The Tour of the Top Four: Jayden Daniels

by Sam Bruchhaus|April 12, 2024

Share

Leading up to the draft, we will be bringing you THE TOUR OF THE TOP FOUR, a data-driven journey to the NFL draft for each of the top four quarterbacks. We will be providing you with a summary of the careers of J.J. McCarthy, Drake Maye, Jayden Daniels, and Caleb Williams. You can find companion discussions to the articles on The Class Play Podcast, which can be found on the SumerSports Show Podcast Feed on your audio platform of choice. 

Jayden Daniels first hit minus odds to win the Heisman trophy on November 19th, 2023 (according to SportsBettingDime). Ironically, this occurred after a late season game against the middling Georgia State Panthers. To many, it doesn’t make a ton of sense why an older, skinny quarterback on a three-loss, underachieving Louisiana State Tigers football team would have his “Heisman moment” during a blowout against an opponent with less resources. However, in Jayden Daniels’ case, the stars aligned to create one of the most astounding performances (and seasons, more generally) in college football history. 

The reason Jayden Daniels’ Heisman moment came against Georgia State is because he accounted for an incredible 8 touchdowns in that game. The touchdowns were comprised of

  • One red zone BB to fellow 1st round mocked prospect Malik Nabers, 
  • One slippery, red zone quarterback draw where Daniels somehow went untouched despite having at least 4 players in the vicinity, 
  • One middle of the field strike from about 25 yards out, 
  • One deep throw outside of the numbers to another 1st round mocked receiver, Brian Thomas Jr., 
  • One second-read laser in the red zone, 
  • One off-hand bootleg pass feathered softly to a tight end, 
  • One quarterback sneak, 
  • And a double move bomb to Malik Nabers 

 

Look through this list, and it is clear why Daniels is such a tantalizing prospect. Accuracy, touch, arm strength, mobility, and creativity were all on display versus Georgia State. Summarizing it all was the sheer statistical dominance, as Daniels led LSU to the 99th percentile of expected points added (EPA) per play and per dropback in that game. 

A closer look at the list evinces some questions that extrapolate to the greater uncertainty for Daniels’ college to pro projection. As noted, all season he was throwing to two extremely talented wide receivers in Thomas and Nabers. He was also protected by future prospects Will Campbell,  Emery Jones Jr., and Miles Frazier 

Could Daniels be a product of an incredible offensive environment that might not transfer over perfectly to the NFL, similar to Mac Jones’ breakout season in 2020? Or is Daniels a bona fide NFL quarterback as many suggest? Let’s dive into his history, step-by-step, to investigate. 

 

Even at the earliest portions of his football career, size was a concern for Jayden Daniels. Upon joining the varsity football team at Cajon High School in San Bernadino, California, Daniels more resembled his father’s defensive back frame than even that of a college quarterback. Daniels, who stood only 5’11” and weighed in at about 135 pounds, overcame doctors’ concerns about his weight and his father’s concerns about his long-term viability at quarterback to pass for over 2,500 yards in his freshman season. 

After seeing growth both on the field (improving to have over 70 total touchdowns in each of his junior and senior years) and off the field (growing to the 6’4” frame he now sports), Daniels earned a 4-star composite recruiting rating, good for the third-best quarterback in the country after draft classmates Bo Nix and Spencer Rattler. Daniels received offers from nearly every powerhouse in the country but was ultimately wooed by a connection to Antonio Pierce, then the recruiting coordinator for Arizona State. By the springtime of that year, Daniels had early enrolled into Arizona State and was pulling away from the pack in a quarterback competition. 

 

Much in line with the Sun Devils moniker, Jayden Daniels’ college career started off hot. In the second season under former NFL head coach Herm Edwards, Arizona State started out 5-1, including upset wins against the 15th ranked Cal Golden Bears and the 18th ranked Michigan State Spartans. In that stretch, Daniels played admirably for a rookie signal caller. He amassed a ratio of 8 touchdowns to 1 interception through the air, while adding another two scores on the ground. As a result, Daniels led his team to a top 20 ranking. 

The next four games resulted in losses: an ugly loss to Utah where Daniels completed only 22% of his passes, a blowout threw 3 quarters against UCLA that he helped keep interesting, a USC loss that he missed due to injury, and a back-and-forth heartbreaker against Oregon State where Daniels was in the 71st percentile in EPA per drop back. 

However, on a nationally televised primetime stage, Daniels showed why he was so promising in an upset of the 6th ranked Oregon Ducks. Daniels outdueled now-NFL quarterback Justin Herbert, earning an EPA per drop back in the 94th percentile as opposed to Herbert’s 44th. The raw stats were also astonishing: 22 for 32 for 408 yards and 3 touchdowns. In another light though, this game is representative of a narrative that has surrounded Daniels years later: that he is a product of the talent around him. In this game, now-NFL running back Eno Benjamin ate up 31 carries for 114 yards. Superstar wide receiver and current 49er Brandon Aiyuk was targeted 11 times, catching 7 for 161 yards and a touchdown. 

ASU finished off the season with three more wins and looked to be on the ascent as a program. Daniels himself was also on the ascent, finding himself projected as a first round pick in the 2022 NFL Draft. 

