Opinion: Daniel Jones always will be judged harshly because of Giants’ draft reach

It doesn’t matter how earnestly David Gettleman defends the New York Giants’ selecting of Daniel Jones with the sixth overall pick of the NFL draft. It matters not how many boxes Jones checks according to coach Pat Shurmur’s calculations.

The perception that the Giants reached persists. Entering the draft, many NFL talent evaluators regarded Jones as the fourth-best passer and a mid-first to early second-round pick. And because popular opinion tends to rule — particularly in the ultra-critical New York media market — the 21-year-old Jones finds himself in a seemingly impossible situation. 

We don’t know what kind of timeline the Duke product’s development and ascension will follow. He could wind up playing this year. It could be next year. Gettleman on draft night allowed for a scenario in which Jones sits behind Eli Manning for three years like Aaron Rodgers did with Brett Favre.

Whenever he does take the field, Jones’ critics will grade him much harsher than they would have if New York hadn’t taken him sixth. Barring a Patrick Mahomes-like debut, Jones will find it hard to satisfy outward expectations. Solid won’t cut it. He must deliver at an elite level.

Giants quarterback Daniel Jones speaks to the news media during rookie minicamp. (Photo: Sarah Stier, USA TODAY Sports)

Is that fair? No. Jones can’t help that the Giants drafted him roughly 11 spots higher than they actually needed to. But this is the situation the his bosses created. To overcome it, Jones must work extremely hard, develop thick skin and a deaf ear. Easier said than done.

Step 1 of Jones’ quest began this past weekend at the Giants’ rookie minicamp. On Friday, he received his first media grilling, fielding questions on his NFL readiness, perceptions that he isn’t worthy of the sixth pick, and his relationship with Manning, who’s coach at Ole Miss, David Cutcliffe, coached Jones at Duke.

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Whether by coincidence or not, Jones did his best Eli impersonation at the podium. No memorable soundbites. Little emotion. Flat. Simply business.

If he’s smart, Jones will make a habit of following Manning’s every example because few NFL players possess the same kind of unflappability on and off the field.

It’s a fact: Jones remains raw. Living in Manning’s shadow should greatly benefit him from a developmental standpoint. But just as importantly, it should help Jones cultivate the mindset and leadership traits required for successful quarterbacking in New York.

The Giants drafted quarterback Daniel Jones with the sixth overall pick of the NFL draft. (Photo: Sarah Stier, USA TODAY Sports)

Manning is so accustomed to pressure, expectations and criticism that none of it seems to faze him. The course of his life and career forged such fortitude.

First, he has spent his entire life in the shadow of Peyton Manning and Archie Manning. Then, he didn’t just come into the NFL in typical fashion. He refused to play in for the Chargers, who drafted him first overall in 2004 and forced a trade to the Giants. That only intensified the pressure.

Manning knows what it’s like to sit behind a Super Bowl MVP (Kurt Warner) as a rookie, and he knows what it’s like to work to overtake him. Just three years later — the season after Peyton won his first Super Bowl — Eli hoisted his own Lombardi Trophy. Four seasons later, he led the Giants to another. He outdueled the GOAT Tom Brady in each Super Bowl.

Yet, Manning has never managed to avoid criticism. For every moment of praise, fans, analysts, opponents and even teammates have heaped blame on his shoulders. It hasn’t mattered when Giants brass has poorly constructed an offensive line or supporting defense. 

The popular take? 

‘It’s Eli’s fault.’ 

‘Eli’s done.’

Manning’s response to criticisms, whether from the outside or from within his own locker room, is always the same: a shrug of the shoulders, monotone, emotionless responses, the same gritty resolve.

“He’s very, very stoic. He never shows anything,” former teammate and current NFL analyst Will Blackmon told USA TODAY Sports. “If you saw any frustration, it was just maybe he threw a bad ball, or somebody ran a wrong route, but it was just during the game. But other than that, it just always appeared like, ‘Life is all good. People can say whatever they want to say, but I’m going to go out there and play.’ You know?

“He’s seen the worst where he almost threw 30 picks in one season, and he’s seen the highest when he won two Super Bowls,” Blackmon, a defensive back in New York in 2010 and 2011, continued. “When I was there, everyone called him Easy E. because he was always chill, man. Just to have that position in that market, man. It doesn’t matter what you do, you can finish 9-7 and just barely miss the playoffs and you get drilled, man. But he’s handled it very well, and he’s delivered.”

Eli Manning’s response to criticisms is always the same: 'Very, very stoic.' (Photo: Brad Penner, USA TODAY Sports)

Manning even shrugged off the 2017 benching by Ben McAdoo. Once the coach was fired, he reclaimed his job, and proceeded business as usual. Now, the 38-year-old finds himself trying to prepare for a 16th season while his clear-cut replacement — and not some random mid- to late-round pick — waits in the wings.

“He has had no response,” Shurmur told reporters Saturday. “I will say this again. I have never been around a person that can stay in the moment better than Eli. That is something that is really unique about him. He is staying in the moment and training to have a terrific season. He looks really good out here throwing, moving and doing all the things necessary. It is his second year in the system, so he knows what we are doing. Better than some of the people teaching him.”

Jones will find no better teacher than Manning himself as he tries to learn the NFL and change perceptions.

Fortunately for him, Manning applies the same professionalism in the quarterbacks’ room as he does on the field and at the podium. Some established quarterbacks have no interest in helping potential replacements. But with Manning, there’s no pettiness.

Teammates and others familiar with the quarterback will tell you that he’s secure enough with his position that he willingly provides fellow quarterbacks any guidance necessary.

Relaying the contents of a brief post-draft phone conversation with Manning, Jones — who in previous offseasons has trained with both Manning brothers under Cutcliffe’s direction — said, “He congratulated me and told me he was excited to be teammates,” Jones told reporters on Friday. “I certainly share that same feeling.”

Whether calculated or not, Jones said “learn” or “learning” 14 different times during Friday’s 10-minute press conference, and most of those usages were accompanied with mentions of Manning. 

The kid certainly is no fool. In time, we’ll find out if he’s the player the Giants envision. But for now, the situation calls for some invaluable career shadowing.

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