Duke quarterback Daniel Jones went sixth overall in the NFL Draft to the Giants, to the great surprise of a lot of people who watched Jones’ college career. That Jones was projected as a first-rounder at all was surprising, but sixth overall?
A year after Wyoming QB and Bills pick Josh Allen exposed the widest gap in opinion yet between NFL execs and most of the rest of us, Jones has emerged as 2019’s most disagreed-upon guy.
But unlike with Allen and other similar QBs, I have to squint to see why the NFL has even been intrigued with Jones.
[Draft grades? Draft grades! Grades for the 2019 NFL Draft first round]
Start with Jones’ consistently underwhelming numbers at Duke.
- He started for three years, and he never put up a passer rating better than 131.7, ranking 66th among FBS qualifiers in 2018. The average NFL starting QB these days ranked around 25th in the country in passer rating in his last college year. The only regular starter in 2018 who ranked lower in his last college year was Allen, 73rd as a Wyoming junior.
- Jones gained 6.8 yards per throw in 2018 — the best of his career, but eighth in the ACC and 81st in the country.
- Of the 22 most talked about QB prospects from FBS, Jones’ Success Rate (how often his passes kept Duke on schedule) was third-worst in 2018. He was dead last in Marginal Efficiency, a measure that takes extra account of a play’s down and distance. Research by SB Nation’s Bill Connelly shows QBs almost never become more efficient in the pros than they were in college.
- According to pass-charting by Derrik Klassen (in a spreadsheet here), Jones compares poorly to other top QB prospects on passes of all ranges from zero yards to 20-plus, and got to throw more short passes than most of his peers. He also did poorly when under pressure and on third and fourth downs. Pro Football Focus, which charts every game and has its own float of advanced stats, ranks Jones 70th overall and fifth among QBs.
- Jones didn’t have a single standout college game against a great defense. His 10 best games by passer rating were against FCS North Carolina Central, Army, Northwestern, Temple, Notre Dame (the 2016 version that went 4-8), Pitt, FCS NC Central again, Georgia Tech, and Georgia Tech again. None finished better than 30th in Defensive S&P+. Most did far worse.
Yet enough NFL teams are enamored with Jones that he’s apparently going to be a first-rounder. Some media, too, have found things to love.
Mel Kiper’s ESPN writeup on him illustrates the disconnect well:
There’s a lot to like about Jones, my fourth-ranked quarterback and No. 23 overall on my board. He has experience (36 starts). He’s athletic (4.81-second 40-yard dash with a 33 ½-inch vertical). He’s a leader (two-year captain). He’s tough (he missed only two games after breaking his collarbone). He can be a starter in the NFL.
Now, you’d like to see him be more accurate — he completed just 59.9 percent of his passes in his career — but he improved every year under Duke coach David Cutcliffe. Just turn on the film from last season, and you’ll see a quarterback who can play.
The vast majority of college starting QBs are captains. Maybe Jones did improve every year, but if he did, it’s hard to explain his rough sophomore numbers. (Also, that year, Duke was 25th of 130 teams in returning production on offense, meaning he had one of the country’s most experienced teams.)
You know the usual reasons why NFL teams pick QBs who didn’t light it up in college. But other QBs, who actually had productive college careers, fit those molds better than Jones does.
- Maybe you’re like Allen was in 2018: really tall, strong-armed, and in need of better accuracy. Jones is 6’5, but why not just take 6’7 Buffalo flamethrower Tyree Jackson, who’s like Allen with one-fifth the hype?
- Maybe you only had a year or so as a college starter — usually a strike against a QB, but, through another lens, a mark of untapped upside. That doesn’t fit Jones, but it could fit Haskins or Ole Miss’ Jordan Ta’amu.
- Maybe you played in a conservative offense, which could both translate to the pros and suggest opportunity for bigger numbers. That could work for Jones, but if a team wanted a QB like that, why not just try NC State’s Ryan Finley, who’s an inch shorter but had a better college career?
- Maybe you’re a unique scheme fit. Missouri’s Drew Lock adapted to three offensive coordinators in four years and played well all along. West Virginia’s Will Grier produced in an NFL-ish version of the air raid.
So maybe this is the most important thing: the notion that he has a pedigree because of his college coach.
Cutcliffe was Tennessee’s coordinator when Peyton Manning played there. He was Ole Miss’ head coach when Eli Manning played there. He mentored top-three pick Heath Shuler and a few others who have gotten cups of coffee in the NFL.
Cutcliffe is currently one of Duke’s best football coaches ever. But the first line on his resume might as well be “coached Peyton Manning.” It jumpstarted Cutcliffe’s reputation as a QB whisperer, even though 15 years have passed since a QB of his became a regular NFL starter.
The 64-year-old Duke coach told Sports Illustrated of Jones:
I can’t imagine there’s someone out there more equipped, top to bottom, in this draft or in the next draft if he had stayed, than he is to be an NFL quarterback. A starter. A star.
There’s no one football men trust more than other football men, and here’s the football man who coached the Mannings saying Jones is a budding star.
Gil Brandt, a Hall of Fame front-office man, spelled out the Manning comparison:
I. Love. Dan Jones. I have to say this carefully: When you watch him and you go back (20) years and watch Peyton Manning, you are watching the same guy. He’s athletic. He doesn’t have a rocket for an arm, but neither did Peyton. Very smart.
Look, they even have vaguely similar postures and senses of QB fashion:
Maybe Jones will be good. But he’s a bizarre part of the first round, unless some NFL team has seen something extraordinary.
That would have to be something that didn’t translate into above-average play in any of his three years starting at Duke.