NASHVILLE, Tenn.—When Daniel Jones and Eli Manning see each other next, it will not be their first meeting.
After growing up watching Manning in the spotlight for years, Jones will be tasked with learning everything he can from the New York Giants’ incumbent starter as New York selected Jones to be Manning’s eventual replacement. The comparisons are obvious between the new teammates—both are tall, strong quarterbacks with a quick release, and of course a shared college coach in David Cutcliffe.
But learning from Manning is not a new task for Jones. In fact, he has done it for years. Through the Cutcliffe connection, Manning came to Duke for offseason workouts on numerous occasions, and Jones was always eager to pick Manning's brain.
"They’ve already spent a lot of time around each other," Blue Devil head coach Cutcliffe said. "So while Daniel was here and [Manning worked out], Daniel’s eyes got big, and Daniel watched and begged to come into film studies [with Manning]. So they’ve been around each other, and are real comfortable with each other."
Often noted as a quarterback guru, it was only a matter of time before Cutcliffe found his guy at Duke.
After coaching three top-five picks in the NFL Draft at the position—Heath Shuler, Peyton Manning and Eli Manning—in his stints as offensive coordinator at Tennessee and head coach at Mississippi, Cutcliffe kept a low quarterback profile for much of his time in Durham. Since taking over for the Blue Devils in 2008, Cutcliffe did not attract anybody that could stack up to the Manning brothers. That is, until Jones came along.
Entering Duke without a guaranteed scholarship, Jones rose through the Blue Devil ranks quickly, getting the starting nod under center as a little-known redshirt freshman. The 6-foot-5 signal caller shot up draft boards as quickly as he rose through the Duke depth chart, and was the second quarterback off the board in the draft.
And for Cutcliffe, who has now coached four top-10 picks at the most important position in football, the secret is simple.
"I think that coaching is trust. It’s relationships. If you gain trust and you build a relationship, you can coach quarterbacks as tough as you coach left tackles," Cutcliffe said. "If there’s another thing I’ve done good, it’s obviously I know how to pick em. If you pick the right ones, you’ve got a chance at being a good coach."
Cutcliffe certainly picked the right ones in the Manning brothers. Peyton Manning won five MVPs, has the all-time passing yards record and is in the discussion for the greatest quarterback of all time. Although Eli Manning never quite reached the level his brother did, he still managed to win two Super Bowl MVPs and to put himself in the Hall of Fame conversation.
Now, Eli Manning faces a new challenge: grooming his successor. The mentor of both of the Mannings and Jones thinks that both are up to the task.
"To live in that household, growing up [Eli] had to be a fierce competitor as the youngest son," Cutcliffe said. "They both have that [competitive] temperament, which will serve Daniel well playing in the National Football League, period. And he will still be hungry, no different than Eli is, after 12 years, 14 years, 15 years. I never saw Peyton’s hunger change. Daniel Jones has got that."
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If Jones is to have a Manning-esque career, he has a long way to go. While Jones put together some eye-opening performances in his time as a Blue Devil, he struggled to put it all together. For every game that he had like his career-capping six-touchdown, 423-passing yard effort in the Walk-On's Independence Bowl, there was a game in which the Charlotte Latin School product struggled to make an impact, such as against Wake Forest last November, when he completed less than half of his passes and threw for only 145 yards.
In his three years as the starter, Jones completed 59.9 percent of his passes and averaged 6.4 yards per attempt. To put that into perspective, Kyler Murray, who went first-overall to the Arizona Cardinals, completed 67.4 percent of his passes and averaged 10.4 yards per attempt, and Dwayne Haskins, who went 15th to the Washington Redskins, completed 70 percent of his passes and averaged 10.3 yards per attempt.
Although Murray and Haskins, the only other quarterbacks drafted in the first round of the 2019 draft, did play in more passing-friendly offenses in college, Jones certainly has work to do to prove he can start at the NFL level. And Jones is ready to put in that work.
"There’s no one more excited than I am for this opportunity. No one’s going to work harder at it than I will," Jones said. "My immediate goal is to be the best teammate I can. I am eager to learn and eager to work. I can’t wait to get to work."
While many pundits and fans are skeptical, to say the least, of Jones going at No. 6, nobody can take away from Jones the fact that he improbably worked his way from an unknown to an NFL team's quarterback of the future. Yet, Cutcliffe, who knows quarterbacks as well as anybody else, always saw it coming.
"There was never a doubt in my mind he was going to end up being a star," Cutcliffe said.