NFL draft: Looking back at where the Daniel Jones criticism got out of hand

Believe it or not, there once was a time where Duke’s Daniel Jones was viewed as a fascinating NFL draft prospect. But eventually there was so much hand-wringing and such a hot-take flurry over where Jones was drafted that it’s all nearly been forgotten now.

Jones entered the 2018 season as something of a curiosity who checked off a lot of scouting boxes. He had good size, athleticism, intelligence and was being groomed by QB whisperer David Cutcliffe. That’s a good start for a potential NFL passer.

His production had been underwhelming to that point, despite starting for two years, amassing a 30-20 TD-INT ratio in 2016 and 2017 combined. But Jones was viewed in the NFL community last summer (and in select pockets of the Twitter draft mob) as a bad-stats-with-good-tools prospect who carried enough intrigue to receive extra sets of scouting eyes on him.

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And Jones was off to a terrific start last season before suffering a collarbone injury at Northwestern in the team’s second game, which knocked him out for three weeks. The fact that he missed only two games before returning to the field spoke to his underrated toughness.

Somewhere along the way people lost their minds about Jones, ourselves not excluded to a degree, and we think we know the source of some of that.

Where I had Daniel Jones ranked

Let’s get this part out of the way: I had Duke’s Daniel Jones ranked as the 56th overall prospect on my 2019 NFL draft board. That assessment isn’t necessarily cut down by the fact that:

1. Jones was drafted sixth overall by the New York Giants OR
2. Jones had himself a darned good first NFL start in the Giants’ dramatic win Sunday over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Looking back requires context, and perhaps a little recalibration. It’s fair to say that quite a few people took glee in ripping Jones going off the board as early as he did, and in the extremely early going Jones has measured up well against the criticism.

My view of Jones was surprisingly uncluttered. As tough as prospects’ intangibles can be to measure at times, Jones’ were clear-cut in a few respects. He was football smart and real-life smart. Running Cutcliffe’s offense requires a thinker, and Jones passed that test.

The toughness Jones showed in a good first half at Virginia Tech, his first game back and only 21 days removed from the broken clavicle, was impressive. It was one of my favorite games to watch of him last season. Again, same story: not great stats, but pretty darned good tape.

Daniel Jones struggled against Clemson and certainly didn't win over the draft-analyst community. (Getty Images)
Daniel Jones struggled against Clemson and certainly didn't win over the draft-analyst community. (Getty Images)

Watch any Duke game last year, however, and it was obvious that his receivers and offensive line repeatedly let him down. I don’t care what QB was in that system, they just could not have thrived amid the dropped passes and countless pressures.

Jones finished last season completing 60.5 percent of his passes with a 22-9 TD-INT ratio, much of that thanks to a brilliant bowl game against Temple. In that game, he completed 30 of 41 passes (73.2 percent) for 423 yards with five touchdowns and two picks.

That seemed to ease concerns about Jones after averaging fewer than 4.0 yards per attempt in the two duds he delivered in Duke’s prior two losses to Clemson and Wake Forest. Jones never had a chance in either one, but he didn’t play great regardless. A poor game at Miami also raised some fair doubts about his game.

When Jones declared for the draft, it’s fair to say that analysts weren’t exactly sure what to do with him. The possibility of him being taken in Round 1 in January was an opinion that was shared mostly in hushed voices.

Where things changed a bit for me on Daniel Jones

The Senior Bowl is where I became more ambivalent about the fourth-year junior’s draft value. Putting too much value into a postseason all-star performance is a slippery slope. It comes right after a long season, about a month after players have last played football. It’s a brand-new offense with new coaches, teammates and even footballs. Adapting on the fly is not easy for any prospect.

But he failed the eye test. Watching him throw in the same group as Missouri’s Drew Lock, North Carolina State’s Ryan Finley and West Virginia’s Will Grier showed that his arm talent was not nearly as good as Lock’s. Also, Jones kept misfiring on passes and dropping his head in disappointment.

In the two practice sessions I watched in person in Mobile, Alabama (in addition to watching a third session on tape of the practice that was rained out and off limits to media), Lock looked the best, with Finley and Jones neck and neck, followed by Grier on the North Team coached by the Oakland Raiders and Jon Gruden.

Giants general manager Dave Gettleman is said to have watched Jones throw at one of those practice sessions and after 20 minutes said to himself something along the lines of, as he would later explain to the media, Now that’s a professional quarterback. I must have been off watching the defensive linemen at that point of practice or something.

Gruden and his staff that week seemingly talked up Lock (and even Finley) more than they talked up Jones. Some of that might have been the Raiders’ own subterfuge, but I don’t know about that. And just listening to the even-keeled, mild-mannered Jones speak during media sessions, it was hard not to come away with an impression ... the dude sounded like Eli Manning.

Lock started the Senior Bowl game at week’s end, which was reflective of the pecking order the Raiders had. Funny enough, Jones came to life in the game and was named the North Offensive MVP. That earned him a draft bump, but that was only after I had knocked him down a few pegs with the week of practice, which scouts tend to weigh more heavily.

Was I a little hard on Jones, ending up putting him at 56? Perhaps. But the way others tore him down during the pre-draft process made me feel better. I never killed the kid. I saw serious flaws in his game and a clear ceiling in his potential.

One NFL start won’t change my assessment from then, and I am not backpedalling now. Besides, you kids with your screenshots and your Frozen Takes Twitter accounts ... I know I am not escaping you.

