The quarterback series rolls on here at Pats Pulpit, and today we discuss another quarterback who creates varied opinions inside and outside the NFL. There are some on the outside of the football world who view this quarterback with a great deal of skepticism, and wonder if he is worthy of a first round selection. Others with ties to the league point to his pedigree, his traits and his college coach, as well as a potential lack of talent around him in college, and argue that he could be the best quarterback in the draft. If (and that’s a big if this time of year) recent reports are true, at least one team believes that he is.
Let’s discuss Daniel Jones.
Hailing from North Carolina, Jones attended Charlotte Latin School in Charlotte, where he threw for nearly 7000 yards and 98 touchdowns during his time in high school. However, an injury Jones suffered during the basketball season his junior year severely hampered his football recruiting process. The injury prevented him from participating in any of the recruiting camps that open doors to college campuses.
As a result, Jones originally committed to play football at Princeton University. But his high school coaches believed that he could play at a higher level, and eventually reached out to Cutliffe to ask the Duke head coach to take a look at their QB. Cutcliffe liked what he saw, but was out of scholarships to offer to Jones. The young QB and his family agreed to enroll him at Duke, and an injury to another player eventually opened up a scholarship for him.
Jones redshirted his first season at Duke, but he took over as the team’s starting quarterback during the 2016 season when starting quarterback Thomas Sirk suffered a season-ending injury. Jones played in 12 games, completing 62.8 percent of his passes for 2,836 yards and 16 touchdowns, against nine interceptions.
The next year, Jones entered the season as the starter and started all 13 games for the Blue Devils. While his completion percentage dipped under the 60 percent mark, (56.7), Jones threw for 2,691 yards and 14 touchdowns, with 11 interceptions. He led the Blue Devils to a victory in the Quick Lane Bowl, where he was named the MVP of that game.
Jones entered his redshirt junior season with some high expectations, but an early-season collarbone injury sidelined him for a few games. He still played in 11 contests for the Blue Devils, completing 60.5 percent of his throws for 2,674 yards and a career-high 22 touchdowns, against just nine interceptions. He had another great bowl game, leading Duke to a victory in the Independence Bowl and he was again named the MVP of that contest.
Jones graduated from Duke with a degree in economics in December, making him eligible to play in the Senior Bowl. Expectations were again high for him heading into the week, and while he did not have a solid week of practice, he earned another postseason MVP award, being named MVP of the Senior Bowl game itself.
Jones is yet another polarizing player in this quarterback class, where the outside media and the NFL insiders seem to have differing opinions on how to grade this player. Those of us on the outside tend to have a more negative opinion of him, while you may have seen over the weekend people associated with the league (or formerly associated with the league) such as Greg Gabriel from Pro Football Weekly and Jim Nagy of the Senior Bowl stating that a team might need to trade up in the first round to draft Jones.
As for the player himself, Jones combines his athleticism in and outside the pocket with sufficient arm strength and an ability to execute well on quicker route concepts and designs.
Beginning with the athleticism - and footwork - you can see this when Jones either faces pressure in the pocket or is forced to create as route concepts are covered in the secondary. First, let’s look at an example of Jones facing a blitz look from the defense and working through reads in the face of pressure. On this play against Army from 2017, Jones (#17) sees a Cover 0 pressure alignment from the Black Knights’ defense in the pre-snap phase. He stands in the pocket, climbing the ladder in the face of pressure, while working through his reads:
Jones wants to throw a post route to the inside trips receiver, but seeing it bracketed, he climbs the pocket and throws to the middle trips receiver on a curl route. This combination of athleticism in the pocket with processing speed under pressure bodes well for his development.
