Most agree record-setting Oklahoma quarterback Landry Jones hampered his NFL stock by staying his senior year.
But what round the Big 12's all-time passing leader was selected no longer is relevant.
Jones' focus is to nail down a spot on the Pittsburgh Steelers' 53-man roster.
“It's been a dream for a long time to play in the NFL,” Jones said in a phone interview with The Oklahoman. “I'm excited to get the opportunity.”
Jones is competing with former Alabama quarterback John Parker Wilson for the Steelers' No. 3 job. Two-time Super Bowl champion Ben Roethlisberger is the starter. Veteran Bruce Gradkowski was signed to be the backup.
“This is different, knowing you're at the bottom of the depth chart,” Jones said. “You just have to put your head down and start grinding. When it's your opportunity, you have to take advantage.”
A week after the draft, Pittsburgh general manager Kevin Colbert and coach Mike Tomlin insisted the Steelers didn't draft Jones to be their quarterback of the future. They selected Jones to provide some youth at the position.
It's uncertain where Jones would have been drafted had he come out after his junior season. A couple of draft “gurus” said Jones might have gone in the first round in 2012, but the overall consensus is Jones probably would have been a second-round pick.
“It is what it is,” Jones said. “There's all kinds of speculation out there on whether if I had come out last year I might have gotten drafted higher. It turned out I got drafted in the fourth round. That's exactly where I was supposed to go. It's a good situation for me.”
Part of that “good situation” is playing behind Roethlisberger, a former NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year and two-time Pro Bowler who has thrown for nearly 30,000 yards.
“It's such a great opportunity to pick Ben's brain, especially during camp when we're getting ready for the season,” Jones said. “We've talked about different route combinations and what he likes and dislikes.”
Big Ben is signed through 2015. But because Roethlisberger has played in all 16 games only once his entire career, the backup sometimes has been asked to grind out a win, including playing in some high-profile, nationally televised games.
Where Jones fits into the QB mix the next two or three seasons remains to be seen. His NFL journey begins Saturday night in a preseason game with the New York Giants.
Learning by watching
Over the past four seasons, Jones started 50 games for the Sooners. His rookie season, he'll get regular work in training camp and play in preseason games.
But for some quarterbacks, the rookie season is similar to a redshirt season. Rookies that play behind a Pro Bowl-caliber veteran often wind up on the practice squad.
The first step is digesting a new offense.
“There are some protection changes and obviously huddling, which we didn't do at OU,” Jones said. “Those are the two biggest differences, but we had some similar route combinations.”
NFL defenses are more sophisticated. One adjustment is the verbiage. After having plays sent in from the sideline at OU, Jones is memorizing a new playbook.
“Actually, it's coming along not too bad,” Jones said. “During OTAs (organized team activities) and minicamp, it took a little bit longer just because it's all brand new to you. There is still more I have to get done, but I feel I have a decent grasp of it.”
Jones is the highest draft pick the Steelers have used on a quarterback since taking Roethlisberger in the first round in 2004.
Critics, including some NFL scouts, downgraded Jones for inconsistencies in decision making and his inability to consistently play big in big games. But the Artesia, N.M., product fared better at OU than often given credit. Jones was 39-11 as a starter, a slightly higher winning percentage than Sam Bradford (24-7).
Jones has an NFL arm. He has confidence. But similar to his OU days, Jones must prove himself.
“He's a work in progress,” Tomlin told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “I like his attitude. He's a good communicator. He's a sharp guy in the classroom. But like all the others he's at the very beginning of his journey.”
Preseason games will be pivotal
For NFL veterans, preseason games are a tuneup for a grueling 16-game regular season and hopefully a run in the playoffs. For rookies like Jones, preseason games could be the only significant snaps he'll take all season.
After Saturday's preseason opener against the Giants, the Steelers will play the Redskins, Chiefs and Panthers.
“It's an opportunity to show the coaches what you can do in actual game situations,” Jones said. “Those are opportunities you want to take advantage of.”
Jones signed a four-year contract. The multiyear deal should increase his odds of making the team, but Jones will have to earn his way onto the roster.
Gradkowski, 30, has been in the league seven years. The Toledo product has played in 37 NFL games, including 20 starts.
Wilson, 27, was cut by the Falcons in 2009 as an undrafted free agent out of Alabama. He's spent time on Atlanta's and Jacksonville's practice squads but has never appeared in an NFL regular-season game.
Jones has no regrets, even if his draft stock slipped because he stayed for his senior year. He helped lead the Sooners win two Big 12 titles, including last year's co-conference championship with Kansas State.
“It's more about the people I met there,” Jones said. “I met my wife there. I made a lot of great friends and had some great teammates there. That's what I got out of the whole deal.”
His wife is former OU women's basketball star Whitney Hand. The couple recently celebrated their first anniversary.
Hand was drafted in the third round by the WNBA's San Antonio Silver Stars. Because of her past multiple knee injuries, Hand is weighing her options.
“She's living here with me,” Landry said. “When it's time for her to go down to San Antonio, she'll probably make a decision pretty soon (on future plans).”
Soon after the Steelers selected Jones it was revealed his father, Kevin, named his son after Dallas Cowboys coaching legend Tom Landry. Kevin rooted for the Cowboys, including epic battles against the Steelers that included three Super Bowl matchups.
In recent years Kevin hasn't been as avid a Cowboys fan. Last April he made it perfectly clear he's now a Steelers fan.
“Absolutely,” Jones said. “He was going to be a fan of the team that drafted me.”