields said, "and just my dedication and my passion to wanting to be great is just another level."

There’s one other thing he’s trying to overcome, albeit not of his own doing. While Ohio State has regularly been one of the country’s top teams, there has been a lack of quality NFL quarterbacks coming out of the school. Some recent examples: Dwayne Haskins (who already has been released after two seasons in Washington), Cardale Jones, Terrelle Pryor. You want to go back even further? Try Craig Krenzel, Bobby Hoying or even Art Schlichter.

"In terms of the past quarterbacks, I can’t control that," Fields said. "Of course, the only similarity that me and those guys have is that we wore the same uniform. I’m going to focus on myself and focus on continuing to get better in every aspect of the game."

He can’t wait to find out where that next stop is, but the plan is to answer any doubts about whether he can be good enough. There’s no doubt in his mind that he will.

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