The first thing you notice about Cardale Jones is that he looks the part of an NFL quarterback. He has the towering, powerful frame that every coach and scout considers ideal for the position.
Not surprisingly, that was what initially caught Rex Ryan’s attention as he watched the 6-foot-5, 250-pound Jones go through the opening practice of the Buffalo Bills’ three-day rookie minicamp Friday.
As the session progressed, however, the coach noticed something else: the kid had a great deal to learn about the Bills’ offense and pretty much everything else that pertains to playing quarterback at the professional level.
“Obviously, he’s got the physical gifts you look for, there’s no question about that,” Ryan said. “You notice the stature and he’s got a big arm and all that … but you also notice that he's just going through everything. It’s spinning right now. He’s throwing behind guys. He doesn’t know where he’s going right now with it.
“He’s got a long way to go.”
Fortunately for the Bills, they aren’t counting on Jones to cover that distance by the time the regular season begins in September. They have a veteran starter in Tyrod Taylor and a veteran backup in EJ Manuel.
The fourth-round draft pick they invested in Jones, who made only 11 starts at Ohio State, is much more about what he can do in the future – as in beyond the 2016 season – than what he can do in the present. The present involves a great deal of work on the most basic fundamentals, because even though he won in all of those starts and even though he was spectacular in three postseason games in 2014 on the way to a national championship, Jones’ game is every bit as raw as his limited playing time would suggest.
For instance, on Friday, he learned some crucial lessons about footwork, with Bills quarterbacks coach David Lee trying to get him to drop a bad habit he picked up in the three months leading up to the NFL Draft.
At Ohio State, Jones never worked under center, and, therefore, never had any real guidance about how to position his feet accordingly. In receiving tutelage from renowned quarterbacking guru George Whitfield, Jones was taught to keep his left foot behind him while calling signals so that the center, who normally takes his first backward step with his left foot after the snap, wouldn’t step on his foot. The technique also would give Jones “kind of an advantage of pushing back from the line of scrimmage just one step.”
But Lee wants Jones to keep his toes parallel to the line of scrimmage in order to get better balance when dropping back and setting up to throw.
“That’s what I need, that’s what I want, to break the habit of staggering my foot, because there were times I was staggering my foot (when) I didn't even feel it,” Jones said. “I talked to (Lee) about that after practice. He saw two things, mechanical things, that I wasn't struggling with, but kind of showed up every once in a while throughout the practice: dropping my elbow and staggering my feet. So I just told him, 'Hey, give me cues before the play or after the play. Just say feet, and I'll know what you're talking about.' Because the play before, I threw the ball low, he would say, 'Elbow,' and the next play, I would throw it better.”
Receiving instruction is one thing. Accepting it is another.
Jones understands that he has to keep an open mind when being corrected by Lee and offensive coordinator Greg Roman, who did a lot of it on Friday and will do much more in the days, weeks, and months ahead. Their main message to Jones, especially when it comes to learning the Bills’ complex playbook: “The good thing is, you don't know that you don't know. But you don't want to be the guy that thinks you know and you don't.”
Jones is fully aboard with that approach.
“You've got to have, not just trust, but your faith in those coaches and lucky enough, I do,” he said. “Coach Lee is proven, Coach Roman is a proven coach. We haven't gotten really gotten too big on mechanics or too in-depth, and little fixes, little twitches, (Lee) already kind of told me about. I felt better with a rep or two. Open-mindedness played a huge role in that.”
The brightest spot in Jones’ spotty first exposure to the NFL was the leadership he displayed. As he entered the locker room, teammates (“I don’t know everyone’s names yet”) were praising him for the command he showed in the huddle.
There were times on the field when Jones admonished players for either talking in the huddle or leaving it too soon.
“Small things like that,” Jones said. “Even though guys weren't chapping in the huddle, I'm sure they were just being anxious, (wondering), ‘What should I do?’ and stuff like that. But just understanding the leadership role, that's not behavior that's tolerated in the huddle. And little things like that, lining up guys right and stuff like that, can go a long way.”
Bills third-round draft pick Adolphus Washington, who was Jones’ teammate at Ohio State, was especially pleased to hear about those interactions, “because that was one of the things that he probably needed to work on.”
But Jones seems to be keeping his confidence mostly in check, even if he does have a reputation for speaking his mind. When someone told him that Ryan believes in giving players the freedom to say what they please, Jones joked, “He might be my long, lost dad. I've been looking for that guy for 23 years. I think I found him.”
At the same time, Jones appears to have a solid grasp on his status on the Bills’ quarterback depth chart.
“I'm not going in here saying, 'I just want to be a backup,' but I'm going in here knowing and believing that Tyrod is our starter,” he said. “I'm going in here knowing that EJ is the backup. I'm going in here working as hard as I can every day with Coach Lee, in and out of the film room, on and off the field. Whatever happens after that is just a product of great circumstances. I don't come in here and say I'm going to take over anything.”
Said Ryan, “I'm excited about him because he's a big, raw talent. He's got to come a long way, there's no question about that. But shoot, he's almost in the perfect situation, and we'll see how he develops.”
What’s a realistic timetable? For now, that’s anyone’s guess, Jones included.
“I got a small (portion) of the playbook today,” he said. “I still want to execute at a higher level, but whenever I think I kind of have a great grasp of the playbook and understanding the system and defenses and however long that may take.”
Based on what he showed Friday, it will likely take a while.