Why were some draft analysts so hard on Jones?

There were a few things at play here. Bear with me while we unpack some of them.

By virtue of being groomed by Cutcliffe, and thus being pulled in under the Manning family umbrella, Jones was viewed with some serious suspicion by the draft community. There was a sense of nepotism at work, as if Cutcliffe was trading in favors with his old NFL buddies.

Or perhaps it was a function of Jones appearing to not perfectly fit the mold of the newfangled run-pass quarterbacks who were populating college football and finally starting to get their shots as NFL starters.

The funny thing is, anyone who bothered to watch the North Carolina tape would know that when given the chance to run, Jones could roll. He ran 15 times that game for 186 yards and a 61-yard TD that put Duke up for good late in the third quarter. But Jones certainly fit the Ryan Tannehill mold more than he even did the Josh Allen mold.

Daniel Jones had an up-and-down week at the 2019 Reese's Senior Bowl. (Getty Images)
Daniel Jones had an up-and-down week at the 2019 Reese's Senior Bowl. (Getty Images)

With Allen, the draft vultures swooped hard and fast and killed the Buffalo Bills for trading up to the No. 7 spot to take him in 2018. Jones became last cycle’s Allen, if you will, even if their skills were quite different. Allen had a rocket arm — everyone could see that — and was a risk taker. Jones was far more safe in his play and had, by NFL standards anyway, an average arm.

As much as I love my fellow draft analysts, there tends to be a hive mentality on prospects — especially on Twitter. If one highly respected analyst rips a player, many others are emboldened to follow suit. Reputations there are hard to change. Prospects turn into memes. The whole thing can get a bit silly.

Still, it’s not as if Jones didn’t have holes in his game. All prospects do. The intrigue had soured like room-temp milk. It was just his whole package that felt uninspiring to many. I stood in lockstep with that view, too, so we’re not casting aspersions at others without indicting ourselves in the process.

This is the fascinating Rorschach test: If you knew a prospect would be guaranteed to be Eli Manning in the NFL, would you draft him at No. 6?

Sure, you’d miss on a potential game-changer, but you also would be getting a guy who would start 15 years, never miss a game to injury and have the potential to get hot a few years and lead long, deep playoff runs.

Honestly, you might be dumb not to draft that guy at No. 6.

Hint: It had something to do with the guy who drafted Jones, too

With the New York Giants picking in that No. 6 slot, it was already going to be an awful sell. Gettleman had been low-hanging fruit for both the national and local media a year after bypassing a quarterback (in a QB-rich draft) and taking a running back. He was the easy mark for ripping into a blue-blood franchise that had appeared to fall into disrepair.

Never mind that Saquon Barkley displayed elite ability as a rookie — that pick was still viewed as an old-school, out-of-touch positional valuation from the draft literati. And perhaps that is true from a certain perspective, with quality running backs emerging from some surprising places and with lower-round picks.

Gettleman also seemed to enjoy publicly needling the new-school, analytics-heavy community with his personnel worldview, one that contrasted starkly with their highly evolved draft philosophies. That didn’t exactly endear many to the idea that Gettleman was the right man to select Manning’s successor.

So when the Giants — holding pick Nos. 6 and 17 in Round 1 — were the team most connected to Jones in the run-up to the draft, it became a feast. Suddenly, Jones’ virtues went completely out the window and in came a flurry of Gettleman-bashing columns with Jones pulled into the collateral-damage undertow.

The Giants taking Duke quarterback Daniel Jones at No. 6 in the 2019 NFL draft was roundly panned. (Getty Images)
The Giants taking Duke quarterback Daniel Jones at No. 6 in the 2019 NFL draft was roundly panned. (Getty Images)

It was a perfect storm. Giants fans, knowing the team needed a QB to one day replace Manning, booed the Jones pick when he was announced at a Yankees game. Hey, maybe those were Jets fans there that night. Maybe Giants fans who booed (lightly) wanted a pass rusher at six and Jones at 17. Maybe some didn’t want him at all. Maybe they hadn’t seen him throw a single college pass, for all we know.

And perhaps the new-school draft folks who hated Jones coming out will have the last laugh. He’s had one start. Marcus Mariota had a brilliant first start. So did Robert Griffin III. Brock Osweiler, Charlie Frye, Matt McGloin, Tim Rattay, even Todd freakin’ Bouman — it’s not hard to scan the boxscores of some quarterbacks’ first starts and find some darned good ones from players who later turned into frogs.

Even Jones’ first game gave us some warning signs. We wrote in March that Jones needed to “speed up his clock against the blitz and develop his downfield timing and accuracy.” That still holds true. I also wrote the caveat that that “Jones lacks a great arm,” which still applies. I even feel good about saying that Jones “likely wouldn’t embarrass himself if thrust into the lineup early in his career,” which is how it played out on Sunday against a 1-1 opponent on the road.

So why 56th overall? Even though I projected two months before the draft that Jones could end up going in the upper parts of Round 1, my final evaluation boiled down to this feeling I had watching him: “There are enough limitations in his game to ever imagine him becoming great.”

I’m still there. If you want to bookmark this page and smear it in my face five years from now after Jones is celebrating his second Super Bowl title, I will let you have your moment. Eli Manning supporters likely enjoyed similar schadenfreude a generation ago.

But was Eli ever great great? Maybe that’s the debate we’ll end up having with Jones, too.

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