It is that time of the fall when young boys and girls are getting their first progress reports from their teachers. A quick update to see how they are progressing so far in the school year.
(A quick aside to my kids: Owen and Simone, I’m super proud of how both of you are doing in school this year, even though I know you will never read this).
We can also do this for players in the National Football League.
Now when scouting players for the draft, a solid rule of thumb is that the more games you watch the more complete picture you will have of a player, but three games is a bare minimum threshold.
With four games in the NFL under his belt, it is time to take stock of New York Giants’ rookie quarterback Daniel Jones and issue a progress report of our own. After a very strong start to his career, with a comeback victory on the road against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Jones has come back to earth a bit. While many are looking to render a definitive verdict on his NFL path, it is still very early in his career to make such proclamations. But whether you are in the pro- or anti-Jones camp at this point, his play to date has given you some support for your position.
The good news
Let us begin with the positives. Here are some of the areas where Jones has stood out so far as a rookie.
As previously discussed, Jones was perfect under pressure in his debut against the Buccaneers. A perfect example of this comes late in the first half of that contest. The Giants face a first-and-10 on their own 25-yard line, and put Jones in the shotgun. They are going to work this shallow cross concept with a drag route from right to left, and a deeper crossing route over the top of that from left to right:
Tampa Bay brings pressure here, blitzing a linebacker and crossing him with the defensive tackle. The pocket begins to collapse around the young quarterback, but he uses his feet well to slide and feel the pressure, and create enough space. He then hits Sterling Shepard (87) on the crossing route:
It is just a 6-yard gain, but the anticipation on this throw is truly impressive. As you can see from the end zone angle, Jones does not wait for Shepard to clear the underneath linebacker, he throws him open into space. If Jones waits to see the receiver come open here, he is going to be sacked:
Here is a clip from when Jones makes up his mind to deliver the throw:
This is a tremendous play from the rookie.
Now teams often look to blitz rookie quarterbacks, and Jones has done a pretty decent job facing schemed pressure. Even when the blitz works, he has handled it well. Two weeks ago the Minnesota Vikings were able to generate pressure with a blitz package, but Jones was able to handle it and make a play:
Here Minnesota brings pressure on a tird-and-14 and plays man coverage behind it. Jones stands tall and climbs the pocket, before making a perfect throw on a deep out route to Slayton to move the sticks.
Quick Reads, Quick Decisions
Thinking back to the draft process with Jones, I can pinpoint with precision the moment I concluded that Jones was the best fit in a West Coast scheme. It was on this play:
On this third down against the Virginia Cavaliers, Duke runs a go/flat concept to the left side of the formation. Jones wants to throw the flat route to his slot receiver, but the cornerback traps this from the boundary, leaving the vertical route open along the sideline. This is great processing speed on a quick game concept. Jones picks up the trap on the slot receiver and immediately comes to the vertical route along the boundary.
When I arrived down in Mobile for the Senior Bowl last January, whenever Jones’s film was discussed amongst the assembled media evaluators, this play inevitably came up within seconds. It makes sense, because on this play you see Jones react after the snap to a rotation in the coverage, make the right read in response to the change in expectations he had pre-snap, and then exploit the coverage for a big play.
These are the plays that convinced me he was an ideal fit for a West Coast system.
But he needed a coach to see the same things.
Fourth-and-2, early first quarter in Week 4. Jones’s second NFL start:
There is the same go/flat (“Ohio”) concept, this time not run by the Duke Blue Devils in an ACC contest but rather in a game between NFC East rivals. The Washington defense shows Jones a Cover 0 pressure scheme pre-snap, and the quarterback stays calm and works the concept, making a quick throw on the flat route to Shepard to move the sticks.
Another aspect of Jones’s game that has translated extremely well to the NFL is his ability on run/pass option designs. While at Duke the vast majority of his offense came on these concepts, as charting indicated that he executed 0/1 step drops, RPOs, screens and rollouts on 72.6 percent of his snaps. His familiarity with these designs have made such plays very effective for the Giants so far this season.
Here is a perfect example, from New York’s win in Week 4 over Washington. On this second-and-8 play from late in the third quarter the Giants run a simple RPO design, with Jones deciding between the handoff and the slant route. He’ll read the linebacker and make a decision based on his reaction to the play.
Watch for two things on this play: How little the linebacker needs to move to open the throwing lane, and how quickly the QB makes his decision:
Jones is reading Jon Bostic (53) here, and the linebacker takes just one step to his right in response to the run action. That is all Jones needs, as he immediately pulls the football and rips a throw on the slant route to Shepard to move the sticks.
The end zone angle drives this point home:
Similar to the quick game concepts, these RPO elements are a great way for Pat Shurmur to get his quarterback on familiar footing and able to execute effectively in the passing game.
The Vertical Element
Jones’s ability in the deep passing game has been a pleasant surprise. His prowess in the vertical game was present on tape at Duke but given their offensive structure, it was not as evident as his ability in the quick passing game. But time and again the quarterback has made some impressive downfield throws.
It began in the preseason, of course, and this absolute rocket on a post route:
Let’s unpack this play a bit. As you can see from the pre-snap alignment, the Bengals are in a single-high coverage scheme here with safety Shawn Williams (36) deep in the middle of the field. Golden is in the slot to the right as part of a three-receiver set, while Slayton (86) is the lone receiver on the left.Slayton runs a double move, starting inside before breaking vertically, while Golden runs the post.
