clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile
Indianapolis Colts v New England Patriots

Filed under:

How the Patriots can help quarterback Mac Jones get back on track

The former first-round draft pick had his moments in 2022, but they were few and far between.

Photo by Billie Weiss/Getty Images

If you buy something from an SB Nation link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics statement.

The New England Patriots’ offense had a rough year in 2022, and quarterback Mac Jones was no exception. While he did show some strides during his sophomore campaign, as a whole it was a challenging one for the former first-round draft pick.

Jones failed to build on his encouraging rookie-year performance in a new offensive setup led by assistant coaches Matt Patricia and Joe Judge, who attempted to replace departed coordinator Josh McDaniels. Additionally, he suffered a high ankle sprain in Week 3 that sidelined him for the subsequent three games and continued to impact him beyond his surprisingly quick return in Week 7.

All of this put together led to a rather disappointing output from the 24-year-old. Appearing in all 14 games, Jones completed 288 of his 442 pass attempts (65.2%) for 2,997 yards, 14 touchdowns and 11 interceptions.

He did have some positive moments, but they were few and far in between and were unable to elevate the offense as a whole. So, heading into a pivotal third season in New England, the goal is clear: the organization needs to find a way to get him back on track, to make a proper judgement whether or not he can truly be the next franchise option at the most important position in the game.

How will they be able to do that? That’s a question that will be constantly addressed throughout the offseason and heading into 2023. As for our point of view, here is what we think they should try to do to get the most out of Jones.

Improve his performance under pressure

Mac Jones’ stats under pressure can best be summed up with one word: yikes.

The base-line statistics alone are enough to convey the message that Jones was not good when pressured in 2022. He attempted 99 passes falling into that category, completing only 42 of them for a success rate of 42.4 percent. Those passes gained 505 yards, with three ending in touchdowns and a league-high eight resulting in interceptions.

Looking at his performance from an advanced perspective also does him no favors. Jones was the only qualifying passer in football to finish with an expected points added number below -0.7 — a number below the likes of Matt Ryan and Zach Wilson.

Arjun Menon

No matter how you look at it, Jones was one of the worst quarterbacks in the NFL when facing pressure in 2022 — something he did on 29.2 percent of his dropbacks, according to Pro Football Focus. Heading into 2023, there is no question he needs to get better.

The question is how he can do that. Better decision-making when under pressure is a start, something that actually did improve down the stretch last year. His interception numbers went way down after a rough start; Jones was more willing to take sacks or kill a play when not getting the look he wanted.

That is something he needs to continue to work on, but has shown some strides with. From a team perspective, meanwhile, there are three main areas we can identify.

Find a suitable pass-catching back: One of the Patriots’ under-the-radar problems in 2022 was the lack of a true receiving back. James White announced his retirement in the offseason, while his replacement — Ty Montgomery — suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in Week 1. With those two out, New England turned to Rhamondre Stevenson. He did an admirable job and actually finished as the team’s leader in receptions, but his safety-blanket abilities were not the same as White’s. Ideally, Stevenson will not be the top option at that position in 2023; either Montgomery or Pierre Strong Jr. should help in that regard.

Upgrade at offensive tackle: Your quarterback struggles under pressure? Well, put him under as little as possible. The Patriots offensive line was, of course, a mixed bag in 2022 — especially at right tackle. With Isaiah Wynn an unrestricted free agent and likely out the door, the position is the No. 1 offseason priority and one that will likely get addressed in more than one way. A 2018 scenario, when the team traded for Trent Brown and also drafted Wynn in the first round, is possible. As for Brown, the current left tackle, he also had his worst season as a Patriot in 2023. However, he can still be a serviceable option to protect Mac Jones’ blindside especially as he builds his chemistry with second-year guard Cole Strange next to him.

Keep him from unfavorable situations: The questions about Jones’ arm strength are legitimate, and he will never be a freak like Josh Allen, Justin Herbert or Patrick Mahomes in that regard. Accordingly, the Patriots need to try to keep him form unfavorable situations that challenge his arm talent. This means they need to try to keep him in the pocket as much as possible, and to make sure he understands to properly reset his feet when moving out.

