Ex-Detroit Lions coach understands why San Francisco 49ers like Mac Jones: 'He's sharp'

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
Dave Birkett, Detroit Free Press
·6 min read
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

The San Francisco 49ers traded up to No. 3 in the NFL draft to take ... Mac Jones?

If bewilderment was your initial reaction to last month's blockbuster trade between the Miami Dolphins and 49ers, and subsequent reports that 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan prefers Jones to more some of the draft's more flashy quarterback prospects, you're not alone.

But former Detroit Lions running backs coach Kyle Caskey said he is convinced Jones will have a successful NFL career after spending two days working with the Alabama quarterback before his first pro day last month.

Alabama quarterback Mac Jones passes against Ohio State defensive end Zach Harrison during the College Football Playoff national championship game, Jan 11, 2021 in Miami Gardens, Fla.
Alabama quarterback Mac Jones passes against Ohio State defensive end Zach Harrison during the College Football Playoff national championship game, Jan 11, 2021 in Miami Gardens, Fla.

"I can see (why they traded up)," Caskey said Monday. "The way the draft works, I can totally see it. Especially if one of those teams has met with him like I’ve met with him and they see that kind of stuff, I can see where they would feel comfortable with that. He’s a fairly safe pick. He’s not a (guy) that would go off the rails or something."

Jones led Alabama to a national championship last season in his first year as starter.

He threw for 4,500 yards and 41 touchdowns with just four interceptions, but critics point out he played on an offense loaded with other potential first-round picks, like DeVonta Smith, Jaylen Waddle and Najee Harris, and is neither as mobile nor as strong-armed as possible top-10 quarterbacks Trey Lance and Justin Fields.

Caskey, who spent the 2019-20 seasons with the Lions and nine years before that with the Cincinnati Bengals, said he put Jones through a condensed week of gameplan preparation over the course of two days in Tuscaloosa last month and came away impressed with the quarterback's mental acuity.

The two spent one day working via Zoom, when tornadoes closed Alabama's practice facility, and another in-person, where Caskey helped fine-tune Jones' pro-day throwing plan and spent five hours with him watching film and going over blitz protections.

"This guy, he’s sharp, now," Caskey said. "He doesn’t have the (Matthew) Stafford arm to him, I get it, but not a lot of them do. I think the mental side of this kid is, as long as he stays humble and where he’s at right now and wants to learn, I think he’ll be fine. Cause he’s been asking me if I wanted to Zoom again and I’m like, 'You just tell me, we’ll Zoom any time.'“

Caskey said he and Jones watched game and practice film from Jones' 2020 season at Alabama, along with a variety of NFL games featuring the New England Patriots, Detroit Lions and others.

Michigan defensive back Josh Metellus rushes Alabama quarterback Mac Jones during the first half of U-M's 35-16 loss in the Citrus Bowl on Wednesday, Jan. 1, 2020, in Orlando, Florida.
Michigan defensive back Josh Metellus rushes Alabama quarterback Mac Jones during the first half of U-M's 35-16 loss in the Citrus Bowl on Wednesday, Jan. 1, 2020, in Orlando, Florida.

One of the games they watched was the Lions' 47-7 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, when the notoriously aggressive Bucs had four sacks and overwhelmed the Lions with an array of blitz pressures.

Caskey, whose responsibilities as Lions running backs coach included putting together the team's weekly protection tape, where he identified different blitzes opponents might use and the Lions' counters to those rushes, said Jones showed an uncanny ability to recognize blitzes and talk through the protections.

"It was a great game to talk about blitz diagnosis and seeing rotations and different things, cause they had every blitz known to man, every different front," Caskey said. "They just were having fun with us that day. And then that’s not even to say that (Tom Brady threw for 390 yards in the first half or whatever.

"And then we kind of went through, I showed him some of the different exercise stuff we did. When I say exercises, we had different things we did with the team that was like, I’d throw this PowerPoint up and the quarterbacks would make their calls, and then the receivers would say what route they’re running, the line would go through what they’re blocking and the calls and the backs would say the same thing. We did a bunch of those and he ran it. It was really good."

As important as arm strength, accuracy and mobility are in the scouting world, NFL teams place a high emphasis on a quarterback's ability to process information so they can get the ball out of their hands quickly and to the right target.

Caskey said Jones not only talked through complex defensive looks with minimal prompting, but he did so using terminology other than what he was used to at Alabama.

With Mac Jones expected to go third to the 49ers, Ohio State QB Justin Fields could be available for the Lions at No. 7.
With Mac Jones expected to go third to the 49ers, Ohio State QB Justin Fields could be available for the Lions at No. 7.

As an example, Caskey pointed to Jones' detailed dissection of double-A gap blitz concepts, where defenses deploy two linebackers on either side of the center and blitz from a variety of spots in the front seven.

"He started talking about those and how they picked them up and all the different pick games that guys run inside," Caskey said. "And he’s like, 'Man, this one where they bring both the end and the tackle in and they step them up and they loop them around,' he goes, 'We never could pick that up.' It was cool to see him explain things."

The Jacksonville Jaguars are expected to use the first pick of the draft on Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence, and BYU's Zach Wilson is the favorite to go No. 2 to the New York Jets.

More: Why Trey Lance to Detroit Lions at No. 7 makes sense, even after Jared Goff's arrival

More: 'Why am I not doing more?': Detroit Lions coach has plan to create positive change

Most NFL observers expect Jones to be the third quarterback off the board, ahead of Fields and Lance, and Caskey said Jones seems like a good fit for Shanahan's offense in San Francisco.

"Really, the guy is one of the smarter guys that I’ve been around at this point in his career," Caskey said. "He knows languages within different systems and he’s spitting out different teams’ offenses. He knew, when I would bring up these crazy blitzes that we had to pick up in the NFL and I would show him video, he would diagnose quite a few of them. There were a few I needed to kind of push him a little bit on, but he really sees things at a much higher level than a lot of people that I’ve seen come out as a rookie quarterback, and the good thing about that is, that’s going to help him play faster, quicker.

"Once he gets into a system and he knows, that’s my language, I think he’s going to be pretty good right off the bat. If he does end up having to sit behind somebody, it won’t be for very long."

Contact Dave Birkett at dbirkett@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Ex-Detroit Lions assistant gets why 49ers like Mac Jones: 'He's sharp'