“Play-maker” is the word that talent evaluators keep coming back to
Kadarius Toney was recruited to Florida as a quarterback with a rocket arm and play-making wheels that made him a dual threat. He could throw the ball 70 yards in the air; some reports have suggested 80.
Toney even skipped his high school prom to enroll in Florida’s Spring Quarterback School under then-coach Jim McElwain. He electrified Gator Nation with an improvised touchdown pass and a game-high 74 yards rushing in Florida’s spring intra-squad game.
David Morris runs QB Country, which is based in Mobile, Ala. If you remember the name, it’s because Morris trains New York Giants quarterback Daniel Jones during the offseason. He was a college teammate of Eli Manning, and worked at times with Manning during his Giants career.
Morris trained Toney for a couple of years while Toney was quarterbacking the team at Blount High School, and told Big Blue View he was a “darn good one.”
Morris thinks that perhaps Toney could have ended up as Justin Fields, or Jaycee Horn had the Gators wanted that from him.
“Kadarius was the best dual threat quarterback to ever come through Mobile. I honestly think he’s talented enough he’s just one of those guys that could have been drafted … Let’s just say at Florida they put him at cornerback or quarterback; he’s so talented that he could get drafted at multiple positions,” Morris said. “He’s a freak of an athlete.”
What Florida ultimately decided it wanted from Toney was to be an athlete. To be a player they could get the ball to in space and let him use his God-given athletic abilities to work magic in the open field.
That set Toney’s career on a path that would lead him to the New York Giants, the 20th overall player selected in the now-completed 2021 NFL Draft. That play-making ability is exactly why the Giants settled on Toney after moving down from No. 11 to No. 20 in a trade with the Chicago Bears.
“He’s a playmaker. He’s instinctive, he’s tough, makes a lot of plays with the ball in his hands. We feel he has flex inside and out. He also has value as a returner for us. Like I said, this is an instinctive, tough guy with very good athletic ability and speed,” said Giants Director of College Scouting Chris Pettit.
“He’s raw, every player in the draft and every player has to develop into a pro. So it will take some time, but this guy is a playmaker with the ball in his hands.”
Toney caught only 50 passes in his first three seasons with the Gators, but Florida got the ball in his hands as a runner and kickoff returner whenever possible. Last season, he caught 70 passes for 984 yards (14.1 yards per catch) and 10 touchdowns. He averaged 8.5 yards per carry on 19 rushes, averaged 22.1 yards on 7 kickoff returns and 12.6 yards on 11 punt returns.
Dan Mullen took over from McElwain at Florida in 2018. At the school’s pro day, Mullen spoke about Toney’s development, and his future.
He’s “gonna be fun to coach at the next level because I still think his receiver skills are developing. He was a high school quarterback. Our first year here we kinda used him as a “get it to” guy. Just put the ball in his hands,” Mullen said.
“I talked to him — for your future you have to become a wide receiver. I thought he really came into his own at the receiver position this year of learning how to be a route runner. I still think he has a huge future in front of him that way.”
Toney told New York media in his post-draft videoconference that he knows he doesn’t have it all figured out.
“I’m really just embarking on my journey of really playing receiver,” he said. “I feel like I’ve got a lot to really learn and a lot to grasp.”
It will now be up to the Giants — to head coach Joe Judge, offensive coordinator Jason Garrett and wide receivers coach Tyke Tolbert — to nurture the development Toney needs. Oh, and by the way, get some big plays from him while he learns the nuances of being an NFL receiver.
A familiar comparison
Senior Bowl Executive Director Jim Nagy said Toney was the “second-best playmaker in the draft behind [Jaylen] Waddle.”
Morris and Matt Waldman, who runs The Rookie Scouting Portfolio and specializes in skill position players, came back to the same player comparison for Toney.
No, not that Golden Tate. Not the mostly unproductive version who spent two unsatisfying seasons with the Giants. The pre-Giants version of Tate. The one who led wide receivers in yards after catch — by a wide margin — during the prime stretch of career.
Most YAC by a WR last 5 seasons:
1. Golden Tate – 1003
2. Larry Fitzgerald – 674
3. Jarvis Landry – 631 pic.twitter.com/tAxUpG0FKb
— PFF (@PFF) July 19, 2020
“Golden Tate, circa Lions. That’s how he could develop. Quick checks, designed plays, stretch the field horizontally with fly sweeps, RPOs. Can also stretch the field and track the ball,” Waldman said.
