Landry Jones is the biggest enigma in the 2013 quarterback class.
The Oklahoma senior is arguably the most talented quarterback prospect set to be available in the 2013 NFL Draft, but he might not hear his name called on the first day of the event. That is certainly a shocking development for a player who was once regarded as a possible No. 1 pick (prior to the 2011 season).
Part of Jones' slide can be attributed to a disappointing junior campaign that saw him complete 63.2 percent of his passes with a 29:15 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Most importantly, he was erratic in the Sooners' biggest games and showed a propensity for turning the ball over in critical moments. Jones' stock plummeted in the minds of evaluators based on his questionable decisions.
In 2012, Jones has shown flashes of brilliance, but he remains a mystery as a prospect despite putting up an impressive résumé. Jones has completed 66.4 percent of his passes with 27 touchdowns and nine interceptions. He's posted six 300-yard games, including back-to-back 500-yard games in the past two weeks. In addition, he has tossed at least two touchdown passes in nine of the Sooners' 11 games. Those numbers are certainly indicative of his potential as a franchise player, and suggest that he has the capacity to carry a team on the strength of his right arm.
On the other hand, Jones has been disappointing in each of the Sooners' two losses. His offense couldn't muster 20 points in either game, and Jones logged three turnovers, to boot. With those errors contributing greatly to the Sooners' failures, Jones' decision-making and poise under pressure remain in question.
After taking the time to conduct an extensive evaluation of Jones following Oklahoma's 51-48 overtime win over Oklahoma State, I've put together a breakdown of his game and pro potential:
Arm talent: Jones is the most gifted quarterback prospect in the 2013 class. He shows unbelievable arm strength and touch, and can make every throw in the book with tremendous zip and velocity. Whether it's the deep out from the opposite hash or the fly route down the boundary, Jones routinely delivers rope-like throws with tremendous pace. This allows him to fit the ball into tight windows between multiple defenders, completing the high-risk throws that elite quarterbacks must make with the game on the line. In addition, Jones shows good accuracy and ball placement when utilizing proper footwork and mechanics in the pocket. There are few physical deficiencies in his game; scouts love Jones' sheer talent and natural ability.
Mobility: Jones is a fluid athlete with average movement skills. Although he isn't an explosive runner like Robert Griffin III or Michael Vick, he shows enough quickness and agility to elude defenders in the pocket. Jones will step up in the pocket when the edges crumble; he also flashes the ability to pick up positive yardage on scrambles. Jones can make accurate throws on the run in either direction. This should allow him to thrive in a scheme that features bootlegs and sprint-outs, while also enabling offensive coordinators to utilize other movement-based passes from various formations. Given his athleticism, arm talent and versatility, Jones has the tools to be an impressive playmaker at the next level.
Game management: The most important aspect of playing quarterback is making sound decisions at all times. Jones has been maddeningly inconsistent in this area of the game. He routinely blunders under pressure; his penchant for turning the ball over in these moments is certainly a concern. While studying Jones this season, I've been shocked at the number of times he throws the ball into traffic to avoid a sack or big hit in the pocket. For instance, Jones' only interception against Oklahoma State occurred when he avoided the initial rusher in the pocket and attempted to make a heroic throw into traffic instead of throwing the ball away for a harmless incompletion. Jones must reduce his mistakes from the pocket.
Jones shows adequate instincts and awareness in the pre-snap phase of the game. He appears to have a solid understanding of defensive fronts and coverages, allowing him to make changes at the line of scrimmage based on the defensive look. While some of those changes are dictated to Jones by offensive coaches on the sideline, he will occasionally walk to the line and change the play on his own. In addition, Oklahoma's system features a series of packaged plays that instruct the quarterback to run the assigned play or throw bubble screens against a favorable look. This puts the onus on Jones to determine the proper call and get the ball into the hands of the designated playmaker. With more pro teams instituting similar concepts, Jones should be familiar with at least some of the pre-snap responsibilities placed on NFL quarterbacks.
Clutch factor: Quarterbacks are ultimately judged by their ability to lead their team to victory in big games. Jones hasn't fared well in the Sooners' biggest games over the past two seasons. In the final five games of 2011, Jones completed just 57.4 percent of his passes and posted a 3:8 touchdown-to-interception ratio. He recorded just one 300-yard game during that stretch after opening the season with seven such efforts in the Sooners' first eight contests. Jones' futility over the final month of last season led to concerns about his composure in big games in the scouting community.
This season, Jones has been more efficient in big games (such as against Kansas State and Notre Dame), but he is still plagued by critical errors in key moments. He fumbled and threw a costly interception against the Wildcats and couldn't make a big play in the red zone to score on the Irish. While a number of quarterbacks have struggled against those respective defenses, the fact that Jones couldn't deliver when it mattered most will certainly cost him points in the eyes of evaluators.
