The New England Patriots played their first of three preseason games on Thursday night, and while there were many storylines to watch one clearly stood out above the rest: the quarterback position and its competition between incumbent starter Cam Newton and first-round rookie Mac Jones.
At least by preseason standards, both received considerable playing time during the Patriots’ 22-13 win over the Washington Football Team. Newton started the game before Jones took over on the team’s third possession. The youngster played five series, with third-string veteran Brian Hoyer eventually taking over after him.
Let’s take a closer look at all of the passer’s performances to find out what Thursday’s game, if anything, taught us about the Patriots’ QB position.
12 snaps (2 drives) | 4-for-7, 49 passing yards
After being the first man up throughout all of training camp so far, Newton unsurprisingly started the game against Washington. He ended up playing two series, with the first ending in a quick three-and-out.
Newton handed the football off to Damien Harris on his first snap before throwing wide to Jonnu Smith on a play-action concept. The play saw the quarterback hurried by a free rusher and Smith tightly covered; Newton smartly threw the pass towards the sideline where no defender could get a hand on it.
The very next play almost ended in disaster for Newton and the Patriots offense:
Left tackle Isaiah Wynn was beaten by second-year man Chase Young around the corner, and the Washington defender hit Newton just as he was about to release the football. The quarterback never stood a chance, with the Patriots lucky that the ball came out as an incomplete pass rather than a fumble. Regardless of the result, Newton was not to blame on the play.
His second series went better than his first. Newton opened the drive by threading the needle to Jakobi Meyers for a gain of 11 yards. Following a pair of Damien Harris runs, he then hit Smith on a shallow crosser; the majority of the yardage gained on the play — 15 of 16 yards — came after the reception.
One play later, Newton connected with James White on a screen pass for 17 yards. The two had another connection two plays later, gaining 5 yards on a check-down pass following a short rollout. The QB tried to hit White again on a screen on the next play, but the pass sailed by the intended target. It was Newton’s final snap of the day, with the Patriots settling for a field goal after the unsuccessful screen.
“I think the first drive out of 10 guys or 11 guys, one or two guys here making a mistake, me included. We just have to be sharper,” Newton said during his postgame press conference. “Coach always says, you just have to commit fast. We have to start fast, and we kind of picked it up in the second drive. Still had a holding penalty or something like that that kind of held us back, but more or less we know what the standard is. We know what we have to do, and that’s what we’ve got to keep striving to do.”
So, what can be made out of Newton’s performance?
While it did not stand out statistically, it was solid. His timing and rhythm appeared to be good, with the only true off-the-mark throw being the screen to White. Obviously, though, the Patriots ran a very basic attack; Newton was not asked to work as a ball carrier — an integral part of his play — and there was only one designed roll-out (the incompletion to Smith).
If there is one takeaway, it’s that New England’s coaching staff still sees him as its starter for the time being. It makes sense, too: Newton may have played fewer snaps than Mac Jones on Thursday, but his experience is still vastly superior.
That being said, the rookie certainly appears to have some momentum on his side.
33 snaps (5 drives, 1 kneel-down) | 13-for-19, 87 passing yards, 1 sack
Jones took over on New England’s third offensive series late in the first quarter, and he ended the game with 33 total snaps. The youngster led the offense on six total possessions, including one kneel-down to end the first half, and he was asked to drop back to pass 20 times.
Jones’ NFL debut started with a handoff to Sony Michel, followed by what appeared to be a 14-yard pass to Jakobi Meyers. While the wide receiver made a terrific catch to secure the ball — Jones threw it low, possibly a result of being unable to fully step into the through with pressure in his face — the referees ruled that it had hit the ground. Patriot head coach Bill Belichick did not challenge the erroneous call, setting up a 3rd-and-5 instead of a new first down.
Nonetheless, Jones was able to move the chains on a 7-yard hookup with Kristian Wilkerson. The play was a well-executed timing route, with Wilkerson coming back to the well-placed ball to convert the third down.
The first play of the second quarter then saw Jones perfectly execute one of the Patriots’ favorite play-action concepts:
Fake from the I formation gets the second level to bite and Mac throws it over their heads to KB, the QB's third different target on the drive.— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) August 13, 2021
Well-executed pro style concept pic.twitter.com/SHv2oAr3vW
With the play-fake drawing the defenders up, Jones found Kendrick Bourne on a dig at the second level. He pulled the trigger quickly and accurately for a gain of 13. Two Sony Michel runs later, the young quarterback was going for the home run ball.
