The New England Patriots drafted Mac Jones to be their quarterback of the future, but whether or not he lives up to those expectations will depend on multiple factors. His own ability to adapt to life in the NFL and New England’s scheme is among them, as is the quality of the supporting cast provided by the club.
Luckily for the Patriots, they have set Jones up nicely in this area (which made them a prime candidate to go after a quarterback in the draft to begin with).
Coming off a disappointing 7-9 season that saw the team struggle to move the ball through the air, New England opened the checkbook in free agency to take advantage of a slow market to address its issues on the offensive side of the ball. When the dust had settled, the Patriots had acquired the top two tight ends available — Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry — as well as a pair of proven wide receivers in the form of Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne.
While there is no guarantee the four will be able to improve a passing offense that ranked just 27th in expected points added during the 2020 season, they are significant upgrades on paper over what New England had available for Cam Newton last year. Gone are the days of Damiere Byrd and Ryan Izzo playing starter-level snaps.
Together with an offensive line that is still projected to be among the best in football heading into the new season, Jones is therefore in a more comfortable position than the other four first-round quarterbacks drafted. A look at each supporting cast through the lens of Pro Football Focus’ wins above replacement metric further illustrates this:
In its essence, WAR looks at how good a player was for his team relative to how an average replacement player would have fared in his place. Add all of those numbers up, grade them on a scale of 0 to 100 and you get the table illustrated above.
Jones does neither have the luxury of playing with the top-ranked receiving group nor the top-ranked offensive line — the Zach Wilson’s New York Jets and Trey Lance’s San Francisco 49ers are the leaders in those categories — but the combined strength of the personnel around him still favors New England’s first-round selection. The Patriots’ projected WAR heading into the 2021 season is clearly above the other four teams drafting QBs in Round 1.
A quarterback and his assortment of pass catchers and blockers are in a symbiotic relationship, but especially early on in a passer’s career his support system is of the utmost important. Kevin Cole conducted a study into QB performance relative to offensive talent and, using data from between 2006 and 2018, noted how the two are closely connected to each other:
There is a clear trend of quarterbacks’ early career WAR rising with the level of their teammates. ... For rookies drafted by teams with sub-25th percentile surrounding talent, four outperformed their three-year WAR expectation, while six underperformed. In the 25th-to-50th, 50th-to-75th and 75th-to-100th percentile cohorts, the breakdowns were 5-to-4, 8-to-1 and 6-to-2. There is a clear trend toward outperformance with better teammate talent.
Of course, the question is how relevant all of that will be for Jones and the rest of the 2021 group of first-round quarterbacks.
While the expectation is that Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson and Justin Fields will be their respective teams’ starters come Week 1, neither Trey Lance nor Mac Jones are guaranteed a starting spot: the 49ers have Jimmy Garoppolo as their QB1, with the Patriots having re-signed incumbent starter Cam Newton earlier this offseason. There is a realistic chance the two veterans start over the rookies this season.
In turn, Garoppolo and Newton would benefit from the support system created by the two teams. Lance and Jones, meanwhile, might have to work with differently-looking skill position players and offensive lines once it is their turn to take over.
That all being said, both have a clear path towards a starting gig as early as this season: if the two youngsters outperform the veterans currently ahead of them on the depth chart, they will get the nod regardless of their lack of experience at the pro level. And if that happens, they will be in a comfortable position compared to their peers.