Daniel Jones Hasn’t Figured Out Zone Coverage Yet

In Week 7 against the Arizona Cardinals, New York Giants quarterback Daniel Jones dropped back to pass on third and 13 from his own 35-yard line. Faced with a four-man rush and seven defenders in coverage, Jones waited patiently — perhaps too patiently — for his receivers to complete their routes past the first-down marker. Feeling pressure on his left, Jones stepped up in the pocket and fired the ball downfield — right into the arms of Cardinals linebacker Jordan Hicks. Hicks was playing zone coverage in the hook/curl area of the field, and he was in the perfect position to step in front of intended receiver Golden Tate.

While it might be tempting to dismiss the mistakes of a rookie QB as growing pains, the interception wasn’t an isolated case of a young quarterback making a questionable decision. It turns out that zone coverage has been a problem for Jones since he took over the Giants starting job in Week 3. Six of Jones’s eight interceptions on the year have come against zone, and he’s averaging just 5.6 yards per attempt against the coverage — worst in the league. Jones has completed passes 1.7 percentage points under what we would expect of a league-average QB against zone, according to NFL Next Gen Stats, and his QBR is an anemic 27.5. More surprising, given generational talent Saquon Barkley at running back, is Jones’s QBR of 24.9 on play-action passes against zone, which places him 30th out of 32 qualifying quarterbacks.

Jones’s poor performance on play-action is a little strange because we might expect that teams would play more Cover 1 (a form of man coverage with a single high safety) against the Giants with Barkley in the backfield, a defensive formation that allows them to bring a safety down from deep coverage to help out against the run. Through Week 12, however, that hasn’t been the case. New York opponents are playing 50.4 percent man coverage vs. 49.1 percent zone, which is almost exactly league average. The team would likely benefit from opponents playing more man coverage to match up against Barkley, as Jones is completing passes 1.9 percentage points over expected against man, with a more respectable QBR of 71.5.

Interestingly, Jones’s coverage splits are the inverse of league trends. At nearly every depth of target from zero to 30 yards, quarterbacks’ completion percentages are higher against zone coverage than against man in 2019.

The gap between zone and man is particularly pronounced on throws of 10 air yards or less. This makes intuitive sense: Defenses playing zone are typically happy to allow the short completion and rally for a tackle. But the success of man versus zone on deeper passes is more of a surprise. Zone seeks to take away the deep ball in favor of short, manageable gains. But in 2019, passers are completing a higher percentage of attempts against zone of up to at least 28 yards.

Meanwhile, play-action across the league has been quite successful against man coverage, which might come as a surprise to some NFL coaches.

Man is still the more effective coverage, but the gap between play-action and other passes is wider against man coverage than zone, making it a preferred tactic on intermediate throws.

Yet these leaguewide base rates don’t fit Jones’s statistics. Jones is an enigma — bad at things that most QBs excel at, like completing passes on play-action, yet good at some aspects of the game that many quarterbacks find extremely challenging. Against disguised coverages, for instance — coverages that start out looking like man or zone but then switch mid-play — Jones has the highest completion percentage over expected in the league4 at 10.8 percent. It’s pure zone coverage that’s his kryptonite.

Jones’s struggles against zone coverage likely explain at least some of the Giants’ disappointing year. He’ll need to show progress before next season if New York has any hope of competing with the Dallas Cowboys and Philadelphia Eagles in the NFC East. But there are some signs that he may be improving: Jones’s lone TD against zone coverage came in last week’s Week 12 loss to Chicago. A strong finish to the season might be enough for the Giants to find a reason for optimism heading into 2020.

Check out our latest NFL predictions.

Which Picks Did NFL Mock Drafts Get Most Wrong?

With the first round of the NFL draft complete, it appears that the wisdom of the crowds wasn’t particularly wise. The first three picks went relatively as expected, but the draft went off script with the Oakland Raiders’ pick at No. 4 overall: defensive end Clelin Ferrell of Clemson — a player who mock drafters believed would go somewhere in the middle of the first round. The Raiders’ pick was the first of many that defied expectations and left amateur GMs scratching their heads.

In the case of the New York Giants, some fans were banging their heads against the wall and collapsing in tears. New York, which passed on many quarterbacks a year ago to take running back Saquon Barkley, took Duke QB Daniel Jones at No. 6. Jones averaged a 20.4 pick in mock drafts taken in the last 30 days before the draft but came off the board an eyebrow-raising 14.4 picks earlier. The Giants seemed to be trying to get ahead of a quarterback run that didn’t exist: Ohio State’s Dwayne Haskins lasted until Washington took him at No. 15 (6.2 picks later than expected), and no subsequent QBs were taken on Thursday night.

