Former QB expected to play WR/H-back
Steve Young, who will be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame this summer, has long told me that one of these days there will be a football player so unique, so gifted and so different that he will cause some consternation among the NFL types who judge and coach the most talented football players in the world.
"And it's going to be up to those people, especially some offensive coordinator, to think outside the box and figure out what to do with a guy like that," Young said.
He didn't know it at the time, but Young was talking about someone available in the 2005 NFL draft -- a guy I believe is the best player in the draft.
Matt Jones is that player. Yes, the Arkansas quarterback NFL evaluators have been struggling to figure out.
Some have called him the most "intriguing" player in the draft. Or, as one personnel director asked me last week, "How's The Freak?"
Jones is a freak. Let's just remind you of his measurables again, as now officially recorded from his scouting combine and pro day workouts.
40 time (hand-timed): 4.37 and 4.39
40 time (electronic): 4.40
Vertical jump: 39.5 inches
Standing broad jump: 10 feet, 9 inches
Let me explain how to translate some of these numbers because Jones, for the most part, is being projected as a receiver/H-back instead of a quarterback.
Based on watching Jones perform during Senior Bowl week, when he unabashedly exposed himself to playing receiver, scouts wondered about one or two things: Was he quick and explosive enough to play outside? Honestly, if Jones was not as quick as they wanted that week, it was attributed to the fact that he was playing a new position.
Give him four months to work on nothing but receiver, and you'll see plenty of quickness. Trust me.
That's what the vertical and broad jump measure: Explosiveness. Jones was among the very top athletes. He is quick. He is explosive. He also had one of the fastest 10-yard times while running his 40. His short cone drills and shuttles were just as impressive.
His hands? I think he has the best hands in the draft. He's a basketball player, gifted enough after his junior football season at Arkansas to earn a starting spot on the basketball team within two weeks of his late arrival.
"We charted every pass thrown to him during the Senior Bowl week, and [he] caught all but one," one personnel director said.
So, as a receiver, he's bigger than Southern California's Mike Williams, he's faster, he's more explosive and he might have better hands.
Some NFL teams have tried to peg him as a tight end or H-back because of his size. Jones has been truthful with NFL teams that have spoken with him. He's reluctant to play tight end.
"You know, it's funny," one AFC head coach told me last week. "We asked [Jones] about putting on some weight and playing tight end, and he made it clear that he thought it was foolish. He said, 'So you want me to put on 20 pounds and be a 4.57 guy instead of a 4.37 guy?' When you put that into context, you have to admit he makes sense. Match up a 6-6 guy who is that fast and athletic with great hands on any corner even the tall ones and how do you stop him?"
It was evident during the NFL meetings last week in Hawaii that Jones is perhaps the fastest riser in the draft. Because of his position switch, he had been labeled as a second-day pick, probably a fourth-round selection.
He's not going on the second day. He's a better bet to go in the top half of the second round, and he could slip into the bottom third of the first round.
"How do you ignore him?" one AFC general manager said. "He's the best athlete in the draft. It may not even be close. Honestly, he's the most mesmerizing player I've ever evaluated."
I laughed when all the official numbers came in. Selfishly, they made me look good. When I spoke with a personnel man last fall about Jones, I asked him, "What are you going to do when he runs 4.4 at the combine?"
The personnel man replied, "Well, he's not going to do that." Yeah, go ahead, just keep doubting him.
As far as anyone knows, there's never been a 6-6 guy or a 242-pounder who ran 4.37 in the 40. Jones is both 6-6 and 242 pounds.
Some have warned of "workout" warriors, citing Mike Mamula of Boston College as one who fooled everyone about his NFL potential with gaudy workout numbers.
Mamula is a bad example to bring up when talking about Jones, though. For one, I would hardly classify Jones as a workout warrior. He could get out of bed and run 4.4.
Better than that, he was one of the most productive players in the history of the Southeastern Conference and basically was even-steven with Young, the BYU flash, as a player with one of the highest yards-per-play average in NCAA history.
For the past four years, SEC coaches and defenders have marveled at Jones' freakish ability to make plays his 2,545 rushing yards set an SEC career mark for quarterbacks.
"He was the best player in the SEC the past two years," said Ron Zook, the ex-Florida coach now at Illinois. "Now that's a mouthful. Think about the guys who have played in the SEC the past couple of years."
Quickly, the names of Auburn's Ronnie Brown and Cadillac Williams, among so many others, leaped into my mind. The SEC is loaded with NFL-caliber players.
LSU coach Nick Saban said, "Matt Jones single-handedly won more games than any player in the SEC."
South Carolina coach Lou Holtz called Jones the "MVP" of the SEC.
Mississippi State coach Sylvester Croom said, "I'm pretty sure I never have seen one like him, and I coached in [the NFL] for a lot of years. I'd take him, and real high."
Zook added, "Here's the thing about Matt Jones that people seem to forget because he is such a freak. He is one of the most productive players I've ever seen. It's all about productivity, and the bottom line is, this guy always makes plays and he makes' em when it counts and he makes 'em against everybody else's best players. He's a winner, he's productive and he's a freak. Our guys at Florida will tell you they never saw anything like him before and probably never will again."
Florida linebacker Channing Crowder, who should be a first-rounder next month, called Jones "a blazer, unbelievably fast," and nose guard Tommy Jackson said watching film of Jones and then stepping on the field against him was a lifetime experience.
"It's amazing that a guy that big, that strong and that fast is all in one person," Jackson said. "It's not fair."
Georgia coach Mark Richt called Jones the most deceptively fast player he had ever seen.
