He was short and slight, McNulty told Jones, but he possessed a unique ability to throw footballs. As they walked through the school’s halls, McNulty turned to Jones and pointed out Daniel Jones.
“I can remember Daniel looking like Opie from Andy Griffith,” Derek Jones said. “They wore those uniforms in school. He just was standing there. His neck was skinny. His collar was a little bit too big for it. He had that same look he has on his face now.”
Only 22 years old, Jones already has grown into an expert at defying first impressions. He started college as a walk-on but became Duke’s starter after one redshirt season. He entered the NFL to immediate and overwhelming scorn but won over New York slowly in the preseason and suddenly in one magnificent start. He seized the torch gracefully from Eli Manning, the two-time Super Bowl champion who played for the same college coach, David Cutcliffe, as him. Tabloids christened him “Danny Dimes,” and teammates spoke of his rocksteady poise and sneaky swagger.
Jones has followed an uncommon path to stardom, from disregarded high schooler to unheralded collegiate quarterback to presumed draft bust. Along the way to becoming New York’s brightest football hope, Jones provided a lesson in the shortcomings of the NFL’s draft-industrial complex.
Thursday night will bring Jones’s toughest task yet, a meeting with the undefeated New England Patriots, whose defense has yielded two touchdowns in its past six games, including last season’s Super Bowl. Coach Bill Belichick is 11-0 against rookie quarterbacks in Foxborough, Mass.
It will not be Jones’s first meeting with Belichick. The Patriots hosted Jones during a pre-draft visit, which Belichick said left a strong impression. But Belichick figured Jones wouldn’t last to the Patriots’ pick when, after a last-minute schedule change, Jones traveled straight from Foxborough to meet the Giants.
“He’s an impressive player and a very impressive person,” Belichick said in a conference call with New York reporters. “Playing quarterback in New York is not the easiest thing in the world, but he’s got a lot of maturity and a good head on his shoulders and has good perspective on football and the overall leadership position that comes with that role, on and off the field.”
When Jones took over in Week 3, the Giants were winless and dull. Jones won his first two starts before the Minnesota Vikings stymied him Sunday. He has completed 64.2 percent of his passes for 760 yards and four touchdowns while throwing three interceptions. He also has flashed startling speed, rushing 13 times for 78 yards and two touchdowns. None of his successes look like flukes. He commands the huddle, throws with timing, scrambles when necessary and stands tall in crowded pockets.
“He’s a young, competitive guy that is going to fight,” Giants Coach Pat Shurmur said after he named Jones the starter. “I think he is going to display the toughness, skill and ability that we saw when we drafted him.”
In retrospect, it seems remarkable that the selection of a prospect such as Jones — tough, smart, fast, pedigreed coaching, 6-foot-5 — could have been ridiculed as a waste of the sixth pick. Giants fans and New York media savaged General Manager Dave Gettleman for not choosing Dwayne Haskins, eventually taken 15th by Washington, or for not waiting to pluck Jones later in the draft, perhaps with the 17th pick.
Jones’s draft process stands as an example of how perception about a player can differ within the league and in the public. Jim Nagy, the director of the Senior Bowl scouting showcase, viewed Jones as a top prospect before his redshirt junior year. He advised Jones to add three credits so he could graduate and therefore be eligible to play in the event, which is held every January and is attended by every NFL team. (Jones, an economics major, added the class.)
In a conference loaded with NFL talent, he played alongside unheralded recruits at Duke and took a beating. He broke his collarbone in the second week of the second season, only to return three weeks later.
“He got hit on every play,” said Joe Giles-Harris, Jones’s roommate and now a Jacksonville Jaguars practice squad linebacker. “I can tell you, his years there, we did not do the best job of keeping him up in the pocket. … At some points, I looked at him like, ‘You’re crazy.’
“He doesn’t get rattled. That’s the best thing about him. We played Clemson. We were down six or seven starters. He stood in there and took a hit on every play, from all those dudes who went in the first round. He was never scared.”
