With the NFL free agency and draft both in the rear-view mirror, and the final phase of voluntary offseason workouts underway, the New England Patriots are officially “on to 2023.”
At the moment, the Patriots have a full 90-man roster. Only 53 of those players will be able to survive roster cutdowns and ultimately make the active team, with others competing for practice squad spots. Over the course of spring and summer, just like we have in years past, we will take an in-depth look at the men fighting for those spots to find out who has the best chances of helping New England rebound from a disappointing 2022 season.
Today, the series continues with third-year quarterback Mac Jones.
Name: Mac Jones
Opening day age: 25 (9/5/1998)
Size: 6’3”, 217 lbs
Jersey number: 10
Contract status: Under contract through 2024 + 5th-year option (2025 or 2026 UFA)
Before arriving in the NFL as a first-round draft pick by the Patriots in 2021, Jones spent four seasons at the University of Alabama under head coach and Bill Belichick confidante Nick Saban. 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. 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 six interceptions. His starting opportunities may have been limited early on in his career, but he made the most of them when he got the chance.
The same was true immediately after he entered the NFL. Jones won the Patriots’ starting job in his first ever training camp, beating out incumbent veteran Cam Newton. He went on to produce one of the better rookie seasons in recent memory — earning Pro Bowl honors while leading New England to the playoffs — and looked like a sure-fire franchise quarterback in the making. However, his sophomore campaign proved to be a challenge for the 24-year-old and has left his future in a bit of doubt.
All in all, Jones has started all 32 regular season and playoff games he appeared in over his two seasons as a pro. Along the way, he completed 66.3 percent of his pass attempts for a combined 7,030 yards with 38 touchdowns and 26 interceptions. The Patriots have gone an even 16-16 with him in the starting lineup.
Stats: 14 games (14 starts) | 828 offensive snaps (78.7%) | 442 attempts, 228 completions (65.2%), 2,997 yards, 14 TDs, 11 INTs | 34 sacks, 5 fumbles | 1 rushing TD
Season recap: With offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Josh McDaniels taking his talents (and several assistant coaches) to the Las Vegas Raiders, the Patriots offense underwent some major changes in 2022. No single player was impacted more by those than Mac Jones.
For starters, the team went in a rather unorthodox direction and installed Matt Patrica and Joe Judge as the leaders of what was described as a collaborative effort. Neither had much experience on that side of the ball, but they were nonetheless tasked with “streamlining” the operation and tailoring the offense to its young quarterback’s strength. That process did not go as planned, and it led to a disappointing sophomore season for Jones.
The numbers tell part of the story. Completion percentage (67.3% to 65.2%), touchdown rate (4.3% to 3.2%), yards per attempt (7.2 to 6.8) and expected points added (0.123 to -0.031) are just four of the metrics that took a step back compared to Jones’ rookie campaign; he simply failed to produce at the same level he did the previous season.
In all, he went 228-of-442 for 2,997 yards with 14 touchdowns and 11 interceptions in 14 games. He also scored a rushing touchdown, and turned the ball over once on his five fumbles.
What those numbers illustrate is the inconsistency that plagued Jones for much of his sophomore season — an inconsistency that took several forms. To start the year, turnovers and turnover-worthy plays were an issue for the young passer: he had five interceptions and six turnover-worthy throws between Weeks 1 and 3, for example.
For as many strong moments as he had in games such as the 37-26 loss to the Baltimore Ravens...
.@MacJones_10 dropped a dime to @DeVanteParker11— NFL (@NFL) September 25, 2022
: #BALvsNE on FOX
: Stream on NFL+ https://t.co/jbtc7PI59Y pic.twitter.com/suAz5UBohd
...he also had plenty of issues. Jones simply did not appear to be as confident in his surroundings than he was just one year earlier.
This was a continuation of training camp, when the Patriots offense struggled to adapt to the newly-installed scheme and verbiage. Receivers, blockers and, yes, the quarterback all looked out of their comfort zone time and again. The issues did not end with the calendar turning from August to September, and also trickled into the regular season.
Week 3 was a culmination of sorts, with Jones having some of his best and worst moments of the season in that game. He completed 68.8 percent of his passes, gained 10 yards per attempt, and scored his first career rushing touchdown, but he also threw three picks that directly led to the Patriots losing what early on was a rather competitive game. To make matters worse, he also had to exit the contest because of injury: he was rolled up on on the final offensive snap of the day, suffering what turned out to be a high ankle sprain.
The injury kept Jones out for the next three games, and also limited his availability in Week 7 against Chicago. He did return as the starter, but that particular Monday night game saw his apparent demotion after just three possessions and a 3-for-6/13 yards/1 interception stat-line.