Again, Jones himself needs to put in the work to improve his performance under pressure in 2023. He has shown a willingness to do that, though, and also that he can be an effective passer when facing the heat: as a rookie under Josh McDaniels, he completed 55.3 percent of his passes in those situations for 795 yards with six touchdowns and just four interceptions.

Him returning to similar levels next year is not a hope. It’s a must.

Get more creative

The Patriots’ play-calling in 2022 was, to put it nicely, bland. Was it the primary issue for the team’s struggles? Not necessarily, but it is an area that needs to be upgraded as well heading into Jones’ third year in the system.

Three areas in particular stand out that can get better in 2023, and improve the overall creativity of New England’s offensive attack: the use of more traditional play-action sets, the use of run-pass option plays (RPOs), and the incorporation of more motion looks.

When it comes to play-action, the Patriots used it on just 16.7 percent of his dropbacks in 2022. When Matt Patricia did call it, though, Jones was generally successful: he completed 57 of 78 passes for 627 yards, three touchdowns and one interception. His adjusted completion percentage — i.e. excluding drops and throwaways — was 83.1, the fifth-highest number in the NFL; his yards per attempt (8.0) ranked 13th.

The use of play-action obviously always depends on situation and opponent, but the way the Patriots built their offense one would suppose that it would be a prominent part of their attack. New England has a strong running game, and receivers that can succeed in the intermediate areas of the field.

And yet, the Patriots were — for one reason or another — hesitant to make play-action a key part of their attack. The most prominent use of it, in fact, came in the final game of the season: against the Buffalo Bills in Week 18, Jones attempted play-action passes on 21.4 percent of his dropbacks.

He went 9-for-9 for 92 yards and a touchdown. He also had some of his best throws of the season following play-action, such as the following 17-yard completion to DeVante Parker:

Jones (10) lining up under center and faking the handoff to running back Rhamondre Stevenson (38) led to Buffalo’s off-ball linebackers stepping up to create an opening behind them. Clearing up space like that is the goal of play-action, and here it worked perfectly. In combination with the Bills’ one-deep man coverage, it created a window of opportunity for Jones to hit Parker (1) on an in-breaking route.

Similar to play-action, the Patriots also could incorporate more RPO-like calls. Jones, after all, has shown an ability to play some effective football under these schematic conditions: during his senior year at Alabama, he went 73-for-78 for 890 yards, 10 touchdowns and zero interceptions.

Obviously, the college and the NFL games are vastly different but the goal should be the same regardless: get Jones into a rhythm and play off his strengths such as a good release and quick processor. New England’s next offensive coordinator will need to draw up plays that do that.

Additionally, he also has to address other issues such as a lack of pre-snap motion. Per NFL NextGenStats, the Patriots ranked 29th in the league in the use of motion, employing it on a mere 10.4 percent of their offensive snaps.

When they did, however, it also yielded some positive results. Take the following play against Buffalo, the snap right before the completion to DeVante Parker outlined above:

Jakobi Meyers (16) first motioned from right to left across the formation, then moved into the backfield to briefly give the impression that he would align in a fullback spot. Instead, he motioned back across, creating some confusion in the Buffalo defense.

While cornerback Taron Johnson (7) made a signal to linebacker Tremaine Edmunds (49) upon Meyers motioning into the backfield, neither player ended up covering him on his route. The result was a sizable 20-yard gain to move the sticks on 3rd-and-1.

Why plays like these were not more common in the 2022 Patriots offense those outside of One Patriot Place can only speculate about. Moving forward, however, the hope is that a traditional offensive coordinator will see this as one area to address and improve — an area that would consequently help the quarterback as well.

Build on the positives he showed in 2022

As mentioned above, the Patriots had some success last year running play-action concepts or using motion. Building on those will be another key for 2023 to help Jones and, in turn, the entire offense.

The positives for New England and its young quarterback did not stop there, though. Jones also made significant jumps with elusiveness, arm strength and play recognition in 2022 compared to his rookie season.

He was far from perfect and still has significant room for growth in all of these areas, but one cannot forget it was his second year and he has been put in some very tough positions at times. He is still a developing player, and the lessons he learned in 2022 are part of the growing experience for both player and team.

