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Why sleeper QB Tyree Jackson could be the steal of the NFL Draft

For The Win logo For The Win 4/24/2019 Henry McKenna
File Photo © File Photo File Photo

Tyree Jackson looked out of place, perhaps even like he didn't belong.

When Jackson joined the varsity football team for the first time at Mona Shores High School in Norton Shores, Michigan, he was much smaller than the upperclassmen on the team . Jackson was 13-years-old, in 8th grade and stood all of 5-foot-9 and 139 pounds. It's ridiculous to imagine now that Jackson is 6-foot-7, 250 pounds. Even at the NFL combine, an event where the biggest, strongest and most impressive draft prospects congregate every year, Jackson's stature was imposing. But in this moment, his first workout with varsity, he must have felt very small.

The coaches had decided he was ready to join the upperclassmen for a spring workout. They kicked things off with an exercise where players sprint on a treadmill set to its highest speed and steepest incline. They would run desperately for a few seconds, take a break and then step back onto the humming treadmill.

Jackson's turn came.

"He steps on it and immediately the feet go," Mona Shores coach Matt Koziak said. "And he grabs the handle, and, if you can picture this, his legs were off the treadmill. The treadmill is basically rubbing against his shins while he's holding on for a few seconds. And then he lets go and he flies off this treadmill."

He face planted, skipped off the treadmill and hit the floor of the weight room. The treadmill burn on his shins started to bleed.

Koziak quickly ushered Jackson down the hall to the nurse's office, where he figured Jackson's first day with the varsity football team would end. The coach wondered what he'd have to do to restore the young player's confidence - and convince the older players to accept him.

Then, not long after, Jackson returned. His shins bandaged, he finished the workout despite the setback, the blood and the embarrassment.

That fall he won the starting quarterback spot and held it for four years, becoming an exemplar for Koziak's program - and, eventually, one of the most intriguing prospects in this year's NFL Draft. While playing in college at Buffalo, he proved resilient and tireless, according to the coaches there. His post-college months have only heightened interest from scouts, as he's shown off speed, agility and an extremely powerful arm.

But Jackson is still raw, with much to prove: He's leaving college after his junior year, but didn't receive a first- or second-round grade from the draft advisory committee. He first put his name in the transfer portal, hoping a big-name school would come calling. When nothing materialized, he decided to set out again to prove himself.

Making the right adjustments

The fact that Jackson ended up working quarterback guru Jordan Palmer might seem to undercut Jackson's underdog narrative. Palmer is at the top of his profession and can generally pick the prospects he opts to train.

Ultimately, he was drawn to Jackson for a number of reasons.

"I'm picking the guys I want to work with. I want to be right," Palmer said, who is also working with Missouri's Drew Lock and Auburn's Jarrett Stidham. Last year, Palmer worked with Sam Darnold, the third-overall pick in 2018, and Josh Allen, the No. 7 overall pick. "I believe that quarterbacks are problem solvers, and I don't think that fans have any idea the levels of adversity that quarterbacks go through on a regular basis, because the set of responsibilities is so wide. And the blame gets cast on the quarterback. And these are the most competitive people in the world, so they want to solve everything."

Jackson's ability to overcome adversity stood out to Palmer. The treadmill story is an obvious example. After winning the starting job, Jackson helped Mona Shores make its first-ever playoff appearance. In his senior season, the team appeared in the state championship. In college, Jackson helped Buffalo undergo a similar transformation, with a 2-10 record in his freshman year before making a MAC Championship appearance last season. Palmer liked that track record and the promise he saw in Jackson, so they got to work.

First and foremost, Palmer wanted to clean up Jackson's mechanics while tweaking his footwork to match the upper body adjustment. Jackson tended to finish his throws like a baseball pitcher, facing slightly toward the ground, when he should instead be rotating his trunk while keeping his body vertical. He completed just over 55 percent of his passes in college, in part due to inaccuracy caused by inconsistent mechanics

As a part of the process, Jackson used Wilson Connected Footballs, which collect data from each throw. These footballs collect information on velocity (miles per hour), spin (revolutions per minute), spiral efficiency (how healthy is the spiral on a scale from 1 to 100) and time of release.

With Palmer, Jackson had come a long way from where he started a kid when he studied YouTube videos on throwing mechanics.

