Is Mac Jones a first-round quarterback option in 2021?

by 24USATVJan. 12, 2021, 4 a.m. 44
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In the 2021 NFL Draft, the quarterback position has become a polarizing and hotly debated topic. While Trevor Lawrence has cemented himself as the first QB off the board (and that’s not changing), opinions on the rest of the class are varied. For me personally, the most difficult evaluation I’ve had didn’t come from Zach Wilson or Justin Fields. It came from Alabama quarterback Mac Jones.

To a 3-star quarterback, Mac Jones stepped onto the Alabama campus with little fanfare. All the attention was focused on the 5-star phenom from Hawaii: Tua Tagovailoa. Tagovailoa was the number one dual-threat QB in the recruiting rankings. Mac Jones, on the other hand, was the 18th-ranked pro-style QB. Both of them were behind Jalen Hurts on the Alabama depth chart, the player who had just taken the Crimson Tide to the national championship.

The attention dwindled even further when Tua overtook Jalen Hurts on the depth chart in the second half of the 2017 National Championship. Tua’s star began to burn bright after leading Alabama to victory on the biggest stage in college football, while Mac Jones sat on the sideline.

He grew and got better

Mac Jones continued to be patient and continued to develop. Even while behind both Tua Tagovailoa and Jalen Hurts for two years, Mac Jones never thought about declaring. It wasn’t until Hurts decided to grad transfer to Oklahoma that Jones even remotely entered the picture. As the primary backup to Tua, Jones played mostly cleanup duty in relief of Tua when Alabama was blowing out an opponent.

When Tua was carted off with an injury against Mississippi State with just two regular season games and a bowl game left, Mac Jones was thrust into the starting lineup. Jones played well, despite his rapid advancement in duties. Against some tough defense in Auburn and Michigan, Mac Jones went 42-of-64 for 662 yards and seven touchdowns to just three interceptions.

Mac Jones entered the season as the incumbent starter. The situation around him was great. Despite losing OT Jedrick Wills and WRs Jerry Jeudy and Henry Ruggs III to the NFL Draft, Alabama had plenty of talent on offense. The Alabama coaches had placed their faith in Mac Jones and his ability.

That faith was well-placed, as Jones enjoyed prolific success this season. The signal caller was awarded the Davey O’Brien Award and finished third in Heisman voting this season. The Alabama offense was number one in the country and piled up points on every team.

Jones has the Crimson Tide poised to win another national championship. The ever-efficient quarterback has put the Tide’s weapons to good use this season. His draft stock has increased exponentially. Jones is competitive, he’s disciplined, he’s got the intangibles.

When you watch Jones play, there’s a lot to like. He scans the field quickly. He’s a decisive thrower who understands and nails timing routes to a T. Jones works the pocket well, using his legs and moving to find passing lanes in the pocket. He rarely puts the ball in jeopardy. The accuracy and placement are on point to various levels of the field.

The problem is Jones flies in the face of the way the NFL game is evolving. His average arm talent and ability to extend plays will show up in the NFL. The windows are that much smaller, and the opposing defenses are that much faster. Opposing defensive coordinators aren’t quite as…relaxed as the SEC’s were this season.

The trickiest part of evaluating Jones is separating him from his situation. The Alabama offense had a Joe Moore Award-winning offensive line, a Heisman-winner wide receiver, another wide receiver projected top 10, a Doak Walker Award-winning running back, a Remington Award-winning offensive lineman, and an Outland Trophy-winning offensive tackle.

On top of that, their offensive coordinator was just hired to be the head coach of the Texas Longhorns. To say that Mac Jones was in an ideal situation would be the understatement of the century.

Therein lies the problem. Jones benefitted from one of the best offenses in history. The scheme was the best in college football. His receivers were running wide open all season long. This won’t be the case in the NFL. The parity between each NFL team is greater than what Alabama had versus every CFB team this season.

When I was studying Mac Jones, I kept trying to find quarterbacks in the league that play like him. I wasn’t trying to force a pro comp on him. It was more trying to find a quarterback like Jones that succeeds in the NFL doing what Jones does well.

