Justin Fields is turning out to be this draft season's piñata to smash. That's all but official now. The Ohio State quarterback who led his team to a pair of Big Ten titles and College Football Playoff berths has done nothing but drop lately in the eyes of pundits and perhaps the NFL teams who manipulate them.
Fields came into the draft as the clear No. 2 quarterback to be taken behind Clemson's Trevor Lawrence. Then, stuff happened. Though Fields showed well at his pro day showcases, puzzling whispers began to surface questioning both his work ethic and consistency.
"I get frustrated," Ohio State coach Ryan Day said Friday. "I feel like there are a lot of people in the draft [where] some guys get a pass and some guys don't. Certainly people have taken shots at Justin."
This week there was the significant revelation that Fields has epilepsy. The neurological condition can cause seizures. NFL.com said Fields is managing it with medication.
That complicates things on several levels. Now the question seems to be veering toward whether that information was weaponized. One reporter Friday asked Day if he was "surprised" the information was "leaked."
"I don't know. Justin is a private guy," Day said. "I'm not sure he wants the world to know some of his private things. When you're one of the top quarterbacks about to be taken in the draft you're exposed to some different things. I guess that's kind of the way it goes. I'm sure it's not something he wanted to share with everybody."
Day was not specific about guys getting a "pass." That would suggest an agenda by someone, somewhere. Fields is about to become a millionaire many times over. And certainly, any Ohio State athlete isn't going to be overlooked. Getting critiqued in the draft is part of the deal.
Still, there is a vast difference between evaluation, taking shots, a legitimate health condition and how it was revealed. Certainly some of this is a reaction by a coach who has seen his star quarterback bleed, sweat, work and then be taken down notch or two.
The draft can be an animal. Its machinations are beyond most mortals' comprehension. Some of the talk about Fields could be true. Or none of it could be true. It could be a case of a couple of mouthy scouts spreading false information so that a prospect drops to their team on the big board.
Fields is clearly pissed about those vague "work ethic" rumors.
"I honestly take that personally," Fields told ESPN's Kirk Herbstreit. "That's kind of a bigger insult to me than saying that I don't have a strong arm or saying I'm not accurate."
But all of it now seems different and perhaps cruel. Fields has dropped from being the consensus No. 2 quarterback based on what? Someone needs to say it out loud.
It's not like his game collapsed. He was amazing in the College Football Playoff, playing with sore ribs in parts of two playoff games. That included throwing six touchdowns against Clemson in the Sugar Bowl semifinal. He also fell short against Indiana (three interceptions) and Northwestern in the Big Ten title game to the point that Day had to rely on tailback Trey Sermon to rally past the Wildcats.
On the surface, Fields' game would seem to be ideal for the modern NFL. He's a shifty dual-threat prospect with a rocket arm from an elite program and a next-level competitive spirit.
Ignore all of it at your own risk. Fields was one of the most efficient throwers -- ever. But for no obvious reason, he has been the prospect set up on a mountaintop to be torn down.
That discussion, though, took a different turn this week with the epilepsy revelation.
Day confirmed Fields' condition Friday on a Zoom call with reporters saying, "We never had any issue with his health. He was reliable and never missed a game."
There is the issue of the information itself. Fields and Ohio State chose not to share his condition while he was in college. That's their prerogative, I suppose, although there is a conversation to be had about health concerns regarding college athletes with heightened awareness of brain trauma.
Meanwhile, NFL teams were eventually going to find out what the media couldn't due to HIPAA laws. They absolutely deserve to know as much about the condition as possible. Now, what have certain individuals done with it?
We'll never know. The news alone could cost Fields millions in draft position. He has made it this far without any issues but understands teams' risk of investing in the face of a franchise. Given his game, Fields could be the next Patrick Mahomes. Given his health history, he could be a risk.
How much of any of that is taking shots at Ohio State's quarterback?
Day understands that being the Buckeyes' quarterback is like "being the shortstop of the New York Yankees." Scrutiny is coming whether you like it or not. The glass that surrounds the entrance to the Woody Hayes Athletic Center might as well signify a fish bowl.
True, statistically, Fields did not have as good a season as he did in 2019. COVID-19 intervened, hitting Ohio State particularly hard. The Big Ten had to change its rules just so the Buckeyes could qualify for the conference's championship game.
"I'm not trying to be overdramatic but it was real," Day said. "We'll be talking about this 20 years down the road."
But remember this is what Fields, Day and the rest of Ohio State wanted -- a season in the midst of the pandemic. So let's not complain too loudly, Bucks.
Let's just hope vague rumors about a fantastic player and person are as bad as it gets. There is an NFL career waiting to be launched. But there is also a healthy life to be lived.