Jayden Daniels’ NFL Draft stock has risen more than anyone, but will he live up to it?

Jayden Daniels torched the SEC this season on his way to winning the Heisman Trophy. Whether it was by his arm or his legs, every week was littered with explosive plays and highlights of Daniels racing by entire defenses or launching another deep ball to one of his talented wide receivers.

Daniels, who started the season almost universally seen as a Day 3 draft prospect, saw his stock soar right along with his box score numbers in 2023, with some seeing him challenging the consensus top two quarterbacks in USC’s Caleb Williams and North Carolina’s Drake Maye. Fifty total touchdowns can do that!

Outside of those long rushing touchdowns, and bombs to Malik Nabers and Brian Thomas Jr. (both first-round prospects for this class), how exactly does Daniels stack up as a prospect playing the position? I dove into the all-22 tape and looked to see if Daniels’ late rise on the board is justified and how real the growth of his game has been.

Daniels as a runner: a double-edged sword

Let’s start with the most prominent aspect of Daniels’ game: his rushing ability and speed. When you watch Daniels, you are blown away by his straight-line speed, true angle-erasing acceleration that leaves closing defenders grasping at air. Daniels was incredibly productive as a runner in college, with over 2,000 rushing yards and 21 rushing touchdowns in his two seasons at LSU. Daniels will enter the NFL as one of the fastest players at his position, but will he be one of the best runners?

First, consider the volume Daniels ran the ball. Since 2019 (which is as far back as TruMedia’s data goes for FBS players), no quarterback has scrambled more times than Daniels did in college; his 258 career scrambles not only sit firmly at the top, it sits in its own stratosphere. Only one other quarterback had more than 200 scrambles since 2019 and the player who ranks third, 2023 Cleveland Browns draft pick Dorian Thompson-Robinson, finished with 167 scrambles in his career, nearly 100 fewer than Daniels.

Even when looking at scramble rate instead of just raw data, Daniels has one of the highest numbers on record. His 14.1% scramble rate ranks third among the 196 qualifying quarterbacks since 2019, only below Liberty quarterbacks Malik Willis and Kaidon Salter, both players known for their poor pocket management and run-first styles.

Now, Daniels was very efficient and explosive on these scrambles, especially after transferring to Baton Rouge from Arizona State. But, his process of choosing when to scramble, along with his size (more on that later), does cause me some hesitation about his ability at the next level. This has nothing to do with Daniels’ sheer speed or ability to get the corner on defenders, which he easily did in college. It’s more about his decision-making of when to tuck and run, his creativity as a runner and also his ability to consistently extend plays to throw rather than just look to scramble every time he got knocked off of his spot.

Daniels’ escapability is an asset, but there are times he uses his legs as an easy answer to default rather than attempting to operate from the pocket and progress to an answer with his arm, or to work a throw open from outside structure. Even looking at some of Daniels’ best scrambles, you see him passing up open options, sometimes while staring right at them, and instead calling his own number:

While Daniels was still creating explosive plays using his legs, he’s passing up easier answers that could result in a similar outcome while also saving himself from another blow from a defender. Taking a simpler answer and saving those hits on himself is paramount for Daniels to succeed at the next level. This “when to throw, when to run” equation is something that athletic quarterbacks always have to adjust to as they face tougher competition, but Daniels especially is going to have to learn how to adapt against defenders who are bigger, faster and smarter than anything he has faced in college. Those larger defenders are also where the size concerns come into play with Daniels.

Even before his official weigh-in this week at the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis, Daniels has a slight frame that is going to make his durability and ability to pull out of defenders’ grasp in the pocket a huge question mark as a professional. While Daniels’ toughness will never come into question, his ability to take care of his body and when to play reckless are going to absolutely be questioned and harped on by whatever coaching staff he is paired with in the NFL. For better or worse, he has a style that’s more like Johnny Knoxville than your typical beanpole runners of the football:

Daniels simply won’t have a long playing career if he continues to play with this type of aggressiveness. While you love to see his willingness to lay it on the line, a skill to quarterback play is learning how to stay aggressive but to save yourself hits as a thrower and runner. Daniels showed that he will slide now and then, but it has to be a more consistent thing for him rather than chasing a few more yards.