Nonetheless, Jones was back in the starting lineup the following week; Bailey Zappe went to backup duty again and would not play even a single snap for the rest of the year. From Week 8, the Patriots stuck with their established starter through thick and thin. And there was quite a bit of thin, unfortunately.
In a way, though, Jones did manage to rebound from his early-season slump. For starters, he began better taking care of the football: after throwing seven picks in his first five starts, he had only one in his next eight (before throwing three in a season-ending loss to the Buffalo Bills). He also managed to improve his EPA/play from a measly -0.056 before New England’s Week 10 bye to a still-bad-but-not-quite-as-bad -0.015.
Through all of this, the Patriots offense as a whole failed to develop as desired. The unit, like its quarterback, had some relatively solid outings; the Week 12 loss to the Minnesota Vikings on Thanksgiving comes to mind.
Jones to Agholor for 6— NFL (@NFL) November 25, 2022
Both teams score opening drive TDs
: #NEvsMIN on NBC
: Stream on NFL+ https://t.co/TePpxXTdES pic.twitter.com/76lytRYFwq
As a whole, however, the unit remained stuck in the mud.
The Patriots originally intended to stress defenses with more deep attempts, playing into Jones’ strengths and confidence as a deep-ball thrower. There were encouraging moments both early on and down the stretch, but they were not sustained and the group eventually started relying on quick throws and short-area passes — something Jones did not seem too happy about when caught on a hot mic in Week 13 versus Buffalo.
The question is why this happened. A leaky offensive line, which struggled with continuity particularly at right tackle, was definitely a problem; longer-developing plays oftentimes were dead on arrival. However, Jones also looked skittish in the pocket and never quite seemed to find his rhythm in an offense meant to be built on what he does well.
And so, both he and New England’s offense ended 2022 in disappointment. There was some good to go along with the bad, but ultimately the excitement that was built in Jones’ rookie season faded away rather quickly.
Year 2 was a definitive challenge for the youngster.
What will be his role? Despite some speculation that he might be on the trade block, or that backup Bailey Zappe is ready to take over, Jones still projects as the Patriots’ starting quarterback entering the 2023 season. As such, and if his health allows it, he will come close to a 100-percent playing time share and only leave the field in select late-game situations. In addition to his on-field role, he also will play an important one off the field as well: he is expected to be voted a team captain for a second straight year.
What is his growth potential? Jones showed considerable potential as an NFL starting quarterback in his rookie season, but he hit a bit of a road block in Year 2. How much of that was due to circumstance remains to be seen, but the fact is that he is under quite a bit of pressure heading into 2023: he has to show the team that his sophomore campaign was not indicative of who he is and can be as a player.
So, what can he be? Jones does lack some physical skill compared to other QBs — he will never have the league’s best arm nor most elusive pocket presence — but he has shown that he can make every throw in the book and operate well within the context of an offense. That can be a winning recipe, but the young passer still needs to continue improving his craft: taking care of the football, working on his mechanics and making smart pre- and post-snap reads is at the very top of the list.
Does he have positional versatility? Considering the position that he plays, Jones’ versatility can best be described as “limited.” But while he lacks the baseline athletic traits to be much more than a pocket passer, he has shown solid vision and initial burst to gain positive yards on scramble attempts. The Patriots will not draw up specific plays to build on those few moments, though. They also will likely not rely on him as a special teams presence, even though he served as a holder on field goal and extra point attempts during his time at Alabama.
What is his salary cap situation? Jones is still on a fairly manageable contract entering the third year of his rookie deal, and is carrying a salary cap hit of only $4.25 million — the 15th-highest such number on the team (excluding safety Devin McCourty whose retirement has yet to be processed) and 32nd among all NFL quarterbacks. The deal includes a $2.08 million salary and $2.17 million signing bonus proration — both of which fully guaranteed — and might make Jones one of the best values on the team when looking at it strictly from a snap-to-dollar ratio.
How safe is his roster spot? As noted above, there was some speculation that the Patriots might be willing to move on from Jones via trade. However, it appears that they are still committed to him as their starter for at least the 2023 season. From that point of view, he can be seen as a lock to make the roster this year; backup Bailey Zappe and depth options Trace McSorley and Malik Cunningham seriously challenging his standing on the team seems unlikely at this point.
When it comes to the 24-year-old, the question is not really about 2023 but rather his longer-term outlook. New England, after all, will have to make a decision about the fifth-year option in his rookie contract next spring. Jones’ performance this upcoming season will have a major impact on the team’s decision-making: if he cannot bounce back under veteran offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien, the team might start to question his potential as a franchise quarterback.
One-sentence projection: Playing under Bill O’Brien, Jones will not just return to his rookie levels but in fact surpass the numbers he put up in 2021.