NORMAN — Former Indianapolis Colts general manager Bill Polian labeled Landry Jones the best quarterback available in this year's NFL Draft class.
“I don't think anybody in this group is going to be able to step in right away and lead the team, but if you ask me, who's the guy who's most ready, and who's the guy who's had the most winning experience, it would be Landry Jones,” Polian said Thursday on ESPN, where he now works as an analyst.
Such praise for the record-setting former Sooner, though, is rare these days. Many of the same draft pundits who considered Jones a first-round lock during his junior season now say he'll be a third- or fourth-rounder in this week's NFL Draft, which runs from Thursday through Saturday.
Jones spent much of his junior season ranked No. 4 on ESPN analyst Mel Kiper's Big Board, dipping to No. 15 by early January 2012, just before he announced his decision to return for one more season in Norman.
Kiper applauded Jones' decision at the time, writing, “I fully expect that at this point next year, we'll again be talking about him as a potential high first-round pick, and hopefully with some positive momentum on his side.”
Statistically, Jones' senior year brought marked improvement. His touchdown, completion percentage and interception numbers all improved from 2011 to 2012, and he showed remarkable poise in leading fourth-quarter rallies past West Virginia and Oklahoma State.
Despite all that, Jones has little hope for selection in the first two rounds next week. Making his plunge even more surprising — and perplexing — is that the 2013 quarterback class is widely considered much weaker than last year's, which produced Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson.
“I think his performance leveled off from where he was early on when he was considered to be the next Sam Bradford,” Kiper said last week on a conference call. “Now you look at some bad decisions, inaccurate throws. When he gets pressured a little bit in the pocket, some things break down fundamentally.
“He's got talent. The kid's got a lot of ability. If you can harness that ability, develop that talent, you might have something.”
The four-year starter's talent and ability resulted in lots of eye popping statistics and a 39-11 record for Oklahoma in his 50 starts over the past four seasons.
Jones set virtually every school passing record, and ranks third in NCAA history in career completions, attempts and passing yards.
But his career peaked during his sophomore season in 2010, when he recorded career-highs in passing yardage, touchdowns and completion percentage, and a career-low 12 interceptions. He won the Sammy Baugh Award that year as the nation's best passer, and led the Sooners to a 12-2 record, a Big 12 championship and a Fiesta Bowl victory.
Jones appeared last week on ESPN's “Gruden's QB Camp,” where former NFL head coach Jon Gruden works out and watches film with NFL Draft prospects. On a conference call last week, Gruden said despite Jones' list of accomplishments, there were several disappointing performances, like last year's home loss to Kansas State and Texas A&M's Cotton Bowl rout.
In OU's 24-19 loss to Kansas State, Jones fumbled into the Wildcats' end zone, resulting in a second-quarter KSU touchdown. Then later in the game, with the Sooners leading, Jones threw an ugly interception off his back foot. Seven plays later, Kansas State scored to take a lead it wouldn't relinquish.
“I don't remember many sophomore quarterbacks in college football doing what he did,” Gruden said. “He did not have his best year (in 2012). ... You expect so much more. But production, his personal traits, we all know he wants to be a minister or a preacher. He's married and solid off the field.”
Gruden attributed some of Jones' struggles, though, to what he called Oklahoma's “one-dimensional” offensive system that lacked a reliable tight end.
“I think if you're looking for a quarterback that's proven he can take care of the football, make a variety of throws and be reliable person on and off the field, I think Landry Jones might be for you,” Gruden said.