With all the Saquon Barkley drama surrounding the New York Giants, the fate of the team’s season most likely rests in a different direction. The quarterback is the driver of almost every NFL team, and Daniel Jones is no different. Barkley averaged -0.0756 EPA per touch in 2022, per nflfastR data, while Jones averaged 0.271 EPA per pass and rush, excluding pass attempts to Barkley. Unsurprisingly, the quarterback was a bigger determinant of point potential.
After taking an encouraging step forward in 2022, Jones is on a two-year, prove-it deal. To take the reins of the offense and truly lead the Giants to victory, Jones will need to make more strides in 2023.
What are Jones’ specific areas of struggle? Some have been well-documented, but others are more subtle and ingrained.
Throwing to his right
In 2022, the difference between Jones’ efficiency metrics when throwing to his left or over the middle compared to throwing to his left was vast. According to Football Outsiders’ DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average), an efficiency metric adjusted for game context and opponent, here were Jones’ numbers across the three zones of the field.
- Left DVOA: 33.9% (6th)
- Middle DVOA: 45.3% (8th)
- Right DVOA: 8.2% (29th)
This disparity is particularly concerning when considering that 42% of Jones’ passes went to his right, which is right around the league average. In other words, Jones’ biggest efficiency struggle came in the area that he passed the most.
EPA (Expected Points Added) tells a similar story, although it is not as kind to Jones when it comes to plays to the left and middle.
- Left EPA per dropback: 0.180 (15th)
- Middle EPA per dropback: 0.238 (18th)
- Right EPA per dropback: 0.0363 (29th)
Jones did not have such stark splits in his three prior seasons; he was mostly pretty poor across the board, sometimes far worse to his left than his right. However, although he improved significantly in two directions, his passing to his right stayed stagnant.
This statistic would normally be odd for a right-handed quarterback. Passing to the right is more natural, especially when flushed from the pocket. However, Evan Neal may be somewhat responsible for these numbers due to the tremendous amount of pressure that Jones consistently faced from his right side. It was likely more difficult for him to throw in that direction than to his left, where Andrew Thomas was holding down the fort.
It is also worth noting that Jones’ completion percentage over expected (CPOE) to his right was +2.66%, which ranked 12th-best. That may support the idea that the quarterback’s poor production to his right had to do with factors other than just his performance.
Everyone associated with the Giants, from the coaching staff on down, is aware that the team needs more explosive passing plays. Darius Slayton stated as much in an OTA press conference. After all, the Giants were dead-last in the NFL in 2022 with just 28 pass plays of 20+ yards and a 4.92% explosive pass rate. That likely contributed to Jones’ mediocre 0.0525 EPA per dropback, which ranked 20th out of 39 qualified quarterbacks.
In fact, in Jones’ four seasons in the NFL, he has never ranked above 32nd in explosive pass rate. That speaks to his supporting cast, from a poor offensive line to subpar receiving weapons. Still, Jones’ 4.9% deep attempt rate in 2022 ranked 38th out of 39 qualified passers, ahead of only Matt Ryan. The next-lowest rate (belonging to, surprisingly, Joe Burrow) was 8.6%.
It’s not that Jones played poorly as a deep passer; quite the contrary. In fact, here were his deep passing numbers and ranks in 2022, per Pro Football Focus.
- 43.5% completion percentage (9th)
- 15.6 yards per attempt (6th)
- 2:0 TD:INT ratio
- 91.8 PFF deep passing grade (8th)
- 21.4% big-time throw rate (T-29th)
- 3.6% turnover-worthy play rate (T-7th-best)
- 52.2% adjusted completion percentage (5th)
- 2 drops / 16.7% drop rate (T-3rd-worst)
- 3.04 average time to throw (15th)
- 119.4 passer rating (3rd)
This speaks to a quarterback who threw deep efficiently, but too sparingly to draw any conclusions about his abilities. Jones’ low big-time throw rate on deep passes suggests that he may have been unwilling to throw deep unless the play was wide open. There were plays drawn up to progress to the deep ball, but Jones either tucked it and ran or dumped the ball off. They need him to get used to looking deep.
Interestingly, 2022 was not the first season in which PFF graded Jones well on deep passes. In 2020, his deep grade was 95.6, the third-best mark among quarterbacks. Even in that season, though, Jones attempted deep passes on just 9.6% of his throws, which ranked 32nd. Still, he had the second-highest deep big-time throw rate that season at 36.7% while simultaneously ranking fourth-best in turnover-worthy play rate at just 4.1%.
The pressure part of the equation is largely out of Jones’ control. If Neal does not take a significant step forward in 2023, Jones’ deep passing rate will likely remain low. However, it still does not need to be almost 4% lower than the next-lowest level. As Burrow demonstrated (with a 95.0 deep passing grade), a low deep pass rate with strong efficiency metrics can still work to lead an explosive offense. It simply takes decisiveness in knowing when the deep ball will be there.
