2021 NFL draft: Is Mac Jones the last of a dying breed of quarterback?

Eric Edholm
·9-min read

Alabama beating Ohio State in the national championship game and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers beating the Kansas City Chiefs in the Super Bowl could be viewed as a surprise double victory for the old-school quarterback hive.

Mac Jones beating Justin Fields. Tom Brady topping Patrick Mahomes. Immobile pocket passers beating the dual-threat stars. Tradition topping new wave.

They were battles that, with the evolution of the quarterback position at the college and NFL levels, stand as rare achievements in this era. How many more of these will we see in the coming years?

The pocket passers in the Brady mold are harder to find now. Once the prototype at the position, Brady clones are being outnumbered at the NFL level by the new breed of QB: the dual-threat performers.

Those are the passers who can create with their legs and improvise with their arms. As more high school programs put their best athletes under center, the talent started trickling up to the college level and, not without resistance, eventually to the NFL.

Now the pocket-bound throwers like Jones are treated with suspicion. They’re the outliers in a quickly evolving pool of dual-threat talents.

“It’s been a sea change,” an NFL college scouting director told Yahoo Sports. “Not overnight, but it’s night and day from when I first started. Back then, we always treated mobility and running [ability] as a bonus trait. If they had it, good for them.

“But now you have more of the college game showing up in our game. The [QB] talents coming out all seem to have some level of run ability … My approach has always been to scout the player in a vacuum, write them up as they are. Then you let the team decide — the GM, the coaches, everyone involved in the decision — do they fit what we do?”

ARLINGTON, TEXAS - JANUARY 01: Quarterback Mac Jones #10 of the Alabama Crimson Tide slides after a run against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish during the third quarter of  the 2021 College Football Playoff Semifinal Game at the Rose Bowl Game presented by Capital One at AT&T Stadium on January 01, 2021 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
Mac Jones is in the running to be a first-round NFL draft choice next week. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

Why Mac Jones is an outlier in 2021 NFL draft class 

Does Mac Jones fit what NFL teams are doing these days? Or are teams too concerned with athleticism and play-extending ability over other crucial traits?

Jones stands alone among the five-QB group that could land in Round 1 next week in the 2021 draft. The others — Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence, BYU’s Zach Wilson, Ohio State’s Fields and North Dakota State’s Trey Lance — all possess good to great scrambling ability, along with some level of improvisational skills.

That’s not Jones’ game, and it likely never will be. He’s not nearly the slug some have painted him as. Jones’ pocket movement, while subtle, is quite effective. And though he lacks a Howitzer for an arm, his deep accuracy stands near the top of this group.

“The people banging Jones for this and that, I don’t think they know what the [heck] they’re talking about,” former Chicago Bears scouting director Greg Gabriel told Yahoo Sports. “The guy is damned good. Over two years he’s completed 74 percent of his passes and doesn’t turn the ball over. Who the heck does that?”

Several media reports have connected Jones to the San Francisco 49ers with the third overall pick. The 49ers traded their next three first-rounders, plus a 2022 third-round pick, to move up nine slots. Would that level of luxury tax be worth it for Jones? Or would it be more prudent for the 49ers to take the player with the higher ceiling as a prospect, perhaps one with more dynamic skills?

That debate has already started. It will rage on until the 49ers turn in their draft card Thursday. And it’s likely to be at the center of the discussion on whether non-running pocket passers can still thrive in this league.

Recent drafts reflect how QB talent has changed

The past five drafts have produced several running threats at the position, such as Lamar Jackson, Kyler Murray, Deshaun Watson, Josh Allen and Jalen Hurts. The list of passers who also can run from those draft classes also includes Patrick Mahomes, Dak Prescott, Carson Wentz, Daniel Jones, Baker Mayfield, Justin Herbert and Joe Burrow.

The number of true pocket passers drafted in that timeframe who have been starters? It might be Jared Goff all by himself. And the Los Angeles Rams used him heavily on bootlegs and rollouts; Goff even scored five rushing TDs last year.

In 2010, the NFL's top 10 rushing quarterbacks averaged 55 rushes for 310.2 yards and 2.9 scores. In 2015, those numbers saw modest bumps in the average rush attempts (70.9) and rush yards (391.8), with a dip in TDs (2.5). 

But over the past five years, there has been a huge increase in QBs running. In 2020, those top-10 QB rush averages were 98.1 attempts for 534 yards and 5.7 touchdowns. 

It’s hard to imagine that average going anywhere but up this season, with four dual-threat QBs entering the first round.

