You could hear the draft stock whistling skyward when, without provocation, Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Jon Gruden nonchalantly dropped the name of Arkansas quarterback Matt Jones into a diatribe about draft royalty.
Sitting at a breakfast for NFC coaches during the owners' meeting in Maui, Gruden had been offering nuggets about such highly regarded prospects as Miami cornerback Antrel Rolle ("He'll knock your eyes out") or the marquee quarterback duo of Cal's Aaron Rodgers and Utah's Alex Smith ("I got a feeling one will fall to us on draft day").
Suddenly, while praising Auburn running back Ronnie Brown and Texas linebacker Derrick Johnson, Gruden inserted Jones into the conversation – smirking over how the Arkansas quarterback had so casually clocked a 40-yard dash time of 4.39 seconds at the scouting combine.
The moment underscored how quickly Jones' stock has risen. Coaches don't bring up just anybody when they are breaking down elite prospects. And to have Jones be part of that conversation seems almost absurd, considering he's in the midst of a position change and was considered no better than a fourth- or fifth-round pick at the end of the college football season.
Yet, that's where Jones' stock sits – in the mix of the first round as the draft's suddenly sexy and slightly dangerous prospect.
Standing 6-foot-6 and weighing 241 pounds, he's a college quarterback who has the size of a tight end. Yet his 40 time is better than Michigan's Braylon Edwards, who is 31 pounds lighter and widely considered the top receiver in the draft. Even Jones's splits – 10-yard and 20-yard times – were nearly equal or faster than those of Edwards.
Jones' cone and shuttle drills, which measure quickness and agility, were on par or better than almost every receiver in the draft. And lest we forget, Jones has the hands of a college basketball player (see: Antonio Gates), having spent two years as a role player on Arkansas' basketball team.
It's the kind of pedigree that has NFL teams gushing over the possibilities. The clamoring began when Jones played wide receiver at the Senior Bowl more than two months ago, catching a touchdown pass and torching LSU All-American cornerback Corey Webster a few times in practice.
"You've got a guy that can play NCAA basketball for one of the elite teams and can come in and be a [college] quarterback," Tennessee Titans general manager Floyd Reese said. "At the Senior Bowl, if you looked at him catching the ball … he caught a lot of the balls that were thrown to him, so you say to yourself, can he be a receiver?"
As many as 20 teams are asking that question after spending extra time watching or interviewing Jones the last two months. While Jones threw for 53 touchdowns in his career with Arkansas, some believe he's too erratic for the next level. Instead, coaches and general managers are more interested in Jones' elusiveness, which helped him rush for 2,545 yards in the Southeastern Conference. It's that amazingly long stride, speed and height that teams think they can use to create matchup problems.
"If you're just watching him from the stands, it looks like he's going slow," LSU cornerback Travis Daniels said. "But if you're next to him, he's pulling away. … Two or three [regular] steps are just like one of his."
Teams that believe Jones can make the transition to receiver have quickly moved him up the draft boards, believing he can be even better than other quarterbacks who have crossed over – like Pittsburgh Steelers wideout Antwaan Randle El and Tennessee's Drew Bennett. But there are some mellow skeptics who cluck their tongues at assertions that Jones is the most talented player in the draft.
"The kid is very, very talented, but I don't get that," one NFC personnel man said. "Don't talk about three years from now. Talk about right now. Is he a better wide receiver than [USC's Mike] Williams or Edwards right now? No. He still has to figure out how to play [that position]. That's a total lack of respect for those other guys to call Jones the most talented player in the draft. You don't even know how he'll fit in as a tight end or H-back. I'm not saying he's not going to be a great player, but saying he is now is [hype]."
Certainly, measurables versus production is what makes Jones a draft risk, especially now that he's projected to go as high as the bottom third of the first round. He's been adept in workouts, catching nearly everything thrown his way and showcasing loads of agility. But as impressive as his workouts have been, Jones doesn't have a resume at wide receiver – something that typically shows the true value of a player at a given position.
As Atlanta Falcons general manager Rich McKay said, "Most teams will tell you that at best, this piece of the puzzle [workouts], should be about 20 percent. Eighty percent, and in some cases, maybe more, is based on body of work."
Beyond the Senior Bowl, NFL teams don't have film that shows how Jones will run routes when badgered by a cornerback or linebacker. They lack evidence that he can sufficiently block as a tight end or fight for balls in traffic. They're also worried what his passion will be like after making a permanent position switch.
One of the red flags in Jones' scouting report is that he sometimes seems too laid back, and there are some who wonder if he'll have problems not playing his preferred position of quarterback. It's conjecture, but considering how Nebraska quarterback Eric Crouch fell apart after being switched to wide receiver, it's a valid concern.
Jones still has an overwhelming share of supporters. Those who have witnessed his talents firsthand think he can make the switch easily. Mississippi State's Sylvester Croom, who was an offensive coordinator in the NFL, said he would make Jones a high draft pick. And Miami's Nick Saban, who faced Jones in the SEC while coaching LSU, has been inordinately kind.
"Arkansas probably won more games because of Matt Jones' contributions than maybe any other team in our league, relative to any single player affecting their team as much as he did," Saban said. "I have a tremendous amount of respect for him. I was really, really looking forward to the day [he] graduated from Arkansas so we wouldn't have to play against him anymore."
Now Saban may have to face Jones again. Barring an unexpected occurrence, Jones will be snagged somewhere late in the first round or early in the second. By the time training camp opens in late July, Jones should be well on his way to becoming next season's keenly watched project – constantly measured against the crossover failure of Nebraska's Crouch and the success of Tennessee's Bennett. Not that Jones has any worries about which side of the ledger he'll fall.
"Maybe it was [an ego] blow to a guy like Eric Crouch, who didn't want to play receiver," Jones said. "… I'm more like Randle El. If I can't do it, then I'll be happy to play receiver."
If his rising reputation is any indication, the rest of the NFL will be happy to see him play receiver, too.
- Matt Jones