Two to go.
The rookies and quarterbacks have already reported to training camp, and everyone else is set to arrive next week. It never ceases to amaze me how fast the offseason flies by.
The good news is that we’re right on pace to finish our countdown of the Top 20 Most Memorable New England Patriots Moments of 2021 just as things heat up in earnest. So good for me.
The list so far:
20. The Patriots trade Stephon Gilmore to the Panthers for a sixth-round pick.
19. A Week 1 goal line fumble costs the Patriots the game at home against the Miami Dolphins.
18. A four interception day secures New England’s first win of the season against the New York Jets.
17. Mac Jones hits Nelson Agholor for the first TD of the season against the Miami Dolphins.
16. A 41-yard Kendrick Bourne TD reception opens the game up against the Tennessee Titans.
15. A late Nick Folk field goal caps off a 15 play game-winning drive over the Houston Texans.
14. Mac Jones is named the starter over Cam Newton.
13. Nick Folk can’t connect on a 56 yard FG attempt to complete the comeback against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
12. An Adrian Phillips pick-six seals the game against the Los Angeles Chargers.
11. Kendrick Bourne connects with Nelson Agholor to kick off an epic beatdown of the New York Jets.
10. A quick out to Jakobi Meyers results in his first career touchdown against the Cleveland Browns.
9. Free Agent Frenzy.
8. The Patriots obliterate the Jacksonville Jaguars and find themselves back in the NFL Playoffs.
7. A diving interception gives J.C. Jackson an impressive record.
6. Damien Harris bowls over seven different Jets on his way to a 26 yard touchdown run.
5. A J.C. Jackson 88-yard pick-six ices the game against the Carolina Panthers.
4. Mac Jones connects with Kendrick Bourne for a 75 yard touchdown to take a late lead against the Dallas Cowboys.
3. A 22 yard laser from Mac Jones to Kendrick Bourne caps off a 99 yard scoring drive against the Cleveland Browns.
I never thought I’d be ranking a moment like this as high as No. 2, especially as a Patriots fan, but given the way the season shook out, I have a feeling we’re going to be remembering this one for a long time.
2. The Patriots draft Mac Jones.
For the past two decades or so, there have been a few seemingly absolute truths when it comes to the Patriots. New England was going to win the AFC East. New England was going to make a deep playoff run. New England was likely going to get a first round bye. New England would be playing in the AFC Championship game, and most likely hosting it. And New England would come into every season as a Super Bowl contender. 12-4, a first round bye, and a Super Bowl bid was kind of the norm for this team, and it got to the point where anything less than a Lombardi was viewed as a failed season. Absolutely insane to hold the team to that high of a standard, but that’s more or less the way it was during the Tom Brady Era.
And while Patriots fans were always celebrating in January and February, it came at the expense of March and April, traditionally the two worst months to follow this team. As other squads went out and made big moves in free agency, New England always sat back, let the market settle, and targeted key guys that wouldn’t break the bank and fit well into the system on Days 2 and 3.
Similarly, as everyone else moved up in the draft to get the hottest prospects, the Patriots more often than not would trade back, accrue future picks, select a DB that nobody has heard of in the second round, and rely more on playing the numbers than going after the sexy draft picks. It made for a number of fairly uneventful offseasons, but the result was hard to ignore.
Cut to 2021.
For the first time in years, the Patriots went gangbuststers in free agency, signing big names on both sides of the ball. The two best tight ends on the market, the best edge rusher, solid receivers, defensive linemen... there wasn’t a single position that the Patriots didn’t address in some capacity once free agency hit.
The one position the Patriots didn’t really seem to touch was at quarterback. They re-signed Cam Newton after a highly inconsistent 2020 campaign, but nobody thought he was the long-term answer at QB. That meant one of two things: the Patriots were either going to be trading for a signal caller in the coming weeks (unlikely), or they’d be addressing the position via the draft.
The 2021 draft featured a number of top-flight college prospects, and it seemed like a great year for QB-needy teams to go and get their guy. The consensus best player in the draft was Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence, all but a mortal lock to go to Jacksonville first overall, but after Lawrence there were a bunch of players projected to go anywhere from second overall to early in the second round. And for the first time since 1993, Patriots fans had a vested interest in the QB market.
The 7-9 team was sitting with pick No. 15 in the draft, its best draw in years. And while 15 is a great place to be, it’s also a tricky one; odds are that any of the top guys will be gone by 15, so if you want a highly touted prospect you’re going to have to package picks to move up. You can move down from 15, but the pick isn’t as easy to move as a top-10 selection is. Everyone was more or less assuming that the Patriots would do what they always did — trade pick 15 for a first-round pick next year and a few Day 2 picks, draft a DB, a running back, a receiver who wouldn’t pan out, and a few Day 3 gems, and get their usual C grade once the weekend wrapped up. After a wildly exciting free agency period, Patriots fans approached the draft cautiously.
As a QB-needy team, there were multiple players touted as good fits in New England. A few draft pundits thought they should move up to try and get Trey Lance or Justin Fields. Others thought they should stick with Newton, draft a second-tier QB on Day 2, and address other areas of need with their First Rounder. You’ll never find a shortage of opinions surrounding the NFL Draft.
But of all the predictions out there, the one that seemed to have the most legitimacy was the Patriots drafting Alabama quarterback Mac Jones. Jones had come up under Bill Belichick’s BFF Nick Saban, he possessed all the characteristics the Belichick covets, and as a consensus non-top three QB, would likely be available later on in the first round. Few people saw Belichick mortgaging draft picks to move into the top-5, so Jones at 15 seemed like a logical choice.