Conclusion: Jones is underrated, in my mind, due to his remarkable physical tools. He possesses all of the attributes that you look for at the position, and creative offensive coordinators will be intrigued by his ability to make all of the throws. While his decision-making and poise under pressure remain concerns based on his play throughout 2012, I believe he has made significant strides over the past year. Insightful evaluators will keep him in the mix as a possible franchise quarterback. Without a unanimous selection as the top quarterback prospect in the 2013 class, it wouldn't surprise me to see Jones enjoy a late rise up the charts following all-star games and pre-draft workouts.
At this point in the process, my draft grade on Landry Jones would be: middle of the second round.
WORD ON THE STREET
Safety T.J. McDonald didn't garner the attention that Matt Barkley received when he elected to return to USC for his senior season, but as is the case with Barkley, the jury is still out on whether McDonald benefitted from playing another year of college football. McDonald entered the season intent on refining his cover skills and ball awareness in order to boost draft prospects; however, a few NFL scouts told me his play has been disappointing. An NFC South scout told me that McDonald is a "better athlete than player" at this point; he believes McDonald has been out of position as a box defender. Another NFC scout told me that McDonald leaves you wanting more when you see him physically, and questioned whether he could make an immediate impact as a pro.
When I evaluated McDonald in person, I found that I loved his size, athleticism and motor. He played hard throughout the game -- regardless of the score -- and made a ton of solo tackles at the second level. Now, I did have some concerns about McDonald's instincts and ball awareness, due to his late breaks from the middle of the field. However, I believe he is a good enough athlete to become an effective playmaker in the middle, with proper training. Teams have a few more months to dig into the tape and study his game, and it will be interesting to see if they value McDonald's alluring athleticism over his lackluster instincts in the final evaluation.
Jadeveon Clowney, DE, South Carolina
It is not often that a second-year player is the best on the field, but Clowney might be the exception to the rule. The Gamecocks' star is a man among boys, and his sensational skills already have NFL scouts captivated by his pro potential. At 6-foot-6, 256 pounds, Clowney is an imposing force off the edge with the length and athleticism that coaches covet in pass rushers. He displays cat-like quickness off the ball, and few defenders can rival his closing burst to the quarterback. Against Clemson, Clowney put on a show, running over and around blockers en route to tallying 4.5 sacks. Most importantly, he completely disrupted Tajh Boyd's rhythm in the pocket and made it impossible for the Tigers to utilize their explosive vertical passing game. Scouts will pay close attention to Clowney's development as the top pass rusher in college football.
Theo Riddick, RB, Notre Dame
Running backs with exceptional receiving skills are valued at a premium in today's NFL, so Riddick's standout performance against USC will only boost his draft hopes. Riddick rushed for 146 yards on 20 carries and added three receptions for 33 yards. Those numbers are not only impressive, but they are indicative of the impact he's made as a versatile weapon out of the backfield. And it's no wonder, seeing as Riddick spent ample time as a wide receiver in the middle of his Notre Dame career. As I watched Notre Dame routinely align Riddick as the slot receiver in various empty formations, I was impressed with his quickness and route-running ability. He easily separated from defenders out of his breaks; his ability to get open in space made life easier for Everett Golson in the pocket. More teams are looking for running backs with a wide array of skills, and Riddick will attract a lot of attention leading up to the draft.
Stepfan Taylor, RB, Stanford
Taylor should have a permanent place on this list based on his consistent production. He has compiled three straight seasons with 1,000-plus rushing yards and 10-plus touchdowns. In addition, Taylor has tallied at least 25 receptions in each of those seasons, displaying a rock-solid all-around game that is ideally suited for the NFL. In a 35-17 win over UCLA, Taylor cemented that opinion by running 20 times for 146 yards with two touchdowns. He also added three receptions for 27 yards and made a ton of plays that showcased his special skills as a runner/receiver. As a three-down running back with the capacity to impact the game in a number of ways, Taylor's draft stock is on the rise in the NFL scouting community.
Sharrif Floyd, DT, Florida
Floyd has been on the radar of NFL scouts since his arrival in Gainesville as a highly touted high school star. The junior has lived up to the hype by developing into one of the most dominant interior defenders in the country. Against Florida State, Floyd showed off a game that is built on strength, power and explosiveness. He overwhelms blockers by utilizing an assortment of power moves, but also flashes enough quickness and wiggle to occasionally win with finesse. Floyd still needs to work on playing with a lower pad level, and he must refine a few other aspects of his game, but his vast skills will catch the eyes of scouts looking for an impact interior defender.
E.J. Manuel, QB, Florida State
Manuel had been coming on strong since the middle of the season, but his performance in the Seminoles' season finale will hurt him in the eyes of NFL scouts. Manuel managed just 182 yards passing and turned the ball over four times in a 37-26 loss to rival Florida. Most importantly, he failed to look like a franchise quarterback, and scouts will definitely question his football aptitude following this performance. Manuel routinely looked confused by the Gators' coverage, and his hesitancy in the pocket led to critical errors. With ball security and efficiency valued at a premium, Manuel's play against Florida will impact his final grade on draft boards across the league.