“Folks see him as a gadget due to UF usage but he has excellent footwork off the line and should improve beyond the bad numbers I’ve seen against press if he even faces it much from the slot.
“[Sterling] Shepard is likely gone next year and he lacks that consistent YAC element that most thought he would bring. Toney offers this if he proves to be a mature pro.”
In his RSP draft guide, Waldman wrote that Toney is “as close to Golden Tate that I have seen with a dash of Percy Harvin’s electric athletic ability.”
Maximizing his skill set
The Giants have Kenny Golladay as a big “X” receiver, who can win at all levels of the field. Sterling Shepard is a solid slot receiver, though not a spectacular one. Darius Slayton, given the right matchups and kept away from teams focusing their coverage schemes on him, is a speedy and dynamic play-maker. Toss in the speed of Evan Engram, the reliability of Kyle Rudolph and the pass-catching skills of Saquon Barkley and the Giants have a lot of ways to attack a defense in the passing game.
Where does Toney fit in all that? Best-case scenario, probably a little bit of everywhere.
“He’s a guy you can move around. He can play inside in the slot. You can move him outside. To be honest with you, he’s a powerful runner. You can put him in the backfield and run the ball, and he was a high school quarterback,” Mullen said.
“He’s a guy that you can kinda move to different spots, move him around and put him in different positions and try to create matchups.”
The Giants finished the 2020 season 30th in the league in Explosive Pass Rate at 6 percent and 25th overall in Explosive Play Rate at 8 percent, per Sharp Football Stats. They were 27th in the league in yards after catch, averaging 4.0.
They need some players with the ability to not only catch a football, but actually do something extra with it once they have it.
Morris said simply that Toney is “a playmaker’ who can do “a lot” for Giants quarterback Daniel Jones.
“First of all, he has a physical mentality about him. He’s tough. He’s not going to take a play off and loaf in the run game. He’s looking to light somebody up. So, he’ll add to the culture, kind of blue-collar work ethic that they already have there,” Morris said.
“He can turn a smoke screen into a touchdown. He can make one of the best corners in the league look silly trying to tackle him. He’s a guy that’s really elusive. The quickest, maybe twitchiest guy I’ve ever been around.
“I think he’s just a play-maker.”
Toney offered an interesting comparison of his own for his playing style — New Orleans Saints running back Alvin Kamara.
“Because Kamara, he’s really explosive and really elusive,” Toney said.
Andy Hutchins of SB Nation’s Florida website, Alligator Army, weighed in on all things Toney with answers to the following questions:
Ed: Senior Bowl Executive Director Jim Nagy describes Toney as the second-best play-making receiver in the draft behind Jaylen Waddle? Do you agree with that?
Andy: I think a certain Heisman winner is getting dissed somewhere in here, not to mention Ja’Marr Chase, but Toney and Waddle both definitely have explosive potential on the field. I’d say that Toney is quicker than he is fast, but I’ve also never seen a receiver his size shake off as much first contact as he does. He won’t be able to do as much of that at the NFL level, in all likelihood, but if he adds even more strength, I wouldn’t bet against him being a terror in space both for his quicks and his power.
Ed: There is an impression Toney is raw and underdeveloped as a receiver. Do you agree with that?
Andy; There’s an element of truth to it: Toney has one year of showing that he can run a full route tree and do the little things that differentiate good receivers from average ones. But that year was wildly impressive, showing both that he can leverage his athleticism into getting open and that he can improve dramatically on past performance. I’d say he’s more medium rare than raw, but I do think there’s room for improvement — and if he makes good on that, watch out.
Ed: Do you agree at all with the narrative some are pushing that a traditional OC like the Giants’ Jason Garrett might not be the best fit for Toney’s skillset?
Andy: Jason Garrett is capable of screwing up many things, but I do think that Toney is versatile enough that he’ll get in where he fits in. And I imagine that Daniel Jones is going to be the more important predictor of how Toney fares as a pro.
Ed: Do you worry at all about the off-the-field stuff from Toney’s past affecting his future, or that he will again have issues staying out of trouble? As an aside, have you listened to his rap music and is that a potential issue/distraction?
