Coming into the 2020 NFL season there was one question that I was asked more often than any other: Will New York Giants quarterback Daniel Jones make the “Year 2” leap? If so, how could we tell?
My stock answer was basically this. “Perhaps, and we will tell not by looking at the numbers but looking at the execution. Is he making better reads and decisions, and as an offshoot of that better throws, at the end of the season than he was at the beginning of the season. That will be the true sign of his development, and what you want as a Giants fan is that development. If Jones is a better QB at the end of the year than he was at the beginning of the year, that is progress. That is what you want. Do not focus on the numbers, focus on the execution.”
With the news that the Giants are keeping Dave Gettleman as general manager, it becomes clearer that Jones is going to be the focus of the quarterback position into the 2021 season. That means it is time to try and provide an answer to that above question. Where are the Giants with Jones right now?
So ... let’s start with numbers, in stark contrast to everything I said above. Because I think there is something illustrative in the numbers from the past two seasons.
Thanks to charting data from Pro Football Focus (PFF), we know that when kept clean in 2019, Jones posted an Adjusted Completion Percentage (ACP) of 76.5 percent, and an NFL Passer Rating of 96.8. ACP is a good metric because it strips out drops and throwaways, focusing on the quarterback’s performance.
In 2020 Jones posted an ACP of 79.4 percent, and an NFL Passer Rating of 97.8. Largely the same numbers.
Part of playing quarterback is handling pressure. Thankfully, PFF charts a quarterback’s performance when facing heat in the pocket. In 2019 Jones posted an ACP of 63.8 percent when pressured, and an NFL Passer Rating of 72.2. In 2020? He checked in with an ACP of 64.6 percent, and an NFL Passer Rating of just 55.7. So largely the same ACP, but a dip in NFL Passer Rating. Just one data point, and NFL Passer Rating is not always the best metric.
With respect to ACP generally, Jones posted a mark of 72.3 percent in 2019 ranking him 22nd among qualified quarterbacks (defined as 50 percent of a team’s drop backs). In 2020 that number rose slightly to 74.8 percent, but his ranking dropped to 23rd. Again, largely the same.
I then wanted to check how Jones fared vs. man coverages and zone coverages over the two seasons. How quarterbacks grow against zone coverages is a good benchmark, as those coverages stress the quarterback more from a mental perspective. Using data from Sports Info Solutions (SIS) I found that against man coverages (defined as Cover-0, Cover-1 and Cover-2 Man) in 2019 Jones completed 84 of 157 passes for 911 yards, 11 touchdowns and three interceptions. He posted an NFL Passer Rating of 86.2, and his total Expected Points Added (EPA) was -13.0.
Against zone coverage (defined as Cover-2, Cover-3, Cover-4, Cover-6 and Tampa-2) his rookie season? Jones completed 171 passes on 267 attempts for 1,812 yards, 12 touchdowns and nine interceptions. That worked out to an NFL Passer Rating of 84.7, and a total EPA of a staggering -33.3.
Now let’s look at this season. Diving into the man coverage data from SIS we see that in 2020 Jones completed 80 of 157 passes for 968 yards, seven touchdowns and two interceptions. That worked out to an NFL Passer Rating of 79.8, and a total EPA of a stunning -36.9.
Then, zone coverages. Jones completed 166 passes on 251 attempts for 1,796 yards, four touchdowns and eight interceptions. An NFL Passer Rating of 79.0, and a total EPA of ... 2.2.
So, there’s some growth right?
That was something I did notice this season studying Jones on film, was his ability to make more anticipation throws in the middle of the field against zone coverage. For example, in this film breakdown from earlier in the year notice the first completion, which comes on an in-breaking route against zone coverage. You will see the anticipation show up on this throw:
Two more throws from Daniel Jones against the Rams, and two of the best throws I've seen him make— Mark Schofield (@MarkSchofield) October 6, 2020
*Throwing receivers open
*Trusting his eyes pic.twitter.com/F2x0P36QJ5
Then in the home win over the Philadelphia Eagles you saw more of this. In this video the first two throws are good examples of Jones attacking zone coverage and being decisive:
Daniel Jones versus the Eagles - Take Two!— Mark Schofield (@MarkSchofield) November 17, 2020
(Still, look away Eagles fans)
*Post route off PA
*A throw/concept reminiscent of a play he made against UVA
*Icing the game downfield pic.twitter.com/XFVZ20olwB
So, some signs of growth there both on film and in the data.
But there is another area I want to cover before we close, and that is the deep passing game. After all, when the Giants made the decision to hire Jason Garrett as their offensive coordinator many - myself included - believed that would lead to an increase in downfield passing. PFF charts quarterback performance in the vertical passing game by charting throws of 20 air yards or more. In 2019 for example, Jones attempted 54 such throws, ranking him 20th in attempts. On those passes Jones completed 16 of them for 298 yards, 9 touchdowns and four interceptions. That worked out to an ACP of 35.2 percent (ranking him 28th in the league among qualified passers) and an NFL Passer Rating of 74.2, ranking him 25th.
So with Garrett in place, perhaps we see a jump right?
Jones played in one more game in 2020 than he did in 2019. Remember that.
Because this season Jones attempted 43 downfield throws according to PFF (again, defined as 20 air yards or more). That placed him 22nd in the league.
But what did he do with those plays? Jones completed 20 of those for 652 yards, six touchdowns and zero interceptions. His ACP on those passes was 51.2 percent, sixth-best in the league. And his NFL Passer Rating? 132.5, best in the NFL.
Despite fewer attempts, Jones made them count, and showed real growth in the deep passing game. This showed up on film as well. For example, you saw it on this play against Washington:
And you saw it again in that game against the Eagles (there might be some overlap in the videos here):
Furthermore, I dove into this a bit deeper and charted out Jones on throws of 10 air yards or more. According to my charting - and while acknowledging it might not be 100 percent accurate - Jones completed 68 of 134 passes for 1,387 yards, six touchdowns and three interceptions. And one of those interceptions was the throw through the hands of Evan Engram in Week 17.
Jones, for all his faults, has been a good downfield thrower.
That is where we close. Because if this season was about determining if Jones was getting better, there is one identifiable area where that is true both on film and in the numbers: The downfield passing game. There was some growth against zone coverages to be sure, and that was also shown in the numbers and on film, but as a vertical passer Jones took some big strides in 2020. As rumors swirl about Garrett’s future, one thing should be clear: Whether he is back next season or the Giants have a new offensive coordinator, downfield throws must be part of the game plan.
As for Jones and the question of “did he improve?” Yes, in some areas he did. In other areas he is the same quarterback he was as a rookie. Perhaps the deeper question is “did he improve enough?” There, I would personally conclude that with what he showed against zone coverages, as well as the downfield execution, there is enough improvement to remain positive about 2021.
But there better be more in 2021.