clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

How the Greatest Recruiting Rankings Debate Ever Set the Stage for the 2021 NFL Draft

Trevor Lawrence and Justin Fields have been inextricably linked since both were growing up in Georgia. Their parallel journey to this point tells us a lot about what to expect next.

Getty Images/Ringer Illustration

Sometimes two athletes’ names just go together, on account of all the iconic moments they’ve shared: Magic and Bird in basketball, Ronaldo and Messi in soccer, Federer and Nadal in tennis, Mario and Wario in … all of those sports. So it is with Trevor Lawrence and Justin Fields.

They were both born in 1999 and grew up mere miles apart. They were endlessly compared to each other in high school and twice faced off on college football’s biggest stage. Now, they’ve become two of the most coveted quarterback prospects in the 2021 NFL draft.

The 247Sports composite recruiting rankings listed Lawrence and Fields as the top two players in the 2018 high school class; Lawrence had a rating of 0.9999, and Fields had a rating of 0.9998. (247 later commissioned an oral history of its own decision to rank Lawrence slightly ahead of Fields, which gets into the nitty-gritty of each player’s peaks and valleys in high school, and includes Georgia recruiting analyst Rusty Mansell saying, “I’m going to be talking about Justin Fields and Trevor Lawrence for as long as I’m standing up.”) To this day, Lawrence and Fields are 247’s second- and third-highest-rated quarterback recruits of the modern era, behind only Vince Young and his perfect 1.0000 rating in 2002.

The recruiters were right. In their five combined seasons as college starting quarterbacks, Lawrence and Fields went a collective 54-4; take out the two games in which their teams played against each other, and they went 52-2. Neither player ever lost a college game before reaching the national championship unless one was playing against the other.

Now, The Ringer’s NFL Draft Guide lists Lawrence and Fields as the two best prospects in this class. Danny Kelly writes that Lawrence “has the tools to emerge as a franchise quarterback early in his career,” and that Fields “has the skill set to become a top-tier dual-threat quarterback.” Lawrence seems like the prototype of what quarterbacks always have been; Fields seems like the prototype of what they’re becoming. Their stories and talents have been inextricably linked for years—and they’ll continue to be linked for years to come.

If there’s one surefire winner of the 2021 NFL draft cycle, it’s quarterbacks coach Ron Veal, who probably should double his rates for future prospects. About a decade ago, Veal began working with a sixth-grader named Justin Fields; a year later, he started mentoring a seventh-grader named Trevor Lawrence. The players lived about 20 miles away from each other—if you drive from Lawrence’s hometown of Cartersville, Georgia, to Atlanta, you have to pass directly through Fields’s hometown of Kennesaw to get there.

Veal says Lawrence and Fields had a handful of sessions together. When the two quarterbacks worked out in the spring before their freshman years in college, Fields posted an Instagram story about it—it felt like when one superhero makes a cameo in another superhero’s Marvel movie. “It was, ‘You complete one, I’ll complete one. You miss one, I won’t,’” Veal told ESPN in 2019. “It was a push session.”

But Lawrence and Fields took very different paths to recruiting stardom. Lawrence was hailed as a chosen one from the start: There are fawning videos of his middle school highlights, as he won back-to-back titles in seventh and eighth grades before capturing the eighth-grade national championship with a Georgia all-star team. (He still had a buzz cut back then; he grew out his famous blond mane between his freshman and sophomore years.) Cartersville High had a starting quarterback when Lawrence showed up in ninth grade: Miller Forristall, a 6-foot-5 junior who was attracting some Division I buzz. He would become the first of many incumbent QBs to be displaced. “I was like, ‘The kid’s in eighth grade, how good could he be?’” Forristall told ESPN in 2018. “I saw him throw one ball, and knew he was legit.” Forristall moved to tight end, and could go in the later rounds of this year’s draft after having a productive career at Alabama.

