Futures: Alabama QB Mac Jones
No matter how any analyst ranks Trevor Lawrence, Justin Fields, Trey Lance, and Zach Wilson, the overwhelming sentiment is that all four players have tantalizing arm talent, good-to-great athletic ability, and an exciting play style. They are all the kind of quarterback you create in Madden. Alabama's Mac Jones is nothing of the sort.
Jones' arm talent does not pop off the screen, nor does he have the kind of athletic ability that strikes fear in the hearts of a defense. Seldom does he do anything, for better or worse, that gets you to jump out of your seat. Jones is strictly a pocket passer whose game revolves more around touch and finesse than "wow" plays.
Arm strength is the natural starting point for any discussion about Jones. His lackluster arm strength is particularly off-putting when juxtaposed against the other four first-round quarterbacks in this class. Wilson arguably has the worst arm of the top four quarterbacks this year, yet he should still rank comfortably in the top half of the league in that category the moment he becomes a pro.
Jones' arm is not even in the same stratosphere. Jones' arm is weak enough that it is worth questioning whether or not it will have enough juice to work in the NFL.
At times, Jones' arm strength looks functional in the same way Teddy Bridgewater or old-man Philip Rivers' arms do. Jones, like Rivers, can generate just enough velocity on his throws to complement the wonderful touch he displays.
The catch is that Jones must throw on time, if not early, and has zero margin for error with respect to ball placement since his passes are not traveling too fast. To his credit, Jones regularly met that criteria at Alabama, like in the throw above. It is not like Jones' film is completely devoid of any throws requiring some degree of arm talent. Throws such as this one at least keep the door open on the possibility that Jones may have enough arm talent to survive in the NFL. He is not clearly below the NFL baseline, but it is hard to make the argument that he is comfortably above it.
This is not a horrible pass. The ball flies about 45 yards (granted, from the near hash) from where Jones lets it go and still arrives in a decent spot for the receiver to work back for it. In the NFL, however, Jones is more often going to have to drive on this ball and place it more out in front of the wide receiver. There is plenty of space between where the receiver catches this on the inside of the painted numbers and the sideline. A quarterback with good, NFL-level arm strength should be able to deliver this ball more towards the sideline without forcing the receiver to work back to it this way.
While Jones has enough arm strength to get the ball in the general area of a first-round wide receiver with three steps over a linebacker, he does not have the power to deliver more of a line drive without the ball nose-diving 5 yards short of the target. Jones can only really deliver passes that hang. That worked out for him far more often than not at Alabama, but in the NFL, those windows will not be as forgiving and Jones will miss out on these explosive opportunities more regularly than he did in college. Trying to gauge Jones' ceiling while knowing throws like this will become tougher for him in the NFL has to make you a little uneasy.
To Jones' fortune, the Alabama offense regularly provided him with easier throws and a comfortable pocket to work with. His arm strength was not regularly put under a microscope like on the previous play. Jones' work when things break down can be shaky, which we will get to, but he is a smooth operator in structure—in Alabama's structure, at least. His timing, anticipation, and accuracy when playing clean and on schedule is fantastic.
This is a vertical throw, but it is not really a display of arm strength. Every single NFL starter can throw 35 yards to a slot fade, even from the far college hashes. This throw is instead a good look at how picture-perfect Jones' ball placement can be when throwing in rhythm. Jones loads to throw as soon as he hits the top of his drop and places the ball right in stride for a touchdown. The ball is in comfortable reach out in front of the wide receiver, neither forcing him to slow down nor speed up to make the catch. It does not get prettier than that.
Jones also proved himself capable of working through his progressions when provided a comfy pocket. The NFL will provide fewer of those opportunities, yes, but a good quarterback must still take full advantage of those chances when they present themselves. There should be little worry about Jones making good on those plays.
Jones peeks DeVonta Smith (6) at the bottom of the screen at the snap. Smith is just an "alert" rather than part of the actual progression, but because the play-side concept takes some time to develop, Jones is free to take the time to see if Smith can beat the press immediately. He does not, which prompts Jones to return play-side as he finishes his dropback. Jones catches Missouri's nickel defender (over the innermost wide receiver) turning and getting vertical to run the pole, giving the Tigers a Cover-2 look with the nickel and linebacker swapping responsibilities post-snap (likely as a means to have a defensive back instead of a linebacker covering Jaylen Waddle as the "speed" No. 3). In any event, Jones knows the pole runner taking No. 3 vertical leaves a window between the two other middle-of-the-field defenders and fires in an accurate pass right between them. That is a tough, necessary throw on a third-and-12 like this.