Which of course meant that, since Mac Jones to the Patriots was a popular narrative, there was absolutely no chance that it would happen. When was the last time anybody got a single prediction right surrounding the Patriots draft? Here comes another lineman or free safety, assuming they use the pick at all.
Cut to draft day. As expected Lawrence goes first overall to the Jags. The Jets followed suit, selecting Zach Wilson at No. 2, and then the San Francisco 49ers take Trey Lance at 3. Three picks, three QBs off the board.
Picks 4 through 10 were all from teams that already had their quarterback, so if New England was going to make a move for the next best guy — projected to be Ohio State’s Justin Fields — they would need to move up to Number 11 and trade with the Chicago Bears, who were definitely in need of a quarterback. Whether a trade was discussed and rejected is anybody’s guess, but Chicago stayed put and took Fields with their first rounder.
At this point, there were just three teams ahead of the Patriots: the Cowboys at 12, the Chargers at 13, and the Jets again at 14 via a trade with the Vikings. Dallas had Dak Prescott, LA had Justin Herbert, and the Jets had already taken a quarterback this round. If the Patriots just stayed where they were and nothing crazy happened involving another needy team leapfrogging them, they still had a shot at either of the two remaining top-5 quarterbacks in the draft.
Dallas selected Micah Parsons. L.A. chose Rashawn Slater, and the Jets took Alijah Vera-Tucker. The Patriots were on the clock.
We all sat around, waiting for that “TRADE” cryon to scroll across the bottom of the screen. What would they get for 15? More picks in this round or maybe picks in future drafts? And which D-III school would soon find themselves relevant for the briefest of moments as the Patriots selected their hybrid kicker/punter/offensive line coach? The clock kept ticking down.
And then, “The Pick Is In.” Looks like no trade after all.
Random Mac Jones Highlight:@MacJones_10 is drafted #15 overall by the @Patriots in the 2021 #NFLDraft...the start of a new era in New England. Happy Draft Day!— Mac Jones Tracker (@macjonestracker) April 28, 2022
April 29, 2021
Cleveland, OH pic.twitter.com/TtS7d7vYpH
With the 15th overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, the Patriots selected quarterback Mac Jones, Alabama.
The Patriots stayed put? They drafted a quarterback? And they drafted a player that a lot of folks predicted they’d draft?
As Mac Jones put on that Patriots hat and posed for a photo with his new jersey, there was an odd mix of confusion, excitement, and even optimism from Pats fans everywhere. Not only had New England made moves in free agency, they drafted a player that most of us had actually heard of, and one that could make an impact right away. Not something we’re accustomed to around these parts.
Almost immediately after the draft, the debate began: Who starts Week 1? The proven veteran coming off an up-and-down season or the unproven rookie who will likely be the guy going forward? Do you take a risk throwing a rookie QB right into one of the most difficult offensive schemes and expect him to deliver right off the bat, or do you give him a year and let him learn with a focus on 2022?
It took most of training camp, but the question was finally answered: Mac Jones would be the Patriots’ starter in 2021. For better or worse, they were riding with the rookie.
Mac Jones finished his rookie campaign with 3,800 passing yards, 22 touchdowns, 13 picks, a 67 percent completion percentage, and an overall QBR of 92.2. He led the Patriots to an 10-win season and a playoff bid in his first year. He struggled at times, as do all rookies, but he also showed incredible poise, intelligence, attitude, and grasp of the system. By the end of the year, he had emerged as a locker room leader and a team and fan favorite. Jones was also a runaway candidate for Offense Rookie of the Year until late in the season, when Jones slipped a bit as Ja’Marr Chase pulled away from the pack. He earned a Pro Bowl bid and had the unquestioned highlight of that absolute farce they try to pass off as a football game. Of the NFL record eight quarterbacks taken in the first three rounds of the 2021 Draft, Jones was by far the most successful.
All offseason reports have lauded Jones’s work ethic, his exercise regimen, his dedication to improving, and his leadership. He’ll be coming into the 2022 season building on a very strong rookie campaign and hoping to take the Patriots even farther this season. While New England may still be a year away from being serious contenders, we’re all hoping for big things from Mac Jones this year as he continues to grow into his role.
I realize that I’m banking on a lot by making a draft pick my No. 2 Most Memorable Patriots Moment of 2021, and there’s certainly a chance that I’m going to look quite foolish in a few years if things don’t pan out the way we’re all hoping they will. But I’m very, very used to looking quite foolish, and I truly believe that Jones has a phenomenal career ahead of him, as long as he can stay healthy and keep on improving in all facets. And because of that, I’d like to think that we’ll all look back on this moment, where we officially moved on from Tom Brady and found the guy who will hopefully usher in a whole new Patriots Dynasty, as one of those benchmark moments for the franchise.
The 1993 Drew Bledsoe selection was such a moment. We all know who the Patriots took 199th overall in 2000. Ryan Leaf and Peyton Manning will forever be linked because of the drama that unfolded during the 1998 draft. And as the seasons continue to go by and this 2021 QB class continues to make its impact on the NFL, I’ll continue to be optimistic that Mac Jones’ star will go on to shine the brightest.
May we all look back on the 2021 draft as fondly as we look back on the one that occurred in 2000. And so while it’s a bit of a long game, I’m going to stand fast and keep this moment here at No. 2.
Check out some Mac Jones 2021 highlights here.