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Setting the Quarterback Board: Is Tyree Jackson the Patriots’ future?

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Could the Buffalo product be on New England’s radar?

NCAA Football: Buffalo at Army Danny Wild-USA TODAY Sports

With about a month to go until the 2019 NFL draft, now is the time when teams and scouting departments are finalizing their draft boards, both at each individual position and their overall board. Here at Pats Pulpit we are doing the same, trying to construct what might be the New England Patriots’ board at the position. In this installment we take a look at a big, athletic, talented but raw prospect at the quarterback position, to see if he could make some sense for the Patriots. Let’s meet Tyree Jackson.

Biography

In contrast to the two previous players examined, Jackson’s path to upstate New York was a more linear route. Jackson was a four-year starter in high school for Mona Shores high school in Norton Shores, Michigan, and led the Sailors to the state championship game his senior season, the first time Mona Shores advanced to the title game in 50 years. Jackson threw for 4,491 yards and 51 touchdowns over his final two years in college, and when he left high school he stood in the top five in Michigan high school history in career touchdown passes, completion percentage and passing yards.

Jackson was not a highly recruited quarterback, given a rating of three stars by 247Sports and making him the 37th ranked “dual threat” quarterback, and the 22nd overall prospect out of the state. He had offers from a few mid-major schools, including the University of Connecticut, Central Michigan, Eastern Michigan and Western Michigan, but he chose to enroll at the University of Buffalo.

Jackson redshirted as a freshman, but in 2016 he appeared in ten games for Buffalo, making nine starts. He completed 165 of 311 passes for 1,772 yards, nine touchdowns and nine interceptions. As a redshirt sophomore in 2017, he started eight contests for the Bulls, missing four games due to injury. That year Jackson completed 60.3 percent of his passes for 2,096 yards and 12 touchdowns, with just three interceptions.

Last year was a bit of a breakout year for Jackson and the Bulls. He completed 55.3 percent of his passes (yes a dip from his redshirt sophomore season) but threw for 3,131 yards and 28 touchdowns, with 12 interceptions. His production was not as efficient as it was during 2017 (his quarterback rating dropped from 148.8 to 136.7 and his yards per attempt dropped from 8.8 to 7.7) but the Bulls finished 10-4 and he was named MAC Offensive Player of the Year. Buffalo won the MAC East division and appeared in the Dollar General Bowl.

Jackson flirted with transferring to a Power Five school, and briefly entered his name in the transfer portal, but then decided to forgo his final season and enter the NFL draft. Having graduated, Jackson was eligible for the Senior Bowl and did travel to Mobile, where he enjoyed a strong week in front of the NFL scouts. Then he put on a show at the NFL Scouting Combine, displaying both his powerful arm and his elite size and athleticism for the quarterback position.

Strengths

When studying Jackson the first thing you will notice is the tremendous arm that he possesses. Jackson has the ability to deliver throws to all levels of the field with impressive velocity, from almost any throwing angle or platform. Some of his best downfield throws actually came when he was flushed to his left, but he could still generate incredible torque in his upper body to launch throws in the vertical passing game when moving away from his dominant hand.

This past summer I described him as “Josh Allen with better touch despite worse passing mechanics,” and the comparison is still apt. Jackson displays good touch on fades and go routes, and while we are going to get into his mechanical issues in a moment, the vertical passing game is a strength. He also shows great play speed and burst as a ball carrier, which he demonstrated first on some long touchdown runs (such as his long TD against Army in 2017) then later at the Scouting Combine when he posted a 4.59 40-yard dash.

Despite his tag as a “raw, developmental” passer, Jackson still shows flashes of advanced quarterback play. He displays good timing and rhythm on routes to the boundary, such as curls and hitches. Jackson shoes this most when the pre-snap look and post-snap look are the same, and he can rule routes in or out prior to the play.

He is also developing the ability to manipulate defenders, both with his eyes and his body. For example, on a second and six play against Army in 2018, the Bulls ran a Smash concept against a Cover 2 look. Jackson (#3) flashed a pump fake on the hitch route to the boundary, which caused the cornerback to bite down a few steps. The QB then drilled in the corner route down the field over the CB’s head to move the chains:

As we have discussed with Nick Mullens and more recently Brett Rypien, the ability to move defenders with the QB’s eyes is an element of the Patriots’ offense, and one that you can certainly see in Tom Brady. Jackson is developing that skill in front of our own eyes.