Andy: I don’t have significant worries about Toney’s character. The “off-the-field stuff,” so far as I know it, is a single well-publicized incident in which Toney and other teammates were maybe being provoked into a fight, a traffic stop in which he was found to have a legal firearm, and maybe some of the usual BS “Does he really love football?” hand-wringing about his rapping. I get rolling those up and presenting them as part of Toney’s narrative was inevitable, but the fight and the traffic stop were years ago and overblown and the rapping didn’t get in the way of Toney turning himself into the much-improved player he was as a senior.
I haven’t really listened to the rap, for what it’s worth, but I do think Yung Joka is an excellent nom de mic.
Ed: Three years from now it is more likely Giants fans will be a) ecstatic they made the move for Toney because he will be a star, or b) Cursing Dave Gettleman’s stupidity because Toney is a bust?
Andy: I would lean toward the former, because I think Toney’s going to be the sort of exciting playmaker who generates more big plays than frowns, but I will reiterate that he’s probably not going to do that entirely in spite of Daniel Jones, so getting the full offense revving is probably the path to best maximizing Toney’s talents.
The elephant in the room
The Giants have dealt with their share of divas, immature players and poor fits for the bright lights and media attention of the New York-New Jersey market in recent years.
Odell Beckham Jr. was (and still can be) a great player. His act wore thin with Giants’ decision-makers, though, and they moved on.
Ereck Flowers was a poor left tackle and a poor teammate, judging by how much of an outcast he seemed to be around the locker room.
The Eli Apple draft pick was a disaster pretty much from the moment it was announced, with the player’s immaturity having a lot to do with that.
DeAndre Baker? He wasn’t guilty of any crimes, but there were other things he was guilty of. How about immaturity? Hanging with the wrong crowds? Not prioritizing the career that was paying him millions of dollars? Yeah, you could probably say he was guilty of those things. And it got him run out of Joe Judge’s town.
Which brings us to Toney.
There are some who worry about the young man.
Toney was suspended for a game in 2018 when he and several teammates were involved in an incident “that involved airsoft guns, a baseball bat, rocks and a frying pan, according to a UF Police Department incident report.”
He was pulled over by Florida police that same summer while driving with a loaded AR-15 visible on the backseat of his car. He wasn’t charged or cited, as the responding officers determined that since he wasn’t technically carrying the gun when they stopped him he had not violated the state’s open-carry law.
To be honest, you have to wonder if that incident would not have ended differently for Toney had the officers not realized he was a Florida football star.
Toney has been in zero trouble since, but some wonder if money, fame and temptation could lead him down the wrong path.
“Good kid. Just a great momma. Blount High School is a high school that is full of tons of class,” Morris said. “He’s surrounded by great people.
‘Kadarius is a good kid. I think he’s responsible. I think he’s a kid that understands this is an incredible opportunity. I think he knows what it takes to stick around in the league.”
Toney also raps under the name “Yung Joka.” I listened to a couple of his songs, which you can find via YouTube or another streaming service. As Morris told me, if you check out his music you will find that it’s not exactly Frank Sinatra at the dinner table.
Judge and the Giants were, obviously, satisfied with all of the work they did before selecting Toney.
“Listen, if there was a concern with him, he wouldn’t have been on our board,” said Director of College Scouting Chris Pettit.
The Giants had a long conversation with Toney at the Senior Bowl, then did extensive work via Zoom and the phone before deciding to select him last Thursday.
“One of our last interviews [at the Senior Bowl] and we got to spend a lot of time with him. Really great to meet him and get that face-to-face at that point in the scouting process and then watch him throughout the rest of the spring throughout the Zooms, more and more time, really get to know him and get to know the person and feel really good about him,” Pettit said. “It was late in the night and we were tired. We were talking through plexiglass and everyone had masks on, and he brought energy at that point. We love that. He brought energy to the room, to the conversation. Was easy to talk to. Was open and honest and we loved everything about that conversation.”
Most importantly, Toney appears to have passed the Judge Test.
“The skill and the person has to add up together. We fully vetted every player on this board. We are very comfortable bringing him to New Jersey. We are very comfortable adding him to our roster,” Judge said. “It’s no secret I’m pretty particular about who I bring into this building, okay. I think sometimes you have to understand the person, and you have to understand the character on a deeper level than what just may be tweeted out.”