This was an opportunity for two big name quarterbacks to impress.
Ryan Tannehill (Texas A&M) and Landry Jones (Oklahoma) have received a lot of positive hype this year. It’s far from a consensus, but a lot of people expect Jones to be a top ten pick. Tannehill was a fancied outsider – the kind of player scouts and fans look to in the hope he can add his name to the list of potential stars available in this class. Some high profile draft pundits even touted the possibility that Tannehill may be the second best quarterback eligible for 2012.
Wrong on both accounts.
I’ve seen quite a lot of Tannehill this season (five games) and this was my third batch of tape on Jones (I have a fourth Oklahoma game saved for later vs Kansas State). In each game I’ve seen from the pair this season, I’ve found myself highlighting the same issues. In Jones’ case, a lot of his problems were prevalent last season and there just hasn’t been enough of a leap in 2011 to warrant the kind of grades he’s receiving. Expectations went through the roof for Tannehill – perhaps unfairly – and games like this bring about something of a reality check.
Let’s start with Jones.
It only took until 6:04 remaining in the first quarter before we saw the play. I refer to it as the play because it’s had exagerrated success for Oklahoma this season in the previous two games I’ve seen. I fully expected to see it again today and low and behold, there it was midway through the first quarter. It’s not a hard play to detect – Ryan Broyles and Kenny Stills bunch together on the left and Landry Jones is in the gun. Jones takes the snap, pumps with his shoulder in the direction of Broyles who runs a short inside slant sucking in the coverage to open space down the left sideline for Stills on a fade. It’s the play that won the game against Florida State earlier in the season and it’s become a staple for Jones and the Sooners.
This time it wasn’t so successful – Jones pumped but then strangely floats an under thrown high pass with no touch or direction into coverage and somehow the linebacker drops an easy interception. It was unclear on the replay if the pass was tipped or not, but it was a great precursor to Jones’ overall performance on the day. It was awkward, generally inaccurate and a little predictable. I’ve seen him look a lot sharper than this and I suspect when I dig out the K-State tape that’s what I will find. However, this game raised one of my biggest concerns with Jones.
We saw the exact same play again in the second half and this time it led to a Stills touchdown. As a mere observer when I’m going into a game expecting to see this play once, that’s something. But the Oklahoma offense is based around the same small collection of plays and whether teams can cope with the speed in which they’re snapping the ball to execute these plays. Teams are so scared of Broyles – who is a production machine – they compensate in coverage when he runs anything inside allowing Stills the space to get open in single coverage. Everyone knows they’re gong to run this play eventually yet it still works. It’ll be interesting to see if they go away from it since Broyles unfortunately tore an ACL, but I’d also love to go back through the games since the FSU win and chart how many of Jones’ touchdowns come from this single play. In the NFL, he won’t be able to rely on staple plays. More worrying, I haven’t seen enough evidence of improvisation where Jones is going to a second or third option consistently. Jones is almost handcuffed to his playbook.
We’re not talking about a physically excellent quarterback, or even a big play quarterback who does the unpredictable. This is a guy who generally gets the job done in college – he executes his small playbook well enough to make the most of the talent he has to work with and let’s give credit where it’s due – he has to make this thing tick. He’s achieved that and from a college point of view, he’s done an excellent job avoiding any post-Sam Bradford hangover for the Sooners.
However, I really believe that he’s quite a limited player and at the next level he’ll just be found out like so many quarterbacks before him. When the environment isn’t perfect, neither is Jones. When things break down, he won’t improvise. One of the biggest issues I have is a complete lack of mobility. Ryan Mallett was labelled a statue last year, but he knew how to work a pre-snap read and had the ability to get the ball out quickly with accuracy to avoid outside pressure. He also – surprisingly – flashed ability to extend plays with footwork (he dodged Von Miller twice against Texas A&M last season to complete passes, one for a touchdown). Jones has nothing like this level of technical or mental ability. He takes unnecessary sacks when offered an open pocket to step into to buy time. He won’t round the edge and get out of the pocket. Get him moving on the run and nine times out of ten the ball’s going out of bounds. His footwork is plodding and weighted and if you take away his first read there’s every chance you’ll get to him.
