Vikings

The Vikings Should Steer Clear of Mac Jones

Credit: Gary Cosby Jr/The Tuscaloosa News via USA TODAY Sports

Alabama quarterback Mac Jones was not a complete unknown headed into the season. With then-starting quarterback Tua Tagovailoa constantly in and out with injuries, Jones was forced into the starting lineup a number of times. Jones had also seen plenty of action at the tail end of blowouts, which last year’s Alabama team turned out many of. At the time, though, every analyst seemed comfortable waiting to see how Jones would handle the full-time starting job before crowning him too early.

Through eight games of a full SEC schedule, it’s fair to say Jones has handled things quite well. He is producing at around the same clip Tagovailoa did last season, and even slightly better in some categories such as yards per attempt. Though unspectacular in many ways, Jones has done exceptionally well to keep the Alabama offense on track.

What’s tough with Jones is that the offense is not at all difficult to keep on track. For one, the talent across the board is obvious. All of Bama’s top receivers are first-round picks and the backs Jones is checking down to, most notably Najee Harris, are among the best in the country. Alabama’s offensive line also looks better than it did a year ago, thanks in part to some better injury luck. Furthermore, the scheme is not only relatively easy on Jones, but it is particularly catered to his limited physical talents.

One obvious “crutch” is how often the Alabama offense uses play-action and RPOs. So far this season, I have had the chance to chart Jones’ Georgia and Auburn performances. In those two games, he registered 58 qualifying attempts. Thirty-one of those attempts were either play-action or an RPO (run-pass option), which comes out to more than half his attempts over that sample. While two games is a small sample, it is one I expect to remain consistent throughout his charting seeing as how much Alabama used those tools last year and how often they show up via the eye test on Jones’ other film this year.

A more eye-test level observation is that the Alabama offense also loves intermediate crossers into the short side of the field off of this play-action. In short, this creates a fairly simple read for the quarterback because the play-action should help the crosser climb over the linebackers in space. Since it is also ran into the short side of the field a lot, the throw itself is easy on the quarterback. Every NFL team incorporates intermediate crossers in some capacity, but the degree of difficulty on them in Alabama’s offense, in particular, is quite low.

As a result, sometimes these plays provide a glimpse into Jones’ inclination to function as a robot within the Alabama system. Jones is not a dumb quarterback, per se, but it’s clear that he’s been instilled with a set of rules to follow and does not want to break them. Drop, hitch, throw — that’s all Jones wants to do. Seeing as how often offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian gets people open, that’s usually more than fine.

Take this clip, for example. The motion into the field, as well as the run-action help, sell the linebackers down and away from where the crosser is headed to. Jones can almost certainly assume the crosser will be able to clear the ‘backers, so all he needs to worry about is any flat defender floating up to make the play. Jones trusts he can beat that flat defender on this play and sticks a throw to his receiver’s chest, only for him to somehow drop it. While this is an incompletion, it’s easy to see how “free” some of these intermediate crossers are.

Here is a similar concept versus Tennessee, but from a slightly different formation. Difference in formation be damned, the isolated “receiver” (a tight end, in this case) crosses from the field into the boundary. Jones just has to worry about the flat defender not coming back to make a play. Just like in the Ole Miss clip, Jones fits this one in before the flat defender can get back, with the added bonus that his target caught the ball this time around.

The problem, as mentioned before, is that you can see Jones force this throw no matter what sometimes. Jones, though a fine athlete, is not someone who likes to break the pocket when a concept is covered. He would rather force the throw on-schedule or get to a checkdown. Jones does tend to do well in just moving onto the checkdown, but he still too often gets away with jamming in throws on-schedule because he thinks he has to.

Again, the formation here is a bit different, but the core intermediate crosser into the boundary remains. Jones gets through his fake and checks the boundary-side flat player, who is still sitting quite low as he hitches up to throw. What Jones fails to recognize is that Ole Miss is in man coverage and all of the underneath zone defenders are only that because neither the tight end nor running back went out on routes, so their jobs now are to just look for work. Jones does not consider the trailing man coverage defender and tries to throw the crosser anyway. More times than not, the defender probably finishes the job with an interception, even if that was not the case this time around.