Processing speed is a work in progress for Jackson, as we will discuss, but he showed good strides in that trait during his final season. Take for example this play against Kent State. The Bulls empty the formation with Jackson in the shotgun, and run switch verticals to both sides of the field. Watch Jackson’s eyes as he scans the field from left to right to left and back again, before climbing the pocket and throwing this post route to the middle of the field with good anticipation:

This was a cold and blustery night - you can see the wind moving the goalposts on the end zone angle - but Jackson’s arm talent negated the weather effects. He reads the defense perfectly, attacking this two-deep safety look with the post route, and throws the pass before the break. A good mix of arm talent, processing speed, pocket movement and anticipation.

Jackson’s combination of arm talent and athleticism enables him to make some splash plays off structure and outside of the pocket. Take, for example, this touchdown pass against Eastern Michigan:

Buffalo runs a quick game concept on this play. First is a Tosser or double-slant from the two outside receivers to the left, along with a post route from the inside trips receiver. The backside X receiver runs a speed out pattern. Jackson is pressured and rolls to his right to buy some time, before uncorking a very impressive pass to the post route that turns into a long catch-and-run touchdown.

In the end, it does come back to his arm strength. His film is replete with examples of his arm talent, some of which we have touched upon here, but when you have a “put the pen down” moment watching a player, it is worth a mention. Returning to the game against Eastern Michigan, here is an example of Jackson flushing to his left and making a ridiculous throw while working against his passing arm:

That...is just a ridiculous throw. Simple as that.

Now, let’s take the arm strength question and put it through a bit of a Patriots’ lens. This video breaks down another impressive throw from Jackson, and it comes on a design that should be very familiar to New England fans: The Hoss concept:

Jackson throws an absolute rope up the seam, and it goes for a touchdown.

Weaknesses

Jackson’s biggest flaw as a passer stems from mechanical inconsistencies. This is something highlighted previously when we previewed the Senior Bowl quarterbacks. Jackson has a tendency to lock up that front leg when throwing, which can cause issues with ball placement and a drop in velocity. This was something envisioned by Steve Axman in his book “Coaching Quarterback Passing Mechanics.”

..the front step is not a big step. Although each quarterback’s front step will differ in length due [to] physical differences, it must be short enough to force the upper torso to actually roll, or fall, over the ball of the planted front foot. Too big a front sep forces the upper torso to position its weight toward the back foot, causing a “break” of the body at the hips. In essence, the hips and lower body are left behind as the upper torso snaps forward from the hips. This action either causes a release that is too high, thereby forcing the football to take off high, or a situation which the football is pulled down low, thereby causing a substantial loss of torque and power and a low throw. Straight-legged stepping, often associated both with overstepping and tall quarterbacks, produces the same negative pass-action results. Coaching Quarterback Passing Mechanics pp 44-45

Jackson does not always lock up that front leg when throwing, and his lower body mechanics have been improving through the Senior Bowl, the Combine and into his Pro Day. But even during his Pro Day, there were instances of that leg locking up, as you can see on a post route at around the 19:12 mark in this video:

Jackson’s front leg locks up a bit, and it causes the throw to be a bit high. For more on this issue with Jackson you can watch this video I did on him breaking down his lower body inconsistencies:

So mechanics, particularly in the lower body, are one area to watch. Another is the ball placement Jackson displays, to all levels of the field. Jackson completed 60 percent of his passes in just one season at Buffalo, the 2017 campaign which was cut short due to injury, and even that number just barely got past the 60 percent threshold, checking in at 60.3 percent. On his collegiate career Jackson completed 55.8 percent of his throws, a number that might give some evaluators some pause. For example, one of the seven “Parcells Rules” for drafting quarterbacks was a 60 percent completion percentage for a college career.

Yes, there is a schematic component here, as Jackson does like to throw the deep ball, but the inconsistency shows up at all levels of the field. Take, for example, this checkdown to a running back out of the backfield:

This is a third and one play against Eastern Michigan. The Bulls run an all-curls concept, and Jackson does a good job working the field from left to right and, seeing the receivers covered, coming to his checkdown. But the throw is to the back shoulder of the running back, forcing him to make an awkward twisting catch and preventing him from getting a full head of steam upfield. The result? Defenders rally to the ball-carrier and stop him short of the first down marker. Jackson is more generally accurate than precise right now, and even on short throws like this the ball is catchable and on the frame of the target, but not in the right spot to lead to yardage after the catch. That is something he will need to refine.

