Alabama quarterback Mac Jones worthy of top-10 pick in 2021 NFL Draft
By Rob Rang
FOX Sports NFL Draft Analyst
Throughout much of the 2020 college football season, Alabama quarterback Mac Jones was perceived by many to be fortunate just to be starting for a potential national championship team full of future first-round NFL draft picks.
But he wasn't considered a candidate to be the first Crimson Tide player selected in the 2021 NFL Draft.
This prompted us to take a closer look at Jones, specifically comparing him to the clearly more gifted athletes at the position, such as Ohio State’s Justin Fields and North Dakota State’s Trey Lance.
After reviewing every single pass and run Jones attempted in the 2020 season (conveniently available to all on YouTube), it is clear Jones is, in fact, worthy of the hype and might very well join Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence, BYU’s Zach Wilson, Fields and Lance as early NFL draft picks.
Although lacking the dazzling running skills and elite arm strength that generate all sorts of buzz during pro day workouts, Jones, admittedly to the surprise of this evaluator, was every bit as impressive during game action this year as any other quarterback in this class.
While statistics in today’s pass-happy era are often appreciated more by fans and stats-based evaluators than NFL scouts, there's no escaping the fact that Jones’ numbers in his only full season as Alabama’s starting quarterback are staggering.
Jones completed a jaw-dropping 77.4% of his passes in 2020, with 41 touchdowns against just four interceptions. He did so while competing against the most elite teams in the country, with a 14-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio in the postseason against Florida (SEC Championship Game), Notre Dame (Rose Bowl) and Ohio State (national title game).
Even more impressive than his numbers, however, are the ways Jones accumulated them, with split-second decision-making, innate feel in the pocket and deadly accuracy on deep passes.
Now, any breakdown of Jones’ play in 2020 must acknowledge the impact that brilliant playcaller Steve Sarkisian and the best "supporting cast" in college football played in his success. In every single game Alabama played last year, Jones was bailed out on at least one or two throws by brilliant catches from reigning Heisman Trophy winner DeVonta Smith, Jaylen Waddle, future early-round NFL draft choice John Metchie III and the best receiver at running back in this draft class, Najee Harris.
Just as importantly, Jones was provided brilliant pass protection, with his left tackle (Alex Leatherwood) and center (Landon Dickerson) sharing the SEC’s Jacobs Blocking Trophy as the best in the conference. Jones was sacked a total of seven times in 13 games. He was never sacked more than once in a game in 2020.
These facts, however, should not drive Jones’ evaluation. They certainly will not when it comes to the NFL, though scouts will note where he is most effective, suggesting his future NFL fits.
Sarkisian’s confidence in Jones was demonstrated throughout the season. After nearly every single sack, interception or even pass breakup from the defense, Sarkisian provided opportunities for Jones to exact a little revenge on the defense.
And boy, did Jones deliver.
He was deadly accurate on deep passes throughout the SEC’s regular season, connecting on an unheard of 30% of deep throws for touchdowns. By comparison, last year’s Heisman Trophy winner and No. 1 overall pick, Joe Burrow, completed 28% of similar throws.
Sure, a few of those throws were midrange crossing routes on which Smith or Waddle blew past the initial would-be tackler to generate big gains, but most were picture-perfect deep balls with the tight spin and trajectory that make tracking them in the air easy on pass-catchers. And those happened just a play or two after the opponent thought they’d made a game-changing play against the eventual national champions.
As teams adjusted late in the year — deploying two and even three-man Sky-looks to specifically take away Jones’ staggering deep ball prowess — he adapted, featuring Harris and tight ends Miller Forristall and Jahleel Billingsley more often on shorter routes to move the chains. All of Harris’ four touchdown receptions came in the playoffs, including three against Florida.
Regardless of whether he was attacking deep, intermediate or shallow, what was abundantly clear with Jones in 2020 was his Pro Bowl-caliber accuracy when he set his feet. When able to do so, Jones demonstrated the ability to thread the needle, leaving defenders frustrated with throws that hit his pass-catchers perfectly in stride.