Daniels’ weight might also be potentially under 205 pounds, which is concerning even before considering his height and frame (he was listed at 6-foot-4). It’s a short list of quarterbacks that have succeeded in the NFL while weighing under 205, and it gets even shorter when looking at quarterbacks who have played this century. Since 2000, there have been only five NFL quarterbacks under that weight to have a single season starting 14 or more games. I’m not even including another statistical threshold here, just straight up to start 14 or more games. That list consists of Aaron Brooks, Kirk Cousins, Doug Flutie, Jeff Garcia and Bryce Young (the only first-round draft pick in that group, too). If you look at quarterbacks of this size to start 14 or more games and average more than 7 or more adjusted net yards per attempt in a given season (a good barometer for top 6-8 quarterback play in a given season), that list is five Cousins seasons and a singular Garcia season.

Even if you drop the threshold to 6 adjusted net yards per attempt, which would generally rank in the top half in the league among quarterbacks in a given year, only Brooks’ 2003 season is added to the list (Brooks is actually not a terrible player comparison for Daniels). Daniels and his fellow 2024 draft classmate J.J. McCarthy, are more of historical outliers with their size than people realize. While many focus on the height of these players (even with Young last year), it’s really the weight that matters so much. It might seem arbitrary, but there are drawbacks from not having the simple weight and strength to combat strong NFL defenders.

(Remember: weight classes exist in combat sports for a reason!)

Jayden Daniels vaulted up draft boards after his Heisman Trophy season at LSU. (Damon Bomar II/Yahoo Sports)

Jayden Daniels vaulted up draft boards after his Heisman Trophy season at LSU. Is he worthy of a top 10 pick? (Damon Bomar II/Yahoo Sports)

Daniels through the air: Prolific but imperfect

Moving to Daniels as a thrower, he has good accuracy at all three levels and shows the ability to spot the ball away from defenders, especially when attacking underneath. He has above-average arm strength and is willing to push the ball down the field when opportunities arise. Daniels consistently finds the correct answer when progressing through concepts, but he is also consistently a half-beat slow in getting to that final answer. Since his arm strength isn’t overwhelming, he will have to keep speeding up how he works through his reads, as the windows are tighter and close quicker in the NFL. And for a guy with this many career starts (55) in college, I am curious (and have some hesitation) about how much more he can speed it up as he steps up a level. Really focus on the second clip against Auburn in the tweet embedded below, as the extra fat that Daniels leaves in his progression timing ends up getting punished by a fast closing defensive back:

It is typically throwing over the middle where you see this hesitation crop up with Daniels. He is not entirely comfortable working between the numbers, which can cause him to hit his receiver a few yards later than he should ideally and is something that can be punished even more often against NFL defenders. Daniels threw over the intermediate part of the field (10-22 yards) and between the numbers on only 9.3% of his dropbacks, which ranked 163rd out of 196 qualifying college quarterbacks since 2019. The only quarterback to be drafted in the first two rounds to have a lower rate since 2020 was Justin Fields at 8.1%, and that’s still an aspect of the game that Fields struggles with despite having more arm strength than Daniels.

Throwing the ball over the middle shows an ability to anticipate and navigate multiple defenders, showing an understanding of how to use touch and ball placement to throw a player open and create those juicy yards after the catch opportunities. If a quarterback struggles to consistently attack that middle body of the gridiron, it can lead to tightness and a lack of sustainability for an entire passing game (something that I wrote about with Jalen Hurts, another quarterback who doesn’t consistently work the middle, and the dropoff of the Eagles’ offense late in the season). Think of a quarterback who doesn’t throw over the middle like a basketball player who can’t shoot 3-pointers; he better have other aspects of his game to overcome that lack of spacing that he creates with his inability to threaten the defense. Always throwing to the outside means you are betting on your outside wide receivers to win over and over again, something that’s a safe bet when you have two projected first-round talents out there, but it’s a little bit different when you don’t have a clear matchup advantage every single week. With Daniels, there are often times when he has an answer over the middle that he chooses to pass up to scramble once again or to find something late outside.

