It's no secret that the NFL is a quarterback-driven league. And as such, it's the position that annually drives the most speculation and postulation from draftniks.
It's also no secret that in the 2021 draft class, Clemson's Trevor Lawrence is the consensus top player at the position and the presumptive No. 1 overall pick. After that, the waters muddy somewhat, but on more big boards than not, the next few signal-callers are some combination of BYU's Zach Wilson, Ohio State's Justin Fields and North Dakota State's Trey Lance.
All four are widely expected to be selected inside the top 15 on April 29.
But there's another guy who could easily find himself a first-round pick. A quarterback some have predicted could even go inside the top 10. Someone coming off a breakout season who led the Alabama Crimson Tide to a national championship.
Mac Jones isn't the biggest signal-caller in this year's draft. Or the fastest. He doesn't have the strongest arm. But he showed enough in Tuscaloosa last year to impress more than a few scouts.
And enough to be the ultimate wild card in Round 1.
Jones had a "lightbulb" season and then some for Alabama in 2020. In his first year as the full-time starter, the 6'3", 214-pounder had 4,500 passing yards, 41 touchdowns and just four interceptions. He completed 77.4 percent of his throws and posted a 203.1 passer rating on the way to an undefeated season while winning the Davey O'Brien Award as the nation's top quarterback.
Jones routinely made pinpoint throws into tight windows against some of the nation's top defenses. He lit up the Georgia Bulldogs for 417 yards and four scores, scorched the Florida Gators for 418 yards and five touchdowns in the SEC Championship Game, and dissected the Ohio State Buckeyes for 464 yards and five touchdowns to bring home the national title.
Those gaudy numbers surprised many, but the guy Jones succeeded at Alabama wasn't shocked. As a matter of fact, while speaking to Yahoo Sports, Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa compared Jones to the greatest signal-caller to ever play:
Before you discount Tagovailoa's Jones-Tom Brady comparison as one former teammate talking up another, it's worth pointing out that while appearing on ESPN's First Take, Mel Kiper Jr. also compared Jones to the GOAT.
"Mac Jones is what Brady was," Kiper said, via Riley Gates of 247Sports. "Now, he's not going to be Brady, but he is that type of quarterback, style-wise."
No one is projecting Jones to cover an entire hand (and then some) in Super Bowl rings. But as Jordan Reid wrote at The Draft Network, he displays uncommon poise in the pocket:
"Jones' decision-making in all three levels of the field was well above average, as he's required to constantly perform multistep progressions. A sign of how well he understands how to funnel through them cleanly, he's not afraid to dump the ball to the running back as the last option in progressions. Like the long hand on an old-school analog clock, it's easy to see Jones get through his first, second, third and sometimes even fourth option in his reads. His ability to perform the process of elimination while going through progressions is an area that he's shown consistency with."
It has been a meteoric rise for Jones, who went from a fringe NFL prospect to a potential first-round selection. A number of experts don't think he will make it out of the top 10. In his latest mock draft, Kiper has the Carolina Panthers taking Jones at No. 8, and Chris Simms of NBC Sports doesn't believe he'll fall much beyond that.
"Mac Jones is a better prospect than Tua," Simms said on The Dan Patrick Show, via Keith Farner of Saturday Down South. "Mac Jones is going to go in the top 10, from just what I've seen right now. I'd be shocked. I think there's going to be four [quarterbacks] in the top eight. Just a base comment right now. … This Mac Jones guy, all he does is throw spirals, perfect throws, NFL-type throws. He can change his arm angle and do those type of things."
That's high praise. But for every scout who thinks Jones is a top-10 pick, there's another who believes the hype has gotten out of hand.
For starters, while Jones isn't necessarily undersized height-wise, he's on the smaller side relative to the other high-end prospects at his position this year. He's the least athletic of that group as well—opposing defenses don't have to worry about Jones pulling many zone-read keepers and peeling off a 40-yard scamper. While he is an accurate passer, his arm strength is average. And at Alabama, he benefited from playing behind one of the nation's best offensive lines surrounded by NFL-caliber skill-position talent.
As CBS Sports' Chris Trapasso wrote in labeling Jones a Day 2 prospect, if he isn't surrounded by a similarly impressive supporting cast in the pros, it may be difficult for him to come close to replicating his collegiate success:
"Could Jones land on a good team late in Round 1, sit for a season and ultimately become a successful passer? Yes. But he's going to need a lot of assets around him. Sturdy offensive line, deep and dynamic group of receivers, and an innovative offensive coordinator who's not going to ask Jones to make too many tight-window throws and will accentuate the screen and [run-pass option] games. Take any of those elements away, and Jones is likely to crumble because of his lack of supreme physical traits."
It's much more likely that Jones will go in the first half of Round 1 than on the draft's second day, as there are just too many teams in need of help under center. And it's not like there aren't question marks surrounding this year's other prospects, whether it's Fields' ability to make reads, Wilson's level of competition or Lance playing at the FCS level and missing most of the 2020 season.
But Jones has question marks of his own. His arm strength and athleticism are average at best, and it's fair to question how much of his 2020 success was because of DeVonta Smith, Najee Harris and Jaylen Waddle.
In the past few years, we have seen quarterbacks with question marks fall to the end of the first round and go on to enjoy fantastic success early in their careers (looking at you, Lamar Jackson). In that same draft, we saw another quarterback with different question marks get drafted inside the top 10 who is already on his fourth team (Josh Rosen).
Where on that spectrum Jones will land may well depend on where he starts his professional career—and which team is willing to roll the dice on the biggest wild card of Round 1.