Folks, draft szn is upon us. This year, I’m going to be covering the draft in a way different than we’ve seen it typically be covered in previous years. The draft, in my opinion, should be the starting point for our evaluations of these prospects. Placement and fit matters so much for prospects, yet we grade them as if they’re finished products before we even know where they’re going. Why do we do this? The easy answer is, for clicks. People don’t care about the rookies once the draft is over until they start playing in real games. It makes no sense to do the bulk of the coverage after the draft, because the traffic it would generate for the sites and media outlets will be severely diminished.
I’ve found a way to marry the ideal process with the practical one, and that’s how I’ll be covering the draft this year. I’m going to be bringing you weekly-ish reports on prospects that will provide them with a grade and full coverage of the type of player the prospect is, but I won’t be releasing any rankings before the draft happens. Instead, I’ve added a variable to my grading process that factors in the landing spot of each prospect, and when that fit is added to the pre-draft grade the prospect receives, it will give me the final grade for the prospect. Teams will be sorted into 5 categories of fits; Great, Good, Neutral, Bad, Disaster. These fits are determined with a variety of factors involved, including but not limited to scheme fit, organizational stability, and current players at the position on the team. Once I have the prospects’ final grades, I will release a post-draft big board of the prospects I covered. This way, their landing spots can impact how I feel about them, but the content is still primarily coming before the draft, when most of you will care much more about it. This intro is going to stay in every prospect article I write as a refresher/introduction to those who are reading for the first time. Now, let’s get to it: Ronald Jones, RB, USC. **All clips are from draftbreakdown.**
Jones is a 20 year old junior, who will be 21 years old for all of his rookie season. Listed at 6’0″, 200 pounds, Jones fits the mold of a shifty, elusive back with good speed who relies on balance to survive hits rather than power. As the lead back at USC, Jones runs in a primarily zone blocking scheme, but they also mix in power concepts, so Jones should be able to enter any landing spot and have the ability to execute their scheme. At this early point in the draft season, Jones is a consensus early day 2 pick, but I wouldn’t hesitate taking Jones in the first round for the right landing spots.
When you watch Ronald Jones run, the first thing that pops off the screen is his agility and elusiveness, as well as his burst to get to his top gear.
Here, Jones hits the hole and maintains his balance through an upper body arm tackle, and as he’s shedding that tackle cuts around a pursuing linebacker before bursting for the first down plus an extra five yards.
Jones is a decisive runner, he trusts what he sees and gets to the line as quickly as he can (this is occasionally to his detriment, as we’ll get to in a bit). He knows that his strength is at the second level, so getting there as quickly as possible plays to his advantage.
He receives the ball and is already at full speed, flying through the hole and is beyond the first down marker before a second level defender even comes on the screen. He makes that defender (who was already being conservative to make the safe tackle) miss, and finished the run with a near-20 yard gain.
Though he doesn’t have elite balance, Jones knows how to utilize leverage to stay up through contact when defenders aren’t able to square him up.
On 3rd and 2, Jones evades the initial penetration from the Texas defense, and leans into a couple of hits to bounce off of them, gets upfield and picks up the first. The end of this run is a good example of something we’ll get to in the weaknesses section as well, however, in that when defenders are able to square him up he tends to let his feet die.
When he has defenders in space, he’s excellent at manipulating the space given to him to break angles and force misses where there shouldn’t be.
This is after receiving a pass (something USC didn’t utilize him in enough during my viewing). Texas #5 had effectively taken away Jones cutback lane, but with his hesitation step inside and elite quickness, Jones gets #5 to commit one step too far, gets to the cutback, picks up an excellent block, and finishes with 6 points.
Most important for a zone scheme runner, Jones knows how to read his blocks and the defense and, when he maintains the proper patience, consistently chooses the correct lane to cut through.
Jones rides outside until he sees 34 clear his block, then cuts behind his pulling guard to get to the second level. A nice broken tackle later and he finds himself with a first down.
This was my favorite run of my viewing. Jones rides the outside zone as long as possible, and when his center cuts off his small lane to that side, Jones cuts it back, makes a quick cut around the backside defender, and bursts forward. The rest is easy as he angles his way to the end zone.
Lastly, Jones is secure with the ball (no fumbles in my viewing to go with his safe carriage of the ball), and is a tremendous blocker. Not only was USC comfortable enough to keep him in as a pass protector, but multiple times they motioned him out wide to be the lead blocker on WR screens, like this:
As mentioned above, Jones is a very decisive runner. This plays to his skillset well, but there were also times it cost him a bigger gain because he didn’t wait out his blocks and took the first lane he saw. This isn’t a consistent issue, so there is nothing to suggest his decision making won’t improve as he grows. Also mentioned above is his tendency to let his legs die once a defender is able to square him up for a tackle. He’s not a big guy or a power runner, so not running over people isn’t a big issue, but it would be nice to see him finish runs strongly more consistently. USC underutilized him in the passing attack, something I hope gets rectified in the NFL, because he has the potential to be electric on screens, swings, and dumpoffs.
Jones has a tendency to begin his runs a little upright, which comes with his style of running. It would be nice to see him start off behind his pads a bit more, but when you have his speed and are as decisive as he is, this isn’t a key issue and something that will likely improve as his patience does. Lastly, while he’s excellent at setting up defenders to attack air, he stands to improve his ability to set up second level blocks so he doesn’t have to be the one always making the defender miss. If he can let his big guys do the work for him in the 7-10 yard range when he gets there we could see chunk plays on a consistent basis from Jones.
The Buffalo Bills. Jones reminds me a ton of LeSean McCoy stylistically, the Bills second running back is Mike Tolbert, and they run a ton of zone concepts. McCoy is 29 and a free agent in two years. Jones can be his backup for the next two years, and take over as the lead back in Buffalo while still only being 23 years old.
The Carolina Panthers. The Panthers utilize zone less than most teams in football, per PFF, and just spent a top 10 pick on Christian McCaffrey last year. McCaffrey has started to get going, and even if we assume Jonathan Stewart is gone next year, Jones doesn’t feel like a proper third wheel to McCaffrey and Cam Newton.
Last year, as anyone who followed me at the time knows, Alvin Kamara was my baby. I was much higher on Kamara than just about anyone, and I would’ve taken him early in the first round without hesitation despite being a consensus day 2 guy. Jones isn’t quite on Kamara’s level of love for me (I don’t know that anyone ever will be), but he’s another guy I’d happily take round 1 in the right spot despite a consensus day 2 grade at this point. For teams who miss out or pass on Saquon Barkley, Jones would be an excellent choice in round 2. I already mentioned the Bills, and as a team with two first round picks this year they could trade back to the top of the second and take him there. The 49ers are another great landing spot for Jones, though they’re missing their second round pick thanks to trading for Jimmy Garoppolo. Wherever he lands, Jones should be seeing real touches early and often in his career.
(Shouts to @BenjaminSolak for helping out with the scouting report template. Follow him.)