With free agency and the draft firmly in the rear-view mirror and organized team activities underway, the New England Patriots are already fully “on to 2022.”
The team currently has 85 players under contract, but only 53 of them will be able to survive roster cutdowns in early September and ultimately make the active team. Over the course of spring and summer, just like we have in years past, we will take a look at the men fighting for those spots to find out who has the best chances of helping the Patriots build on their 10-7 record.
Today, the series continues with starting quarterback Mac Jones.
Name: Mac Jones
Jersey number: 10
Opening day age: 24
Size: 6-foot-3, 215 pounds
Contract status: Under contract through 2024 + 5th-year option (2025 or 2026 UFA)
What is his experience? Before arriving in the NFL as a first-round draft pick by the Patriots last April, Jones spent four seasons at the University of Alabama under head coach and Bill Belichick confidante Nick Saban. While he was a highly-touted prospect entering the NFL, his career with the Crimson Tide started slowly: Jones took a redshirt year as a freshman in 2017 and played only sparingly the following season. By 2019, however, he had climbed up the depth chart and was serving as Alabama’s primary backup quarterback.
As such, he was pushed into the starting lineup when Tua Tagovailoa suffered a season-ending hip injury in November. Jones never looked back, and developed into one of the most productive passers in all of college football. Over the next one-and-a-half seasons, he started a combined 16 games and completed 75.9 percent of his throws for 5,437 yards, 51 touchdowns and only 6 interceptions. His starting opportunities may have been limited early on in his career, but he ran with them when he got the chance.
The same was true after he entered the NFL last offseason. Jones won the Patriots’ starting quarterback position in his first ever training camp and went on to produce one of the better rookie QB seasons in recent memory. By far the most efficient first-year passer in the league in 2021, the youngster earned Pro Bowl honors while leading New England back to the playoffs after its 7-9 campaign the previous year. While only one year into his pro career, the Patriots appear to have found their quarterback of the future.
What did his 2021 season look like? The Patriots entered the 2021 NFL Draft in dire need of a long-term solution at the quarterback position, and they saw one fall into their lap at No. 15: despite rumors linking him to the San Francisco 49ers at third overall — the club ended up picking fellow QB Trey Lance — Jones was available when New England was on the clock. The decision to pick Jones was a no-brainer given that the position depth chart at the time of his selection consisted of Cam Newton, Jarrett Stidham and Brian Hoyer.
With Newton struggling in 2020 and neither Stidham nor Hoyer proving themselves as suitable starting options to challenge his standing atop the depth chart, Jones found himself in a favorable situation. He had a realistic shot at earning the starter role, despite his lack of experience relative to the three veterans already under contract. The first few practices of the offseason workout program and training camp already confirmed this: Jones and Newton were the clear top two at the position.
The two continued their competition throughout camp and preseason, with Newton seemingly on the inside track based on the quality of reps he received. However, when the incumbent starter missed time due to an apparent misinterpretation of Covid-19 protocols, the door was opened for Jones to see some time with the starting offense. He showed plenty of promise and despite again serving as QB2 in the preseason finale emerged as the winner of the competition: Newton was released, Jones was named the starter.
The Alabama product went on to start all 17 of the Patriots’ regular season games plus their wild card playoff loss in Buffalo. He played some impressive football, and was clearly the top rookie quarterback in the NFL in 2021: Jones completed 376 of his 559 pass attempts throughout the season for a success rate of 67.3 percent 4,033 yards, 24 touchdowns and 15 interceptions. Playing 96.2 percent of New England’s offensive snaps (1,124 of 1,169), Jones was unquestioned as the starter despite the occasional hiccup.
Along the way, Jones was pressured on 27.9 percent of his dropbacks and sacked a total of 31 times. Two of those takedowns resulted in him losing the football and the opposing defense recovering. In total, Jones was credited with three giveaways on seven fumbles — bringing his total number of turnovers during the regular season and playoffs to 18. Excluding his two interceptions in the postseason loss to the Bills, Jones was tied for ninth in that category among his peers.
Jones played his best football between mid-October and throughout November, earning NFL Rookie of the Month honors for his work in the second of those months. Over the six-game stretch from Week 7 through Week 12, he completed 69.4 percent of his throws for 1,378 yards, nine touchdowns and just two interceptions — all while leading New England to a 6-0 record and an average of 31.7 offensive points per game. Jones was outstanding over that stretch and showed some marked improvements versus his early-season performance.
Unfortunately for the Patriots, Jones and the team as a whole took a step back down the stretch. Over the final six games of the season — starting with a Monday night game against the Buffalo Bills that saw him go just 2-for-3 as a passer for 19 total yards — his completion rate was just 60.7 percent while he threw for only 951 yards with eight touchdowns and seven interceptions. Jones appeared to hit the dreaded “rookie wall” late in the year, culminating in a 47-17 blowout loss in Buffalo in the wild card playoff round.
Despite the disappointing end, Jones and the Patriots can feel very good about his rookie performance. He earned the starting position, showed some good chemistry with his pass catchers — in particular wide receivers Kendrick Bourne and Jakobi Meyers, tight end Hunter Henry and running back James White — and started to establish himself as a leader in the huddle and the locker room. He was far from perfect, and his Pro Bowl nomination is not a true representation of his performance, but make no mistake: Jones was pretty good.
What is his projected role? Jones will hold the same role in 2022 that he already played as a rookie in 2021: he will be New England’s starting quarterback. As such, he will come close to a 100 percent playing time share yet again; ideally, he will only leave the field late during blowout victories. He might also carry an additional title he did not officially have last year, though. There is a realistic chance that Jones will be voted one of the Patriots’ offensive team captains this year.
Does he have positional versatility? Not counting kneel-downs or aborted snaps, Jones carried the football 38 times in 2021 for an average gain of 4.3 yards per attempt. While those numbers are quite solid for a player primarily defined through his skills as a pocket passer, Jones’ versatility is still limited. He offers some mobility and could be used on trick plays — he lined up split out wide on four snaps last season — but lacks the general versatility provided by his predecessor, Cam Newton.
What is his special teams value? As is the case with every other quarterback, Jones’ special teams value is almost non-existent. That being said, he does bring some experience in the game’s third phase to the table. He was used as a holder on field goal and extra point kicks from time to time during his career at Alabama. While that job is in the safe hands of punter Jake Bailey in New England, Jones could get some practice looks in the department and therefore serve as H2 heading into the season.
What is his salary cap situation? Entering the second year of his rookie deal, Jones is scheduled to hit the Patriots’ salary cap with $3.54 million — the 18th highest cap hit on the team and 35th among all NFL quarterbacks. His cap number consists of a fully-guaranteed $1.37 million salary as well as a $2.17 million signing bonus proration that also is guaranteed. Given how big of a role Jones will play for the team this year, his contract is quite possibly the biggest bargain on New England’s current payroll.
How safe is his roster spot? Unless injured, there is no question that Jones will be on the Patriots’ roster come the regular season. He proved last year that this is his team, and the club showed the commitment to building around him ever since. The biggest question about Jones is therefore not related to his standing on the roster, but rather how the departure of offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Josh McDaniels will impact him in a crucial second season. Replacing McDaniels will be a challenge, and the Patriots will apparently use Joe Judge to work with their QBs this year. The two men developing a good relationship and chemistry will be crucial for New England’s offensive success in 2022 and beyond.
One-sentence projection: Despite McDaniels’ departure, Jones will show some considerable improvement in his second year in the league and become an even bigger presence in the Patriots’ offense.