With only three players — Fenton, Charvarius Ward, and Tremon Smith — under contract for the 2020 season, the Chiefs needed to find some depth at cornerback this offseason.
They very well may have found that depth in undrafted free agent Mark Fields.
The first of our “Lottery Tickets” series, Fields is a player I’ve been high on for a little while now. The world got to see him impress coming off the bench in the college football national championship game, and we got to see him in person at the Senior Bowl.
There is a lot of hype around Fields, but is it justified?
Let’s take a look at the tape and see where he has success, and why it is that he went undrafted in this year’s class.
Clemson CB Mark Fields
5’9 7/8” | 192 lbs.
Chiefs UDFA CB Mark Fields can play. He didn't get a ton of reps, but came in cold in the National Championship game and held his own.— Craig Stout (@barleyhop) May 8, 2019
Dig route from Irv Smith Jr against a much smaller Fields. Shuffle to stay on top of the route, reads the QB's shoulders and drives on the ball. pic.twitter.com/8DXzJEt2X1
Fields was a four-year player at Clemson, yet only started six games in that time. However, his lack of playing time definitely wasn’t due to ability.
Fields showcases some serious quickness, and the long speed (4.37 40-yard dash) to carry vertical routes. His quickness was evident right off the bat in the national championship game. Coming in off the bench for an injured Trayvon Mullen, Alabama went right at Fields with a bigger tight end.
Fields has outside alignment with 5 yards of cushion. He keeps Irv Smith Jr in his peripheral vision — while looking into the backfield — as he shuffles, keeping his back foot low to the ground to plant and drive on the break. As Smith begins his break, Fields sees the quarterback’s shoulders pointed to the middle of the field. The quickness to plant and drive on the dig route allows Fields to close space and beat a bigger, longer Smith to the ball.
Fields showcases excellent footwork on this play, mirroring future first round draft pick Jerry Jeudy's stem. He is patient during the release, making sure to frame the receiver during his stem. His footwork allows him to stay connected to the route and take away the out. pic.twitter.com/anbBTHjbzg— Craig Stout (@barleyhop) May 8, 2019
Other than one major weakness (which we will cover below) Fields’ footwork is exceptional for a collegiate cornerback. In the national championship game, Clemson had done a great job shutting down a stout Alabama offense prior to Fields entering the game. They were able to continue that play due in no small part to his contributions.
Fields stays patient with future premium-pick wide receiver Jerry Jeudy’s release. He mirrors his stem and keeps Jeudy framed between his pads. As the route develops, Fields is able to stay in phase with the receiver on the out and take away any chance at a throw.
The quarterback may have looked elsewhere on this route, but Fields was able to stay in phase with a likely first-round receiver through the route. His ability to step into the game immediately and contribute at a high level speaks to his positional acumen.
Fields' experience in Clemson's zone schemes will easily translate to Spagnuolo's coverage schemes. The hitch/corner/flat combo here is meant to stress the Safety/Corner transition. Fields reads it well and closes on the flat, taking away the QB's outlet. The result is a sack. pic.twitter.com/Z537Ojpa1K— Craig Stout (@barleyhop) May 8, 2019
One of the traits that Steve Spagnuolo has looked for in players added to the Chiefs secondary is an ability to play pattern-match zone coverages. Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables leans heavily on these types of coverages, so Fields is no stranger to the responsibilities and techniques required of him in Spagnuolo’s defense.
The route combination showed about is designed to stress the field boundary corner and safety in this coverage call. The hitch from the pre-snap No. 1 receiver, corner from the No. 2 and the flat from the No. 3 is designed to force the boundary corner and safety to communicate properly and pass off their responsibilities on the fly.
As the No. 1 crosses over and runs the hitch, Fields sees the vertical stem of the No. 2 and gets depth on the boundary to rob the corner route. This gives the safety enough time to get over the top of the No. 2’s route. The No. 3 receiver kicks out to the flat, and Fields drives on the underneath route. This forces the quarterback to pull the ball and results in a sack.
Fields showcases the speed, footwork and football IQ against top-level competition. That alone should be enough to make him a contributor at the next level.
So why did he go undrafted?
Fields has two major on-field deficiencies: his length and a "forward hop". His footwork is solid, but this hop shows up on tape and here at Senior Bowl practices. He gets his feet back under him to mirror, flips to drive underneath, but doesn't have the length to get to the ball pic.twitter.com/MAz2Lbj0QW— Craig Stout (@barleyhop) May 13, 2019
One of Fields’ weaknesses comes from a “forward hop” off the snap. It regularly shows up when he’s in a press alignment. The jump forward forces Fields to have to regain his balance and reset his footwork. Since he’s more of a “soft-press” corner from this alignment, this jump can prevent him from mirroring the stem successfully.