Knowing the down and distance
Jones has a frustrating habit of throwing the ball short of the sticks on third down. Football Outsiders has a metric called Air Less Expected (ALEX), which, according to their site, measures “the average difference between the length of the quarterback’s throw and the distance needed for a new set of downs. The number listed here only includes third downs and is not adjusted for passes thrown away or batted down.”
To put it simply, ALEX tells you how far past the third-down marker the quarterback throws the ball, on average. Obviously, there are going to be third-and-long plays that engender dump-offs to facilitate better punting position, as well as screen passes and other YAC-intended throws. Still, as a whole, ALEX attempts to measure field awareness: where are the sticks?
Jones ranked 33rd out of the 34 quarterbacks listed (min. 200 pass attempts) in ALEX at -1.2. Only Matt Ryan trailed him. On average, Jones’ third-down passes traveled 1.2 yards short of the first down.
It is worth noting that Jones’ rate of long third-down plays (8-plus yards to go) faced was average, ranking 22nd out of 39 quarterbacks at 44.8%. His mid rate (4-7 yards) was the second-highest at 42.8%, while his short rate (1-3 yards) was 36th at 12.4%. Although Jones did not face many short third-down plays, he didn’t face an overwhelming number of really long ones, either.
Even if you adjust the standard of a long third-down conversion to seven or more yards, Jones ranked 16th at 54.5% and seventh with a 33.1% mid rate. This is not to say that Jones’ third down plays were easy, but they were not necessarily plays that should have consistently forced him to throw short of the sticks, either.
Once again, the amount of pressure that Jones faced certainly played a role. Per nflfastR data, Jones sustained a quarterback hit on 24.1% of his third-down plays, the eighth-highest mark among quarterbacks. The Giants also seemingly tried to scheme up third-down screen passes at times to avoid the pressure. Still, three of the quarterbacks who were hit on third down more than he was—Ryan Tannehill, Matthew Stafford, and Kirk Cousins—all had higher conversion rates and success rates on the money down.
Avoiding turnover-worthy plays
Jones has been lauded in the media for avoiding the big mistake in 2022. Indeed, he had the lowest interception rate among all quarterbacks at 1.1%. However, his turnover-worthy play rate was quite a bit higher at 3.1%, which tied for 17th. At times, the Giants quarterback simply got lucky that the ball was not picked off.
Jones had just five interceptions in 2022, but he had 19 turnover-worthy plays. That 14-play difference was the fourth-highest number in the league. On average, quarterbacks got lucky 41.7% of the time and had a turnover-worthy play result in a non-interception. Jones, by comparison, got lucky a whopping 73.7% of the time, the highest rate in the NFL. He had 11.08 expected interceptions but just five actual picks. Here are some of the forgotten turnover-worthy plays.
Can Jones do it?
From 2007 to 2008, Eli Manning took a big step forward in his understanding of defenses. While many Giants fans remember only the magical Super Bowl run, the fact is that Manning was a subpar quarterback during the 2007 regular season. He threw for 23 touchdowns vs. 20 interceptions, completed just 56.1% of his passes, and had 6.3 yards per attempt and a 4.2% turnover-worthy play rate with a passer rating of 73.9.
Manning was a lot better in 2008, completing 60.3% of his passes, throwing 21 touchdowns vs. 10 interceptions, reducing his turnover-worthy play rate to 2.7%, and improving his quarterback rating to 86.4. In 2009, his sixth season, he leaped to 7.9 yards per attempt, 27 touchdowns vs. 14 interceptions, and a 93.3 quarterback rating, all while keeping his turnover-worthy play rate to 2.9%.
The NFL is a different league than when Manning first entered it, focusing on passing efficiency and higher completion percentages. Still, Jones did enough in 2023 to show that he is capable of taking another step forward. Does that mean he actually will do so? No, but he has a better supporting cast to give him that opportunity.
Remember, after Manning’s rookie 2004 season when he was bruised and battered, he played with a strong offensive line in front of him for the next number of years. In fact, Manning was pressured on just 24.8% of his dropbacks in 2008, his fifth season, which was the fifth-lowest mark in the NFL. Compare that to Jones, who was pressured on 42.4% of his dropbacks in 2022, the third-highest rate in the league. He has been among the league’s four most-pressured passers in three out of his four seasons. It’s very difficult for most quarterbacks to develop that way.
In 2022, Daboll and Kafka went back to basics with Jones and did not ask him to make complex reads on a regular basis. That’s what NFL teams expect from their franchise quarterbacks, though. They need their guy to be able to peek at the deep safety, diagnose coverages pre-snap and confirm post-snap, and balance between getting the ball out quickly and letting reads develop.
Jones doesn’t need to do it all in 2023, but one of the key predictors of whether he will get beyond the first two years of his contract is his processing and vision. With a plethora of receiving weapons, now is his time to ascend beyond a game manager.