Will Justin Fields be the only first-round pick from Ohio State in 2021 NFL draft?

Joey Kaufman
Buckeye Xtra
Multi-interception games against Indiana and Northwestern last season have some doubting whether Justin Fields is worthy of a high draft pick.

Ohio State has produced multiple first-round picks in each of the past five NFL drafts.

That might change this year.

Outside of Justin Fields, the uber-talented quarterback who could be among the first players to hear their name called in April, the Buckeyes do not have another player who is certain to be taken among the first 32 selections.

Most mock drafts published in recent weeks include only Fields.

The most likely reason for the development is last season’s performance by cornerback Shaun Wade, prominent ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. said during a conference call with reporters on Monday afternoon.

“He would’ve been a first-round pick had he played up to the level you expected,” Kiper said.

Moving from inside corner to outside corner, Wade never fully made a smooth transition. He offered the requisite size to step into the position with a 6-foot-1 frame, but over eight games during the pandemic-shortened season, he gave up seven touchdowns, according to data from Pro Football Focus.

Largely covering slot receivers during the previous fall, he allowed only one touchdown, as well as a lower rate of completions.

“Wade just didn’t have the cover skills playing outside that he did when he was in the slot,” Kiper said. “I think he’s going to end up being an inside safety type or a slot corner, where he felt more comfortable, rather than being out on an island.”

Shaun Wade, here getting ready to tackle Clemson's Travis Etienne in the College Football Playoff semifinal on Jan. 1, struggled at times last season at outside cornerback, so some project him to play safety or slot cornerback in the NFL.

Kiper expects Wade will be taken in either the second or third rounds of the draft, still offering teams versatility in the secondary.

The range is where offensive guard Wyatt Davis might also end up.

While Davis was a unanimous All-American last fall and discussed as a potential first-round pick prior to his fourth season with the Buckeyes, interior offensive linemen are less likely to land near the top of the draft, adding a hurdle in his path.

“Solid player all the way around,” Kiper said. “Guards are going to get pushed down automatically unless they’re super elite.”

In two of the past four drafts, no guard was taken in the first round.

Other draft prospects from Ohio State have risen on draft boards in recent months, including linebacker Baron Browning and running back Trey Sermon.

But Kiper mentioned them as possible selections in the third or fourth rounds. Their stock seems likely to grow only so much.

All of that leaves Fields as the clear-cut top prospect for the Buckeyes atop this spring’s draft, though even the quarterback could slide a bit within the first round.

Kiper has slotted him as the No. 7 pick to San Francisco 49ers in a recent mock draft, while some analysts have left him outside the top 10.

In a more extreme case, NFL Network’s Charley Casserly, a former general manager with Houston and Washington, projected Fields as the No. 24 pick of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

A pair of multi-interception games against Indiana and Northwestern last season have been subject of conversation around Fields, but Kiper pointed to a larger body of work from 2019.

Over the full pre-pandemic season, Fields threw for 41 touchdowns and three interceptions.

“There is a huge range on Justin Fields,” Kiper said. “I don’t understand some of the criticism. He had two rough games, and that was it. And in the championship game, he was hurt, coming off the Clemson game in which he got hurt. Two questionable games. I call them hiccups.”

Other qualities outweighed any lingering concerns about turnovers, such as Fields’ arm strength and athleticism. He should perform well in individual drills at Ohio State’s pro day on March 30.

Kiper also acknowledged his competitiveness.

“His passion for the game,” he said. “He loves to study the game, study film, study the opposition. He’ll be the first one in, last one out of your building.”

jkaufman@dispatch.com

@joeyrkaufman