It feels like there have been two 180-degree shifts in how NFL teams draft quarterbacks, leading right back to where we started. For years, traditional draft wisdom was to seek out big-bodied, strong-armed passers, with an emphasis on physical traits over statistical success; let’s cite 2007 no. 1 pick JaMarcus Russell as the biggest-bodied, strongest-armed prospect imaginable. Yet oftentimes those quarterbacks would fail to cut it in the NFL, and would be surpassed by smaller, weaker-armed, more accurate players. Over the past half-decade or so, NFL teams began to recognize this bias and seek out quarterbacks whose statistical profiles suggested that they could make accurate passes. Just over a decade after Russell went no. 1, the Browns took 6-foot-1 former walk-on Baker Mayfield with the top pick. The idea of a quarterback with Mayfield’s body type going first seemed unthinkable until the Browns actually selected him. Then the Cardinals took 5-foot-10 quarterback Kyler Murray at no. 1 a year later.
But recently, these types of accurate young quarterbacks have been outplayed by toolsy, more athletic players who may not have produced great stats on campus. Josh Allen—a massive, mobile man-mountain—has emerged as the best quarterback from the 2018 draft class, and seems close to being the best quarterback in the NFL, despite generally underwhelming at Wyoming. Justin Herbert had the best rookie season of any quarterback in the 2020 class, despite being drafted after two of the most prolific college passers of all time (Joe Burrow and Tua Tagovailoa). Athleticism has never been more valuable at the position: Just about every pro quarterback who excelled in 2020 was capable of gaining yardage by either running the ball or throwing while on the run.
And so the wheel has turned again, to the point where it’s now become funny that Alabama’s Mac Jones is considered a top prospect in the 2021 draft class. That’s in part because “Mac” is short for “McCorkle,” Jones’s middle name. And it’s in part because he represents the exact type of prospect who NFL teams seem to be moving away from. Jones led the FBS in completion percentage last season, but he certainly isn’t mobile. He had just 42 rushing yards in his entire college career.
Jones even seems to defy Alabama’s recent quarterback trajectory. While the program long had a reputation for conservative, game-manager-type quarterbacks, it’s come to embrace dynamic playmakers at the position. The Crimson Tide made the national championship game in January 2017 behind Jalen Hurts, a former four-star recruit who’s now the starting quarterback for the Eagles. They won the national championship game in January 2018 behind Tagovailoa, a former five-star recruit who’s now the starting quarterback for the Dolphins. Jones’s successor at Bama is Bryce Young, a five-star recruit who is universally considered the top quarterback in the 2020 class. Jones, a former three-star recruit, was supposed to be the bridge from Tagovailoa to Young. The only place he is described as “dynamic” is on his personal website, where the word is used in reference to Jones’s personality, not to his athleticism or throwing ability. To be fair, there is some evidence for his personality being dynamic: Jones was reportedly ejected from a game as the coach of a sorority flag football team, and was nicknamed “McEnroe” by Alabama’s coaches because of his penchant for losing his temper.
So far, the funniest moment of this draft cycle came during Jones’s pro day on March 30, when a flock of scouts, coaches, and general managers flew to Tuscaloosa to watch him overthrow passes to open receivers. Jones also randomly ran a trick play, just so everyone in attendance could be certain that he can make unnecessary jumping catches.
In spite of those clips, Jones has been linked to the no. 3 pick in the draft, as he has reportedly caught the eyes of 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan and GM John Lynch. The Niners sent the Dolphins their first-round pick this year and two future first-rounders to move up nine spots, making clear how much they really, really want the player they’re targeting with that pick. And it’s widely believed that their target is Jones, thanks to several comments made by Chris Simms, a former NFL quarterback and current analyst who is Shanahan’s longtime best friend. (The two sons of famous NFL fathers were teammates and roommates at Texas, and have their initials tattooed on each other.) After the Niners completed their big draft trade, Simms said, “I think [the deal is for] Mac Jones. … Knowing my friend, knowing his history, knowing his school of thought to make that type of move, that’s the one that makes sense to me.” Later in that interview, Simms compared Jones to Matt Ryan. In another interview, he compared him to Kirk Cousins; Ryan and Cousins, of course, have both been coached by Shanahan.
Even given this buzz, it still feels baffling that Jones could go no. 3. For one, he isn’t thought to be the third-best player in the draft; in The Ringer’s NFL Draft Guide, Danny Kelly ranks him as the fifth-best quarterback and 25th-best player on his board. And two, he doesn’t seem like much of an upgrade over Jimmy Garoppolo, the quarterback who led San Francisco to a Super Bowl berth two seasons ago and is poised to make more than $26 million in 2021. In a vacuum, the idea that the Niners would give up such a massive draft haul to acquire the rights to pick a player who might not even be better than the quarterback already on their roster is absurd.