The answer? Not many, especially in recent years.

Jones is closer to a couple of first-round quarterbacks: Teddy Bridgewater and Jared Goff. From a physical profile standpoint, each of these guys are pretty similar: 6’2-6’3 and roughly 215 pounds. None will test particularly well athletically. The measurables on all of them are all average or below-average.

All three of these guys are limited quarterbacks operating super successful offenses. Yet when those limitations show up, it’s painfully obvious and clear. How many people would take Jared Goff or Teddy Bridgewater to quarterback their team as a franchise quarterback? Very, very few.

Mac Jones flies in the face of modern QB evaluation

San Francisco 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan, one of the game’s brightest offensive minds, spoke about this last month.

I don’t think it’s coincidental these comments surfaced after the 49ers lost to Buffalo, quarterbacked by Josh Allen.

If you look around the league, the top of the game is championed by some ridiculously talented quarterbacks. Patrick Mahomes, Aaron Rodgers, Russell Wilson, Dak Prescott, Deshaun Watson, Josh Allen, and Lamar Jackson are all guys who win with elite arm talent and can hurt defenses with their legs.

Even the next tier of guys with players like Ryan Tannehill, Baker Mayfield, Kyler Murray, Justin Herbert, and Matthew Stafford play much the same way. That’s the way quarterbacks are evolving.

The key to what Shanahan said is that last sentence. “You’re just trying to find a guy who is better than about 98 percent of the people on this planet or in this country and when you find that, you get him and you adjust to him.”

Given half the league is already running Shanahan’s concepts and the rest are trying to replicate them, these sentiments will only become more and more popular. You adjust to the quarterback.

It’s becoming more of a talent-driven evaluation. This draft class is a perfect microcosm for this study. Look at the top four guys of Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson, Justin Fields, and Trey Lance. Each of them has their own question marks about running an NFL offense, but guess what? They’re all going to be drafted top-15 because they are all just ridiculous talents as players.

Teams are going to bank more on the Patrick Mahomes’s and Josh Allen’s of prospects, guys who are raw mentally but otherworldy levels of talented.

Sure, there are a few quarterbacks who are still playing at a high level without crazy arm talent. Tom Brady and Philip Rivers spring to mind. The New Orleans Saints’ offense is clicking well, but 41-year-old Drew Brees has clearly regressed and is limiting their offense. Ben Roethlisberger’s mobility is all but gone, but Pittsburgh’s in the playoffs. The 49ers made it to the Super Bowl last year but couldn’t ice a win over Mahomes with Jimmy G at the helm.

All but one of those guys were drafted well over a decade ago.

What does this mean for Mac Jones?

Thus, the conundrum of Mac Jones. He does so many things at a clearly high level mentally. Mentally, he’s sharper than a lot of other prospects. He has better pocket management than Justin Fields. He scans the field better than Trey Lance. He’s better at taking care of the football than Zach Wilson.

Yet, the average traits just diminish his value. As a GM, do you spend a first-round pick on a guy who can *run* your offense but not elevate it? Are you comfortable spending that premium on a player who had pretty much everything go his way at the collegiate level situation-wise?

Prospect scouting is typically, “Tell me what he can do as a prospect.” With quarterbacks, however, it’s almost become the reverse. Obviously, you want to see what he can do, but it’s what he *can’t* do that defines a quarterback. Once you find that out, is it because he’s simply not asked to do it, or is it an actual limitation on his game?

With Mac Jones, while he can do a lot, what he can’t do is absolutely critical. It makes the evaluation even more difficult, on top of trying to separate him from the surroundings at Alabama.

Can he be drafted in the first round? Sure, a team like New Orleans, who already has excellent surroundings, could gamble on him and just decide to insert him there to keep the ship running. If a quarterback’s success is defined by his surroundings, then his success can only go so far.

With how the game is moving away from quarterbacks who “keep the offense” flowing and don’t add much more, Mac Jones will suffer as a result. It’s these reasons why I think Mac Jones won’t be a first-round pick in the 2021 NFL Draft.

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