NFL teams get three years to evaluate a young quarterback. That’s it. After that time, a decision has to be made: Do we commit to this passer for the long haul, or is it time to start looking for someone else? That’s how things have tended to play out since the league standardized the rookie contract structure in 2011 and included a fifth-year option in every first-round pick’s deal—one that had to be picked up or declined after a player’s third season.
Players rarely wind up playing on that fifth-year option; the act of picking it up usually indicates that a team wants to initiate long-term contract negotiations. Only two quarterbacks have ever played on their fifth-year option (Jameis Winston with the Buccaneers and Marcus Mariota with the Titans), because second contracts almost always get done well before that point—or the option wasn’t picked up in the first place.
Giants quarterback Daniel Jones is currently stuck somewhere in the middle of that dichotomy: He hasn’t shown nearly enough in his first three seasons to convince New York to give him a big second contract, yet he’s also done just enough to prevent the team from giving up on him. Having drafted Jones 35 months ago, the Giants’ evaluation period is just about up. They have until May 2, the first Monday after the draft, to pick up Jones’s fifth-year option, which would lock him in for a fully guaranteed salary of about $22.4 million for 2023.
That’s a lot of money to commit to a quarterback who might be bad. And as the Panthers and Browns have found this offseason, it’s a difficult mistake to rectify if you make the wrong move. After picking up Sam Darnold’s fifth-year option last year, Carolina will likely have to eat his $18.9 million cap hit for 2022 while actively looking for his replacement. Cleveland has already found Baker Mayfield’s replacement but hasn’t had any luck finding a trade partner willing to pay Mayfield’s fully guaranteed salary for 2022.
Those are two cautionary tales that New York’s new brain trust can’t afford to ignore. First-year GM Joe Schoen and rookie head coach Brian Daboll have both said they’re committed to Jones as their starting quarterback in 2022—and they backed up that talk by sitting out of the trade markets for Russell Wilson and Deshaun Watson. But they’ll have to decide over the next few weeks whether they’re willing to tie their first two years in New York to a quarterback they didn’t draft. And considering that the last three head coaches hired by the organization were all gone within two years, we could easily look back at this as the most important decision of the Schoen-Daboll partnership.
Of course, the Giants could decline Jones’s fifth-year option and have him play out the final year of his rookie deal as a “prove it” season. That would buy the organization another year of evaluation before any commitment has to be made, whether it’s an extension or the franchise tag. But we have literally never seen a team decline a quarterback’s fifth-year option and subsequently work out a deal to keep them around. When a team passes on the option, it’s the beginning of the end.
The 10 First-Round Quarterbacks Whose Fifth-Year Options Were Declined
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Maybe Jones can become the first quarterback to buck this trend, but in all likelihood, whatever the Giants decide over the next few weeks will tell us whether he’ll be starting in New York beyond 2022 or the team will be looking for his successor by this time next year—if not sooner.
The fact that we’re still having these debates about Jones should probably mean that it’s time to move on, right? The best quarterbacks in the NFL looked the part early on and didn’t need a fourth year to earn a second contract. But Jones’s situation is a little more complicated—and “complicated” is just a nice way of saying it’s been downright shitty. His first head coach and play-caller, Pat Shurmur, was fired after Jones’s rookie year. Shurmur was replaced by Joe Judge, who just barely outlasted Urban Meyer before the Giants came to their senses. In 2022, Jones will be playing under his third head coach and fourth offensive coordinator. That Jones isn’t already out of the NFL and working as an analyst for the ACC Network or something is an accomplishment in and of itself.
And as bad as the coaching has been, the talent surrounding Jones hasn’t been any better. Not last season anyway. The offensive line finished 28th in ESPN’s Pass Block Win Rate metric after ranking dead last in 2020. The Giants invested heavily in the receiving corps last offseason, giving Kenny Golladay a $72 million contract before using a first-round pick on Kadarius Toney, but injuries and inconsistent play prevented either from making a big impact. Throw in a run game that finished 30th in DVOA in 2021, and you have a recipe for one of the worst supporting casts in the league.
Here are the final QB help composite score rankings for the regular season which takes special teams EPA, rush EPA, defensive EPA, open rate when targeted, and pass block win rate to evaluate how good a team is around the QB. Playoff QBs highlighted in blue as well pic.twitter.com/Hna0AoJnYr— Arjun Menon (@arjunmenon100) January 15, 2022
Those personnel deficiencies showed up all over the field. Jones finished last in the league in targets thrown to open receivers, which is hardly surprising if you’ve watched film of the 2021 Giants offense. The offensive line wasn’t good enough to hold up in protection on long-developing pass plays—New York had the highest rate of blown blocks on five- and seven-step dropbacks, per Sports Info Solutions—so opposing secondaries didn’t have to worry about the deeper areas of the field. Offensive coordinator Jason Garrett was unable to coach around those limitations, so he just called a bunch of hitches and out-breaking routes instead.
Those are risky throws, and they’re even harder to make when the defenses can sit on them without having to worry about throws over the top. As the season wore on, defenses squeezed the Giants passing game more and more, forcing Jones to grow more and more conservative:
Before defenses started to clamp down on the passing game, Jones had been playing solid football—even if his traditional stat line didn’t reflect it. Through the first five weeks of the season, he ranked sixth in Pro Football Focus’s grading, ahead of Kyler Murray, Joe Burrow, Josh Allen, and Patrick Mahomes. But even when things were going well, Jones didn’t have it easy. There were no “layups” provided by Garrett’s scheme, and if Jones needed more time in the pocket or space to make a throw, he had to create it for himself. Good NFL quarterbacks are expected to do those things every so often; for Jones, it was required on most plays.