But this is where Jones’s excellent college production comes into play. He just led Alabama to one of the greatest seasons in college football history, smashing the FBS single-season records for completion percentage (77.4) and passing efficiency rating (203.06, breaking the mark set the year prior by Burrow). The Tide had their most prolific season ever, averaging 48.5 points per game and coasting to a 13-0 record and a national title. Unlike past Alabama champions that ran the ball above all else, this team won on the strength of its passing game, with Jones leading the nation in passing yards (4,500) and finishing second in passing touchdowns (41). Jones had one of the most spectacular statistical seasons in college football history.
Only it’s not quite that simple. While Alabama blew opponents off the field with its passing game, many people feel Jones wasn’t the primary reason the team racked up so many passing yards. After all, Jones finished third in Heisman Trophy voting … behind his own wide receiver, DeVonta Smith. A quarterback almost always wins the Heisman; since 2000, 18 of the 21 recipients have played the position. Meanwhile, only three listed receivers (Johnny Rodgers, Tim Brown, and Desmond Howard) had ever won the award before Smith. The voters watched Alabama play and came away more impressed by the guy catching the passes than the guy throwing the ball. This is a Smith highlight reel, not a Jones highlight reel.
Alabama has long been the premier program in the sport, and recently it’s gotten even better. In 2019, Jones had one of the most talented college receiving corps of all time at his disposal; that group featured two future 2020 first-round picks (Jerry Jeudy and Henry Ruggs III), and two projected 2021 first-rounders (Smith and Jaylen Waddle). In 2020, Jones was flanked by the top running back on Danny Kelly’s Big Board (Najee Harris), as well as three offensive linemen who are listed among the top 100 (center Landon Dickerson, tackle Alex Leatherwood, and guard Deonte Brown). Bama also had arguably the best offensive play-caller in the FBS last season (Steve Sarkisian). When the Tide’s offense clicked, it combined exceptional talent with exceptional schemes—it’s just unclear how much exceptionalism was required of its quarterback.
Jones made all of the throws asked of him, but he also seems like the odd man out in a draft class full of quarterbacks with outstanding physical traits. There’s Trevor Lawrence, the 6-foot-6 Clemson star who seems like a quarterbacking robot designed in a lab. There’s Justin Fields, the Ohio State standout who reportedly clocked a 4.44-second 40-yard dash while weighing in at 230 pounds. There’s Zach Wilson, the BYU phenom who threw a picture-perfect 50-yard fadeaway on his pro day. And there’s Trey Lance, the North Dakota State prospect who has a quarterback’s arm in a linebacker’s body.
Then there is McCorkle. His arm isn’t great, and his belly is pudgy:
Jones’s testing numbers don’t make him out to be a bad athlete; his pro day figures are nearly identical to Deshaun Watson’s combine results. But that athleticism doesn’t show up on the tape. He had just 14 rushing yards in 13 games this season, and he rarely threw on the run.
And in spite of his gaudy stats, there are questions about his throwing ability. His passes lack the zip that other prospects’ passes have, and there’s truth to the notion that playing at Alabama made Jones’s job easy. Pro Football Focus noted that only 44 of Jones’s completions last season were into what is considered “tight” coverage. Benjamin Solak of The Draft Network found that Jones threw a higher percentage of passes to his first read than any other quarterback in this draft class—and was worse than any other on throws where he couldn’t hit his first read.
I think that Jones can be successful in the NFL. He’s an extremely accurate passer! That’s an important skill! After accounting for all the factors, though, I’d slot Jones behind the other top quarterback prospects in this class. The question that determines his value is simple: Is passing accuracy a skill that can be learned, or a skill that players have innately? If front offices believe the latter, Jones belongs at the top of the draft, and it would make sense if the Niners took him with the no. 3 pick.
But if throwing accuracy can be learned—as happened with Allen and Herbert, who both improved their completion percentage upon going from college to the NFL—then this isn’t really a question. Jones isn’t nearly as valuable as his stronger, more mobile counterparts. Even if we assume that Jones is a better passer than Lawrence, Fields, Wilson, or Lance—and this is a big if, since we’ve never seen him throw into tight windows—those players represent something Jones can never become.
This is the reason NFL quarterback draft logic has come full circle. Recent history has shown that great athletes can become better passers. But Jones can’t simply learn to become a better athlete.