Duke has only had one quarterback drafted in the first round of the NFL Draft. Ever.
And that was in the supplemental draft.
This year though, the Blue Devils will get a second.
Daniel Jones certainly represents their best chance since Dave Brown, who was the first-round bust selected by the New York Giants in the 1992 NFL Supplemental Draft. Jones has blossomed in his third year under center, drawing comparisons to two quarterbacks by virtue of his head coach David Cutcliffe—Eli and Peyton Manning.
But Cutcliffe is not the only reason why I and a bunch of NFL scouts believe Jones will be drafted in the first round of the 2019 NFL Draft, assuming he spurns his last year of college eligibility to enter the draft pool.
To start, as someone who has spent hours interviewing the redshirt junior the past three years for The Chronicle, Jones has a lot of what you look for in a quarterback’s personality. He’s modest, prepared and extremely smart—not just on the football field—and Cutcliffe has rarely voiced displeasure with Jones from a mental standpoint.
Physically, too, Jones fits the boxes. Standing at 6-foot-5, he is more than tall enough to play the position, and is always moving his feet both in and out of the pocket. He turned heads in Duke’s 42-35 victory against North Carolina, breaking off two runs of 60-plus yards in which he outran the Tar Heels’ secondary.
Those not as impressed with Jones point to his passing statistics—he should have more passing touchdowns, less interceptions, and a higher completion percentage running Cutcliffe’s west coast offense. However, as NFL scouts will see as they pore through hours of Jones’ film, a lot of those issues stem back to the personnel around him.
Duke registered at least five drops on numerous occasions this season, an issue that was highlighted in its five losses this season. Against Clemson, freshman wideout Jarrett Garner dropped a beautifully thrown deep ball Jones unleashed as he was getting crushed by one of the Tigers’ star defensive linemen, highlighting another issue amongst the receivers outside of the drops: the lack of a reliable deep threat.
With redshirt junior Aaron Young sidelined the majority of the season with a hamstring injury—Young caught two passes traveling at least 25 yards—Jones has struggled tossing often catchable deep balls to a bevy of receivers who have continuously let him down. This is not just a 2018 issue, either, and despite an apparently newfound emphasis on the deep passing attack in the offseason, nobody has emerged as a reliable field-stretcher since Jamison Crowder departed after the 2014-15 season.
That is not to mention an offensive line that has struggled mightily in protecting Jones, especially the past two seasons. Battling injuries and overall inconsistency, there have been contests the past few seasons—Virginia Tech and Clemson this year, Virginia in years past—where Jones has not been able to stay upright long enough to allow his receivers to make their cuts.
There are some reasonable concerns about Jones, though, too.
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With such a premium on a quarterback’s health—see the Green Bay Packers last season and even the Washington Redskins this year—it is risky to spend a first-round pick, all but declaring him as the franchise leader in the coming years, on a guy who takes a ton of hits. Jones rarely slides, and part of that is because he can take hits, but he has also been saddled with injuries sapping him of his talent on the ground.
There are also fears that the Charlotte, N.C., native lacks the arm strength to succeed in the NFL. Although it may not be as apparent on his passes down the field, on quick throws to the sidelines, sometimes Jones’ balls lack the zip required to beat an opposing defender. Jones has been known more for the touch and accuracy he has on his throws rather than his arm strength, and with teams fascinated with Kansas City Chiefs’ star signal-caller Patrick Mahomes’ arm strength, the velocity Jones puts on his passes may be a negative to some teams.
However, you can point to Jones’ growth since joining the starting unit in confidence that he has not hit his ceiling yet. Every season he has significantly improved at least one quality, whether it was his passes downfield, pre-snap progressions, or footwork in sensing an oncoming pass rusher.
If Jones opts to leave Durham, he will also be benefitting from the sheer amount of teams in need of a quarterback. By my count, there are about seven teams that can reasonably draft a quarterback early, and in a weaker draft class compared to the Baker Mayfield, Sam Darnold, Josh Allen, Josh Rosen and Lamar Jackson one of last season, Jones has as good of a chance as anyone, save Oregon star Justin Herbert if he opts to declare, to get his name called on the first day.
So Duke fans, while you may be caught up in the hype of basketball with three nearly-guaranteed, and potentially four first-round draft picks, you may have already missed one playing only a few steps over from Cameron Indoor Stadium.
Just don’t be surprised when Jones comes out of the green room to shake commissioner Roger Goodell’s hand April 25.