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How Mac Jones was able to win the Patriots’ starting quarterback job this preseason

Related: Patriots 53-man roster: Reviewing New England’s initial 2021 team after cutdown day

New England Patriots quarterback Mac Jones Staff Photo By Matt Stone/MediaNews Group/Boston Herald

The New England Patriots drafted Mac Jones with the No. 15 overall selection, and with the intent of making him their future franchise quarterback.

The key attributes that made Jones a first-round pick were his accuracy, leadership and relentless competitive nature that allowed him to earn all the success he achieved at Alabama. Sounds familiar to another Patriots draft prospect, right? Tom Brady comparisons aside, as they are unfair to both, you could tell right away that Jones going to the Patriots was easily the best quarterback-to-team fit from the five selected on the opening night of the 2021 NFL draft.

When dealing with a rookie quarterback, teams for the most part know by the player’s first preseason if he has it or not. In the case of Jones, I believe the Patriots have their long term answer at the position on the roster. In his first preseason, Jones showcased all the traits I wanted to see out of him. He showcased his accuracy, decision-making, ability to throw through tight windows, and some decent pocket mobility, which gives him a strong foundation moving forward. Throw in the fact that Jones is maniacally obsessed in being the best player he can be, I believe the team has a QB that can possibly win at least one Super Bowl in his career. It likely won’t happen this year, but stranger things have happened before.

The Patriots likely saw the same things that I did, as they ultimately released Cam Newton and all but named Jones as the team’s starting quarterback for their Week 1 matchup against the Miami Dolphins. The door likely opened when Newton was forced to sit out three practices last week, which included a joint practice where Jones completely torched the New York Giants’ starting defense to a comical degree.

From the preseason tape, let’s talk about strengths and areas that he can improve upon.

The Good: Accuracy, decision-making, ability to deliver under pressure

Accuracy was the key selling point for Jones as a first-round quarterback prospect. In the preseason, it was more impressive than initially expected. Not only the ball placement, but the timing of some of these throws were perfect to where only the receiver can catch the ball. Jones was plagued by drops due to throwing to bottom-of-the-roster guys, practice squad players, and players that will have careers in other fields for the regular eseason.

I’ll start by breaking down Jones’ best two throws in his final preseason game against the New York Giants.

Play No. 1: Touchdown pass to Isaiah Zuber

We’ll start with the touchdown pass to Zuber. It was Jones’ only touchdown pass this preseason, although he could have easily had another 3-4 scores if not for drops. On this play, the Patriots do a great job of utilizing personnel and formations to get the Giants to tip their defense in the pre-snap phase. That’s an area where Jones can and needs to be great in to be successful.

Pre-Snap Diagram of Mac Jones TD pass

From the pre-snap alignment, Jones knows the Giants are in a Cover 3 zone defense. The Patriots called Hoss Y Juke for the play, a very good counter to Cover 3, as it has dual seam routes to put the free safety in a bind. Since Zuber is aligned inside on the 2-receiver side of the field, that means he will likely carry a linebacker match up underneath with the boundary corner and safety helping over the top. If Jones misses with this throw, there’s a high chance it’s going the other way with three Giant defenders in the area.

Jones does a good job post-snap of creating a window to throw to complete the pass. He initially looks to the three-receiver side at the snap, which freezes the free safety to the middle of the field or causes him to take a false step away from where Jones wants to go with the ball. At this point, Jones already knows he has a favorable matchup with Zuber down the seam, which is why he’s able to quickly switch to him and make the throw as the receiver clears the linebacker lined up across from him. The throw is absolutely perfect, from both a ball placement and timing standpoint, as Zuber is able to catch the ball in stride inside the five-yard line before turning upfield and letting his forward momentum carry him into the end zone as he collides with the safety and corner at the goal line.

Play No. 2: Back-shoulder throw to Devin Asiasi

To be a successful starting quarterback, sometimes you have to throw open players and this is a great example of Jones doing just that. It’s also a great example of him making a great throw from a collapsed pocket and getting hit. It ultimately resulted in a 30-yard completion and eventually a touchdown three plays later.

Devin Asiasi is running a seam route and gets a free release off the line. That likely won’t happen once the games matter, but it’s a point worth making. The Giants send a five-man pressure, with the middle linebacker able to drive the center straight into Jones’ lap, which prevents him from stepping up against edge pressure to his right. Asiasi is running a seam route and the defensive back he draws in coverage is in perfect position. Knowing he’s out of time and he has to either eat the ball or throw someone open, Jones opts for the latter.

With the safety lurking over the top, Jones knows he can’t throw it deep and let his guy try to run under it. So instead he opts to try to hit the outside shoulder of his tight end. Despite getting hit on the play, Jones gets plenty on this throw and it’s to the outside shoulder where only Asiasi can make the play on the ball. As the ball is in the air, Asiasi does a good job of tracking the ball and taking advantage of the coverage defender having his back to the ball. As the ball arrives, Asiasi executes his turn perfectly and is able to secure the ball for a 30-yard reception.

Not only is the accuracy a strong point, but Jones is capable of making all the throws necessary to keep the offense flowing. That includes some throws where he has to deal with a collapsing pocket, a feature playing with second- and third-string offensive linemen, and having to zip a throw past multiple defenders to get it to his receiver. There are multiple examples of Jones being able to deliver passes into tight windows under duress. That happened not only on the Asiasi play against the Giants, but this throw against the Philadelphia Eagles the previous week.

If you look at the total package this preseason, Jones looks the part of a starting quarterback. There is more than enough arm strength, the biggest knock on Jones pre-draft, for him to make all the throws necessary in the NFL. He processes information well pre-snap although he isn’t quite as good at reading post-snap yet. Once he figures out that part of the game, he’s going to look somewhat similar to how Brady did in New England.

The Bad: Confused a bit by complexity, showed a tendency to hold onto the ball too long

This isn’t necessarily a special critique of Jones, it’s just a reminder that he’s still a rookie playing his first preseason. His opponents had very little tape to work with and played mostly basic coverages. Against Philadelphia, he saw mostly soft shell coverages and to his credit he was able to take advantage in that game. When things weren’t quite there, Jones also showed a tendency to continue to hold onto the ball. That led to sacks against the Giants, as he took four of them in the game. While his ability to process through reads was exceptional relative to his draft class, he still will occasionally stare down a receiver and lose sight of the rest of the play. That’s something that should get better with more reps.

Jones will need to improve his ability to read defenses post-snap. Fortunately for him, the Patriots’ defense is one of the best at disguising their defense pre-snap to confuse even veteran quarterbacks. It’s no surprise that Jones has been reportedly studying the Patriots’ defensive playbook to try to prepare himself for what he might see from other teams once it’s his turn to start. The reality is there is little chance he can improve in this area without being out there himself and getting the necessary reps in game action to make the adjustments. Throw in the fact the Patriots are very good at getting the defense to tip their coverage or disguise by using motions, formations and personnel packages, I think Jones will figure out this one area sooner rather than later.

Jones isn’t an elite athlete, so he’s going to have trouble escaping sacks at this level. I would expect him to put up some high sack totals early in his career as defenses are able to slow down or speed up his otherwise strong processing ability. I expect early in the season for teams to try to disguise their coverages on early downs to confuse him and then try to send pressure in obvious passing situations. At the current stage of his career, Jones is going to be susceptible to sacks on plays where he’s pressured and unsure where to go with the ball. That will change over time, as Jones has a better idea of how defenses are going to attack him.

The good news for the Patriots are his current flaws at the QB position are fixable with experience and coaching. He’ll get the chance to gain that experience from the get-go, as the Patriots cleared the pathway for Jones to start.