The Fall of Justin Fields? An Information Cascade Theory

Updated: Apr 27

An “Information Cascade” is a phenomenon in sequential processes whereby individuals' decisions influence other individuals' subsequent decisions. Academics are boring. An information cascade is when people start to react to other people's choices.

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A sports draft is a prime example of a situation where an information cascade can occur. Teams pick players sequentially, and other teams observe each decision. The crucial insight is that teams gain information from teams that select earlier in the draft. The “information cascade” concept explains the draft night phenomenon of a player falling.


I often discuss decision biases relevant to sports, especially when the topic is player selection or drafting. A couple of examples of cognitive biases relevant to sports are the availability bias and the negativity bias. The availability bias is a tendency to overly rely on easily accessible or available examples when performing an evaluation. In drafting NFL players, this might lead to a player being evaluated based on the performance of some other player with similar traits or characteristics. When a team evaluates Justin Fields, do they think about the performance of the last high-profile QB, Dwayne Haskins?


The negativity bias is another of my go-to theories for drafts. The negativity bias occurs when people overweight negative information relative to positive information. Perhaps, the classic recent example of the negativity bias occurred as teams made decisions about Laremy Tunsil during the 2016 NFL draft. Moments before the beginning of the 2016 draft, a video of Tunsil using a bong while wearing a gas mask surfaced. Tunsil eventually dropped from a projected top 3 pick to be drafted with the 13th overall pick. Tunsil has gone on to a very successful NFL career.


Something to note about these two biases is that they are stated as though decisions are made independently or in isolation. However, drafting is a social process where teams observe the decisions of others. Even the pre-draft period of endless mock drafts has a learning aspect.


At the onset of the 2021 Mock Draft season, Justin Fields was often projected as the second quarterback to be selected. However, Zach Wilson quickly rose to an almost consensus number 2.


The 49ers traded up to the number 3 slot in the draft. However, rather than projecting Justin Fields to the 49ers, most analysts expect the selection to be Mac Jones.


Fields now seems to be competing with Trey Lance to be the 4th quarterback.


I have seen Justin Fields projected as falling to the 15th pick in the draft.


As of 4/22/2021, the CBS Sports consensus mock draft had Trevor Lawrence at number 1, Zach Wilson at pick 2, Mac Jones at pick 3, Trey Lance at pick 4, and Justin Fields at pick 7.

Fields’ fall is a fascinating story. Trey Lance is a great physical talent, but he has played only one meaningful football season in the last three years. One-hit wonders often fail in the NFL. Mac Jones is also a one-year phenom, and his stats may be inflated by playing for Alabama. However, in conjunction with his drop, many commentators (i.e., the ESPN morning shows) are publicly advocating for Fields.


Why has Fields fallen?


ESPN’s Todd McShay offered the following:


“If you go back and study games against Indiana, Northwestern and in the College Football Playoff, national championship game against Alabama, he completed about 52% of his throws with five interceptions in those games,” McShay said on Get Up. “In my opinion, you look at him physically he’s big, he’s sturdy, he’s strong, he’s mobile, he’s got a big arm. He’s got all the traits that you look for. He likes to see his receivers come open and gets stuck on that first read very frequently.”


I assume the counterpoint would be that Lance and Wilson did not face that level of competition (Indiana and Northwestern as top Big Ten competition? Only in 2020. GO ILLINI!).


I’m not going to claim any insight into to football or skills side of Fields’ drop. Maybe it is because Fields lost a QB competition to Jake Fromm? Maybe the tone of Fields’ departure from Georgia or his campaigning for the Big Ten to reinstate football. Maybe it’s due to Haskin’s failures?


Or maybe it is just the result of a “cascade?” Lets say, the Jets just like Wilson better. Suddenly Fields has dropped from number 2 to number 3. It is not a big deal in absolute terms, but since Fields has always competed with Lawrence to be the top QB in the class, it suddenly seems like he has dropped down a tier.


Suppose the next team, the 49ers, observes this drop and includes this “new information” in their evaluation. Perhaps the “red flag” of the Jets passing combined with the 49ers evaluations’ of Fields and Jones results in Jones becoming the pick. Two teams have passed on Fields, and other teams start to infer that there is some unknown negative info associated with Fields.


The cascade begins. With each team that passes on Fields, the concerns grow. And maybe Fields is the fifth quarterback selected.


At this point, we are only talking about projections. Perhaps Fields goes at pick number 2, and it was all a series of bluffs. Or maybe, Fields becomes the story of the falling player, and ESPN spends the evening zooming in on an increasingly frustrated Fields and family.


Listen to the full discussion on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and Stitcher.


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