From a team perspective, it has to be pleased with those developments. The next step, as mentioned above, is building off of those. How? Last season actually gave us a blueprint of sorts, in that Jones tried to be more aggressive attacking downfield — something he clearly is comfortable doing and has the ability to succeed in.

His touch on intermediate and deep passes was already solid coming out of Alabama, despite those ever-popular questions about his arm talent. Two years into his career little has changed about that, with the exception that he did show some improvement when it comes to zip.

The 2023 Patriots embracing that aspect of his game should help him get more comfortable and the team to hit the chunk plays it was looking for more regularly — chunk plays such as the following from Week 17 against the Miami Dolphins:

Jones (10) aligned under center on this play as well, faking a handoff before delivering a beautiful high-arcing pass to Tyquan Thornton (11) down the right sideline. The rookie wide receiver did a good job of swatting defensive back Eric Rowe’s (21) jam to stack and separate on the fade, and his quarterback gave him a chance before taking a blindside hit.

Jones’ touch and relative effortlessness on passes like these was on display several times in 2022. Just one week later, he had a similar throw to Kendrick Bourne (84) to convert a third down against the Cincinnati Bengals:

On this particular snap, Jones’ comfort with the play call and his own talents were on full display. He let the ball go before Bourne was out of his break, and put the ball in a good spot for a conversion on 3rd-and-7.

Plays like these are confident-builders for the entire team, but happened far too irregularly in 2022. The evidence does exist, however, that they can and should be a more prominent part of New England’s attack next season to get Jones back to the comfort levels he had at times as a rookie.

As mentioned above, Jones will never be a Josh Allen-type player in terms of pure physical talent. The goal, however, is to build on what he does well and feels good with. His 2022 tape has several examples of that.

Improve the talent around him

Two years into his career, Mac Jones is still a developing player whose successes or failures are oftentimes tied directly to the circumstances he finds himself in. 2022 was a good example of that, with him seemingly regressing in a non-traditional coaching setup. Being supported by the rather inexperienced — at least on offense — pair of Matt Patricia and Joe Jones limited his growth as a sophomore.

The Patriots appear to be willing to address this, though. As they announced last week, they are actively looking for a new offensive coordinator. While it remains to be seen whether or not that change in support structure yields positive results, it is a step in the right direction from the organization’s point of view.

Additionally, New England needs to make sue to take advantage of Jones’ contract situation. With him still on a relatively cheap rookie deal for two more years, investments can be made either through free agency additions or trade acquisitions; the team also has the draft capital to address its areas of need on that side of the ball.

Two of them have already been mentioned above, with finding a new receiving back and improving the play at offensive tackle the biggest areas of concern. Of course, the team would also be smart to try to keep pending unrestricted free agent Jakobi Meyers in the fold for another season, and possibly add another high-tier option at wide receiver.

Jones has shown good chemistry when throwing to the likes of Kendrick Bourne and DeVante Parker, and is not afraid to give Tyquan Thornton opportunities to get behind the defense, but at this point in their respective careers they are not bona fide options opposing coordinators are losing sleep over. Finding one of those could improve the whole complexion of the offense.

While that seems like a long list of to-dos for a team seemingly trying to find out whether Jones can be the guy, one has to keep in mind that he is still an ascending player. The hope is that he could take a Tua Tagovailoa-like leap in Year 3 with the right pieces in place; Tagovailoa was not noticeably better than Jones his first two years, but broke out after the Dolphins added offensive-minded head coach Mike McDaniel and elite wideout Tyreek Hill.

Future Hall of Famers like Tyreek Hill do not grow on trees, and McDaniel is one of the brightest young offensive minds in the NFL. The Patriots finding that combo this offseason should not be expected

The gist remains, Jones is still a player you need to build around in hopes of him making strides — strides that, ideally, will lead to him eventually growing into a quarterback you win because of.

Two-Minute Drill

Ex-Patriots quarterback Tom Brady to begin broadcasting career in 2024

Patriots Analysis

What hiring Adrian Klemm to their coaching staff means for the Patriots

Two-Minute Drill

Watch: Patriots linebacker Matthew Judon was mic’d up at the Pro Bowl