Kirk Herbstreit has an interesting perch to deliver opinions from on the top six quarterbacks in the 2021 NFL draft.
He’s a former college quarterback. His job description is to break down, cover and analyze the college game. He played for Ohio State, a program that he is loyal to and has one of the top QBs available in Justin Fields. He has credibility, experience and, in my opinion, has tried to be fair.
I like his articulate delivery and his personality is pleasant if not provocative.
That’s what makes his upcoming ESPN series called “QB21” an interesting exercise in pre-draft journalism. To make it a worthy enterprise, he sat down with the top six quarterbacks in this draft and discussed their skills, aspirations and games. The series made its debut Saturday.
Leading up to Saturday’s launch, Herbstreit participated in a Q&A to set the stage. One of the first questions was with the 2020 season being so strange with shrunken schedules and some guys not playing full schedules, was film study as useful as before?
Of course that immediately brought BYU’s Zach Wilson into the conversation. Wilson did not get to play BYU’s original tough schedule. Instead, he played a replacement slate of games, mostly against Sun Belt Conference competition, with an opening blowout win at Navy.
Herbstreit said the season wasn’t exactly comparing apples to apples.
“I think there were some moments. I don’t think you could just throw a blanket statement over everybody. I think a great example of that would be Zach Wilson at BYU. If you looked at Zach Wilson pre-COVID and looked at the BYU schedule, it would have been like rolling up your sleeves and saying: ‘Man, we’re going to get a really good look at BYU and, in fact, Wilson.’
“But of course they didn’t really have that opportunity with the schedule they played. And yet there were some teams that, and I think Justin Fields kind of falls into that, I mean he got some big games late, but he didn’t get the same amount of games with some of the others. But you could also look at it, maybe Alabama plays 11 SEC games and what they had to go through to get to a national championship, so I think it varied.
“I think that with COVID, just like in the NFL, every week everybody’s holding their breath,” he continued. “You know who’s contact tracing, who’s going to be out, who’s going to play. It was just a strange year, obviously on so many fronts.
“I think the NFL is doing the best they can to manage the film work and not having the opportunity to sit down with a lot of these guys and go over things in person as often as they would like. So I think that’s another obstacle and hurdle that these NFL GMs and head coaches and owners are going to have to try to get a handle on. That’s a good point.
“Wilson set several records in 2020, including school marks for accuracy for both games, season and career. His QB performance rated among the top in the country in 2020, launching atop the NFL mock draft boards currently out there.”
Herbstreit was asked his opinion on Fields sliding up and down in mock drafts, going from QB2 to QB3, and scrutiny of former Ohio State quarterbacks and their NFL careers, such as Dwayne Haskins, Terrelle Pryor or Troy Smith.
The TV analyst responded that much of what’s going around about Fields is centered on media commentary and in his opinion NFL personnel directors, coaches and scouts don’t always show their cards. He said people are putting on all kinds of spin — which is normal.
And, yes, Ohio State QBs in the NFL have a peculiar failure rate that could be used against Fields.
Right now Jacksonville is expected to take Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence first, the Jets then take Wilson No. 2 and San Francisco gets a choice of the remaining QBs, including Fields.
Is Wilson, a product of Utah high schools and BYU, ready for the nastiness that is the New York sports market? After spending time with him, Herbstreit said:
“You know how that is, trying to predict how a player, whether it’s baseball or football or basketball, how they’re going to project from a personality standpoint into that market. I was impressed. When I had a chance to sit down with all these guys, what I liked about Zach Wilson is this guy has a chip on his shoulder.
“He wears a wristband that says ‘prove them wrong’ and I was like, ‘Who are you trying to prove wrong, my man? Everyone loves you.’ But he wasn’t recruited heavily. He grew up in Salt Lake. His dad played at Utah. Utah didn’t recruit him. And I think, from that point on, he had a chip on his shoulder and he has not let it go.”
Unavoidably, Herbstreit then mentioned the famed — becoming infamous — Wilson trips to Southern California to see John Beck to prove his point.
“How about during COVID, the guy lives in southern Provo and we’re in a global pandemic. He wants to get his work in. The quarterback coach that he works with is former BYU quarterback John Beck. He drives 10 hours one way on a Friday to go to Los Angeles, Orange County, to work with John for a Saturday and Sunday workout and then drives 10 hours back.
“He did that numerous times throughout the pandemic,” he continued. “I think that’s mental toughness, which is what you need to be able to go into that situation. I don’t think I personally would question it. I’d be careful of looking at him with his baby face and growing up in Utah and judging the cover of a book on what you see. This kid’s got some good wiring. I love guys that are out to prove everybody wrong, but I don’t think he’s emotional about it. It’s like an internal fire that’s burning that I think is real.”
Herbstreit said critics of Wilson’s opponents need to be put in perspective. He did take a huge step forward in 2020 when healthy, albeit against a schedule weaker than the original for the Cougars.
“You know the guy started for three years. He played in some big games. He took a step at a whole different level this year. Obviously some of that maybe had to do with their competition. I think some of it had to do with just that they were better. They’re better around him, they were better on the offensive line, they were deeper. They’re better in the backfield. They were good at receiver.
“They lost an All-American tight end, who would have taken them to another level before they played their first game. I would have loved to have seen them play against some of those Pac-12 teams and some of the Big Ten teams that were scheduled, but we didn’t get a chance to see it.
“But I don’t think it takes away from the player that he is based on the way I saw him grow from Year 1 to Year 2, and then having an entire offseason to get stronger and get physically better. The commitment to work on his game is there and I don’t think it’ll change. I don’t know if he’s going to end up being the guy we all seem to be assuming, that he’s the guy that New York’s going to take, but if you end up getting him, I think he can handle the market. We’ll see, and I think you’re going to fall in love with the kid as far as his attitude and determination.”
There is a reason ESPN is doing this series.
The 2021 draft will be QB heavy, with teams picking at the top put in a slippery spot. If they take a QB, will he be a franchise changer for all that money invested?
It will be fun to see.