He nearly had it, but Wilkerson was unable to haul in what would have been a 34-yard touchdown:
We all know this was textbook from Mac by now, but besides the drop I also think Wilkerson could've been more aggressive with his hand fighting downfield.— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) August 13, 2021
Let the CB scrap his way back to affect the catch pic.twitter.com/OfmgrjVzJg
Jones placed the football very well, putting it out in front of his intended target. Wilkerson was unable to get his hands free on the play, however, leading to the incompletion.
“It was a great ball by Mac,” the second-year wideout said after the game. “I’ve just got to adjust better to it. I’ve got to do my part. So I just have to go watch the tape and see what I can do better. I could run the defender off better, or make a better catch.”
Another Sony Michel run later, Jones and company failed to convert another third down: the rookie failed to hit Bourne on a slant, bringing the field goal crew out.
His next drive saw Jones play behind the second-string offensive line, and it started with a short throw to J.J. Taylor followed by another that was negated by penalty. He then connected with Wilkerson on an 8-yard crosser and with Jakob Johnson on a low thrown pass to the flat that the fullback took for 5 more yards. Facing a 3rd-and-2, Jones moved up in the pocket trying to gain the necessary yardage by foot. He came up one yard short, leading to a punt.
He was back on the field to kneel out the first half before returning to start the third quarter. At that point, the Patriots went with a no-huddle approach and the rookie appeared to be very comfortable running the up-tempo attack.
The series opened with a throw to J.J- Taylor for 7 yards, that saw Jones calmly go through his progressions before deciding for the check-down. He showed a similar ability to diagnose on the following play, hitting N’Keal Harry for a gain of 4 on a play that saw Washington’s defense take away the deep crosser to Gunner Olszewski.
He then showcased some good rhythm and ball-placement on a double-out concept to Wilkerson:
Mac hitting the "Omaha" or double-outs concept NE loves vs soft coverage on early downs and short-medium situations.— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) August 13, 2021
Throws in rhythm and fits it into a tight window pic.twitter.com/791EBzXSue
Jones’ next throws were a swing pass on an run-pass option to Wilkerson for 6 yards, followed by an inside crosser to Taylor for 6 more. Following a Taylor run, Jones and Wilkerson connected again — this time, 8 yards were gained. What followed was a short screen throw to Taylor for 9, a pair of runs, and another 6-yard completion to Wilkerson on the same RPO concept run earlier during the drive.
The subsequent 3rd-and-4 was not successful for the Patriots, but it did see Jones make a smart decision with the football. Instead of risking a sack, he threw the ball away:
OTs' cut blocking means the ball should be out quick, but both fail the cut part of the block + there's no one open.— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) August 13, 2021
Heads up play from Mac throwing it away instead of taking a sack pic.twitter.com/C43i1hLyJ7
The Patriots’ next drive saw three runs and a punt, with Jones taking back to the air on his sixth and final drive. He started with an incompletion off of play-action that saw him get pressured up the middle but still deliver a somewhat accurate ball to Kristian Wilkerson. He was taken down for a 9-yard sack on the subsequent play, before going for a deep ball attempt intended for Gunner Olszewski. The pass sailed just inches by Olszewski’s outstretched arms, but it fell incomplete nonetheless.
The play was the last of Jones’ day, so the main question is this: What can be made out of his first ever NFL performance?
Of course, every assessment has to be taken with a grain of salt. We are talking about preseason, and he is facing vanilla defensive concepts and no real game planning yet. That said, Jones did what he was supposed to do: he took care of the football and made mostly smart decisions. He may not have been perfect, but he had some encouraging moments and came as advertised.
Most importantly, though, he was able to transfer his practice performances into a game setting. Jones already displayed his poise in the pocket and ability to go through progressions in training camp so far, but to do in a live game setting is something different.
He and the Patriots can certainly feel good about that.
14 snaps (3 drives) | 2-for-4, 14 passing yards
Finally, it was Brian Hoyer time. The veteran entered the game in the fourth quarter and was the most successful passer in terms of putting points on the board: with him and the helm, New England scored a pair of touchdowns. That being said, Hoyer completed only 2 of his 4 throws for a combined 14 yards.
The veteran is headed for No. 3 status with the regular season a month away, but his position is not set in stone. The Patriots could decide to keep only Newton and Jones on their 53-man roster, with Jarrett Stidham waiting on the PUP list.
Thursday’s game did probably not change Hoyer’s roster outlook all that much.