Cardale Jones was the unlikely hero of the Ohio State Buckeyes' altogether unexpected run through the first-ever College Football Playoff en route to their National Championship game victory over the vaunted Oregon Ducks. Jones, prior to leading the Buckeyes on their improbable championship chase, had attempted all of 19 passes before taking over the top spot on Urban Meyer's quarterback depth chart against Wisconsin last December.
While Jones has decided to return to school - after a ridiculous and unnecessary offseason press conference to announce his decision - it seems his efforts against Wisconsin, Alabama and Oregon have left NFL talent evaluators salivating and already locked in on the big signal-caller as a likely top pick in the 2016 NFL Draft.
"Sources from some teams said they did some preliminary work on Jones because he could have declared for the 2015 NFL Draft. They said that from that initial work, there is a lot they really like about Jones. They said that Jones has rare physical talent and ability to do anything an NFL team could ask of their quarterbacks," Charlie Campbell of WalterFootball.com reports.
"One source said that Jones reminds them of a less-mobile and athletic version of Cam Newton. Both are massive quarterbacks who are hard to get down and also possess the power to run over defenders. They also have devastating cannons for right arms. Jones has rare arm strength, and it makes sense why Jones' nickname is '12 gauge.' His shotgun can make any throw to any location on the field that the NFL asks of quarterbacks. From the small sample size, Jones showed the ability to function as a pocket passer and distribute the ball downfield. "
While Jones' final stat line from the 2014 season - 56 completions on 92 attempts for 860 yards, seven touchdowns and two interceptions - isn't great, it was the manner in which he helmed the Buckeyes to ultimate victory that was so promising and which provided a potential glimpse of a successful professional future.
Jones isn't exactly fleet-of-foot, but his size - 6-foot-5, 250-pounds - allows him to shrug off would-be tacklers and reset. His feet aren't as quick or nimble as Newton's, but it's his ability to move within the confined space of the pocket and create something out of nothing that has piqued the interest of many NFL execs, including at least one scouting director.
"Big, strong-armed kid, but has enough athletic ability and strength in the pocket. Vertical type passer ... Cardale, is immature as a person, but if he checks out and wins the job, he has a chance to go high. Probably better than [Blake] Bortles if he plays like he did in the last three games."
Bortles, of course, is the presumed starter and franchise signal-caller for the Jacksonville Jaguars after Jags head coach Gus Bradley and GM David Caldwell hand-picked Bortles in the first-round, third-overall, in the 2014 NFL Draft. Like Jones probably will, Bortles faced questions of his NFL-readiness coming out of UCF, but teams were just as excited over his athleticism and size - 6-foot-5, 232-pounds.
It seems Jones, should 2015 unfold in a positive manner, already has a leg-up on Bortles, who was the top quarterback chosen in what was widely considered to be a passer-poor draft - the Browns were the next franchise to select a quarterback, Johnny Manziel, at No. 22.
"Sources from two other teams agreed that Jones would be a better prospect than Bortles if he played an entire season like he did in the final three games," reports Campbell. "Thus, sources from around the league see Jones as a first-round talent with the potential to go high on Thursday night in 2016, and they hope to see him get the opportunity to prove that."
While preparations for the 2015 NFL season aren't yet even fully underway, meaning the 2016 NFL Draft order is nowhere near set, and Jones hasn't yet been guaranteed the starting gig for next season, it's still likely that Jones and Michigan State's Connor Cook and Penn State's Christian Hackenburg will be jockeying for position throughout the collegiate schedule for the top spot and a chance at the starting gig for teams like Cleveland, the Oakland Raiders and the Chicago Bears.