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With JT Barrett on a roll and Ohio State seemingly primed to walk into the National Championship game, it did not appear that Ohio State’s season could get much better or more exciting. Then, near the end of the team’s rivalry game vs Michigan, Barrett went down with an ankle injury. The injury kept him off the field for the rest of the year, leaving the responsibility of the offense in the hands of Cardale Jones. Many were worried about a third string quarterback taking over the team, but with some adjustments to the offense, Jones was able to step in and keep Ohio State on the path to a trophy.
As well as Jones played during his short three-game stint, do not confuse him being great with the team and conditions being great. Jones executed a simple offense on a great team. That is not saying Jones is a poor player , but it is saying that what he was doing made it relatively easy for him to look really good. This is the case for more players than many assume, though I will touch on that later.
As a collegiate weapon, Jones is a great, versatile player that forces secondaries to respect deep passing while also respecting his ability to pick up yards on his own with his legs. Not only did this maximize Devin Smith, a blazing deep threat and future 2nd round pick, but it also took attention away from running back Ezekiel Elliott, who was allowed to thrive when teams had a second running threat to prioritize. This boosted the firepower of the Ohio State offense as a whole, allowing them to top Alabama’s defense and roll through Oregon’s in the national championship.
The problem with Ohio State becoming stronger is that Jones’s influence as a collegiate weapon got intertwined with his prospects as a future NFL player. Jones does have a legitimate shot at NFL success, but the notion that he was a lock to be a first round pick if he had declared for the 2015 Draft was and is absurd. He did not do nearly enough from a mental standpoint and his most touted traits, his arm and athleticism, are being just a tad overrated. He is far from lacking in either area, but some are comparing his tools to Cam Newton, though they are more like Andrew Luck’s. Again, a tool set similar to Luck’s is far from lacking [honestly, me hammering the Cam comparison is more of a testament to how absurdly athletic Cam is], but when other key traits are either lacking or yet to be proven, there is plenty of reason to be weary of Jones’s prospects. So, the bigger issue with Jones is not what we have seen that he can’t do, it is what we have seen that he can do. What we have seen he can do is limited because of sample size and the nature of the offense he is in.
One of the things he has not proven is his willingness as a passer as opposed to being a runner.
Above, Jones is looking at the trips (right) side of the play. The boundary receiver turns for a curl and has plenty of room for any quarterback with a decent arm to hit with ease. Instead of throwing on the receiver’s break, Jones drops his eyes and takes off. While he does still cross the sticks for a first down, choosing to not throw the open receiver was either rooted in a natural presence as a runner instead of a passer or a lack of confidence in his ability to stick the throw on a crucial third down. Either way, turning down a throw like that gives reason for concern.
Twice more, Jones looks at options down the field and decides to tuck the ball and run instead of making the throw.
In the first of the two plays, Jones should have no issue making that throw as the tight end has plenty of separation from the linebacker, but Jones seems too impatient to wait to see that. He moves too early and never gives the throw a chance. On the second play, which is farther down the field, in fairness, Jones looks off the receiver curling because it appears that he sees a defender in the area. While there is a defender in the area, said defender is preoccupied and has his back turned at the time that the throw would have been made. Had Jones thrown this ball with the velocity he normally does and is capable of, this is likely a completion.
As you can see, this is a common theme in Jones’s game. He too often opts to run the ball himself instead of making the throw. Whether it be because he thinks the throw is too hard or he simply has a preposition as a runner, it is tough to be certain, but either way, looking off those throws is not something to be desired out of an NFL hopeful like Jones.
The next bridge to cross is the times in which Jones actually does make a throw. Jones’s accuracy is unlike any other that I can recall. His short accuracy (5> yards) and deep accuracy (20+ yards) is more than serviceable, but the area in between is an issue for him. Seldom does he throw wide or high, though seeing Jones’s throw too low to a receiver in the 6-19 yard range is far too common. In the pocket or on the move, Jones fires to the ground when throwing the intermediate area. Often, this is an arm strength issue, but it is pretty clear that sheer strength is not the issue. Rather, it appears Jones does not quite understand how to change speeds, leading him to fire in throws with everything he’s got, which leads to excess power in his downward throwing motion. I know, I know, it sounds fictitious, but think about it: if you are using all your strength on adding velocity, how is one to control the ball?
