Let’s look at the best- and worst-case scenarios for Eli Manning’s heir apparent
At the outset it is important to make a disclosure: With the return of “Game of Thrones” to the small screen for its eighth and final season, I have spent most of my non-football time focused on both the HBO series as well as the written work of George R.R. Martin. In addition to flying through “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms,” the prequel set of novellas telling the story of Ser Duncan the Tall and his squire Egg, I have been also pouring through “Fire and Blood,” the voluminous tome telling the history of House Targaryen.
In both Martin’s written work and the HBO series, references are made to the comments made about the birth of each new Targaryen. It was something commented upon, by example, Cersei Lannister during the show: “Madness and greatness are two sides of the same coin. Every time a new Targaryen is born, the gods toss the coin in the air and the world holds its breath to see how it will land.”
With the sixth overall selection in the 2019 NFL Draft, Dave Gettleman flipped a coin of his own by selecting Duke quarterback Daniel Jones, and now Giants fans are holding their breath to see what side lands face up: Madness or greatness.
The case for madness
Let’s start with the worst-case scenario for Daniel Jones. His weaknesses as a prospect start with the decision making in the downfield passing game. Jones is a quarterback who relied heavily – and I do mean heavily – on the quick game as well as one-read concepts in the passing game. 49.2 percent of his throws traveled five yards or less downfield, and 72.6 percent of his “dropbacks” were 0/1 step drops, indicative of simple or singular reads. Now, when he is throwing and executing these quick game concepts, his decision making is sound and his ball placement tends to be good to great. But by comparison, the quarterback who made the highest number of 0/1 step drops last year was Nick Foles, who used those on 58.3 percent of his dropbacks. The NFL average was 33.8 percent.
So there is potentially a scheme fit dilemma facing Pat Shurmur and the New York Giants.
Let’s also consider for a moment one of the aspects to Jones as a prospect that was used as a case in his favor: His relationship with head coach David Cutcliffe. The Duke University head coach was a mentor for both Peyton Manning and Eli Manning, and the relationship between Jones and Cutcliffe enabled comparisons to both players, and allowed for scouts and evaluators to believe that Jones’ training and coaching would put him ahead of some of the other passers in the class.
Is that truly a strong case, though, for Jones? Cutcliffe has the reputation of a quarterback developer, but his two works of art are players that in all likelihood would have been good with even me coaching them. Beyond the Mannings, Cutcliffe’s track record is less than stellar. Outside of the Mannings you have Heath Shuler, who was drafted early but never panned out, Erik Ainge, Thaddeus Lewis, Sean Renfree and now Jones. Those are the players who have gone onto the NFL. That … does not inspire confidence.
Taking some of these concerns to the film, you can see that when Jones is tasking with making multiple reads on a given play, or pushing the ball downfield, you can see the decision making falter and the ball placement become spottier. Given the number of times that Jones is making singular reads, this is to be expected, but this does create both a schematic concern, as well as a developmental concern. Either Jones will need some time to become a more well-rounded quarterback, or the offense must become a mirror of what Jones was running at Duke.
So what would the “madness” side of the coin look life for Jones? Playing early in his career, not getting a chance to start the developmental process before facing live action, and being forced into an offense that is not built around his experience and schematic background. In that kind of situation, Jones will struggle early and often, and the Jones experiment might end up failing.
The case for greatness
Let’s put this out there: If Gettleman and the Giants identified Jones as their top-graded quarterback, and wanted to address quarterback in this draft, then just taking him at six makes sense. Better to just make sure of securing the player you want than waiting and hoping he was there for you at 17.
The best case scenario for Jones is this: Cutcliffe, despite his reputation as a quarterback developer, has a different job title on his business card. Head coach. His job at Duke was not to develop Jones to play in the NFL, but to win games. Looking at the offense around Jones, you can see that there was a lack of talent up front and at the skill positions. Watching Jones on tape you can see instances of lineman missing blocks, receivers dropping good throws, and Jones being put in the position of carrying the team offensively.
(Of course, there is a counter-argument here: Great players elevate those around him. Remember, we’re making the rose-colored glasses case now).
So perhaps the singular read offense Jones was running was more a function of the other players, and a way to use scheme and design to attack defenses quickly by spreading them out and getting players in space, rather than relying on receivers getting open deep and winning one-on-one matchups. If that is indeed the case, then perhaps the learning curve for Jones is not as steep as we might fear tonight.
In addition, for better or worse the Giants still have Manning on the roster. Gettleman did indicate that he wanted the “Mahomes Timeline.” If they can take a year with Jones on the sidelines to learn about life in the NFL, how to prepare during the week, how to read defenses on the fly and things like that, and get one more year out of Manning, that would be an ideal situation for Jones and his development.
Furthermore, looking at the Giants’ offense as currently constructed, they seem to be building a corps of receivers who will be used in the short passing game. Slot receiver types such as Sterling Shepard and Golden Tate who can rely on quickness in the short area as well as change of direction ability. That lends itself to a West Coast kind of attack, one that Jones is ideally suited to run.
If the plan is to build that kind of offense for Jones to run, than this could indeed be the kind of schematic fit that the Duke product would need to thrive in the NFL. In the scouting profile piece on Jones, I wrote that “his landing spot might be more critical than for other passers in this class. The team that drafts him will need to have a solid developmental plan in place for him.” Landing in New York, even with my hesitations and fears with him as a prospect, could be the best fit for him. He is landing in a spot where he will not be needed to play immediately, and even if Manning suffers an injury there is a more veteran backup in place in Alex Tanney and/or Kyle Lauletta, and Jones can take a redshirt season in 2019 and just prepare himself for the future.
This is a pick made for the future of the franchise. It has the potential to work.
The bottom line
While we will not know for a few years what side of the coin landed face up, Giants fans have to hope now that the organization has that solid plan in place. Giving him time to learn, and building more talent around him, is the way to make this pick work. In an era of “trusting the process,” Giants fans now find themselves trusting in the coaches – and perhaps even the Gods themselves — as they start to watch this coin spin and wait for it to land.