I often get asked for the positive side of things – sometimes we can be too focused on the negatives and arguing why a player doesn’t warrant the hype rather than a balanced review of pro’s and con’s. If you want me to write down a handful of nice things to say about Landry Jones, I can do that for you. He has passable arm strength, decent height and a throwing motion that’s slightly 3/4 but he doesn’t have many passes batted down at the LOS (unlike Tannehill, more on that later). Like most quarterbacks with any reputation in college, he does a good job when afforded a clean pocket and he flashes his ability to throw his hot read open. There are a lot of blind throws in the OU offense, but there are also several passes that do require some touch and when given time he can be accurate at times it just isn’t consistent enough to be the positive it needs to be. His production is excellent and had Oklahoma stayed unbeaten he could’ve been a Heisman candidate. His two touchdown passes were both nice plays on the day – one coming on the wide open fade to Stills and the other a catch-able back shoulder throw to Jaz Reynolds who made a spectacular one-handed grab.
Here’s the bottom line though – I wouldn’t draft Landry Jones. I cannot see him ever succeeding at the next level. His best situation would be to land on a team with an experienced offensive coaching staff and a defined scheme that doesn’t require a lot of pocket mobility (most teams see mobility as being crucial these days). Allow him to master a playbook and groom him to replace a succesful veteran who still has miles on the clock. Of course, that’s an ideal situation for any quarterback entering the NFL – but for some it’s more necessary than others and Jones fits into that category. If he starts early, he’ll struggle. He won’t be able to digest complex defensive reads, he’ll take too many sacks and with greater pressure and a less fluid offense he’ll turn the ball over. There are no logical reasons for any team to touch the guy in the top half of round one and I suspect by the time April arrives his stock will be lower than it is right now.
What about Tannehill?
I’ve been more negative than most about his play so far this year. He entered 2011 a really intriguing prospect – this was a guy who took over the starting gig at Texas A&M last season converting from receiver and he just won games. He beat Jones and Oklahoma, he beat Oklahoma State, Baylor and Texas. His only defeat came in the Cotton Bowl to LSU – currently the #1 ranked college team before tonight’s game against Alabama. He’s big, he’s athletic and he appears to have the right attitude. Understandably, people bought into his potential.
The hype went too high, too soon. A guy who ended last year with modest round 3/4 range grades was suddenly touted as possibly the second best QB to Andrew Luck – ahead of Matt Barkley. Big plays were being received with nods of approval and premature ‘I told you so’s’ about his potential, while negative plays (and there have been a few) were greeted by naysayers calling out those creating the hype. The truth lies somewhere in the middle. Tannehill has physical qualities that are attractive, but he’s not anywhere close to anything like an established or technical passer. There is so much he has to learn to play quarterback in the NFL and the question is whether or not he’ll be able to do that considering we only have 1.5 seasons of college tape to make a projection.
Here’s what happened today and this was as poor a performance I’ve seen from Tannehill so far.
With 2:31 left in the first quarter, Tanehill takes the snap in the gun and locks on to his primary receiver. He stays with the receiver for three seconds – which was too long – and really needed to progress to another option. He sticks in the pocket and eventually turns to the sideline and unwisely forces a pass into double coverage which is easily picked off for a big interception return. It was a very poor decision to attempt that pass, at no point should it have been an option and it was proof of a quarterback feeling pressure from his blind side, panicking and making an avoidable mistake.
It highlighted a significant issue I have with Tannehill – he locks on to his primary target too often and for whatever reason (experience or because he’s incapable of doing it) he doesn’t do a good enough job getting away from his hot read. In each game I’ve watched Tannehill this season I’ve seen a quarterback too attached to the first option that he becomes tentative, sometimes waiting for clear separation before attempting the pass. If it doesn’t come, he’ll panic and sensing pressure (that isn’t always there) he forces mistakes. He needs to show much greater poise, timing, awareness of not only his position and that of the defensive lineman and better decision making. On this particular play against Oklahoma he could’ve easily run a bootleg to the right getting out of the pocket – it would’ve bought as many as 4-5 extra seconds to complete a pass or as a secondary option he could’ve chosen to run with the ball – the space was that substantial on the right boot leg. Instead he forces the throw and turns it over.