Finally, Jackson’s decision-making is also a work in progress. We have seen growth in his processing speed as a quarterback, which is a good sign. But there are times when the decision-making can be questioned. Early against Kent State Jackson read the rotation in the secondary perfectly and had a chance to throw a seam route against Cover 3, but instead he pulled the ball down and looked to create:

On this play, it almost appears like Jackson makes the right read, but doesn’t fully trust his eyes and his mind and instead pulls this down. The seam route from the slot receiver is open as Kent State rotates to a Cover 3 look, and the seam has inside leverage against the cornerback coming to cover it from the boundary. But rather than pull the trigger, Jackson flushes to the left and then forces a throw downfield into double coverage that he is lucky is not intercepted. This play incorporates another seam route from an inside receiver, something the Patriots implement very often.

Here are two more examples of the decision-making question. Against Army he was inconsistent on two different Smash concepts, making a risky throw on one occasion and making a very conservative decision on another, when facing the same exact coverage scheme. Here is the aggressive decision:

Jackson pulls the trigger late, throwing the corner route when the hitch is open in front of him. His arm is impressive enough to fit this in, but a quicker safety probably intercepts this.

And now, the more conservative decision:

This time, Jackson goes immediately to the hitch and does not even give the corner route a chance. Since this play comes later in the game, perhaps this is a sign of him taking to coaching?

Given how the Patriots seem to value decision-making from their quarterbacks, they probably want to see more consistency in this area from any incoming rookie QB.

For Jackson the mechanics and ball placement are the biggest red flags. Yes, they can be corrected, at least the mechanics, and Jackson has already shown development in this area. But the graveyard of NFL quarterbacks is filled with passers with “mechanical inconsistencies” who never figured them out. The team that drafts Jackson will need to have a plan to refine his mechanics while perhaps not playing him right away, cutting down on the necessary reps he would need to complete this task. Given how the Patriots value accuracy and placement in their offense, this might be a difficult issue to overcome when the front office stacks their board.

Foxborough Fit

As we have done with Finley and Rypien, let’s start with the “Parcells Rules.” Jackson checks a number of these boxes, making him on paper perhaps a very intriguing prospect for the Patriots. Jackson was a three-year starter for the Bulls, despite losing some time due to injury. He was a senior who did graduate, checking those boxes, and he started 31 games for Buffalo, just crossing the 30-start threshold. Also a close call is the touchdown to interception ratio. Jackson threw 49 touchdowns against 24 interceptions, just getting past that 2:1 ratio that Parcells sought when evaluating QBs.

However, the two categories where Jackson falls short might be big ones in New England. He failed to win 23 games for the Bulls, and he also failed to hit the 60 percent mark in completion percentage, checking in just over 55 percent.

Next is the scheme fit question, which also could work against him. With his arm talent and athleticism, Jackson looks to be a perfect fit for a modern day Air Coryell system that pairs the vertical game with some run/pass option designs that can feature Jackson as a runner on occasion. Now, while the Patriots do incorporate some downfield aspects in their offense, they are more of a timing and rhythm based system focusing on the short and intermediate areas of the field. Those designs place an emphasis on timing, precision and placement, aspects of Jackson’s game which are more of a work in progress.

However, this might not be the Patriots’ offense forever, leading us to an interesting question.

How the Patriots view Jackson might be a window into how they view Brady, and how they view their offense in a post-Brady world. If the Patriots believe they have a window to truly develop a quarterback, then Jackson could be an intriguing option. Yet, as previously indicated, they would need to have in place a good developmental plan for him, both mechanically and in terms of his mental approach.

Also, that plan would need to answer the scheme question. Would a future Patriots’ offense look to move Jackson into the system they currently implement, or would the offense be tailored to Jackson’s strengths as a passer, i.e., the downfield passing game?

The Bottom Line

Entering the Senior Bowl, Jim Nagy, the executive director of the event stated that Jackson was probably a “third- or fourth-round” pick. All that Jackson has done since then is improve his stock, thanks to a solid Senior Bowl week, a blistering performance at the combine and a steady Pro Day. Now, Jackson is likely a solid day two selection. For a team that might not need a starting quarterback for the 2019 season, but has a year to develop a player before replacing an aging starter, Jackson would make a lot of sense. This might sound like a hedge, but if he is in the right system and gets the right coaching, he could be a starter in this league before you know it.

Is New England that system now? Probably not. Could it be in a post-Brady world? Now that is a question to ponder. If the Patriots envision a different, more vertical, passing game in a world without TB12, Jackson might be the passer to develop coming out of this class.