Because of Jones’ athleticism, Cutcliffe tends to move him around the pocket at times, on designed rollouts or even sprint-out designs. On this play against Georgia Tech in 2018, the Blue Devils use a half-roll to the left, and Jones takes the quick throw to the flat:
This type of design even gives Jones some opportunities to pick up yardage with his own legs. Later in the game against the Yellow Jackets, Duke uses another rollout concept to the left, but this time the quarterback keeps it himself and gets what he can with his legs:
Let’s talk about processing speed, which is something touched upon in the first example from Jones. Studying him has left me believing that Jones’ processing speed is best on quick game concepts, and these two plays against Virginia from 2018 are prime examples of this idea. On this first play, the Blue Devils face a third and five in their own territory. They empty the backfield and pute Jones in the shotgun, and run a Stick concept to a trips formation:
Jones wants to throw backside here, to the slot receiver on a curl route, because he expects the middle linebacker to open his hips to the three-receiver side of the formation. However, unexpectedly the MLB opens to the weak side of the offensive formation, jumping the backside curl route, due to a pressure package Virginia brings on the play. That forces Jones to change his read on the fly, and he comes to the curl route from the inside trips receiver.
Here is another example of Jones’ execution on a quicker route concept and showing great processing speed. On this third down against the Cavaliers, Duke runs a go/flat concept to the left side of the formation. Jones wants to throw the flat route to his slot receiver, but the cornerback traps this from the boundary, leaving the vertical route open along the sideline:
Again, this is great processing speed on a quick game concept. Jones picks up the trap on the slot receiver and immediately comes to the vertical route along the boundary.
Back to Jones in the pocket for a moment, he also does a good job at getting himself in position to throw, even when the design of the play works against him. Take, for example, this play against Georgia Tech from 2018:
Jones runs a run/pass option look, meeting his running back at the mesh point and pulling to throw. Before the play Georgia Tech showed a rotation to a soft Cover 3 look, so he wants to throw a backside bang 8 post route. But he has to carry out the mesh fake to his left before coming back to throw this pattern. His footwork is extremely fluid here, as he gets himself in good throwing position, and then caps it off with great placement.
Finally, while I think Jones projects best to a quick game offense, there are examples of him making some big time throws in the downfield passing game. On this play against Georgia Tech the Blue Devils face a third and long situation. The Yellow Jackets bring pressure, and Jones hangs in the pocket and takes a shot:
Jones drops in a perfect throw to his inside receiver who runs by the Tampa 2 defender, and after delivering this throw he takes a big hit, but comes through on this huge play. Also of note? He faces a boundary blitz on this snap and still executes in the passing game. As we will see, those pressure schemes do tend to give him trouble.
Here is another example of Jones showing some pocket toughness and making a throw under duress, from this play against Army in 2017:
This is one of those “oh, so you want to play quarterback” examples. Jones takes an absolute shot on this play, but delivers with great velocity and placement under duress.
Finally, it is a little thing, but Jones is very adept at using his voice and cadence to draw defenders offsides. His film is filled with multiple examples of this, and it is something to watch as he moves to the NFL.
Let’s start with some numbers for a second. Having just argued that Jones fits well with a quick game offense, here are some statistics to back it up. Bryce Rossler, who works with Sports Info Solutions, recently wrote a piece breaking down some numbers on the top passers in this quarterback class. The numbers on Jones might give evaluators some pause:
By this point, you’ve probably noticed that Jones doesn’t compare favorably to his counterparts, and his case is a curious one. First and foremost, it should be noted that he played most of the season with a plate and screws in his left clavicle to fuse together a broken collarbone he suffered on September 8th. Nevertheless, the Blue Devil captain played himself into first round consideration and is regarded by some as the most pro-ready quarterback in the draft. However, the numbers don’t necessarily back that assertion up.
Jones was primarily asked to execute 0/1-step drops, RPOs, screens, and rollouts, concepts that generally indicate simpler, or even singular, reads. He did so on a whopping 72.6% of his dropbacks, the eighth-highest rate among 164 quarterbacks who dropped back 100+ times in 2018. To give you an idea of how that might translate to the NFL, Nick Foles had the highest rate of 43 NFL quarterbacks at 58.3%. Only two other quarterbacks did so at a rate above 50%, and the average rate among quarterbacks who dropped back at least 100 times was 33.8%.