The Crimson Tide's historic signal-caller also shredded the competition thanks to his pristine timing. Jones knows that his arm strength is lacking, and he has a good understanding of how to best work around that. Jones, at least at the college level, often circumvented his middling arm strength by anticipating when routes would become open and throwing early. That leaves him ripe for some Rivers-esque interceptions, but if done right, it can be the reason Jones finds success now and in the future.
Teams such as the Rams and 49ers like these deep stop routes near the hashes. Though the route and read themselves are simple, ripping the ball 20 or so yards down the field is not exactly a "free" throw. Jones does not have the raw arm strength to wait on this and see the route about to snap off, though. If he wants to get it there on time, Jones has to throw terribly early.
Here is a better look at Jones' release compared to the receiver's route. Jones' arm is about to come forward as the wide receiver is at the opposing 48-yard line. The wide receiver does not settle and turn back for the ball until he gets to the opposing 44-yard line. That is as early a delivery as it gets, and the ball arrives right when and where it needs to.
Oddly enough, Jones already being advanced in the timing and anticipation department makes his profile tricky to unravel. It raises the question as to whether Jones is maxed out as a player right now. If we assume, generally, that timing and functioning in structure is the area where quarterback prospects can show the most growth going from college to pros, then where is the untapped potential for Jones within the structure of an offense? He has already maxed out what his arm allows him to do. What Jones offers right now is good, not great, and it is difficult to find what potential is left for Jones to untap.
We can also assume Jones' ways for working around his arm strength will not translate to the NFL quite the same way they functioned in college, unless you make the leap to believing Jones can be Drew Brees. That is not a leap I am willing to make. It is far more likely Jones functions along the lines of Bridgewater or Chad Pennington, which is serviceable to good, than in elite territory such as Brees. That sentiment is only exacerbated by how uncomfortable Jones often looked when forced off his rhythm.
To be clear, Jones is not scared of pass-rushers. That is not the issue. Jones will take a hit if need be, and he has shown flashes of resetting in the pocket to make a throw. However, if Jones' rhythm within the concept is disrupted, either via pass-rushers or cloudy coverage, his mechanics can become out-of-sorts and lead to some real head-scratching throws.
Neither of these plays are particularly contested. The pockets are clean, though slightly less so in the second example. The receivers are not smothered. Both passes should be easy completions. And yet, because Jones is not ripping it off the top of his drop or after his first hitch, his mechanics become wonky and both passes hit the dirt without the receiver getting a reasonable chance at them. Jones did not often end up desynced from the concept because of how machine-like Alabama's offense operated, but the results were less than flattering when he ended up in those spots.
Jones is not the flashiest playmaker outside of the pocket either. To his credit, Jones is not a completely cement-footed athlete and he can actually move a bit in the open field. There is no explosiveness to his game, but he does have enough speed in the open field to function on rollout stuff and occasionally extend the play if given an easy avenue to do so, similar to Kirk Cousins. Jones does not have the dynamic arm strength or daring mentality to make splash plays on the move, though. He may salvage broken plays here and there for a short completion, but game-changing plays outside the pocket are not in Jones' arsenal. That is an even larger issue when Jones' ability to deliver game-changing passes from the pocket is also limited due to arm talent.
Jones is a decent but ultimately uninspiring quarterback prospect. For the most part, Jones is accurate and capable in working through his progressions, and he will not put the ball at risk. His play within the structure of an offense is reliable, but it stops there. The lack of any dynamic physical trait puts a low ceiling on his game, barring the off chance he develops the finer parts of his game to Brees or Tom Brady levels. It is far more reasonable to expect Jones to deliver play along the Andy Dalton-Jared Goff-Cousins spectrum than to develop into the increasingly rare elite pocket passer. Developing quarterbacks to be elite pocket-only passers in the post-2011 CBA era just does not exist.
With that in mind, there should be no way the 49ers (or any other team) burn a top-five pick on Jones. Draft picks in that range should be for players who have a franchise-changing potential rather than players who can just be solid starters, which is especially true for quarterbacks. Jones is more along the lines of a second-round talent who could get a value bump into the mid-/late first round by virtue of being a quarterback.