New Orleans Saints linebacker Mark Fields hasn’t set the league on fire in his first two years, but that’s about to change, according to coach Mike Ditka.
Fields - 6-foot-2, 244 pounds - has the strength, athletic ability and, above all, the speed, to be one of the best ever, Ditka said. In fact, Ditka said, he’s never seen a linebacker with his speed.
“None, ever,” Ditka said. “I thought Wilbur Marshall could run, nuh-uh. And not only speed, explosion. This guy is really a good football player. I mean everything is ahead of him. (Lawrence Taylor) on his best day didn’t run like this kid runs. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a linebacker run like that. He can be awfully special.”
Fields, 24, has run the 40-yard dash in 4.4 seconds. His problem has never been ability, it’s been experience. As the Saints’ No. 1 pick and first linebacker chosen in the 1995 draft, Fields started three early season games. He finished the year as a reserve, overwhelmed by the complexity of the NFL game.
A junior-college transfer, Fields was a backup his first year at Washington State University. He then sat out his second season with academic problems. When he finally got into games in 1994, he had 96 tackles and 7-1/2 sacks. He forced four fumbles, recovered three and scored the winning touchdown against Illinois by returning a fumble 71 yards. It helped earn him Pac-10 defensive player of the year honors.
What it did not do was provide a sound understanding of the linebacker position. That caused him to struggle as a rookie. Last year, Fields started 15 games and began to show the promise the Saints feel will continue to grow each year.
“He’s taken time to develop because he did not come here with a lot of linebacker skills,” linebackers coach Rick Venturi said. “Mark was used almost exclusively in college as a blitzer. They just blitzed him and that’s it, so he had to learn linebacker skills both mentally and physically.”
Even Fields’ speed, which gives him greater range than many linebackers and makes him a deadly blitzer, has been a problem at times. Fields is so fast he has a tendency to overrun a play, getting there and then just running on through the action.
“He’s just got to learn that sometimes you slow the motor down,” Ditka said. “Stay in one place a little longer before he gets out of there. But he’s so intent on getting to the ball and doing things, his aggressiveness sometimes becomes a detriment to him.”
By the end of last season Fields was demonstrating his ability to pressure the quarterback, his pursuit was better and his tackling was stronger, especially for range tackles where he had to track the football and get to it.
This year, although he is playing under his third defensive coordinator in three seasons, Fields is finally feeling at home on the field.
“I feel comfortable. I feel relaxed. I feel way better than my rookie year,” he said. “I feel like I almost own that position now. I still have a ways to go, but I’m making progress.
“It’s never been my ability or my experience. It’s just been a matter of getting experience. That’s why I’m one of those players: The longer I stay in the league, the better I’ll get. It’s not like one of those players who hits the scene and explodes and two years later you never hear anymore about them. The longer I stay, the more you’re going to hear about me.”
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: FIELDS FILE Mark Fields Age: 24 Height: 6-2 Weight: 244 Team: New Orleans Saints Position: Linebacker Strength: His speed. He runs a 4.4 40-yard dash. Weakness: His speed. He sometimes overruns plays and gets in trouble by being out of position while in pursuit of the ballcarrier. College: Washington State University Highlights: Fields was a No.1 draft pick of the New Orleans Saints in 1995 and the first linebacker taken in that year’s draft. He started 15 of the Saints’ 16 games last season. Was named defensive player of the year in the Pacific-10 Conference in 1994 on the strength of his 96 tackles and 7-1/2 sacks. Quotable: “This guy is really a good football player. I mean everything is ahead of him. (Lawrence Taylor) on his best day didn’t run like this kid runs. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a linebacker run like that. He can be awfully special.” - Saints coach Mike Ditka
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