Take this play from New York’s Week 4 win in New Orleans. It’s first down near midfield, and Jones is looking to hit Golladay over the middle. Saints linebacker Demario Davis is in the throwing window, and there’s no underneath route included in the play design to draw him out of it. So Jones uses his eyes and shoulders to convince Davis he’s throwing to the left before ripping a throw to his right.
Here’s a similar play, with Jones holding Broncos safety Kareem Jackson (no. 22) with his eyes to keep the middle of the field open for a first-down throw.
And on this play, Jones has no open receivers to target with the rush bearing down on him, so he throws to a covered one to avoid a sack and puts the ball where only his receiver can get it.
Jones was playing with the difficulty turned up all season. That he was able to get through it without completely imploding is an encouraging sign for a quarterback who had been criticized for erratic decision-making under pressure before last season. Jones set a career-low sack rate despite playing behind a line that finished 30th in PFF’s pass-blocking grades. And even though he was consistently targeting covered receivers, he had the ninth-best turnover-worthy throw rate in the NFL, per PFF. Jones trimmed a lot of fat from his game in 2021; it was just difficult to see if you weren’t looking hard enough.
And you had to look hard, because Jones didn’t make many explosive throws downfield to pad his numbers. PFF credited him with only seven “big-time throws”—defined as “a pass with excellent ball location and timing, generally thrown further down the field and/or into a tighter window”—and his big-time throw rate of 1.8 percent was among the worst marks in the league. It was also a career low for the 24-year-old.
But as we covered earlier, the dearth of downfield shots was mostly a product of the offense. Only 6.6 percent of Jones’s passes traveled more than 20 yards downfield, for a rank of 37th out of 37 qualified passers, per PFF. Had Mike Glennon, who started four games for the Giants while Jones was out with a neck injury, thrown enough passes to qualify, he would have ranked 35th with a 7.8 percent rate. The Giants just didn’t produce the downfield opportunities. And if we revisit the heat map of the routes run for Jones in 2021, you can see why:
All that blue shows there just weren’t a lot of routes attacking the deep middle. Instead, the bulk of New York’s deeper routes were run outside the numbers and were typically decoys or “alert” routes only targeted when the defense deployed aggressive looks.
That should change now that Daboll and offensive coordinator Mike Kafka are running things. The former comes from Buffalo, where he helped turn Josh Allen into the league’s most explosive passer, and the latter was Patrick Mahomes’s QB coach for his first four years as a starter. These guys know how to draw up a downfield shot and understand the function those plays serve in today’s game.
“Big-picture-wise, you always think about generating those explosive plays,” said Kafka in an interview with Giants.com. “You know the Kansas City offense, they’re going to throw it deep. We’re going to do those types of things downfield. I think it’s important to … understand it has to be an element of your offense. Now, we’ve got to take a step back and make sure it fits for our personnel, fits for the quarterback, fits for the offensive line.”
That style of offense should be a more comfortable fit for the 2022 team’s personnel thanks to additions to the offensive line. New York brought Jon Feliciano in to play right guard and help sort out the protection calls before the snap, as he did to great effect for the Bills. Mark Glowinski comes over from Indianapolis to man the other guard spot. And while still a big hole at right tackle, that can be addressed in the draft. The receiver position was already quite strong, with Golladay and Toney in the fold, and the front office kept it together by re-signing Sterling Shepard. This team is so set at receiver, in fact, that Darius Slayton, who hauled in 13 touchdowns and racked up nearly 2,000 receiving yards over the last three seasons, could be out of a job by the end of camp. If the players are healthy, Daboll and Kafka have enough weapons to put together a dangerous offense.
It remains to be seen whether an explosive passing game fits Jones, but it’s clearly what Daboll and Kafka want for their offense. So if Jones isn’t that guy, they’ll eventually need to find a quarterback who does fit their ideal scheme. That adds another layer of intrigue to this decision, as Liberty’s Malik Willis is expected to be on the board when the Giants make the no. 5 pick in this month’s draft. Due to a lack of polish in the pocket, Willis is a divisive prospect, but pretty much everyone agrees that he has the best arm in the class, and he’d enter the league as the best running QB behind only Lamar Jackson. If any quarterback in this year’s weak class has a chance at being elite, it’s Willis. And having played key roles in the development of Mahomes and Allen—bringing them from divisive college prospects to top-tier NFL quarterbacks—both Daboll and Kafka could be inclined to take a shot on a talent like Willis.
It’s also possible that this new regime already views Jones as that kind of talent. When Kafka was asked about Jones’s biggest strengths, he pointed to Jones’s natural ability.
“He’s athletic, he can make every throw, [he can move] outside the pocket, I think he can throw from different launch points,” Kafka said. “I think that’s some of his best stuff.”
Daboll, Schoen, and Kafka have all said they look forward to working with Jones in the future. For now, though, it’s all just talk—and until the draft is complete, the same can be said of their commitment to Jones as the team’s undisputed starter in 2022. But if the Giants really do believe in this quarterback, they’ll have the chance to prove it between now and May 2.