When the Buffalo Bills cut former head coach Rex Ryan loose at the end of 2016 and replaced him with Sean McDermott, one of the assumptions was that all of “Rex’s guys” would be leaving town with him. That was taken to another level when the Bills canned ex-general manager Doug Whaley right after the 2017 NFL Draft.
While the coaching staff was obviously purged, more or less (only special teams coordinator Danny Crossman remains from last year’s staff), the roster still contains a number of players who were products of the old regime. Some will obviously stick around, while others likely won’t be able to transition to the schemes put in place by McDermott and offensive coordinator Rick Dennison.
One of the more interesting names on the roster to consider is second-year quarterback Cardale Jones. Of the four signal callers currently on the Bills, Jones is the only one who hasn’t signed a new contract since McDermott was hired. That’s not to say that he’s an absolute goner, but the Bills aren’t going to keep four quarterbacks on the roster, and the new regime has already actively committed to three of them. At the very least, it doesn’t bode well for the former Buckeye.
How does Jones fit into the new offense? Dennison runs a West Coast offense, which is reliant on quick reads and even quicker throws. To this end, Jones struggles quite a bit. Let’s take a look at his single snippet of regular-season action last year, in the fourth quarter of the Bills’ season-ending 30-10 loss to the New York Jets.
Here’s his first pass of the day.
The Bills ran with 12 personnel, 17% of the plays under Greg Roman and Anthony Lynn in 2016. On this play, you can see Robert Woods cut across the field in motion. However, once the play starts, Jones forgets about him. He immediately looks toward Sammy Watkins and shuffles his feet twice before hitting Sammy on a shallow out route for a five-yard gain.
This was an issue with Jones for the entire quarter. Tyrod Taylor is often knocked for limiting himself to half-field reads, but Jones doesn’t seem to move past his initial target all that often. That ended up burning him later in the quarter.
The Bills are in 12 personnel with the wide receivers in tight alignments, so the Jets understandably pack the box with eight defenders. After the snap, Jones quickly identifies Justin Hunter as an open target, but he stares Hunter down and shuffles his feet. It’s not much, but Calvin Pryor has noticed by this point that there’s little-to-no progression in Jones’s game. Not to mention, but this mirrored hitch/flat concept was run earlier in the game. Pryor breaks on the ball, and while he doesn’t come up with the ball, he sets up Darrelle Revis for an easy interception.
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Now, Jones is capable of playing much better than this. Let’s look at one of his highlight-reel throws from Ohio State, this one against Alabama in the 2014 College Football Playoff semi-final.
Cardale holds the safeties with his eyes. This causes the play side safety to break late. At that point, Jones’s superior arm strength leads him down the field and allows Devin Smith to widen his stem further, away from the safety. It is too much for even the vaunted Crimson Tide defense to overcome.
So, how does that talent translate to the West Coast offense? Despite the short-yardage tendencies, there is room for a big arm in such a system, to an extent. Dennison’s Denver Broncos rolled with former seventh-round afterthought Trevor Siemian for much of last season, but he did make an effort to utilize standout receivers Demaryius Thomas (1,083 yards on 90 receptions) and Emmanuel Sanders (1,032 yards on 79 receptions).
Here’s a nice, long touchdown pass from Siemian to Thomas at the end of the Broncos’ 29-17 win over the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 3.
The Broncos line up with a trips look and Thomas split wide to the bottom of the screen. Siemian gives the play time to develop, but he underthrows it slightly, forcing Thomas to slow down at the point of reception. While he’s able to win the f50/50 ball and jog into the end zone, a quarterback with a stronger arm (cough cough) could have made that play work without the risk of an interception.
On the other side of the coin, here’s Siemian’s first interception of the Broncos’ 25-23 win over the New Orleans Saints in Week 10.
The Broncos run a ‘Tosser concept’ which is two slants to the field. Despite having two receivers in his field of vision, Siemian isn’t able to convince anybody that Jerious Norwood (11) is the target, including the nickel back, Sterling Moore. When Norwood breaks inside, Moore skips right by him and nabs the pass on its way to Sanders. As you’ll notice by the yardage markers, that pick cost the Broncos at least three points (and could have cost them the game, were it not for a flukey ending involving a blocked extra point).
Last season, Siemian completed 59.5% of his passes for 3,401 yards, 18 touchdowns, and 10 interceptions for the Broncos, who started 7-3, before dropping four of their final six games to finish outside of the playoffs the year after winning the Super Bowl.
Could Cardale Jones have done better? Probably not, given that Siemian had a couple of years to learn Dennison’s offense before taking the helm. That said, what little we’ve seen from Jones doesn’t seem to suggest that he’d be too far off, given some time.
Now, the big question is whether or not he’ll have a chance to take that time. As I mentioned earlier, Jones is the only quarterback on the roster who negotiated his current contract prior to the arrival of McDermott. It’s also worth noting that he has practice squad eligibility, which could make that a prime destination if his summer goes only moderately well.
If he’s able to impress in camp, however, he could easily beat out Nathan Peterman or T.J. Yates for a roster spot. I wouldn’t bank on it, but it’s certainly possible.