But COVID-19 scrambled the PAC-12 schedule and left more questions than answers after the 2020 season. Arizona State played only 4 games, going 2-2. Altogether, the year was strange for the Sun Devils. Herm Edwards moved away from offensive coordinator Rob Likens to Zak Hill. This move, as described in 2023 by Daniels’ longtime skills coach Ryan Porter, was a move away from Daniels’ comfort zone of run-pass options and zone reads. As a result, Daniels seemed to take a small step back, completing under 60% of his passes. In contrast though, some advanced statistics showed growth. Daniels jumped from 55th in ESPN’s QBR metric in 2019 to 7th in 2020. Though sample sizes were minute, this was the first uncertainty surrounding Daniels’ status in Tempe. 

Much like COVID-19 disrupted the 2020 season, the Sun Devils’ 2021 season was disrupted by rumors of recruiting violations by the football staff. Implicated in these rumors was Daniels’ mother. With all this swirling as the season went on, Daniels regressed heavily on the field. Despite posting another 8-5 season while increasing his completion percentage, Daniels threw only 10 touchdowns to 10 interceptions. He never topped 300 yards passing in a game. He went back down to 41st in ESPN’s QBR. As a parade of coaches and players began to leave due to the threat of violations, Daniels decided to enter the transfer portal. 

 

Sans his freshman year, Daniels’ NFL journey began in Baton Rouge. Joining proven winner Brian Kelly, the coach-quarterback pairing set out to restore LSU to the glory of 2019, when Joe Burrow led the Fighting Tigers to the promised land. Daniels got as close as one can in 2022, leading the Bayou Bengals to a 9-2 record where both losses were against teams that ended the season ranked in the top 10 of the College Football Playoff Rankings.  

Daniels was a revelation. He completed 68% of his passes and returned to the touchdown (17) to interception (3) ratio he had set in his first two seasons at Arizona State. He had one of the greatest plays in LSU history, hitting a fantastic scamper to tie in overtime and a clutch two-point conversion to win against Alabama. All in all, Daniels helped lock up a SEC West Championship for the Tigers prior to the final week of the season, with potential to break into the College Football Playoff picture as the 5th ranked team. 

The hype balloon was deflated a bit after LSU was defeated by an underachieving Texas A&M team. With a playoff appearance on the line, Daniels was only in the 42nd percentile in EPA per dropback. While he was productive on the ground, he had a tragic “fumble-six” in the third quarter that gave the Aggies a lead they would not relinquish. Pair this with being absolutely demolished by a juggernaut Georgia Bulldog team in the SEC Championship, and it was clear that hope may have gotten unnecessarily high as the season progressed. 

A look behind the curtain confirms this. Daniels eclipsed the 70th percentile in only 7 of the 13 regular season games. 3 of those games were against overmatched, non-Power 5 opponents. Daniels was in the top 20 in ESPN QBR, but struggled mightily with sacks. He ranked 5th to last in EPA lost due to sacks out of qualifying quarterbacks for ESPN’s board. With this profile, Daniels received a late Day 2 grade from NFL scouts, which led him to return to LSU to improve his stock. 

 

The 2023 season for Daniels is best described in its totality: 

To say the least, Daniels dominated. If not for a defense that was one of the worst in LSU history, the Tigers would’ve been much more firmly entrenched in the title picture than their 10-3 record suggested. Indeed, Daniels’ Tigers achieved over an 85th percentile EPA per dropback in nearly every game, according to Game on Paper. The season led Daniels to where he is today: a Heisman (and multiple other) trophy winner who stands staunchly entrenched as a top quarterback in the 2024 draft in the public big boards and mock drafts. 

Unlike other quarterbacks who have vacillated up and down in the draft process, the narrative on Daniels has stayed fairly consistent throughout draft season. He is considered an accuratepoint guard”-like passer whose scrambling ability presents immense upside, but when coupled with his frightening pressure-to-sack ratio and diminutive weight presents health problems and production downside. Throughout the process, this has led most to believe that the Commanders will take him with the second pick, though a recent Instagram Live suggests that he will be joining his “homies”, a vague but potential allusion that now-Raiders head coach Antonio Pierce may be willing to trade up for him. 

When looked at all together, Daniels has the most unique path to the draft of any of the top four candidates. However, other than Caleb Williams, he seems to be the most reliable to be taken highly. But troubles with size and pressure-to-sack ratio have caused problems in the past for mobile quarterbacks, particularly Justin Fields, who was recently let go by the Bears to clear a way for their first pick. In short, despite being a Heisman-winner and likely top 3 pick in the draft, Daniels will have to beat the narratives that have been following him since his freshman year in high school, albeit at the highest level possible. 

Share

Related Posts

Pigskin Principia, Vol. II: Evidence and Expertise in Football

May 20, 2024

The Class Play – Breaking Down the Schedule Release

May 17, 2024

Deriving the Top 10 Matchups of the 2024 NFL Season 

May 16, 2024

UFL Week 7: Updated Projections

May 7, 2024
Download our FREE 2024 NFL Rookie Guide with advanced analytics and future projections.
FREE 2024 NFL Rookie Guide