2021 NFL Draft: Is Mac Jones Worth the Third Overall Pick?

The buzz following Friday's trades is that the San Francisco 49ers covet Mac Jones with the third overall pick. Is Jones worth such a lofty selection?

Oftentimes, buzz around the NFL draft can be written off as a smoke screen. The Miami Dolphins spent most of last offseason saying how open they were to not drafting Tua Tagovailoa only to select him with the fifth overall pick. Teams have incentive to lie, and their actions show they are very much aware of this.

Right now, though, the Mac Jones to the San Francisco 49ers rumors seem more like a warehouse blaze than a smoke screen.

It started with Chris Simms on Friday, right after the 49ers' trade up to the third overall pick was announced.

That, in itself, was noteworthy given Simms' close relationship with 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan. And since then, the drum beat has gotten louder with Shanahan and general manager John Lynch reportedly attending Jones' pro day this week rather than going to that of Justin Fields, per Peter King of NBC Sports. It's clear we have to take these rumors seriously.

What's interesting here, though, is that the NFL prop-betting market is still skeptical. Jones' odds to go at pick number two are much longer than those of Fields and Trey Lance at FanDuel Sportsbook. This isn't the same market as the 49ers, specifically, but it does show us the general hierarchy of the three quarterbacks after Trevor Lawrence and Zach Wilson.

At DraftKings, Jones' draft position prop is still 8.5 with -110 on both the over and the under. These markets aren't necessarily predictive because the limits tied to them are lower, but it does seem noteworthy that sportsbooks still view Fields and Lance more favorably than Jones.

This gives us an opportunity. If we choose to believe the smoke, we could load up on Jones props to the 49ers where available, and we could skew toward overs on both Fields and Lance in case they slip down the board. We just have to decide whether those opportunities are worth the risk.

The information segment of this will continue to trickle out over the next month. But let's analyze Jones as a prospect now to see whether these rumors deserve our consideration.

A Risky Profile

Part of Simms' rationale for thinking the 49ers would go after Jones is that he's pro-ready. That may be true, and he's better positioned to analyze that than we are given that Simms played the position. But from a statistical resume perspective, safety is not a box that Jones checks.

In our looks at successful first-round quarterbacks, the ideal mold has been an efficient, young, and experienced passer coming out. Jones has the efficiency aspect nailed; he led the nation by a wide margin in ESPN's QBR this year. His 12.8 AY/A against top-50 defenses by SP+ will tie Baker Mayfield for the best mark among drafted quarterbacks since 2010 once Jones has his name called next month. He absolutely got the job done.

The other two marks are much shakier, and that is significant.

Jones is coming off his age-22 season and had at least 10 pass attempts in 19 games during his collegiate career. Of the 60 quarterbacks taken in the first round since 2000, 16 have been Jones' age or older and have come out with fewer than 35 games under their belt. Those 16 quarterbacks have finished in the top 10 in numberFire's Total Net Expected Points (NEP) just twice across 69 qualified seasons. Not nice!

That's among quarterbacks with fewer than 35 games of experience. Jones is more than a full collegiate season behind that mark. The only two older prospects with fewer than 20 games of experience who went in the first round are Mark Sanchez and Mitchell Trubisky, both of whom went in the top five and failed to live up to expectations.

The draft capital aspect is key here because that has proven to be the best predictor of success among first-round quarterbacks. For as many mistakes as NFL talent evaluators make, they're tremendously skilled at what they do. So if Jones were to go inside the top three, it would boost his odds of hitting.

But even when we narrow our scope to just older, inexperienced quarterbacks who went in the top five picks, we run into trouble. That trims our list to eight quarterbacks. Here are those eight plus how often they finished as top-5, top-10, and top-15 passers by Total NEP.

Player Pick Top 5's Top 10's Top 15's Seasons With 200+ Drop Backs
David Carr 1 0 0 1 5
Joe Burrow 1 0 0 0 1
Sam Bradford 1 0 0 1 6
Joey Harrington 1 0 0 0 6
Mitchell Trubisky 2 0 0 1 4
Carson Wentz 2 1 1 2 5
Vince Young 3 0 0 1 3
Mark Sanchez 5 0 0 0 5

It's possible -- if not likely -- that Joe Burrow winds up being a hit, and we did see Carson Wentz flash brilliance at one point. But this shows that quarterbacks in Jones' mold do not qualify as being safe.