Lawrence was named the 2014 MaxPreps Freshman of the Year, and then tabbed as the top sophomore in the country—and this was before he led Cartersville on a 41-game winning streak that lasted until his senior year. Cartersville won back-to-back state championships when Lawrence was a sophomore and junior, with Lawrence breaking Deshaun Watson’s Georgia state high school records for career passing yardage and touchdowns. But he did lose the final game of his high school career, snapping that winning streak, when Blessed Trinity scored a last-minute touchdown in the state playoffs. The coaches who beat Lawrence talk about it like a miracle.

“We could play them 10 times and we’re probably not going to beat them but the one time,” John Thompson, the former defensive coordinator at Blessed Trinity, told The Athletic. Thompson added, “[Lawrence] was the best high school quarterback I’ve ever seen. … I wouldn’t ever want to play him again.”

Fields’s high school career was less illustrious. While those at Cartersville eagerly anticipated Lawrence’s freshman takeover, those at Harrison High School initially greeted Fields with skepticism. Fields told Mirin Fader that when he took the field as a sophomore, Harrison’s fans cheered for the team’s starter, Harrison Frost, to come back into the game. Frost went on to play sparingly at Mercer, an FCS college program. In 247’s oral history, Veal recalls Fields telling him that he’d feel accomplished if he could also get a scholarship offer from Mercer. Fields dealt with two season-ending injuries in high school—but emerged as a legend at offseason camps.

“In recruiting, you’re not trying to find the best high school quarterback, you’re trying to project to the next level,” says Bud Elliott, a national recruiting analyst for CBS Sports. “[Fields] blew up over the summer [before his senior year] when people got the chance to see him in person and dominate all those other kids.”

Fields was named MVP of the famed Elite 11 quarterback camp, as well as of the Opening Finals—a prominent seven-on-seven tournament run by Nike. Barton Simmons, the current general manager for Vanderbilt’s football program, who was then writing for 247, described Fields’s showing in that tournament as “the best camp performance I’ve ever seen by a high school quarterback.” Bruce Feldman tweeted that three separate coaches told him Fields’s Elite 11 performance was the best they’d ever seen.

Fields had committed to Penn State after his junior season, but as more and more offers came his way, the kid who once dreamed of playing for Mercer realized he’d have a chance to pick any school. Fields was tapped as one of the three players to be featured in the Netflix documentary series QB1: Beyond the Lights, during which Fields committed to Georgia.

With Lawrence’s dominant high school performances and Fields’s dominant showings on the camp circuit, opinions were split as to who was the best quarterback recruit in the 2018 class. ESPN ranked Fields as its top player, with Lawrence at no. 2; ranked Lawrence no. 1, with Fields right behind him. 247Sports, which puts together its own rankings in addition to compiling a composite of all the major recruiting services, bumped Fields ahead of Lawrence before ultimately settling on Lawrence as its no. 1. The composite rankings said the two were virtually identical and nearly perfect.

“Most classes don’t have a quarterback on Trevor or Justin’s level,” Elliott says. “We haven’t had one since. That we had two in the same class was really remarkable.”

Upon arriving on campus, only Lawrence continued to be legendary right away. He showed up at Clemson and was clearly better than the Tigers’ established quarterback, Kelly Bryant, who lost the starting job four games into the 2018 season and later transferred to Missouri. Clemson finished that season undefeated; in the national championship game, Lawrence picked apart an Alabama team that seemed like a juggernaut by throwing for 347 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions in a 44-16 rout. He became the first true freshman quarterback to win a national title since Oklahoma’s Jamelle Holieway in 1985. The Wall Street Journal wrote that Lawrence could sit out the next two seasons and still be the top pick in the 2021 draft—he was that good.

Things didn’t go as smoothly for Fields. If Veal’s connection with both Lawrence and Fields makes him a clear winner of the 2021 draft cycle, Georgia’s football program is a clear loser, as it had a shot to build around both QBs and somehow managed to get almost nothing out of either.