As you can see on the above play, Fields’ hop forward allows the receiver to dictate the rep. Fields attempts to reset and mirror, but his balance is behind him, and it makes for a rough transition on the break. The big-bodied receiver walls Fields off at the catch point and the result is an easy 7-yard reception.
This is a technical issue the Chiefs can fix. It’s not a deal breaker, but it is noteworthy in that Fields exhibits this behavior often and will need to break some long-held habits. However, coupled with his other major on-field weakness, it’ll need to be fixed quickly at the next level.
Another rep from Senior Bowl practices, this time in the red zone. Again, another forward hop, but he regains his feet and does well to mirror the route. He stays in phase with the receiver, riding on his inside hip, but he doesn't have the length to come up with the stop. pic.twitter.com/uDa2BXxoCL— Craig Stout (@barleyhop) May 13, 2019
Fields is not a long cornerback. He measures in under 5 feet 10, and he’s got 30.5-inch arms. While there are plenty of success cases for corners of his build in the NFL, most of those cornerbacks relied on excellent technique to succeed.
This lack of length is why the “forward hop” shown in the above clips is such a big deal. Fields has to beat the receiver to the catch point — like the first clip shown in the “strengths” section — to come up with breakups and interceptions.
This last clip shows better balance after the hop, and Fields positions himself on the inside hip, in phase with the receiver. However, the quarterback delivers a strike to the longer receiver in the back of the end zone, and Fields — despite being in good position — can’t do anything to impede the pass.
Whereas other cornerbacks can use recovery speed and length to make up for poor technique, Fields needs to rely on good technique to make up for his lack of length on each rep.
While there are other small on-field issues, most are inconsistent. Once again, the lack of length and the technique hitch is concerning, but not worth falling out of the draft. That brings us to Fields’ off-field issues.
Fields was available for just five games as a junior due to a rash of foot injuries, slowing his development within Venables’ system. His senior year was concerning, with Mullen and AJ Terrell developing into Clemson’s outside cornerbacks. Fields missed time with a groin injury against Lousiville, an undisclosed injury against Notre Dame in the college football semifinals and a violation of team rules kept him out against Syracuse.
All this led to some questions about his desire to be out on the field with his teammates — even for the national championship game — leading to Clemson safety Tanner Muse to tell The State the following leading up to that game:
“If Mark wants to play it will ultimately be up to Mark. There’s nothing we can do. It’s up to him, how he feels. However he feels is the way it’s going to be,” Muse said. “I never know how Mark’s feeling. It’s 50-50. He’s good or bad so we’ll see. He’s a character. I say that goofingly, like he’s one of them guys where you don’t really know how he’s going to be. He’s got like this alter-ego where he just comes in. But yeah, Mark Fields is Mark Fields. You never know what you’re gonna get.”
While the quote seems lighthearted, the underlying sentiment is that the players weren’t sure if Fields was going to show up committed to playing or not in a given week.
With teammates questioning commitment and an extensive injury history, the reasons behind Fields falling out of the draft start to more apparent. Many players have fallen well out of the draft due to questions about their health and desire, let alone one that doesn’t have ideal size for the position.
The bottom line
Make no mistake, Mark Fields is the perfect candidate to add as an undrafted free agent.
Fields exhibits the football acumen, speed and experience in coverage schemes that the Chiefs want to run. He’s got supremely high upside — higher than the Chiefs’ sixth-round pick, Fenton — and can contribute in year one as a gunner and a backup nickel cornerback.
However, he’s got a couple parts of his game as a cornerback that raised eyebrows for teams. On top of that, he has some warranted off-field concerns that prevented teams from wanting to make a major investment to try to unlock his high potential.
This is a very low-risk, potentially high-reward move — and arguably my favorite addition of the 2019 draft class. If Dave Merritt and Sam Madison can fix the ever-present “hop” off the snap and get Fields locked into playing the game, he is unquestionably a contributor at this level of the game. The reality of going undrafted might trigger the mental side and result in the Chiefs netting themselves a solid player.
If he doesn’t work out, the commitment is minimal, and the team can move on. However, I genuinely believe that his best chance to contribute (from a depth standpoint) and develop (from a coaching standpoint) is here in Kansas City. I’d bet that Fields makes this 53-man roster in 2019 and gives the Chiefs another contributing body on the preliminary 2020 roster.