In the end, Tyree Jackson popped the cork of a champagne bottle and allowed himself to celebrate.
Surrounded by family, friends and his agents, the former University at Buffalo quarterback managed to find a reason to smile and laugh after an agonizing three days of watching last month’s NFL draft.
“It definitely didn’t go as planned,” Jackson is captured as saying by an ESPN video crew at a home in his native Michigan. “But it worked out the way it was supposed to work out.”
It “worked out” with Jackson signing a contract with the Buffalo Bills after the draft. This weekend, he’ll take part in the team’s rookie minicamp, where he is expected to address reporters for the first time since the draft.
Of course, had it gone “as planned,” Jackson would have been one of the 254 players selected, likely by another team because after last year’s first-round investment in Josh Allen, the Bills didn’t have Jackson on their draft radar.
But Jackson was absolutely convinced there was a team that did. So were those close to him, including agents Brian McLaughlin and Brandon Parker, and his quarterback coach, Jordan Palmer. Jackson’s certainty that he would be drafted led to his decision to leave college after a spectacular junior season. It also led to considerable disappointment on display during the last segment of the final episode of ESPN’s “Draft Academy,” which followed his pre-draft journey along with those of other prospects.
As he moved closer to the reality that 32 teams didn’t find him draft-worthy, Jackson couldn’t contain his disbelief. “Did I kill somebody or something?” he asked. “Like, what did I do recently?”
Finally, Jackson, sitting across from Parker, says, “You’re going to get struck by lightning, bro. You said, ‘If you go undrafted, I have a better chance of getting struck by lightning.’” Then Jackson asks Parker, “What did you think the real odds of this happening was?”
McLaughlin, who is pacing while checking his phone, answers, “Less than five percent.” Parker adds, “I meant what I said.”
The miscalculation raises an obvious question: Did Jackson make a mistake in opting to enter the draft early? The fact he went undrafted might make the answer equally obvious, but those familiar with how he arrived at his choice said there was sound thinking behind it.
An NFL source said Jackson “did a pretty thorough evaluation” of feedback from different teams in the league. That would seem to be supported by the fact multiple clubs, including the Bills, expressed surprise that he wasn’t drafted.
The source also said that three primary factors drove Jackson to his early exit from UB: the fact he graduated, was losing his top two wide receivers, and had accomplished all he could in college after leading the Bulls to their best football season in school history. It was, the source said, “an informed” decision.
While Jackson entered the NCAA transfer portal, he said at the Senior Bowl that his family wanted him to explore all options.
Palmer, who trained Jackson for the 2019 NFL Scouting Combine and other pre-draft auditions, said he makes a point of not giving clients specific advice about whether to enter the draft.
“Not because I don’t want blame for that decision,” Palmer, a former NFL quarterback, told The Buffalo News by phone. “I do genuinely believe these guys need to make their own decisions. With Tyree, he had three options: go to the NFL, go back to Buffalo, or enter the transfer portal and see what happens. So I told him, ‘Instead of just deciding what to do, I would try and make this binary and I would eliminate whatever decision you deem to be an option you’d eliminate. At the time, the state of Buffalo football was somewhat up in the air. He was losing his center, he was losing his linebacker, he was losing his (No. 1) wideout (Anthony Johnson). He, himself, eliminated the option of going back to Buffalo.
“And then he had some conversations with some schools that had a lot of interest – I don’t think it’s my place to say who they were – and he put a lot of time into thinking about it and talking to players (at the schools) and talking to coaches and all that.
"The next piece of advice I give guys is, ‘In the next 12 months, where are you going to develop the most? Not how much money you can make, but what environment will allow you to improve the most?’ And he came to the conclusion that going to the NFL, regardless of what his entry point is, is going to be the best opportunity for him to go in and to develop and improve.”
Still, Jackson and those around him always assumed that entry point would be as a draft pick, as high as a third-rounder, according to some projections.
Palmer’s surprise over Jackson’s failure to be drafted is largely based on the expectation that the quarterback’s 6-foot-7, 249-pound frame and physical skills provided the sort of lump of clay NFL teams seek to mold at the most important position.