His only interception in the three-game postseason, in fact, was a strike to Forristall that Florida defensive back Trey Dean III stole away. The ball, quite literally, would have hit Forristall in the chest had Dean not wrestled it away from him. Fortunately for Jones and the Tide, shortly after Dean intercepted the pass, Metchie exacted revenge, delivering a massive hit and forcing a fumble which Alabama recovered (by the always-hustling Smith).
Now, all of this isn’t to say that Jones did not have some poor throws on tape.
Critical to his evaluation is the fact that all of those occurred either with pressure in his face or when Jones was on the move. A late (and behind) play-action pass to Forristall against LSU and an equally ugly late throw against the grain against Arkansas are the kind of decisions that scouts will (and should) question Jones about.
As such, his fit in the NFL is critical, though not necessarily more than for Fields or Lance, his primary competitors as the so-called second-tier options at quarterback behind Lawrence and Wilson.
While Jones turned in a perfectly acceptable 40-yard dash time (ranging from 4.76 to 4.82, according to scouts we polled), he is very clearly at his best as a pocket passer. Jones did throw impressive touchdowns while rolling out to both his left (Kentucky) and right (Notre Dame), but virtually every other score was from the cozy confines of Alabama’s pocket.
Teams that are going to ask their quarterbacks to throw on the move — as San Francisco’s Kyle Shanahan traditionally has, for example — might want to focus their attention elsewhere. When Jones’ feet are not set, his accuracy drops significantly. Further, he does not have the arm strength to rifle passes to the sideline when unable to step into his throws the way Fields or Lance can.
That said, he might not have to.
It will not go unnoticed, of course, that the reigning Super Bowl champion — some guy named Brady — is at his best in the pocket, with scrambles or improvisations less necessary when a QB's awareness, decision-making and accuracy are this impressive.
Speaking of the GOAT, one of the most important — and least discussed, to this point — strengths about Jones is his Brady-like competitiveness.
Nicknamed "John McEnroe" by Alabama head coach Nick Saban early in his career with the Tide due to his vocal and demonstrative frustration following mistakes, Jones is a true alpha who demands perfection.
Since then, teammates and coaches at Alabama have come to refer to him as "Joker," not only because of a fun-loving personality and cackle in his laugh similar to that of the infamous villain but also because of the effectiveness with which he exacts his revenge.
Further, sources suggest not to overlook the possibility of the Atlanta Falcons (No. 4), Miami Dolphins (6) and Detroit Lions (7) looking to shake things up at the position. And don’t rule out a trade-up by New England (15) or Chicago (20).
This year’s unique talent and the sheer number of QB-needy teams virtually guarantee that at least three will be selected early, quite possibly with the first three picks, something that has happened only twice before (1999, 1971).
There has never been a draft that started with four quarterbacks selected consecutively or one with five passers chosen among the top 10.
Historically, teams tend to prioritize upside on draft day. Given their dual-threat abilities, it is quite possible that Fields and Lance are drafted ahead of Jones, though this is far from a guarantee. Jones is a legitimate top-10 talent, and his quick decision-making and stellar accuracy deep make him a particularly intriguing fit in Atlanta, Miami and New England.
While most focused on the 49ers’ big trade up to No. 3 overall as a possible fit for Jones, don’t overlook the Dolphins' trade back up to No. 6, a move many speculated as done to position Miami to add one of this year’s best pass-catchers.
Don’t assume Miami didn’t just recognize that the best Alabama quarterback to enter the NFL draft since Joe Willie Namath came a year later than they — and most others — expected.
One of the most recognized names in the industry, Rob Rang has been covering the NFL Draft for more than 20 years, with work at FOX, Sports Illustrated, CBSSports.com, USA Today, Yahoo, NFL.com and NFLDraftScout.com, among others.