Again, I wouldn’t have as many issues with this if Daniels were less experienced or did not have the opportunities to operate this way. But Daniels has started a lot of games and played in a quality offensive ecosystem, and it’s telling when many of his throwing highlights are attempts over the top rather than some in-breaking route into a tight window between several defenders or throwing to a receiver on the move up and away from a defender. Even on some of his timing throws on the outside, his footwork can be inconsistent and he will end up taking an extra hitch, which again will give professional defenders more time to close and make plays on throws. The tweet below features a smattering of stop and hitch throws to the outside and a throw on a seam route to Nabers, but all feature Daniels with a little too much fat in his footwork, which results him being technically late on each throw:

Daniels also has times when he won’t push for the deeper option on a high-low concept and default to something underneath, which is reflected in his air yards to the sticks metric that looks at the average difference in air yards to the target and the first-down marker. Daniels’ number in this metric was negative over his career, which doesn’t put him in the greatest company among recent highly drafted prospects at the position. The other quarterbacks to have a negative air yards to the sticks during their college careers and were drafted in the first two rounds since 2020: Mac Jones, Will Levis, Kenny Pickett and Tua Tagovailoa. That’s a group of quarterbacks (sans Levis) that have all had struggles to consistently attack down the field in the NFL and have led to overall offensive limitations (I chalk up Tagovailoa’s downfield numbers to the Dolphins’ offensive system rather than his preferred style).

Being a dinker and dunker with outstanding speed isn’t a terrible package of traits, but being a quarterback who doesn’t attack downfield unless it’s a clear open player can make any loss of yardage, say an early down sack, into something that can feel insurmountable for an offense. To live in this world, the quarterback simply cannot have negative plays (think of a late career Drew Brees). When you see how Daniels attacks and pair it with his career sack rate of 8.5% and pressure to sack rate (the amount of pressures that resulted in a sack) of 24.5%, I do have some concerns about how Daniels will mitigate those negative plays within the structure of the offense. Those sack metrics are generally sticky for quarterback prospects when they move to the next level and Daniels’ numbers rank second-highest among the same group of early round QB prospects since 2020.

Even the slightest amount of pressure will cause Daniels’ eyes to come down in the pocket and start looking for running lanes: only 50.6% of his pressured dropbacks resulted in a pass attempt, ranking 193rd out of 196 qualifying quarterbacks since 2019. If Daniels gets moved off of his launch point, he is looking to run; 25% of his pressured dropbacks resulted in a scramble! When Daniels escapes outside of the pocket? He looks to run. Daniels had 83 dropbacks where he ended up outside the pocket in 2023 and 36 of those dropbacks resulted in a scramble. That means 43.4% of the time Daniels left the pocket, he was scrambling. Not that those ended up as bad results; his success rate on those plays was nearly 70%, but always looking to run is near-impossible to do as a long-term NFL starter. Even Lamar Jackson, a player Daniels has been compared to, was a big-game hunter when coming out of Louisville with a love for firing throws over the middle, while also being heavier and a more creative runner.

If this all read as overwhelmingly negative, that was not my intent. Daniels has plenty of qualities that you love to see from a QB prospect: he is one of the toughest players you will watch at the position and it truly sparks his entire team whenever he is attempting one of his leaping maneuvers over (or through) a defender. He has a consistent throwing motion that allows him to maintain accuracy from the pocket and he has impressive ball placement to tightly covered receivers on static routes like curls and stops. He flashes good pocket movement and a willingness to hang in the pocket against the blitz, that toughness showing up again. He also shows an understanding of the concepts run, even if he is late at times, and protections and pre-snap operation, often pointing out protection assignments for his running backs and advanced play you love to see from any prospect.

But if you are taking a signal-caller with a potential top-10 or even top-five selection, then every blemish is going to be put under the microscope. I currently have Daniels graded as more like a late first or even early second-round prospect and a full tier below Drake Maye and Caleb Williams. He has paths to succeed and excel as a professional, but for Daniels to do that and not hit the rut other players of his outside-throwing, run-first archetype have hit, he will have to become a more aggressive thrower and also learn when to fight on another play or another day as a runner.

He will be a tremendously fun player to watch at the next level, but to see him play for a long time, and to be worth such a high selection in the draft, his growth in how he uses his outstanding athleticism to create more as a distributor will have to happen quickly and his potential landing spot matters way more than the guys above him in the draft.

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