“That was just a guy who appeared to have a unique upside,” Palmer said. “The reality is, there’s not that many unique talents at that position. A lot of these guys are 6-4, a lot of them have strong arms. And so when you have things that are that unique, and he’s been productive … he started three years, not one year. He didn’t have, like, a really good stretch of four games. He played three years. So I was surprised those things didn’t tip the scale for somebody earlier in the draft.”
Those feelings were shared by Jackson and others for ESPN’s “Draft Academy” cameras. Late in the draft’s third and final day, Jackson, his head down on a table as he stares at his cell phone, suddenly lifts his head and asks McLaughlin: “Are you surprised?”
“At what? At you?” McLaughlin says. “Yeah, a little bit.”
Jackson puts his head down on the table again, this time with his right hand under his face and his left arm curled over his head. He looks like he’s ready to take a nap.
“I would have taken you one overall, though,” McLaughlin adds. With that, Jackson laughs and walks to another room. McLaughlin is seen saying, to no one in particular, “All right, let’s start making sense, NFL.”
The agent then walks into the room Jackson has entered and both are looking at a TV monitor. Pointing to the screen with a football he’s holding, a despondent Jackson reads the crawl: “Cowboys and Lions interested in (Northwestern) QB Clayton Thorson.”
Soon thereafter comes the announcement of the Philadelphia Eagles selecting Thorson with the 167th pick.
“I did not see that coming,” McLaughlin says.
With the draft over, Jackson says to the agent, “So is there a chance that nobody wants me?”
McLaughlin assures his client he’s “going to be somewhere.” He then informs him the Bills are making an “aggressive” offer that includes a $15,000 bonus on top of $60,000 in guaranteed money.
After that, McLaughlin hands Jackson his cell phone, which has Bills coach Sean McDermott on speaker. Jackson puts on a Bills hat as they begin their conversation.
“I appreciate you giving us a chance, man,” McDermott says.
“Of course,” Jackson says. “I appreciate you giving me a chance.” McDermott tells the quarterback he has a “great opportunity to come in and learn. We can’t wait to get you in the fold here, man.”
General Manager Brandon Beane told reporters after the draft that, based on their rankings, the Bills fully expected Jackson to be drafted. Beane also said the decision to pursue him if he weren’t picked was made during the seventh round.
“Well, the first thing you look at is the size,” the GM said. “He’s got a strong arm and he’s got some mobility. I think he’s shown improvement and played at the Senior Bowl, it wasn’t too big for him. I think he’s still an ascending player.”
Beane described Jackson as a “natural fit” with the Bills. Having worked with Allen since before last year’s draft, Palmer concurs.
“I think him and Josh Allen have a lot of similar traits that both of those guys are unique in,” Palmer said. “There’s a small group of people who have big, strong arms and have that size, arm talent and speed. And they have a great relationship. They spent a lot of time together this offseason (under Palmer’s tutelage) and they went through the exact same process.
“The part of it that doesn't bother me at all about it is that Tyree took over a high school program that had not won and four years later, they won a bunch. And then he took over a college program that had not won, and then they ended up winning a bunch. He was the last guy invited to the Senior Bowl, and then he was the MVP. He has developed a pattern of people giving him a small, entry point opportunity and just creating his way in. That’s the part where I go, sixth round, seventh round, undrafted, it doesn’t really matter because of his mentality.”
Palmer watched the draft from Nashville with another of his clients, former Missouri standout Drew Lock.
Hours after its conclusion, he spoke with Jackson by phone.
“I said, ‘Look, you made a decision about how you’re going to improve the most for the next 12 months. And you already had three months of a ton of improvement – January, February and March – with the Senior Bowl, time with me, time with the other guys, throwing with (New York Jets quarterback) Sam (Darnold) and Josh every day, (former Auburn quarterback) Jarrett (Stidham, a fourth-round pick of the New England Patriots) and Drew, and got better.’
“So now it’s May, and he’s probably going to improve a lot. He’s going to be spending a lot of time with Josh Allen, Matt Barkley, Derek Anderson, (quarterbacks coach) Ken Dorsey, (offensive coordinator) Brian Daboll. Moneywise, the best opportunity he has to have a great career is developing really fast early on.”