"The good thing about football is that there's no limit on how much you can learn," Jackson said. "There's no spot where it's like, 'Alright, I've learned everything I need to learn about the game.' That's the coolest thing about the game of football. It's a nonstop grind."

a couple of people that are sitting on a bench: File Photo © File Photo File Photo

Jackson has shown signs of improvement, according to Palmer and the data from Wilson. From the first week of training to the seventh week, his spiral efficiency jumped from 72 to 79, which Palmer called "a monumental leap." It was enough for them to center his Pro Day throwing routine around short and intermediate throws to highlight those improvements. Over the same seven weeks, Jackson's spin rate increased from 723 to 728. And that velocity is nasty, up there with some of the strongest arms Palmer has coached which includes Josh Allen, whose arm was the talk of the 2018 draft class, and retired quarterbacks Jay Cutler and Carson Palmer, Jordan's brother. But changing a throwing motion isn't easy (see: Tim Tebow).

"That's a foundational muscle-memory thing, and also you don't see results coming right out of it," Palmer said. "It's not like the light bulb goes off and every ball is perfect now."

What to do with all that height and that arm strength?

Jackson's profile is full of contradictions: His completion percentage dropped five points between his sophomore and junior seasons, a clear reason for concern.

But he also led a fast-paced offense proficiently last year, finishing with 3,131 passing yards, 28 touchdowns and 12 interceptions.

His offensive coordinator, Jim Zebrowski, had challenged him to "be like Ricky Bobby. Drive fast. Take chances." Jackson responded by trying to push the ball downfield; his average depth of target (10.4 yards) was second most in the nation behind Oklahoma's Kyler Murray, who may be the No. 1 overall pick in 2019.

But Zebrowski also said that Jackson locked onto his top receiver, Anthony Johnson, too often. And film review shows that Jackson appeared to have some trouble diagnosing defenses and moving away from his top receiver to his second, third and fourth options on a play. Those skills are essential for an NFL quarterback, no matter how talented or tall he may be.

That's one thing that Palmer - and whatever team drafts Jackson - won't be able to tweak. Jackson's height actually makes him as troubling as it does tantalizing.

Everybody frets about short quarterbacks and defaults to the idea that tall ones are better able to see the field, but there's little precedent for really tall quarterbacks making it in the NFL. Jackson is still working to separate himself from the small contingent of 6-foot-7 quarterback (or taller) who came before him. Five have appeared at the combine: Ryan Mallett, Mike Glennon, Paxton Lynch and Brock Osweiler. That's rough company, comprised mostly of backups whose potential never materialized into on-field production. Osweiler landed a huge contract, and it became immediately clear that he didn't deserve it. Lions quarterback Sonny Gibbs, a second-round draft pick in 1964, didn't throw more than three passes. Frank Patrick, who was in the league from 1970 to 1972 was another draft dud. And finally Dan McGwire, brother of baseball superstar Mark McGwire, had a few moments of success in the NFL. But the 6-foot-8 signal-caller never justified his draft status as the 16th overall pick in 1991.

While much has been made of whether Murray, who is a hair taller than 5-foot-10, can overcome his height in the NFL, an argument could me made that Jackson is as vertically challenged - or more challenged from a historical perspective - than Murray. Because while Drew Brees, Russell Wilson and Baker Mayfield are paving a path for shorter quarterbacks, there's little precedent of sustained success of a quarterback with Jackson's size. He'd have to do something fairly unprecedented.

If you ask Palmer or any of Jackson's coaches, they'll tell you that his height doesn't matter. In fact, Zebrowski explained that Jackson's size led to qualities a lot like those of Randall Cunningham, who was 6-foot-5, when he was an NFL star. (Though Zebrowski wanted to clarify it wasn't a 1-for-1 comparison; just that Jackson has Cunnningham-like qualities.)

There is some reason to believe Jackson's height is a blessing and not a curse. That height hasn't hindered his speed. Jackson turned heads at the 2019 NFL Combine with a 4.59-second 40-yard dash. Jackson is also surprisingly agile for a person of his size, and because of that, he has shown he has elusiveness in the pocket. He took 15 sacks in 2018, which was fewer than Murray, Ohio State's Dwayne Haskins, Duke's Daniel Jones and West Virginia's Will Grier, among other top quarterbacks in the 2019 draft class.

"I think just having a feel in the pocket was big for me," Jackson said. "Being back there, knowing when to escape, knowing when to stay in the pocket and deliver a pass."

Big quarterbacks can look like statues in the pocket - they're often stiff. Somehow, Jackson managed to play looser than most men his size.

"He's definitely a different approach when you're playing a quarterback," Eastern Michigan defensive end Maxx Crosby said of Jackson. "He's just as big as the defensive ends. And he's not like the typical quarterback that you have to grab and throw down."

How does he fit in the NFL?

a group of people watching a football ball: USA TODAY © USA TODAY USA TODAY

When it comes to the ultimate question - Can Jackson make it as an NFL quarterback? - the people who say yes most resoundingly do so because of his work ethic.

