Mac Jones has been down this path before.
The former first-round draft pick, who is in his third season as the New England Patriots’ quarterback, already was pulled from the team’s losses to the Dallas Cowboys and New Orleans Saints earlier this year. There is one major difference between those benchings and the one coming during Sunday’s defeat against the Indianapolis Colts in Germany, though.
Whereas the first two came late in the third quarter in blowout losses, the third happened in the fourth quarter of a four-point contest. The Patriots were down just 10-6 when Jones threw an interception in the red zone on a pass intended for Mike Gesicki.
The pick — his 10th of the season — was his final play of the day. Backup Bailey Zappe was brought in for the final possession inside the two-minute warning, and he proceeded to throw an ugly interception of his own to end the game.
Those two plays are the latest example of a truth that has become more evident with every passing week: the Patriots have a major quarterback problem.
The question now becomes how they proceed in both the short and the long term. Head coach Bill Belichick did, unsurprisingly, not give any insight into his plans immediately after the loss to the Colts. Based on what we know about the players on the roster, Belichick himself, and the team’s projected capital in 2024, however, here is where we believe they stand.
The Patriots will not play another game until Nov. 26, when they travel to East Rutherford to take on another team facing its fair share of questions at quarterback: the 2-8 New York Giants. Who will line up under center for New England that day remains to be seen.
“We’ll look at everything,” Belichick said on Monday. “We’ll look at everything across the board.”
Jones has had some remarkable staying power given what transpired the last few weeks, and he was back in the lineup after both of his previous benchings versus Dallas and New Orleans. As noted above, however, this situation is different: he was pulled while the game was still very much up for grabs.
But while that move can be interpreted as a loss of trust on the coaching staff’s part, it may not mean Jones is done for good. The alternatives, after all, look bleak.
No. 2 Bailey Zappe has completed 40 percent of his passes in stand-in duty, and his game-ending pick against the Colts was one of the most curious decisions you will ever see an NFL quarterback make; No. 3 Will Grier only arrived in late September and has not thrown a pass in an NFL game since December 2019; No. 4 Malik Cunningham is an undrafted rookie on the practice squad who has seen more practice reps at wide receiver than quarterback.
Out of those three, Zappe is probably the most realistic option to supplant Jones atop the quarterback depth chart. He was brought in three times this year, and has had some success asa rookie in 2022.
That being said, the odds probably still favor the incumbent starter. For one, Zappe has shown nothing since that rookie season of his to suggest he would be an actual upgrade over Jones. Also, Bill Belichick has shown a commitment to a struggling QB before when he left Cam Newton in the lineup down the stretch in 2020.
Obviously, the circumstances are different now and every season writes its own stories. But Belichick sticking with Jones even after this recent benching would certainly not come as a surprise.
It will all depend on how the head coach evaluates the players he has available, the goals he sets for the rest of the year, and the mood inside the locker room. It is possible that this equation ends with Zappe as QB1, but it also very well could mean to a continuation of the status quo.
Regardless of what happens, the longest-tenured player on the Patriots’ roster urged Jones to keep a positive mindset.
“He’s got to stay positive,” said Matthew Slater in Frankfurt on Sunday. “Right now everybody is counting him out. I’m sure there’s a lot of negativity; there’s a lot of negativity surrounding our team. We’ve got to ignore all that because it shouldn’t impact how we operate day-to-day, and you can’t let people that don’t know half of what’s going on inside the building impact what’s going on inside the building.
“He’s got to stay positive. He’s got to ignore the noise, keep his head down, keep working, just like the rest of us.”
There are two trains of thought when it comes to approaching Mac Jones and the quarterback position in 2024. Let’s take a look at the projected available resources as of Monday, Nov. 13, 2023, to assess them because no decision — even at the most important position on the field — can be evaluated in a vacuum.
First, free agency. According to our friend Miguel Benzan, the Patriots currently will be $74.4 million under a $250 million league cap. They also have potential to increase that number even further, with potential cuts such as defensive backs J.C. Jackson and Adrian Phillips as well as offensive tackle Calvin Anderson possibly adding almost $20 million to the total.
The Patriots naturally have some priority in-house free agents as well — a group of players that is headlined by Kyle Dugger, Michael Onwenu, Trent Brown, and Kendrick Bourne. Nonetheless, they should have the financial potency to add significant outside talent if they so choose.
The same is true for the draft. As things stand right now, they are the owners of the third overall selection behind only the Chicago Bears and the New York Giants. Those two teams are also facing serious questions at quarterback, with the Bears uncertain about the future of another 2021 first-round draft pick (Justin Fields) and the Giants having tied up considerable resources in a veteran starter (Daniel Jones).
Considering all of that, the Patriots could go two ways in the draft:
1.) Pick one of the top quarterbacks available, either by trading up or seeing one fall into your lap — whether that is USC’s Caleb Williams or Duke’s Drake Maye.
2.) Use the selection to bolster the talent around your quarterback by either selecting an elite prospect like Ohio State wide receiver Marvin Harrison Jr., Notre Dame offensive tackle Joe Alt, or Georgia tight end Brock Bowers, or by trading the pick to acquire even more capital.
Given how Mac Jones has performed lately, the first route seems like the more reasonable course of action. You cannot win in the NFL without consistent play at the most important position, and the Patriots have not gotten that this year.
Considering how highly-valued blue-chip prospects such as Williams and Drake are, and how seldom teams are in a position to get them, passing up one of them in favor of Mac Jones, Bailey Zappe, or somebody else would look like a curious business decision — at least looking at the situation from afar.
In the end, though, it will all depend on how the Patriots evaluate the other available options starting with Jones. Fact is, after all, that he has had some promising moments all over his three-year career in New England, but for whichever reason has been unable to string them together.
A lack of talent around him might have played a part in this, which is where that second avenue comes to play. If the Patriots still see something in him as a cost-controllable asset — which he would at least be in 2024 — they might try to build up the offense and give him one more shot in a Year 2 under offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien. It might be an unpopular decision, but there is an argument to be made in favor of it as well.
If Jones still fails while throwing passes to the likes of, for example, Marvin Harrison Jr. and free agency pickup Tee Higgins, you have a clear answer as to his qualities as an NFL starting quarterback. If he bounces back, however, you might have just found a long-term solution to work with after all.
Based on what we have seen so far this year, the odds of that happening seem low. But even so, Jones (or any replacement QB) struggling in 2024 might then open the door for another high draft pick. And with players such as Penn State’s Drew Allar or Clemson’s Cade Klubnik coming out, the Patriots would get a shot another blue-chip player in 2025 — all while having improved the offensive talent around him the previous offseason.
Needless to say, there is a long way to go before any of those discussions can be had. The bottom line, however, is that it all comes down to what the Patriots think Jones can still contribute in 2023 and potentially beyond.
“Didn’t play very well,” the third-year QB said after the loss to the Colts on Sunday. “I played well in my career before, but just not right now. It’s peaks and valleys, and I’m kind of in a valley right now. Just got to bounce back.”
Jones’ ability to do that will be crucial when it comes to the Patriots’ long-term evaluation of the quarterback position. But if they are already out on him — and they might be given how that game versus Indianapolis went — there probably would be no use to keep him around as the starter much longer, and especially after the first day of the 2024 NFL Draft.