There are two technical complaints I have. Firstly, he’s quite robotic in his throwing motion and looks stiff. It doesn’t appear to be a natural motion and while this is something he can improve with a good quarterbacks coach (and by simply relaxing a little) he doesn’t have a natural flow in the same way a lot of high first round picks have shown. Secondly, he has a 3/4 release which is too low for my liking. At his height, he shouldn’t be having the number of tipped passes we see. Some quarterbacks (like Landry Jones) get away with it, but not Tannehill. His second interception came from one of these tipped passes and he almost had another in the second half. He’ll need to straighten out that delivery during the senior bowl and subsequent work outs.
The third interception may have been the worst of the lot – a desperate throw chasing the game just lobbed up for grabs down the right sideline. This just isn’t good enough in general, it was maybe the worst throw I’ve seen this season. He’s under no pressure and breaks out of the pocket this time with a clean line of vision to Jeff Fuller. He can clearly see the receiver is not only covered, but he’s got into a bad position with his back turned and the DB is facing the football. Tannehill cannot throw that pass under any circumstance. At least with the first pick there was moderate pressure from Frank Alexander and it was just a bad decision on his second read. He’s locked onto Fuller here and just forced an interception. It’s the kind of play you just don’t see from Andrew Luck, Matt Barkley, Robert Griffin, Landry Jones, Austin Davis or Brandon Weeden. It’s the kind of lazy turnover Nick Foles makes.
Again we can run through the positives and unlike Jones we’re not talking about a limited physical prospect. Tannehill is a mobile player who can extend plays while also making significant gains on the ground. His touch on deep passes is generally good. His poise is inconsistent but on a key 3rd and 6 from inside his own end zone I liked the fact he was patient enough for Ryan Swope to get open before making the completion for a nice gain. On the touchdown pass just before half time, Tannehill has perfect protection and must’ve been tempted to run the ball when nobody was open initially – the first down may well have been achievable running the ball. However, he keeps his eyes downfield and when Swope breaks coverage it’s an easy pass for a big score. That flashed good decision making to contrast the bad turnovers and at least suggests there is something to work with in that regard.
The inexperience issue can be used both as a positive and a negative, but there’s enough of an unknown there to wonder ‘what if’? Of course unknown development holding a clipboard isn’t even a real intangible and while someone like Jake Locker boasted real physical and playmaking potential, Tannehill is far from that level. I wouldn’t rule out Tannehill the way I’d rule out Jones, I just have very little confidence that in a few years time we’ll be talking about him as a starting NFL quarterback. It was incredibly ambitious to ever even suggest he could possibly be graded higher than Matt Barkley – who is far superior in terms of a NFL projection. I’d grade him in rounds 3-4 and whether he goes higher than that in my view will depend on a teams desperation to fill a hole at quarterback.
I do feel slightly vindicated watching a game like this. For me it has always been about Luck and Barkley in round one – hardly an ambitious suggestion, but certainly not a common one given it doesn’t include the likes of Jones, Tannehill etc. Too many people have tried to create problems with Barkley, when the reality is he’s a tremendously accurate and technical passer primed to have a quick impact in the NFL. We all know about Andrew Luck. The rest of the group aren’t anywhere close to the top-two. The one wildcard is Robert Griffin III – a major project but one in possession of a lot of intriguing physical tools, elite character and rare consistency with the deep ball in terms of accuracy, touch and placement. Not every team will be able to draft Griffin early and he’s a long way off Cam Newton type potential, but there is something there. Remember to keep an eye on Austin Davis too – he’s the reason Southern Miss are ranked and another victory today at East Carolina will boost that reputation further.
If you’re looking for a first round quarterback who can come in and have a very real chance to lead your team for over a decade, the list starts with Luck and ends with Barkley. The Seahawks should let someone else take a chance on Jones and Tannehill.