Lawrence heavily considered going to Georgia. As a sophomore in high school, he attended the 2015 “Dawg Night” and reportedly outperformed Jacob Eason, a five-star prospect in the 2016 class. But then-Georgia offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer royally screwed things up. He opted to schmooze with Eason—who’d already committed to Georgia—and let Lawrence wait in line to talk to him for almost an hour. The school was apparently set to offer Lawrence a scholarship that night, but Lawrence left empty-handed. “That was it for Trevor,” an anonymous source told Georgia fan site Dawg Post. “He was not going to go to Georgia after that.”

Former Georgia head coach Mark Richt reportedly called Lawrence the following day in an attempt to rectify the mistake, but the snub at the camp was “a confusing move for the rising sophomore to understand,” according to a 247Sports post about the eventual offer. Meanwhile, Clemson jumped in and prioritized Lawrence’s recruitment, building too big an advantage for Georgia to overcome. (This relatively minor recruiting faux pas is notable because Schottenheimer is now the offensive coordinator of the Jacksonville Jaguars, Lawrence’s presumptive new team.)

Georgia, of course, did land Fields. But Fields’s time at the school went poorly. In 2017, head coach Kirby Smart made the bold decision to replace Eason at quarterback with true freshman Jake Fromm, and rode that move all the way to the national championship game. When Fields showed up in Athens in 2018, he didn’t get the same opportunity. He threw 39 passes for the team, with most of them coming in blowouts. Smart eventually did use Fields during a critical moment … on a doomed fake punt in the waning moments of the 2018 SEC title game against Alabama. (Bama noticed that Fields was standing in front of the punter and kept its defense on the field.) I think Georgia could have won a national championship if it’d gone with Fields instead of Fromm, who consistently regressed over the remainder of his career and was picked by the Bills in the fifth round of the 2020 draft.

Fields also experienced racial abuse at Georgia, as a prominent player on Georgia’s baseball team repeatedly called Fields the n-word during a game against Tennessee. Fields cited the incident while requesting immediate eligibility upon transferring to Ohio State in 2019, which was granted.

After settling in Columbus, Fields reignited debates over whether he or Lawrence is better. Lawrence struggled early in the 2019 season, throwing eight interceptions over Clemson’s first seven games. Meanwhile, Fields threw for 40 touchdowns and just one interception as Ohio State went 13-0 and won the Big Ten. Both teams finished undefeated in the regular season, setting up the first in-game showdown between the two in the College Football Playoff semifinal. “It’s just crazy that we had to come all the way to Arizona to finally play each other,” Lawrence said at the time.

Fields and the Buckeyes raced out to a 16-0 advantage in that matchup, but it wasn’t enough. Lawrence threw a pair of touchdowns and ran for a 67-yard score, rallying the Tigers to a 29-23 win.

That looked like it could be this rivalry’s only college installment, as the 2020 FBS football season seemed like it would be cancelled amid the pandemic. But Lawrence and Fields were at the forefront of a player-led movement to have the season. Lawrence was the first to tweet out a thread indicating that players wanted to play—and that they had safety protocol demands to make a 2020 season feasible. Fields put together an online petition that got more than 300,000 signatures, and went on Good Morning America to make his case. “This cause is close to my heart,” he tweeted.

Given how things unfolded with the Big Ten, Clemson’s season started weeks ahead of Ohio State’s—leaving Fields sitting idly by to watch as Lawrence starred. “Justin was a whole lot upset because they weren’t playing and Clemson was playing,” Veal told Yahoo last fall. “No one is paying attention to me while someone else is going off.” When the time came for him to play, though, Fields led Ohio State to an undefeated campaign and another clash against Clemson in the College Football Playoff semifinal. This time, Fields turned in one of the best big-game quarterback performances in NCAA history. He took a brutal hit in the second quarter, and had to leave to receive medical attention. He returned shortly thereafter and threw four touchdown passes, giving him six in total in the 49-28 win. After the game, Fields said “even throwing 10 yards, it hurt”—but he also threw this 56-yard picture-perfect bomb to Buckeyes wide receiver Chris Olave:

Lawrence lost two games as a college starter: One against Fields and Ohio State, and one against 2019 Heisman Trophy winner Joe Burrow and LSU’s outrageous offense in the national championship. Fields also lost two games as a starter: One against Lawrence and Clemson, and one against 2020 Heisman Trophy winner DeVonta Smith and Alabama’s outrageous offense in the national championship. Neither player ever lost a game that wasn’t part of the College Football Playoff, nor lost a game to any team that didn’t have the other player or that season’s Heisman winner on its roster.

Just because a quarterback is a great high school prospect doesn’t mean he’ll automatically become a great pro. Here’s a list of top QB recruits from each year since 2000—it’s not pretty. Some players, like Josh Rosen, became draft busts; some, like Matt Barkley, weren’t drafted highly enough to be considered a bust; some, like Max Browne and Phillip Sims, weren’t even good enough to play in the NFL.

After all, scouting quarterbacks is hard. Analysts might be able to pick out the best defensive end prospect just by seeing him walk on the field, but identifying the best quarterback requires taking into account myriad factors that are difficult to quantify. There’s field awareness, throwing accuracy, and the ability to read a defense, plus everything that comes with the mental aspect of the position. It feels impossible to identify the best QBs among teenagers who are still developing. With Lawrence and Fields, though, the immense hype was warranted. “We’re counting it as a win for us,” Elliott says, speaking on behalf of the entire recruiting community.

They were nearly perfect as high schoolers, and then they were nearly perfect in college. It’s easy to see why they could continue that trend in the NFL. Lawrence has a 6-foot-6 frame, exceptional arm strength, pinpoint accuracy, and prized mobility. He’s one of the most heralded quarterback prospects ever, alongside John Elway, Peyton Manning, and Andrew Luck. Fields stands 6-foot-3 and 230 pounds, and demonstrated spectacular passing ability, tremendous toughness, and remarkable speed at Ohio State. He also clocked a 4.44-second 40-yard dash at his pro day, which would make him one of the fastest NFL quarterbacks ever. (While pro day numbers are always a bit suspect, only three QBs have run a faster 40 at the combine: Michael Vick, Reggie McNeal, and Robert Griffin III.) But it’s foolish to view Fields as just an athlete—in its 2021 draft guide, Pro Football Focus called him “one of the most accurate quarterbacks we’ve ever charted.”

“These two guys shone out to everyone,” Elliott says. “They had the height, weight, build, arm strength, accuracy, release, athleticism, and they were also really productive when they did play. The margin of error for them was smaller than with the other QBs who involve more projection.”

The same remains broadly true as both players head to the NFL. In terms of passing skills, athleticism, and production, Lawrence and Fields are the cream of the crop, and the cases for Zach Wilson, Mac Jones, and Trey Lance rely less on game tape and more on projection. Yet while Lawrence remains the consensus top prospect on the board and will soon be a member of the Jaguars, Fields’s stock has fallen. He isn’t expected to go to the Jets with no. 2 pick—or even to the 49ers at no. 3. It’s entirely plausible that he could be the fifth of five quarterbacks to go in Thursday’s first round.

Since the time that Lawrence and Fields were in high school, both have proved themselves to be exceptional passers and exceptional leaders. If there’s any explanation to Fields’s apparent draft fall, it’s that maybe fate is conspiring to put him in the same NFL division as Lawrence. They deserve to play against each other twice every season, and again in the playoffs.

Lawrence and Fields will forever be linked. Someday, they’ll square off piloting attack ships off the shoulder of Orion; later, they’ll end up in the same old folks’ community and face off in pickleball. From the high school fields of Georgia to infinity, their greatness is parallel.