Jones opens up to the left here and stares down Slayton using a subtle shoulder fake, which holds Williams towards that side of the field. With great protection, Jones is able to come late to Golden on the post route, and Williams - who has been held in the middle of the field thanks to the route design and Jones’ manipulation - is a step late and cannot impact the play:
Yes, the velocity on the throw stands out, but do not ignore the manipulation from Jones on this snap.
Then there was this scoring strike against Minnesota:
Jones has a very clean pocket to work from, but drops in this throw beautifully. For his part Slayton runs a perfect route, beating his defender on the vertical route and leaving Xavier Rhodes (29) behind.
Finally, if the New England Patriots’ defense continues down the historical path they currently are on, this throw might be a pretty good answer to a future trivia question:
The Giants tried a similar slot-fade pattern earlier in the game, but they failed to make the connection. New York came back to it a few plays later, and Jones was able to connect with Golden Tate (15) on a perfectly-placed ball to beat tight coverage.
This prowess in the vertical passing game will be huge for this offense going forward. If teams are going to bring down an extra safety into the box to stop Saquon Barkley, there will be opportunities in the deep passing game. Hitting on those might mean more Cover 2 looks from the secondary to protect against the vertical shot plays, which lightens the box for Barkley and the running game.
The bad news
Now we can look at two areas to watch for improvement as the season continues.
Sometimes as a young quarterback you assume things about the defensive scheme or coverage that are not exactly true. We all know the old saw about making assumptions, and seeing that play out on a national stage can be difficult to swallow.
Take this interception against Washington. Facing a first-and-10 early in the second quarter, the Giants put Jones under center and dial up this vertical concept off of play-action:
Jones will work the post/dig combination here, with a post route from the left run by Cody Latimer (12) and Shepard on the dig. Washington drops into a standard Cover 3 scheme here, and Jones has a big window to hit the dig route:
However, he makes a poor assumption on this play. He believes that Quinton Dunbar (23), who is responsible for the deep outside third in this coverage scheme, will stay on the post route a little longer instead of peeling off of Latimer to break on the dig. Complicating matters is the fact that Jones hesitates here, waiting to throw the dig until the last possible second. That gives the cornerback the chance to peel off the post and jump the dig route for the interception:
Jones makes a similar mistake against the Patriots in throwing his third interception of the night:
As you will see here in a moment, Jones is shown a single-high coverage look before the snap by New England. The rookie - perhaps with reason - assumes the Patriots will be in Cover 1 here, and that assumption makes sense because New England is primarily a Cover 1 team. But they spin their safeties at the snap and rotate into a Cover 2 look, meaning Stephon Gilmore (24) can play underneath this route because he has safety help over the top. Jones fails to read the rotation properly, and throws this right to the New England CB.
This replay angle shows the rotation and the assumption from the QB:
If you assume something about the defense - and your assumption is wrong - you are likely gonna make a big mistake.
When you are a young and/or inexperienced quarterback, it sometimes takes you longer to get through reads and confirm what you are seeing in your mind. That sometimes results in a quarterback “locking on” a target, or “staring it down.” That has been an issue with Jones so far in his rookie season. Going back to Week 3 and his first start, the Giants dodged a bullet in the second quarter on a third-and-long.
Facing a third-and-15 in their own territory, the Giants align with Jones in the shotgun and with 11 offensive personnel on the field. The Buccaneers show pressure with a mug look in the interior:
Tampa Bay does not bring pressure but instead drops into a Cover 2 Man Under coverage scheme. The Giants look to convert this third-and-long with this route concept:
Jones initially opens to the left side of the field to read the Pout - post/out - combination to that side of the formation. But with solid man coverage on both routes and a safety over the top, the quarterback rules out that concept. That is an understandable decision given what is happening on the backside, as Bennie Fowler (18) is running a deep dig:
With this coverage scheme in place and both safeties deep, there is a big window to hit this dig route. But after coming off the Pout combination Jones looks at the dig ... and waits:
That gives safety Mike Edwards (34) a chance to read the quarterback’s eyes and jump the route, and the Giants are lucky the safety drops a clear chance at an interception. Now watch this play from behind the offense, and see just how long Jones waits and stares at the dig route:
Nearly two seconds elapse from when Jones first looks at the dig, and when he releases the throw. It might not seem like much, but it is an eternity within the course of a single play.
We saw another example of this in Week 5 late against the Vikings. Sure, you are trailing late and it is fourth down, but that does not mean that you can take everything you know about playing the position and throw it out the window. On this fourth-and-2 play you can be sure of exactly where the football is going from the moment Jones aligns in the shotgun, as his eyes take you right to his intended target:
Linebacker Anthony Barr (55) was sure of where the ball was going.
If Jones is going to throw this route, he needs to either get it out quicker or - more importantly - give Barr something else to think about. A glance at another receiver, a pump, anything to get the LB moving in another direction or hesitating. Staring this route down is, as they say, a rookie mistake.
Now, mistakes like this are to be expected from younger quarterbacks. With time and experience Jones will be faster with his reads and more manipulative with his eyes. As you track his development over the rest of the season, pay particular attention to these types of plays. The fewer you see of them, the better his progress will be.
As someone who was not the biggest fan of Jones coming out of Duke, I remain pleasantly surprised with his level of play so far. Yes, he has made a ton of mistakes the past few weeks, and thrown some bad interceptions. But the main thing to watch with him is the developmental arc. As he enters this next stretch of games watch for how he handles rotations in the secondary, and how he uses his eyes. If we see growth in these areas - regardless of the underlying results - we will know that he is progressing in a positive manner. This season is all about setting him up for that Year 2 leap forward, and these are the areas to watch as 2019 draws to a close.