While NFL evaluators saw Jones’s toughness and ability to survive under constant duress, the public only saw sparse results.
“His evaluation was different than those guys in last year’s class,” Nagy said. “You had Dwayne Haskins and Kyler Murray where every time they took the field, they were taking the field with better people than the people they were lining up against. They sat back there in clean pockets and threw to wide-open receivers. Daniel’s was a lot more of an apples-to-apples evaluation. Because that’s not the NFL. You’re going to have a lot of muddy pockets. You’re going to have really small windows.
“Because Daniel is lining up with a lot of guys who are going to be doctors and lawyers and accountants someday, he was forced to do a lot on his own. That really made the evaluation easier in my mind. Because you saw him do a lot of things he’s going to have to do at the next level.”
When a couple of prominent draft experts downgraded Jones, it cemented him, in the public eye, as a middling quarterback prospect. But that was never how he was viewed by many NFL teams.
By early spring, NFL evaluators had identified Oklahoma’s Murray, Jones, Ohio State’s Haskins and Missouri’s Drew Lock as the clear top-four quarterbacks in the class. Opinions on how to rank them wildly differed from team to team. Murray was picked first by Arizona, but Nagy still wonders how far he would have fallen if the Cardinals had not just hired Kliff Kingsbury, a coach enamored of Murray whose system perfectly aligns with Murray’s skill set.
“When you talk to guys in the league, there was no consensus on that order,” Nagy said. “Daniel was never the fourth guy. He was usually the 1 or the 2. A couple teams I talked to had him three. Whereas Haskins was 4 on a bunch of people’s boards.”
Nagy is convinced Gettleman’s post-draft declaration — that another team would have taken Jones before the 17th pick had the Giants waited — was correct. But on draft night, fans — many of whom already were frustrated with Gettleman over the offseason trade of star wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. — railed against the notion. The headline in the New York Post the next morning read, “Blue’s Clueless.” In June, Jones was booed by New York fans at a Yankees game.
Zach Baker, a Duke offensive lineman and one of Jones’s best friends, hung out with Jones at a party in Nashville on draft night. He said the mood was purely celebratory and that Jones never made mention of the reaction in New York.
“Daniel is the best person for that to happen to,” Giles-Harris said. “It’s not going to affect him at all.”
Jones had been conditioned to others overlooking him. At the start of high school, according to Charlotte Latin athletic director David Gatoux, Jones was 5-foot-10. He was still around 6 feet when he took over as the starting quarterback as a sophomore.
“I was saying little prayers every Friday,” said Chris Berger, Jones’s basketball coach at Charlotte Latin. “He was taking lots of hits. I was saying, ‘Run out of bounds!’ He’d drop his shoulder and tuck it up for another five yards.”
Jones’s height left him far off recruiters’ radars. Before his junior season, a growth spurt shot him to about 6-foot-2, but then he suffered another blow. During basketball season, he suffered a right wrist injury. He kept playing, teaching himself how to play left-handed, but when the pain wouldn’t leave, he received tests and realized he had been playing through a broken wrist.
As a senior, by which time he had grown to 6-5, schools finally came calling — for basketball. Jones initially committed to Princeton, but Cutcliffe had taken Derek Jones’s recommendation and started looking into Jones and saw the traits required of a successful quarterback. Jones committed to Duke without a scholarship, but he received one after another recruit decommitted on the eve of signing day.
Derek Jones coached defensive backs at Duke. During summer workouts, before coaches could be on the field, his defensive backs started telling him about the gangly quarterback playing against them. They had started calling Daniel Jones, “The Future.”
Then when fall practices arrived, Derek Jones saw for himself. A coach for more than two decades who also worked for Cutcliffe at Mississippi, Jones ran the Blue Devils’ scout-team offense and learned right away what it would take years for the football public to understand about Daniel Jones.
“This kid from the first day of practice took command of the huddle,” Derek Jones said. “The only guy I had ever been around in my coaching career that took command of a scout team huddle like that was Eli Manning.”