New Jacksonville Jaguars head coach Urban Meyer always had mobile quarterbacks in college — save for Dwayne Haskins — and he’ll get one with Lawrence. Some have pointed to the genesis of Meyer’s infatuation with Lawrence happening in the immediate aftermath of the 2019 Fiesta Bowl when Meyer was a Big Ten Network analyst, delivering his famous “I had no idea” line after a banged-up Lawrence rallied Clemson from a 16-0 deficit and gutted Meyer's former Buckeyes team predominantly with his legs — 16 rushes for 107 yards and a 67-yard TD run.

But we’d be hard-pressed to suggest that Meyer doesn’t value Lawrence’s other traits, namely his intangibles, even more. Back in 2016, Meyer was asked what the most important characteristics were in the quarterbacks he sought.

“Every great quarterback ... the No. 1 characteristic is competitive spirit,” Meyer said. “No. 2 is toughness. No. 3 is ability to lead. No. 4 is intelligence. No. 5 is [the] ability to extend a play.

“Notice I never said anything about arm strength or delivery.”

Jones has the first four traits — in fact, those are his calling cards. That’s why Gabriel says that even if QB prospects in Jones’ mold are less common these days, quarterbacks with elite processing skills and diagnostic abilities — even in spite of some of their physical traits — will always be coveted.

“I think where [Bears GM Ryan] Pace hurt himself with [Mitchell] Trubisky was, looking back, not doing enough work on the mental part of it,” Gabriel said. “That’s always going to be the most critical piece in your evaluation.”

The current NFL director says that the ability to scramble can help young quarterbacks survive early in their careers if the mental part isn’t fully up to snuff. But that’s going to be a crutch for only so long.

“You had people questioning Lamar Jackson’s quarterback intelligence a little coming out, but he wouldn’t be where he is now if he didn’t have that part of it,” the director said. “But you take Dwayne Haskins, the reason he’s not [with the Washington Football Team] anymore doesn’t have a thing to do with him not being a runner, you know what I mean? If Haskins could have handled the mental and maturity part, he’d still be [there].”

Will there be more Mac Joneses in the future?

Everything is cyclical in the NFL, which means that what is vogue now will be passé in a few years. It has almost always been that way. Innovation on one side of the ball leads to widespread adaptation on the other.

“As a staff, we always talk about, ‘What’s next? What’s the next development? The next big trend?’ Really what we’re talking about [is] how we can be sort of on the cutting edge there,” a general manager told us this winter.

“But it comes down to two things: One, do you have the courage to go against the grain? And two, do you have the players to pull it off? You can’t just decide to change your whole operation and not have the personnel to pull it off. It’s always personnel-driven.”

So the question of whether there will be more Mac Jones-style prospects likely requires an adjustment at the high school level, followed by that at the college level and then it can trickle up to the NFL.

The college scouting director used Florida’s Kyle Trask as an example. When Trask was at Manvel (Texas) High School, he was a backup his final three seasons. That’s because D’Eriq King — now the Miami Hurricanes’ starting QB — was ahead of him on the depth chart.

The 6-foot-5, 240-pound Trask is considered even more statuesque than Jones. King is a 5-11, 200-pound scrambler who is built more like a running back.

“The coach wanted [King] as his starter, and why wouldn’t he, right?” the director said. “The dude can run and throw. But he has this kid Trask, and he knows he can play QB. He didn’t move him to tight end or tackle or whatever. It's what the coach wanted, even with the different styles.

“So I think about that — the idea that there’s no one way to do it. Chip Kelly said it best, ‘You can be whatever you want to be,’ and I think that will always be true. You adjust to the talent you have, or at least that’s how it should be.”

Trask completed 68.9 percent of his passes this season for 4,283 yards, 43 TDs and eight picks. Compare that to Jones, who completed 77.4 percent and threw for 4,500 yards, 41 TDs and four INTs.

Why, then, isn’t Trask considered the same level of prospect as Jones?

“Jones isn’t a bad athlete,” Gabriel said. “He ran a [4.82] 40 at his pro day. That’s pretty good! He jumped well, pretty good 3-cone. So he’s an athlete. He’s just not going to run the way the other guys are.

“Trask is a statue. He can’t move at all. That’s one big difference.”

The college scouting director agreed. Jones could thrive better than Trask in the NFL in spite of his athletic limitations.

“[Trask] holds the ball in the pocket longer. He takes more sacks. Throws the ball away less [often],” the director said. “Mac has those tennis feet if he needs [them]. But he's getting it out quicker. He seems to play with a little better … self-awareness, I guess you’d say.”

And if Jones is going to thrive in the NFL, be it with the 49ers or any other team, it’s going to be with a coaching staff that plays to his strengths rather than lament his shortcomings.

“I’d like to think people can still appreciate players for what they do well and not as much what they don’t do well,” the director said.

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