Now, there could be some reasons for this reliance on these concepts. First, Jones is very adept at them, and while Cutcliffe has a reputation for developing quarterbacks, his business card does not read “Quarterback Developer.” It reads “Head Football Coach.” He also needs to win games, and if this type of offense was the best way to win games, then that is what he will call. Second, building off that, there is an argument that the Duke offense lacked weapons, and as such Cutcliffe might need to rely on these quicker concepts to generate yardage, rather than trusting his receivers to win routes downfield in the passing game.
These numbers also lead us to some concerns in the downfield passing game. Take, for example, this play against Virginia. The Blue Devils run a deep shot play off of play-action, and it seems like Jones never looks anywhere else other than this route:
This ties into the numbers. If the quarterback is tasked with running almost exclusively quick reads (or singular reads, as Rossler terms them), then decision-making on downfield concepts will be lacking at times. Here, Jones locks onto the deep route and never looks elsewhere, leading to the interception. He will need to do a much better job moving the safety with his eyes. With Duke’s reliance on the quick game concepts, there are fewer plays where he needs to move defenders, making this a weak area in his game.
One last thing to mention, is boundary blitzes. They tend to give Jones some trouble (much like many other young quarterbacks). Here are two examples. First, on this play against Army in 2017, Jones wants to throw a wheel route here but he is much too slow, failing to see the blitz coming:
The QB has to be faster here, but again, on a more vertical concept, the internal clock is not a sped up as it needs to be, and the Blue Devils lose the football.
Then next season against Georgia Tech, Jones identifies the coming boundary blitz, but he fails to speed up his process even though he knows it is coming, and he gets strip-sacked by the blitzing defensive back:
Now, Jones probably thinks this blitz is going to be picked up by his left tackle, but knowing the blitz is coming, you would expect the QB to speed up his process a bit more than normal. He does not, and loses the ball as a result.
Lastly, while Jones is pretty clean mechanically, there are times when he shows a bit of a dip and loop to his throwing motion, which will be something to watch in the years to come.
As we have done with the other passers in this class, let’s begin with the Parcells Rules. History has shown us that the Patriots might value these more than other organizations, and if they do that is a bit of a mixed bag for Jones. He checks off four of the seven boxes, having started three seasons, checking in as a senior, having started more than 30 games and graduating. What might give people some trepidation are the boxes that he does not check. He did not win 23 games in college, his touchdown to interception ratio was less than 2:1, and in an offense that was predicated on quick throws and reads, his completion percentage was south of 60 percent. 59.9 to be exact, but still, not great Bob.
From his experience through his traits, Jones looks to fit best in a quick game offense, such as Jon Gruden’s West Coast system. Schematically, that might work in New England. Josh McDaniels’ passing game does tend to focus on the short and intermediate areas of the field, and Jones’ ability to make snap decisions and accurate throws on quick game concepts would mesh well with the Patriots’ offense, as currently constructed.
More importantly, Jones would be stepping into a situation where he would not have to play immediately.
Everything is pointing to Jones being an earlier pick than many expect. As such, he will likely be afforded more opportunities to succeed than quarterbacks who are drafted on Day Two or even Day Three. Regardless of where and when he is drafted, Jones looks like a QB who would be served sitting for a period of time, perhaps even longer than his rookie season. In the right system, one relying heavily on quick game concepts, Jones could develop into a mid-tier quarterback by the end of his first contract. Perhaps that is the best-case scenario, but looking at his skillset, New England might provide the best path for him to reach his ceiling as a professional passer.
The Bottom Line
An athletic quarterback who works best on quick game concepts, and who can show great handling of pockets at times with his footwork and processing speed on favorable route designs. Jones has the tools and the background to succeed, but his landing spot might be more critical than for other passers in this class. The team that drafts him will need to have a solid developmental plan in place for him. If he ends up in Foxborough, however, that might be the ideal landing spot for him. With Brady firmly in place there would be no need to rush him onto the field. In addition, New England’s incorporation of quick game concepts into their passing offense would be a stylistic fit for him.