He practically never missed workouts, optional or not, during college and high school, his coaches said. And where he led, others followed.

"My freshman year, there was probably five of us doing extra stuff [in the weight room and in film study]. And then my senior or my redshirt junior year, everyone was doing it. It was a whole team effort," Jackson said. "… It was just kind of a whole change of culture around football. It was a change of everyone wanting to do something extra and take up the time of their day that they really don't want to do."

In college, film study became required course material - he was often studying game tape in his spare time. Jackson buzzed up Zebrowski with late-night phone calls: Have you seen this throw from Patrick Mahomes?

He also, according to Zebrowski, has the natural gift of a locked-in memory.

"If you draw something on the board, it's in his brain," Zebrowski said. "It gives you the confidence that you can put in a play that week and feel confident that it's going to be run well. [With other players] you might put a wrinkle in and get nervous later in the season, if you haven't repped them a lot."

Yet it's difficult to decipher whether a quarterback can make the mental leap to pro football until he's there. What's easier to examine at this stage are the tangibles, and that's where Jackson has stood out most: with his arm strength. At the combine, he was whipping the ball around with so much velocity that receivers began dropping balls in drills. NFL Network analyst and former NFL receiver Steve Smith was visibly upset with Jackson for throwing the ball too hard.

To the credit of those combine receivers, Jackson's velocity has surprised many of his old coaches and teammates when they first encounter it.

"Early in practice - I think it was our first or second spring practice - he scrambles," Zebrowski said. "He's rolling left. He made some 50-yard, miraculous post throw. I was like, 'Oh my! That's pretty good.' … There are a couple plays per game where you're like, 'Oh my gosh. Did he just make that play?'"

Here's another example. Rolling to his right during a game against Rutgers in 2018, Jackson managed to keep the play alive while keeping his eyes downfield despite many of his receivers breaking off their routes. Jackson then whipped the ball downfield for a 59-yard gain to Johnson. It's a throw few humans have the physical abilities to complete.

Yet Jackson's senior season unfurled unsteadily. He was often like a superhero during his origin story: when the protagonist doesn't know his or her own strength there can be as many mishaps as flashes of brilliance.

"Sometimes it's a roller coaster. Sometimes it doesn't work out good. It goes the wrong way," Zebrowski said. "But you don't tell him not to do it. You just say, 'Ooo, that might be not good. You might not be able to make that throw.' We'd always give him the opportunity in practice to do it, and then we'd hone it back when he'd be like, 'Yeah, I can't make that throw. That's not a good choice.'"

Despite that freedom, Jackson looked to move on from the Bulls after the season. After he entered the NCAA's transfer portal, Wisconsin was in the mix, according to ESPN , though no one close to Jackson could confirm that report with For The Win. Eventually he chose the draft route even though the college advisory committee did not give him a first- or second-round grade.

Jackson got a last-minute invite to the Senior Bowl, and didn't get a shot to play until the fourth quarter. That's when he went 13 of 21 for 165 passing yards with two touchdowns and one interception. Despite losing the game, he won the MVP award.

When the combine arrived, Jackson's buzz grew. His measurables were off the charts, and his interviews were strong. ESPN's Adam Schefter eventually suggested Jackson would go higher in the draft than most anticipate. As the long and at times bewildering weekend came to a close, Jackson got a moment away from coaches, scouts, general managers, agents and media members. They'd been measuring, MRI-ing, X-raying, questioning, testing and agitating him all weekend.

Joined by Lock and Stidham - the trio had grown close during Palmer's passing camp - Jackson sat on the field at Lucas Oil Stadium, the home of the Indianapolis Colts and the location of the combine workouts.

He described that moment a few weeks later.

"Just looking around and realizing that your dreams are coming true. And everything you looked forward to your entire life - going into the NFL, getting a chance to go to the combine and the Senior Bowl - has happened," Jackson said. "The draft process is so busy, and you're always doing something, and you never get time to reflect. I think I reflected for the first time after the combine. I was very thankful. I mean, I was still hungry for more - but one of the real grateful moments of my life."

He'll have another one of those moments this week, possibly as early as Friday night during rounds 2 and 3. And then he'll have to prove himself again; he's not going to get the franchise label right away. He'll most likely get handed a clipboard to develop as a backup behind an established veteran. There are precious few teams - the Dolphins and Redskins, maybe - where he'd have a chance to push for early playing time.

It would not surprise those who've worked with him if he finds a way to succeed where others like him have not.

"I just continue to see him barely get a small opportunity and leave with the whole thing," Palmer said. "That's a pattern."

Related slideshow: NFL Mock Draft (provided by Yardbarker)

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