At the beginning of the college football season, Cardale Jones was just Ohio State's third-string quarterback and an afterthought at best when it came to the 2015 NFL draft. But after three wins in the Buckeyes' three biggest games of the season, Jones is now the talk of every draftnik, personnel evaluator and coach regarding his professional future.
Jones didn't have much meaningful action for the Buckeyes before he was tabbed to start the Big Ten championship against Wisconsin, but he performed like very few inexperienced quarterbacks ever have. He completed 12-of-17 passes for 257 yards and three touchdowns in Ohio State's 59-0 win. To follow up that performance, he completed 18 passes in 35 attempts for 243 yards, one touchdown and one interception, plus 43 yards on the ground, in the Buckeyes' 42-35 win over Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. And in the 42-20 win over Oregon that gave the Buckeyes the national championship, he completed 16-of-23 for 242 yards, one touchdown and one pick, adding another touchdown on the ground.
There really isn't anything to compare this to in recent NFL history, because Jones wasn't just dinking and dunking his way to accelerated stats in a juiced-up spread offense against sub-par teams. He bested an Alabama defense that feeds players to the pros every year, and Oregon's defense is one of the faster and most complex in the nation. He was inconsistent at times, to be sure, but he also made several stick throws in that three-game stretch -- often at the most important times. On third or fourth down with nine or more yards to go, Jones completed 6-of-9 passes for 178 yards and a touchdown. You'd be hard-pressed to ask that of Jameis Winston or Marcus Mariota against two of the NCAA's best defenses, and that's where Jones' NFL prospects get interesting.
Everybody knows that the NFL is more a quarterback league than ever before, and there are several teams with no sure answer at the position, as well as teams with older quarterbacks and no sure fix for the long term. This is not a loaded draft class at the position past Winston and Mariota -- guys like UCLA's Brett Hundley and Baylor's Bryce Petty have a lot of question marks regarding their long-term development -- and that's the first reason I think Jones should seriously consider declaring for the draft by the Jan. 15 deadline for underclassmen.
"The two main arguments for Jones turning pro are that his stock may never be higher and the draft's quarterback class may never be weaker," SI.com colleague Chris Burke told me. "Once Marcus Mariota and Jameis Winston are off the board, it should be wide open. Does the experience acquired by guys like Bryce Petty and Brett Hundley trump the upside Jones showed -- as a physical runner and a capable passer -- in his brief time starting? The simplest answer here is that three college starts do not come close to preparing a quarterback for the NFL jump. But if he decides he's better off developing under the watch of an NFL staff than in a quarterback competition at Ohio State, now would be the time to go."
NFLDraftScout.com has Hundley as a borderline first-to-second round pick, and Petty ranked as a third-round prospect. After that, it's a bunch of third-day guys who have done far less in expanded timeframes. Should it matter that Jones' sample size is smaller?
"Jones is obviously a little bit of a mystery man," one NFL personnel executive told Mark Maske of the Washington Post. "He was dropped into the deepest end of the pool imaginable. He not only survived it and treaded water; he was doing back flips off the high dive. It’s amazing. There’s just not a large body of work. That’ll be the issue if he does come out."
Another exec told Maske that he couldn't hazard a guess where Jones would be drafted, because "that was kind of the coffee-pot discussion we had this morning. He certainly has the size. He certainly showed flashes of skills. I just can’t think of a comparable guy with such a small body of work."
However, even if Jones returns to school, he's not even guaranteed a starting job -- J.T. Barrett will be in the mix there. One would assume that Jones would be able to take the job, given his recent success, but what if he doesn't? That would burst his bubble, and it might not even be based on pure talent. Coaches make decisions for all kinds of reasons, and they're not always right. And given the NCAA's ridiculous rules regarding the restriction of transfers for players (coaches, as Ohio State's Urban Meyer well knows, can leave for greener grass whenever they want), Jones could be boxed in at Ohio State, perceived as the ultimate one-hit wonder, and that would be that. Yes, there's also the chance that he could play this way for Ohio State next season and turn himself into a top-five pick in 2016, but there are no guarantees.
What does Jones think?
“You know, I’m going to be starting three games in three years, and you know, guys play their whole career to have that buildup and have that motivation to play in the NFL," he said this week. "In my personal opinion, I’m not ready for that level yet. I mean, like Coach Meyer said, it’s a conversation me and him will have later down the road. But to me right now, it’s far out.”
Meyer said this week that Jones' brand may never be stronger, a rare display of honesty and selflessness from a college coach. And the thing is, he's absolutely right. But what happens if Jones declares for the draft, and the various scouts and execs and coaches decide that he's got all the buzz? In last year's pre-draft process, Pitt's Tom Savage went from a nobody to the next Joe Flacco, based on the word of a number of people who were pumping him up in the spring. In the end, Savage went in the fourth round to the Texans. This is a prospect who missed two full seasons due to transfer rules. Would Jones not be worth more in a weak quarterback class?
Does Jones possess the raw attributes required for success in the NFL? He clearly has the arm to make any throw. He's learning to throw with anticipation, to read defenses and to look defenders off. There are quarterbacks in the NFL without Jones' physical talent who still struggle with these issues. Let's put it this way: If you're the Denver Broncos, and you're watching the sun set on Peyton Manning's career, who would you rather have for your future -- Brock Osweiler or Cardale Jones? You can bet that a lot of NFL teams are having similar discussions with different names right now.
Jones is smart to question whether it's time for him to make the jump to the pros, and in my opinion, he shouldn't be dinged by NFL teams for a lack of experience. Based on his physical attributes, there's little doubt that he would own the scouting combine and his pro day, and that could accelerate his stock into the second or third round. Ideally, he could develop for a year or so under a coaching staff in a vertical passing game, and move forward with the mechanical fixes needed to make the most of his potential.
In my opinion, Cardale Jones should make the jump now.