The writing was on the wall for it to happen, the question was just “When?”
The answer: pick No. 15. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, though.
After losing Tom Brady in unrestricted free agency last spring, the New England Patriots failed to properly replace their starting quarterback. A drop-off between Brady and his eventual successor was always expected, but the Patriots passing offense as a whole took a nosedive without him under center.
Led by offseason signing Cam Newton, New England fielded one of the least efficient aerial attacks in all of football. Not all of that was entirely on Newton, though: he offensive skill positions lacked playmakers and the circumstances surrounding his late arrival and the Covid-19 pandemic did him no favors either. That said, the Patriots were very well aware that they needed to figure something out in the long term.
Patriots owner Robert Kraft acknowledged as much during a media conference call in late March, shortly after his team’s unprecedented free agency spending spree.
“We all know, long-term, we have to find a way — either Jarrett Stidham or someone new we bring in. This isn’t something where you get algebraic formulas. Think of all the personnel wizards who passed on six rounds for Tom Brady in 2000. No one knows what’s going to happen. We have to balance everything. Look, quarterback is the most important position on the team. We know that” Kraft said.
“One way or another we have to get that position solidified.”
This process started by bringing back Newton on a one-year contract before the start of free agency. He and backup Jarrett Stidham, who is entering his third year in the system, were the foundation upon which the Patriots would build their efforts to solidify the position.
Free agency was not the way to do that, though, as Kraft himself said.
“If you want to have a good, consistent, winning football team, you can’t do it in free agency. You have to do it through the draft,” he pointed out.
And so into the draft the Patriots went as realistic candidates to pick a quarterback at one point. As mentioned above, the only question was when they would ultimately pounce. Turns out they did not wait all that long.
With the consensus top four passers — Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence, BYU’s Zach Wilson, North Dakota State’s Trey Lance, Ohio State’s — all coming off the board within the first 11 selections, only one of the first-round targets was left available in New England’s range: Alabama’s Mac Jones, a player who has long been linked to the organization as a potential fit.
Jones indeed was the pick, and will now join Newton, Stidham and Jake Dolegala in the Patriots’ quarterback room.
While that alone does not solidify the group just yet, it does give New England something it did neither have with Newton nor Stidham: perspective.
The expectation for a quarterback being drafted in the first round is the same whether he comes off the board first overall like Lawrence, or 15th overall like Jones. You select them with the hopes of one day turning them into the face of the franchise and viable starting options further down the line.
There is no guarantee Jones will be just that, but he is a piece of clay the Patriots can still mold into that shape — something that is more difficult with the other passers under contract. Newton practically is what he is at this point in his career, even though he is likely better than what New England got in 2020. Stidham has shown little in two seasons to convince the club he can be anything more than a backup. Dolegala has zero career passes on his NFL résumé.
Jones has no NFL résumé at all, but coming from a pro-style system under Alabama head coach and long-time Bill Belichick confidante Nick Saban he brings an upside to the equation the other QBs on the Patriots’ roster do not have at this point in their respective careers.
There is no telling whether or not Jones will ever make a positive impact on the Patriots, let alone solidify the quarterback position as Kraft is hoping for. But he gives them a chance to do that at a reasonable cost for the foreseeable future.
Right now, Newton and Stidham are the floor. Jones was brought in to become the ceiling.