Luckily for Jones, this is only an issue on routes crossing his face. For seam/hash routes or deep curl routes, Jones is able to display plenty of accuracy, and these routes, namely the seam/hash routes, are plenty common in Ohio State’s offense. If an offense were to ask Jones to keep it simple and operate more vertically than horizontally, as well as include him as a rushing threat, he could prove to be legit. Ohio State, while much simpler than any NFL offense, did just that.
Like it or not, Ohio State’s offense is generally easier to operate than a traditional offense. More of their route combos are intended to clear out for a single route, as opposed to mesh multiple routes together and allow the quarterback to choose the best one. Play action and a brutal rushing attack forces linebackers to cheat toward the line of scrimmage and allow for yards through the air. Due to the fast tempo and abundance of rushing, defenses tended to play zone and, mostly due to tempo, show it early. Precise timing routes are scarce. To shorten a long list of things, Ohio State’s offense does little to resemble the pace and feel of a typical NFL offense. Even teams that run “spread” in the NFL do not get some of these luxuries because defenses are faster and smarter.
Part of this offense related issue is that what Jones is being asked to do is relatively simple. Beat a defense over the top with his arm, expose cheating linebackers and run. Those are, for the most part, Jones’s tasks. He is asked to execute timing routes or sift through multiple reads to make a throw. This may sound like a definite negative on Jones, but it does not have to be. If a player can do just a few things really well, then he can prove to be valuable. Though Russell Wilson won a Super Bowl in just his second year and went to another in the following season, he is not exempt from that concept.
Russ Wilson is the young, dynamic do-it-all quarterback that holds the Seattle offense together… right? He is certainly a talented player, but that is not quite correct. If anyone is holding that offense together, it is Marshawn Lynch, much like it was Ezekiel Elliott who held together the OSU offense when Cardale was at the helm. In 2014, the Seattle offense was predicated on Lynch taking over games and forcing defenses to clear the airways in an effort to slow down Lynch. By doing that, Wilson was allowed more space and more zone coverage to operate against. Due to quality anticipation, arm strength and poise in the pocket, Wilson was able to throw well against these zones. When he was not combated with zone coverage, Wilson often took matters into his own hands- or rather, his legs. In fact, he lead the NFL in rushing yards as a quarterback and tied for 16th overall in the league with 849 yards. Seattle, as a whole, lead the league in rushing yards by just over 400 yards and had the highest yards per carry rate by more than a half of a yard.
Where I am going with this is that, while the offense was not revolving around the quarterback and his tasks were relatively simple, the team still had great success. Of course, Seattle’s outstanding defense plays a part in that success, but them asking their quarterback to only do a handful of things he was really good at maximized the offense.
Now, how does this relate to Jones? Jones, as he is now, is a limited player who is very talented in the few areas he has shown function in. On top of that, his physical tools are gaudy. Him being limited right now is and should be a negative, but it is not out of question to be able to mold what he is good at into an offensive scheme and have success. Granted, the team who takes him will need a strong running game to alleviate pressure, but if he can get that, we may see Jones’s early years in the NFL be him operating as a “point guard” type quarterback with ability to pick up yards with his feet. If he gets this and is allowed to operate with confidence, we may see improvement in the nuance aspect of his game, being that confidence breeds improvement.
Though, let us not get ahead of ourselves. Cardale Jones will either need to develop a more natural predication as a passer or he will need to be catered to well (again, not really a negative, catering is what NFL coordinators should be doing). Jones is a very talented player that could be a valuable NFL weapon at some point, but another year behind center and the situation he lands in because of the draft will dictate what he becomes in the future. While he may very well end up being catered to, I tend to lean on the side of caution, thus I will not be betting too strongly on Jones being a quality NFL starter.