It’s hard to find a lot of credentialed evaluators willing to go on the record to suggest that Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence isn’t the best QB prospect in the 2021 NFL draft.
But we found one who doesn’t even have Lawrence has one of his two best QB prospects this year.
June Jones, the former head coach of the Atlanta Falcons and San Diego Chargers, has watched many of the top quarterbacks available for the 2021 NFL draft. He hasn’t seen them all. But he’s seen enough of Lawrence to be less smitten with the overwhelming favorite for the No. 1 overall pick to know that if it was Jones’ pick at that spot, he’d be cooking up some other plans.
“Hey, I do like him. But I would not take him with the first pick, though,” Jones told Yahoo Sports by phone from his home in Honolulu. “Everyone is saying that’s the guy at 1. But I would trade that pick and take one of these other quarterbacks down the line.”
The two quarterbacks he prefers? Well, one is by now nearly a household name — at least among those dialed into the NFL draft process. BYU’s Zach Wilson, who could be the second overall choice to the New York Jets, is higher on his pecking order than Lawrence.
But Wilson isn’t Jones’ No. 1 QB prospect this year. He’s got Alabama’s Mac Jones up top.
We had follow-up questions on Lawrence, Wilson and Jones. And he had answers.
What could hold Trevor Lawrence back
We asked Jones: Why is he so (relatively) low on Lawrence?
“He’s a very talented kid, don’t get me wrong, and I think he’s a winner,” Jones said. “He can do things that other quarterbacks can’t do, such as run.
“But what I’ve noticed is, when you see him drop back and throw, let’s say, a 9-route down the field, on those completions that he had over 20 yards, a lot of times his receivers make great plays on those balls. And they weren’t right on the money, they weren’t right in stride. The receivers sometimes had to work for the deep ball with him than what (you’d expect from) a great quarterback.”
Jones isn’t wrong about that fact, as Lawrence had a strong completion percentage overall this season (69.2) and hit on a respectable 51 percent of his passes that traveled at least 20 yards in the air. And Jones does make a fair point about Lawrence’s deeper passes not being quite as accurate and limiting his receivers’ yards-after-catch potential.
“He obviously can work on it and improve it. But right now, I kind of like a couple of other guys better,” Jones said.
Are they ball watchers? Or a receiver watchers?
One of the things June Jones looks for with quarterbacks when they’re throwing the ball vertically is their eyes. Jones’ No. 1 criteria for whether he thinks a quarterback can achieve greatness in the NFL is accuracy, and Jones believes that a QB’s eye behavior holds a critical key in that.
It’s something that started when Jones was backing up Steve Bartkowski in Atlanta, noticing that Bartkowski often would watch the ball during its flight and not the receiver to whom he was throwing. And he was just overthrowing his receivers, sometimes by a foot or less.
After Jones made that suggestion to his teammate, Bartkowski’s deep ball became one of the best in the NFL in the late 1970s and early 1980s. And when Jones went on to coach Warren Moon, the same thing kept happening: Moon would barely overthrow his man and miss out on a long gain.
The improvement came when Moon focused on keeping his eyes on the receiver, not the ball.
“The great ones never naturally take their eyes off the receiver,” Jones said. “It’s a difficult thing to change. But you can change it. Bart and Moon both said it (helped them), and it was something (run-and-shoot offense pioneer) Mouse (Davis) told me years ago. It just makes a difference.”
Jones has tried to watch Lawrence’s eyes to see if that’s the issue, noticing that even on his long completions, those throws could be more accurate. Based on what he’s seen on tape, it’s tough for Jones to say definitively.
“You really need to watch the quarterback up close to tell that,” he said. “If I saw that with him, it would be the first thing I work on with him.
“It’s such a simple thing, but you almost never hear coaches talk about that. That one thing is more valuable for evaluation on (quarterbacks), and some people hardly are aware of it.”
Why so high on Mac Jones?
No, it’s not just a surname thing. June Jones believes Mac Jones — who started a mere 17 games at Alabama — is the best quarterback prospect in this class because of his downfield accuracy.
Many evaluators Yahoo Sports have talked to have lamented Mac Jones’ lack of dual-threat ability. He’s simply not a scrambler of any note, and his athletic traits (including raw arm strength) almost certainly will grade as average to below-average compared to other prospects in this class and the NFL’s upper-tier QBs.
But June Jones doesn’t see it that way.
“Mac’s deep-ball accuracy is probably the best that I have graded in my years of coaching quarterbacks,” June Jones said. “He’s almost at 55 percent at over 20 yards, which is unbelievable.”
Fact check: True. Last season, Jones hit on 58.9 percent of his passing attempts 20-plus yards downfield. And factoring in dropped passes, Pro Football Focus had Jones at an adjusted completion percentage on those attempts at a scalding 67.1.
Interestingly, Wilson was higher than Jones in both metrics — 62.5 percent and 67.9, respectively. But both of those quarterbacks had exactly 56 such attempts last season, and Mac Jones threw for more yards (1,355 to 1,286) on deep balls in 2020.
June Jones believes it’s that little difference, making slightly more accurate throws downfield, that bumps Mac Jones a notch ahead of Zach Wilson.
“(Mac Jones) is a receiver watcher,” June Jones said. “I could tell watching him on television when they had the right camera angle. And I really think that is huge for him. It’s how he naturally throws the deep ball.”
With this level of hot take, June Jones understands he’s going to be very much in the minority on his Mac-over-Trevor take. But ask him if he cares.
“Some people are going to have a problem with me saying that because he’s only done it one year, yadda yadda ya,” June Jones said. “But I saw enough in one year where you say, if that’s his only year, wow, that guy is going to be something else.”
Ohio State’s Justin Fields and North Dakota State’s Trey Lance both intrigued June Jones when he watched them, but he couldn’t get over some of the missed passes both had on tape. He likes both as developmental quarterbacks but believes the other three should be rated higher.
The idea of Lance going in Round 1, and potentially high in Round 1, isn’t something Jones is keen on.
“In a perfect world, you draft him late second round or third round and develop,” he said. “You can work with him, and you might have something. The tools are all there. But I don’t know how anyone could know that he’s worthy of being taken high. He certainly could become that great quarterback in time, but he’s not there.”
June Jones’ run-n-shoot teaching videos
One of the pet projects Jones wanted to work on was to tap into the vast knowledge of Mouse Davis, his mentor of nearly 50 years, and create coaching videos to pass on to future generations.
Because as Jones said, “You can talk offensive innovation all you want … but everything we do now in football comes from something someone did before.
“All that fancy stuff the Kansas City Chiefs do with their short motions and their pitches and underhand tosses and misdirection and such, that was all from the run-and-shoot that ‘Tiger’ Ellison first coached and wrote about in the 1960s. It’s all taken from somewhere else.”
So he teamed up with coachtube.com and came up with the Official Run & Shoot Certification program on there. Jones is thrilled with the results.
“It’s really kind of taken on a life of its own,” Jones said. “One of my coaches approached me because we were always getting hit on stuff to do, from college coaches and high school coaches, for years. He had this thought of doing something with all this film we have available, which usually people can’t get.
“Mouse is 88 years old, so we knew we wanted to get together and do something with this. It’s been fun talking through all the routes and concepts, and it’s been fun hearing all the positive feedback.”
Viewers can learn all the concepts of the run-n-shoot offense, from its origins to its modern application, and take tests at the end of the program to be certified.
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