NFL

NFL Draft: Mac Jones must buck football's modern trend

By Sports Desk April 20, 2021

Mac Jones was not universally pegged as a first-round pick. Not until the San Francisco 49ers moved up to three, at least.

Then Kyle Shanahan's reported interest in the Alabama quarterback prompted a reappraisal of his talents.

If the Niners were willing to make a blockbuster trade, parting with two future first-round picks, just to move into position to take Jones, how good must he be?

Plenty around the NFL still are not convinced, while the smoke and mirrors surrounding the draft means there remains no guarantee Jones goes at number three or even in the top 10.

But what would the 49ers or any other suitors be getting if they selected the Heisman Trophy finalist? And how does he compare to his rivals in a potential five-QB first round?

With the aid of Stats Perform data, we take a look at one of the most polarising prospects in the 2021 NFL Draft.

The raw numbers

Jones played in all 13 games for Alabama in 2020 as they went 13-0, succeeding Miami Dolphins first-rounder Tua Tagovailoa at the QB position.

En route to the National Championship, Alabama boasted the outstanding offense in college football.

Jones threw for 4,500 yards, the most in the FBS, and trailed only Florida's Kyle Trask (43) with his 41 passing touchdowns.

He also led the FBS in completion percentage. Of his 402 throws, 311 were caught - another high - for an exceptional 77.4 per cent.

These figures could have been even more impressive, too, with 323 of his balls considered 'catchable'.

Jones did benefit from playing with the best receiving corps in the game, however.

DeVonta Smith caught 23 TD passes from 117 receptions for 1,856 yards, yet just 919 yards came through the air, with Smith adding 937 after the catch.

Jones ranked 44th in the FBS for air yards per attempt at 8.43. Indeed, Jaylen Waddle - who played just six games - averaged 21.1 yards per catch but only 11.0 at the point of reception, his dynamic ability with the ball in his hands significantly boosting Jones' output.

Trust the system

At the helm of an excellently designed offense and on a team with elite receiving talent like that possessed by the Crimson Tide, Jones' merits are obvious. That is why he is said to suit the 49ers.

Jones completed 77.6 per cent of his play-action passes - a staple of the Shanahan scheme - last year, and Shanahan is widely regarded as having an affinity for quarterbacks who can digest his offense and deliver accurately from the pocket.

Kirk Cousins, drafted during Shanahan's time in Washington, ranks third all-time in the NFL for completion percentage (67.0).

Atlanta Falcons starter Matt Ryan completed 69.9 per cent of his passes working with Shanahan in the 2016 season en route to an MVP award and a Super Bowl appearance, while the Niners' Jimmy Garoppolo threw at 69.1 per cent in 2019 as they came within minutes of lifting the Lombardi Trophy.

Fellow draft prospects Zach Wilson (73.5 per cent, third), Justin Fields (70.2, seventh) and Trevor Lawrence (69.2, 10th) joined Jones in the top 10 in the FBS in completion percentage, though.

Meanwhile, Trey Lance - restricted to a single game last season - ranked fourth in the FCS in 2019 with a mark of 66.9 per cent.

But where Jones particularly stood out was with his throws in pressure situations.

The Crimson Tide star led the FBS in completion percentage when blitzed (76.9) and also in red zone completion percentage (75.9). On third down, he ranked fourth, connecting on 71.6 per cent of his passes.

Mac lacks mobility

Despite his consistency as a thrower, there is a reason Jones was not previously considered a challenger to Wilson, Fields, Lawrence and Lance.

If the 49ers look elsewhere, Jones could yet fall a long way to find another team confident they have the system and surrounding personnel to make the move worthwhile.

And even then, few NFL coaches in 2021 are likely to be willing to overlook his shortcomings as an athlete.

Whereas Wilson, Fields, Lawrence and Lance are set to join the burgeoning ranks of dual-threat quarterbacks in the NFL, Jones' playing style is one borne of the soon to be bygone era of the pocket passer.

At Alabama, where he could palm the ball off to FBS-leading running back Najee Harris, Jones had just 35 carries last year and scored a single rushing touchdown.

The majority of these runs were short bursts to steal first downs, averaging 0.4 yards per attempt, with a longest carry of 14 yards.

It is in this area that Jones lags a long way behind the rest.

Wilson averaged 3.6 yards and scored 10 TDs. Fields played just eight games but had 81 carries, averaging 4.7 yards. Lawrence averaged 3.0 yards and scored eight times.

In the inferior FCS in 2019, Lance blew each of those performances away. He had 169 carries for 14 TDs at an average of 6.5 yards per carry.

Without the same ability to open up the game with his legs, Jones would need to be a truly generational talent with his arm.

Only three NFL signal-callers averaged under 0.4 yards per carry over 10 games last season: Tom Brady (0.2), Drew Brees (-0.1) and Philip Rivers (-0.4).

Brady and Brees are each in their forties and among the greatest of all time. Brees and Rivers have also both since retired.

The NFL is eschewing the traditional quarterback in favour of the athletically gifted dual-threats whose skill sets are more conducive to elite production in the modern game. Regardless of where he is selected, Jones is going to have buck that trend to succeed at the highest level.

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