Mac Jones: Patriots Heir Apparent
After a 7-9 finish in their first season without Tom Brady, the New England Patriots selected Alabama’s Mac Jones with the 15th overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft. Despite only playing one full season as the starter, Jones put enough on film to warrant a selection within the top half of Round 1. Perhaps the antithesis of incumbent starter Cam Newton, Jones will now battle the former MVP for New England’s starting job. Earlier this offseason, coach Bill Belichick noted that Newton remains the starter until “somebody plays better than he does”. With Jones, the question remains if and when he can eventually usurp Newton for that starting position.
This piece will first examine Jones’s collegiate production and what to expect at the NFL level. From there, we will dive into Jones’s potential fit with the New England Patriots and decipher how this could influence the offense as a whole.
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Mac Jones: Heir Apparent
Initially recruited as a three-star prospect in the 2017 recruiting class, Jones never possessed a clear path to playing time. He entered the Crimson Tide program the same year as five-star and future first-round pick Tua Tagovailoa. When Tagovailoa entered the 2020 NFL Draft, Jones again had to battle an incoming five-star prospect in Bryce Young. However, Jones performed well enough in spot duty during 2019 to hold off Young in a Covid-19 shortened offseason.
As mentioned above, Jones played very little during his first two seasons on campus. To be exact, Jones threw just 13 passes prior to the 2019 season. With Tagovailoa entrenched as the starter, most expected much of the same for Jones during the 2019 season. However, when Tagovailoa went down with a season-ending hip injury, Alabama pushed Jones into action. Jones ended up throwing 1,503 yards, 14 scores, and only three interceptions while completing 68.8% of his passes to close out the season.
Moving forward to 2020, Jones put everything together during Alabama’s championship run. Jones threw for 4,500 yards, 41 scores, and only four interceptions while completing 77.4% of his passes. Impressively, Jones finished above 300 passing yards in eight of 13 total games. While he offers very little as a rusher, Jones’s pinpoint passing accuracy ultimately led to his draft selection at 15 overall.
From an efficiency standpoint, Jones played well but faced little adversity in his career. Jones led the country with an 84.2% adjusted completion percentage on an average depth of target of 8.8 yards. He also committed just four turnovers in his final college season, showing a strong ability to take care of the ball. However, he also had 600 more yards than any other quarterback when throwing to open receivers, according to ProFootballFocus. He also threw into just 44 tight windows, while playing with Devonta Smith, Henry Ruggs, Jerry Jeudy, and Jaylen Waddle throughout his career. While his production cannot be discounted, Jones’s lack of adversity leaves unanswered questions on the production profile.
Offensive Fit with New England
The quarterback battle in New England remains a curious one ahead of the 2021 regular season. As mentioned above, Jones remains entirely dependent on his arm and pocket presence. While Jones checked in at 6-foot-3, 217 pounds with a 4.82 40-yard dash, he rarely uses his legs as a weapon. Conversely, Newton remains one of the premier dual threats in the NFL despite his limitations as a passer.
Looking at 2020’s New England Patriots, Newton finished with 2,657 passing yards, eight touchdowns, and 10 interceptions in 15 games. However, Newton also rushed for 592 yards and an additional 12 scores, adding value with his legs. Digging deeper, Newton’s 65.8% completion percentage and 7.2 yards per attempt both ranked 19th and 21st. With Jakobi Meyers, Damiere Byrd, and James White finishing as his top three receivers, perhaps some of Newton’s lacking production can be rationalized away. Newton also cited his battle with Covid-19 as a factor in his mid-season slump.
Still, Newton’s effect on the offense remains undeniable. The Patriots only threw the ball 48.7% of the time (31st) and slowed their pace to 61.2 plays per game (29th) under Newton. With Jones offering nothing with his legs, starting the rookie theoretically should lead to a higher pass rate at the very least. Whether this translates to increased efficiency for the entire offense remains to be seen.
As far as offensive upgrades, New England attacked free agency in an attempt to bolster their pass-catching corps. Reminiscent of the Rob Gronkowski/Aaron Hernandez days, the Patriots signed both Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith to man their tight end positions. Similarly, they brought in Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne to round out their wide receiver corps that lost Julian Edelman to retirement.
From a redraft perspective, spending any draft capital on this Patriots offense doesn’t make a lot of sense at the moment. This quarterback battle likely plays out over the course of training camp and preseason. If Newton earns the job, his rushing equity makes him worth a potential late-round pick in an upgraded offense. However, both quarterbacks look best served as week-to-week streamers.
From a dynasty perspective, this Patriots team sits on unsettled ground. Belichick continues his rebuild post-Tom Brady, but he also turned 69 this season. While Belichick hasn’t shown any signs of retirement, his continued aging raises questions for the franchise moving forward. From a pure positional perspective, quarterbacks remain volatile assets in dynasty, as well. 4for4’s dynasty expert George Kritikos currently ranks Jones as his QB5 and 36th overall player in rookie drafts. In dynasty startups, Jones doesn’t even enter Kritkos’ top 200 rankings.
With so much changing in New England investing in any of the skill position players remains a tough ask at this point. Newton and Jones play two completely different styles of quarterback, potentially creating massive ramifications once a starter is named. On Underdog Fantasy, Jones and Newton currently come off the board at pick 214.4 and 204.3. For those trying to win a million dollars, perhaps drafting one of these signal-callers creates a contrarian lineup construction. However, for those playing in normal best ball leagues, this quarterback situation remains one to avoid for the time being.