Opinion: What Justin Fields' performance against Trevor Lawrence could mean for top of NFL draft

Andy Vasquez
NFL writer

Let's get this out of the way to start with: Friday night's performance by Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields was remarkable and impressive in just about every way imaginable. And it almost certainly won't change a thing at the top of April's NFL Draft.

Yes, Fields out-dueled Clemson star Trevor Lawrence in a 49-28 win for the Buckeyes. But Lawrence has been at the top of the 2021 draft boards for nearly two years now for a reason: he's been the best and most pro-ready quarterback in college football. And this doesn't change that.

But it's still unlikely the Jacksonville Jaguars will select anyone but Lawrence with the top pick, and while Fields' performance won't help the Jets land one of the most coveted college quarterbacks of the past few generations, it was still a very good thing for the team with the No. 2 overall pick.

First, it raises the value of the Jets selection, which gives them a better chance to improve no matter what they decide to do with the pick.

Say the Jets ultimately decide they want to keep current quarterback Sam Darnold. When Fields torched Clemson for six touchdowns and 385 yards, it made it more likely that some other team desperate to find their quarterback would be willing to overpay to trade up for the pick.

Ohio State Buckeyes quarterback Justin Fields (1) throws the ball against Clemson Tigers in the third quarter during the College Football Playoff semifinal at the Allstate Sugar Bowl in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans on Friday, Jan. 1, 2021.

That would put the Jets in a position to add significant talent now while also keeping a full stash of draft assets that could help them for years to come. Of course, you have to make the right picks for it to mean anything, but it would enhance general manager Joe Douglas' chances of building the Jets.

But Fields' performance also increases the pressure on Douglas and the Jets to move on from Darnold, who has not come close to the expectations the team had for him when they picked him No. 3 overall in 2018.

Darnold showed promise as a rookie, but has taken major steps back since. This was supposed to be a breakout third season. Instead, Darnold turned in the worst year of his career.

And his contract situation makes it hard for the Jets to justify keeping him: if they do, they'll either have to pay him much more money starting in 2022 or let him walk for nothing after next season and start over at quarterback. Again.

If the Jets see a quarterback in this draft that they believe can be better than Darnold, they should not hesitate to take him simply because he will be under contract at a reasonable price for the next four years.

Fields' performance on Friday night was a strong argument that he can be better than Darnold. He showed everything you'd want to see from a potential franchise quarterback: accurate throws into tight windows, a cannon of an arm that unleashed deep balls only his players could catch and an ability to make plays with his mix of speed and agility.

Clemson linebacker James Skalski (47) hits Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields. He was ejected for targeting.

He did it all after taking a massive hit to the ribs in the second quarter, which left him in clear pain. And he came up with that kind of all-time performance on the biggest possible stage, against the quarterback who is universally believed to be the better pro prospect.

Of course, it's just one game and it doesn't change the fact that Fields has struggled against some better defensive schemes; including just a few weeks ago against Northwestern in the Big Ten title game, when he had an abysmal day.

But his performance on Friday was a strong argument that he's ready to do it at the next level. And that just maybe the gap between Fields and Lawrence isn't as great as we once thought it was. And for the team picking No. 2 in a draft where the No. 1 pick has seemingly been decided for years, that can only be a good thing

Email: vasqueza@northjersey.com. Twitter: @andy_vasquez