Jones is sort of a servant to the system. He does not want to stray from it or derail it in any way; he just wants to run through the set schedule of a concept and play off that no matter what. The creativity in Jones’ game is desperately lacking, which makes it tricky to evaluate his game through the lens of the NFL environment — an environment that will force a quarterback to be creative because these scheduled plays won’t be as easy or frequent, in most cases.

But Jones’ insistence on trusting the play no matter what means that he is often willing to stand in the pocket while taking heat. He is not afraid to move around the pocket or take a hit while getting a throw off. While it can lead to some ugly forced throws under pressure, it often leads to chunk plays in the Alabama offense due to how talented the receivers are.

In the example, Ole Miss sends a five-man pressure from a three-deep, three-under zone coverage. Alabama is running a version of Y-Cross that Chip Kelly helped popularize, where the side opposite the crosser’s starting point runs a screen/slot fade combination. Against a coverage like this, Jones primarily needs to ensure the middle hook player does not turn and run with the crosser and that the deep safety does not nail down quickly on the crosser. Jones gets the poor coverage conditions he needs, but a free-rusher off the left side forces him to speed things up a bit. After making a nice slide away from the pressure to buy himself a sliver of time, Jones delivers a good ball that arrives just before the deep safety does, setting up the Crimson Tide in easy touchdown range.

Here is another instance of Jones delivering versus a free-rusher. This time, Jones does not need to slide anywhere in the pocket to work around the timing of the throw. He just needs to let this rip down the field and put enough air under it for his receiver to run under it. Jones does just that, letting this ball fly before getting popped by the free defender. It takes an eternity for this ball to arrive, but it hits his target right in stride, allowing for a casual 90-yard pitch and catch.

Jones is an oddly effective deep passer despite his arm strength. To other areas of the field, Jones lacks the necessary zip to fit tight windows or test the boundary, but he regularly finds a way to make his rainbow deep passes work. So long as the ball arrives in front of the receiver, I suppose it does not really matter how long it takes to get there, at least with respect to on-time throws like this one. Jones cannot really target down the field like this off-platform or on the run, but within the structure of a nice play-action shot, he can hit ‘em just fine.

That lack of arm strength does hurt him elsewhere for sure, though. In particular, some of Jones’ throws to the sideline lose life at the end and kill good yards-after-catch opportunities for his wide receivers. The clip above is a great example of that. Jones gets to the throw on time, but it dies off towards the end of its flight and nearly hits the turf. The wide receiver should never have to squat in place like this for a catch in which no defender is even sort of in his vicinity. Windows are going to more regularly be contested in the NFL, and it’s hard to find many instances in which Jones shows the velocity to suggest he can make it work.

At the end of the day, Jones is clearly not a bad quarterback. He understands the structure of the offense he has been given and executes it at a base level. The base level for that offense is just immensely high due to the talent they have. On his own, Jones has no clear calling card that makes him a premium prospect. He has a middling arm, is not a dangerous athlete, and does not show the creativity to suggest he is someone who can thrive outside of structure. That description, on a basic level, describes the likes of Jared Goff, Jimmy Garoppolo and even Kirk Cousins, but all those quarterbacks have stronger arms and are closer to the higher end of this archetype. Jones is on the lower end.

As such, Jones is a natural fit for Minnesota. He can fall in line with the Cousins skill set on some level. However, Jones is being talked about as a Day 2 and even borderline Day 1 prospect, which feels quite rich for a player with no clear trait of value. Jones notches a bunch of 6-out-of-10s if you were to rate every skill on a 1-10 basis. For an early Day 3 backup pick, that is great, but it’s not what you are looking for out of a potential starter.

So, if the question is whether or not Jones is worth the pick for the Vikings, assuming he is a top-75 (or so) player, the answer is no. Jones’ peak is a worse version of Cousins, and that is not going to be enough to satiate the Vikings’ needs or fanbase, even if he would be a lot cheaper on the books. The Vikings should let some other team convince themselves that Jones can be a starting quarterback and look to find their future signal-caller elsewhere.

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Credit: Gary Cosby Jr/The Tuscaloosa News via USA TODAY Sports

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