But the New York football Giants, armed with three picks in the first round alone, weren’t finished reaching. Using the 17th overall pick they acquired when they dealt Odell Beckham Jr. to the Browns, the Giants selected DT Dexter Lawrence of Clemson, 10.5 picks earlier than expected. The Giants were able to capture some surplus value with their third and final pick of the first round, however: Georgia CB Deandre Baker lasted 3.2 picks longer than expected and should help fill the void in the Giants secondary that was left when Eli Apple was traded to New Orleans last October for picks in the fourth and seventh rounds.

The NFL draft has been full of surprises

The first round of the 2019 NFL draft by each player’s pick and his average draft position (ADP) in mock drafts since March 26, 2019

team player Position pick ADP diff
Arizona Kyler Murray QB 1 1.8 -0.8
San Francisco Nick Bosa DE 2 2.1 -0.1
N.Y. Jets Quinnen Williams DT 3 3.7 -0.7
Oakland Clelin Ferrell DE 4 19.0 -15.0
Tampa Bay Devin White LB 5 7.0 -2.0
N.Y. Giants Daniel Jones QB 6 20.4 -14.4
Jacksonville Josh Allen LB 7 3.7 +3.3
Detroit TJ Hockenson TE 8 13.0 -5.0
Buffalo Ed Oliver DT 9 9.3 -0.3
Pittsburgh Devin Bush LB 10 15.5 -5.5
Cincinnati Jonah Williams OT 11 13.3 -2.3
Green Bay Rashan Gary DE 12 11.2 +0.8
Miami Christian Wilkins DT 13 19.0 -6.0
Atlanta Chris Lindstrom G 14 29.3 -15.3
Washington Dwayne Haskins QB 15 8.8 +6.2
Carolina Brian Burns LB 16 16.0 +0.0
N.Y. Giants Dexter Lawrence DT 17 27.5 -10.5
Minnesota Garrett Bradbury C 18 25.7 -7.7
Tennessee Jeffery Simmons DT 19 29.5 -10.5
Denver Noah Fant TE 20 22.9 -2.9
Green Bay Darnell Savage S 21 54.7 -33.7
Philadelphia Andre Dillard OT 22 17.6 +4.4
Houston Tytus Howard OT 23 60.7 -37.7
Oakland Josh Jacobs RB 24 27.2 -3.2
Baltimore Marquise Brown WR 25 25.4 -0.4
Washington Montez Sweat DE 26 10.6 +15.4
Oakland Johnathan Abram S 27 33.6 -6.6
L.A. Chargers Jerry Tillery DT 28 31.6 -3.6
Seattle L.J. Collier DE 29 62.9 -33.9
N.Y. Giants Deandre Baker CB 30 26.8 +3.2
Atlanta Kaleb McGary OT 31 43.3 -12.3
New England N’Keal Harry WR 32 29.3 +2.7

Sources: NFL, Ben Robinson

The selections of Lawrence and Ferrell were part of a larger trend: NFL GMs appear to have been particularly enamored with Clemson players. Three Tiger defensive standouts from the national championship team were selected in the first round, and they went 10.5 slots earlier on average than mock drafts predicted.

A dominant theme of the night, as expected, was NFL teams trying to find the next star pass rusher. But it was a pass rusher who had the biggest slide down the board among the first-round selections. Washington appears to have gotten a substantial value when it selected Mississippi State DE Montez Sweat 26th overall. In a draft class stacked with edge rushing talent, Sweat came off the board 15.4 picks later than expected.3

When we look at all 32 first-round picks, the correlation between what mock drafters expected and what actually occurred was about the same in 2019 as it was in 2018. In 2019, the average draft position in mock drafts explained 48 percent of variance, down slightly from 49 percent of variance explained in 2018. This year’s first round skewed toward reaches, with six teams trading up on draft day to get their guys. Overall, players came off the board six picks earlier than expected; last year, that difference was five spots.

As a result, Day 2 of the draft should be one in which savvy teams can find more value than they may have initially anticipated. That could even drive more pick swapping, as teams look to swoop in and grab coveted players like mock draft darling D.K. Metcalf on the cheap.


From ABC News:
Biggest picks from the 1st round of NFL Draft