"On any given day, he could be the most dangerous player on the field, " Richt said. "You try to take good angles on the guy, and he's still past you."
Back to production. Arkansas quarterback coach Roy Wittke provided statistics that show Jones had 88 planned runs of 10 yards or more, 10 that were 50-plus yards. That didn't even count his 2004 stats, in which he had 33 scrambles on broken pass plays for 377 yards, an 11.4-yard average per carry.
When Saban said Jones "single-handedly" won more games than any player in the SEC, he also might have meant that Jones made almost every game competitive, even the defeats. He was the only returning starter on the Arkansas offense in 2004. The Razorbacks were just 5-6, the first losing season for coach Houston Nutt. But Jones kept the team alive in near misses against Texas, Georgia and Florida.
"This guy can make a play on you when you're doing as good as you can do," Alabama defensive coordinator Joe Kines said. "Texas had some pretty good people on the field, and they never laid a glove on him."
In fact, when legendary ABC play-by-play man Keith Jackson marveled over Vince Young's splendid performance in Texas' Rose Bowl win over Michigan, he wondered what planet Young was from and whether he had ever seen anybody like him. I chuckled. I had seen Jones, who was bigger, faster, more athletic and had a better arm than Young in their meeting when Texas squeaked out a 22-20 win over Arkansas early in the season. That night, Jones was again the best player on a field that included Young, not to mention Cedric Benson and Derrick Johnson, two Longhorns projected to go in the top 12 of next month's draft.
Jones was even more productive running the ball from the quarterback spot than Michael Vick was at Virginia Tech. Yet, even though Jones is more than a half-foot taller than Vick with almost identical 40 times (Vick ran a hand-timed 4.37 at his first mini-camp with the Falcons), NFL scouts have all but dismissed Jones as a quarterback prospect because he is unorthodox while Vick obviously throws lasers.
I think I'm OK with that thinking. Jones has a troubled right shoulder, which was hurt in his freshman year shortly after basketball season. The shoulder never allowed Jones to work at high volume at quarterback during practice, and it might have limited the team's passing game. But he still was pretty effective throwing the ball: He threw for almost 6,000 yards and 53 touchdowns in his career.
There is one other part of Jones that bothers some scouts. It's his somewhat lackadaisical body language. "Nonchalant" is what I've heard. Does he really love the game? Does it really matter to him?
Well, go back to that Texas game. Jones fumbled inside the Texas 20-yard line on an extra effort scramble in the final minutes. Arkansas probably wins the game if he doesn't fumble. He cried hard in a closed locker room after the game. His heart was broken.
A few weeks later, Arkansas got throttled by undefeated Auburn 38-20. It wasn't an upset, but when a few Arkansas players were a little too jovial on Jones' bus after the game, he snapped at them. Doesn't care? This is also a guy who passed up basketball a game he truly loves in his senior year to get ready for the NFL.
True, Jones is different. But that gene, or whatever it is, that projects this "nonchalance" is the same one that allowed him as a child to sleep through a tornado that ravaged his house in Fort Smith, Ark., according to his dad, Steve, who also was Matt's high school coach. It's the same calming gene that allowed Jones to thrive under pressure as a collegiate player.
Nutt, who admits Jones' personality tested him at times, loves to tell how Jones almost put him over the edge in the final minute of Arkansas' SEC West championship game against LSU in 2002. LSU led 20-13 with less than a minute to play. LSU was about to punt as Nutt sought out his quarterback.
"There he was, sitting back alone by the Gatorade, towel over his head, and as I get closer to him, Matt's singing to himself, or humming, 'do-do-do-do-do-do-do-do,'" Nutt says, recalling the hilarity of the moment. "I tell Matt, 'Come on, Matt, a little urgency here. We've got 37 seconds left, we gotta get the plays called, get in and out of the huddle, and get it done.'"
Jones looked at Nutt.
"No problem, coach," Jones said. "I got it."
Jones, who at that point was 2-of-13 passing against Saban's talented, tenacious defense, got the ball at his own 20. In three plays, including two perfectly thrown passes -- the latter a 31-yarder to Decori Birmingham with nine seconds left -- Jones led Arkansas for 80 yards in a stunning 21-20 victory that propelled the Razorbacks to the SEC title game.
"Darndest thing I ever saw," Nutt said.
Some athletes are just more graceful than others. Joe DiMaggio made baseball look easy. Pete Rose made it look like work. Jones is more DiMaggio than Rose.
Back to Steve Young's precept that it will take an offensive coordinator with the brains and brawn to use the gifts of a once-in-a-lifetime athlete best.
The red zone, whether you put the ball in Jones' hands as a receiver or a quarterback, would seem to be one obvious frontier.
Arkansas led the SEC in red zone scoring with 87.5 percent efficiency in 2004, and most of those scores were touchdowns.
The Razorbacks also had uncanny success and drama playing overtime games. In fact, Jones arrived on the national scene as a true freshman when he locked horns with Eli Manning in a classic seven-overtime game in which Arkansas beat Ole Miss 58-56. As a junior he led the Razorbacks to another seven-overtime win, 71-63 over Kentucky.
College overtimes are basically red zone games. The ball is given to each team at the opponents' 25.
"I just know this," Nutt said. "You put the ball [in] the kid's hands in those situations and he's going to find a way to win the game at any level. Red zone, or whatever. On any given play, he can run or pass for 80 yards."
Matt Jones won't be among the top 10 players selected in the April 23-24 draft, but I will venture to say that he'll play in more Pro Bowls than almost any of those guys.
And I will laugh, knowing I told you so.
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