This isn't a downside that you get with Fields and Lance. Fields is six months younger than Jones with three more games of experience. He also ranked second behind only Jones in Total QBR and put up solid efficiency numbers despite facing potentially the toughest quarterback schedule of all time. Lance is 20 months younger with three fewer games of experience and had great numbers. Those numbers came against FCS teams, but it included a playoff run to the FCS Championship, so it's not as if he was just playing cupcakes.

So, with Jones, you don't get someone who profiles to have a high floor. That must mean that the ceiling here is elite. But with Fields and Lance both providing more skills as rushers than Jones, it's hard to argue that his ceiling is higher than theirs. That makes it curious that Jones would be the target here, even before baking in the capital they moved to get up to three.

The Shanahan Effect

Based on the data, Jones doesn't profile as someone who's super likely to hit at the next level, even when you account for the draft capital tied to him. But that views these picks in a vacuum. We have the benefit of adding context, and that context is favorable for whichever rookie quarterback winds up piloting the 49ers' offense.

The thing we dwell on most is Shanahan's ability to coach up quarterbacks, and that's legitimate. In an abbreviated sample this year, Jimmy Garoppolo ranked 11th in Passing NEP per drop back (which includes deductions for expected points lost on sacks, incompletions, and interceptions). That was while dealing with an ankle injury and playing without key pass-catchers most of the year. Garoppolo was eighth in that metric in 2019.

This isn't to say that Garoppolo is some elite passer. If that were the case, the 49ers would likely just stand pat. It says that the environment that quarterback is in is conducive to efficiency, and that's likely to remain the case next year with a rock solid offensive line and George Kittle, Deebo Samuel, and Brandon Aiyuk catching passes.

In this type of environment, Jones' hit rate goes up. If they take him with the third pick, the odds @OldTakesExposed goes nuts on the previous section are astronomical. So, Jones' lackluster profile in no way says he can't be a successful NFL player. But the odds he succeeds in San Francisco also shouldn't sway us toward going too heavy in the betting markets around these rumors.

Why We Should Stay Away

If you're looking for a reason to remain skeptical, you need not look further than Shanahan's old colleague, Sean McVay.

When the Los Angeles Rams moved on from Jared Goff this year, it wasn't because he was inefficient. Goff has as many top-five and top-10 seasons in Total NEP as Matthew Stafford despite having six fewer qualified seasons. It was because Goff didn't move the needle up, instead providing basically what the offense gave him.

That's the worry with Jones. Can he actually elevate an offense, or will he be similar to Garoppolo and Goff where he produces efficient seasons but struggles when a situation deteriorates?

Given the Rams admitted their mistake with the Goff contract just two months ago, it is extremely difficult to see a similar coach go all in on a player who could very well wind up in the Goff and Garoppolo bucket with the third overall pick. No matter how much smoke we see around Jones to the 49ers, that one point should serve as a red flag in our minds.

It's also not as if the 49ers have zero incentive to fib about their interest in Jones. The New York Jets -- at least in theory -- could still trade out of the second overall pick. If the 49ers are fully transparent in their preferences at quarterback, some other team could give the Jets a Godfather offer for the second pick and leapfrog them. If they instead slobber all over Jones, the odds they get jumped go down, giving them better odds of snagging the actual apple of their eye at three.

That doesn't mean you should bet all the overs on Jones' draft pick prop. Putting the number at 8.5 means the Detroit Lions and Carolina Panthers could both get you an under by taking Jones in the first round, which seems very much in play. It's moreso to say that we should be wary of laying a heavy number on Jones to the 49ers (once it's available) because there are such significant reasons to remain skeptical.

It's very possible the rumors here are all legit and that Jones is the pick. If that happens, he could very well succeed in the NFL. But part of betting is knowing when there are enough red flags to stay out of a market entirely, and unless we get a friendly number on Jones to the 49ers -- which seems unlikely at this point -- the best move seems to be sitting this one out and seeing if we get better information down the road.