By: Pat Pitts
New England Patriots fans enter 2021 surrounded by unfamiliar territory. The guarantee of an AFC championship birth vanished along with their golden child to the sunshine state. Belichick prepared for this day to come, but did it come too soon?
It feels like it after the abysmal performance Cam Newton displayed a season ago. Single-digit touchdowns paired with double-digit interceptions are not a way to make a great impression on a fan base. Especially, a franchise expecting a trip to the Super Bowl or else the season was a waste.
Patriots fans have become a bit greedy. Well, six Lombardi trophies in two decades give them a reason to be.
Newton’s disappointing play sent Kraft and Belichick to the drawing board ahead of the NFL Draft. The Patriots needed to fill up gaps at nearly every position; the draft helps but is not the only way to improve.
The Patriots filled every possible gap on the depth chart on the first day of free agency. They smashed the record for most guaranteed money offered on a single day of FA, $159.6M. Signings like Kendrick Bourne, Jonnu Smith, Hunter Henry, and Nelson Agholor give the Patriots receiving options they lacked in 2020.
The offense has been upgraded, but missing a crucial piece to the puzzle. Who will lead this stacked offense into battle?
Kraft and Belichick knew that their QB of the future was not in the free agency pool, even informing local media personality, @Patspulpit, in an article a few months prior.
“If you want to have a good, consistent, winning football team, you can’t do it in free agency,” Kraft said. “You have to do it through the draft.”
Belichick and the rest of his staff studied every potential QB1 in the draft class. He and Josh McDaniels visited a few pro days, including Mac Jones’ at Alabama. The duo stood off to the side, analyzing every single throw Jones attempted.
Jones showed off his accuracy with every pass completed to Smith or Waddle. Well, not every pass.
The disappointment written across Belichick’s face displays interest in the draft prospect. If he could prosper in Saban’s system, imagine how well he can perform in the Patriots offense. Belichick cares about one thing. Luckily for Jones, it is the one thing he does at an elite level.
On draft day, New England’s front office sat and watched the event unfold. They patiently waited for the cards to fall into place. They did not trade up, nor did they complete a trade. Fourteen players drafted without Belichick batting an eye.
He already had his pick.
Mac Jones became a New England Patriot. His wish came true.
Mac Jones steps into the Patriots’ offense with a lot of uncertainty. He has only produced one season of elite numbers. He played in the most dominant system in college football with Belichick’s other half. He was surrounded by NFL talent to enhance his play.
I have listened to experts and analysts say these thoughts and a few other outlandish statements about the rookie QB. Starting with his lack of athleticism and finishing off with how his lack of NCAA starting experience will be his downfall in the NFL.
Lamar Jackson fell to the 32nd pick of the draft. The Patriots chose N’Keal Harry over DK Metcalf and AJ Brown. Sometimes the “experts” can be wrong.
Belichick has his first actual QB battle since Brady v Bledsoe. A former number one overall pick fights for his starting job against a scrawny, immobile rookie quarterback. This story sounds familiar.
History repeats itself constantly, which is why Mac Jones will be the starting quarterback for the Patriots sooner than fans think. Jones brings a highly accurate arm and calm, poised presence in the pocket that Newton lacked all of last season.
Mac Jones brings change and hope to the Patriots, more so than Cam does. Here are a few ways how.
What are Jones’ most significant strengths?
Bill Belichick drafted Mac Jones with a purpose. Other than being a clone of his former QB, Jones shares many similarities that Brady built a career doing in Foxboro. Yes, he can air out a deep ball or two, but his ability to move downfield with underneath passing made him the most accurate passer in college football last season.
Jones’ accuracy stats should cause a big deep breath by Patriots Nation. He led the SEC in accuracy percentage (70.8%) and finished with the lowest interception percentage (1.3%), interceptable pass rate (4.4%), and uncatchable pass rate (11.7%).
Jones’s ability to throw an extremely accurate ball stems from his poise in the pocket. He allows his receivers to run their routes before making his decision. He knows he has the playmakers around him to get the job done.
The Patriots added a few playmakers to help mimic Mac’s offense from a year prior. At first glance, it seems like a makeshift fantasy football roster, not the most attractive.
A member of the Boston sports media described these receivers as “Target brand” receivers, meaning that they had a chance to sign an elite WR but settled on two solid ones. It’s called a two-for-one special; we bargain hunt in Massachusetts.
Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne have demonstrated that they are reliable receivers within the past few seasons. Both players notched career highs in receiving yards in 2020. Agholor tied his career-high in touchdowns with eight.
The two young WRs are not the only pass catchers to provide Jones with a huge amount of support this year. Jones has the luxury of lining up beside two of the league’s top five tight ends, Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry.
Smith and Henry ranked third on their respective teams in targets, receptions, yards and touchdowns a season ago. They provided their QB1s with relief and safety on crucial downs and especially in the red zone.
After the first week of OTAs, Jones has impressed the entire coaching staff with his ability to understand the playbook. The Patriots playbook is one of the most complicated in the league; this is a great sign for Pats fans.
Belichick surrounded Jones with the right pieces for him to succeed. More importantly, he provided him with top-tier protection.
How can Jones overcome his weaknesses to earn the starting job?
Death. Taxes. NFL analysts/experts making their case for why a certain player will be a bust.
Mac Jones ranked as college football’s best QB in 2020, but nearly slipped out of the top five in his draft class. Trey Lance has less experience as a starting quarterback than Jones, yet drafted twelve spots ahead of Jones.
Why? Because Lance scrambles for first downs; Jones tosses it to someone else for one. Different ways to reach the same destination.
Jones’ style of play works well in a system with a balanced offense, talented pass catchers and a stout offensive line to protect Jones as the play develops. The Patriots have all three of these key elements, specifically a group of linemen willing to protect their leader.
How does the Patriots’ offensive line play a role in Jones’ success?
The biggest issue fans have seen with rookie quarterbacks is how poorly they are protected. Joe Burrow, first overall draft pick, tore his ACL and MCL due to the lack of protecting Cincinnati’s golden boy.
Belichick operates two steps ahead of the entire NFL. He prioritizes developing a stalwart line to stop the pass rush.
In 2020, the New England Patriots offensive line ranked fourth in the NFL, despite their scoring woes. Joe Thuney, Isaiah Wynn, and Shaq Mason finished the season with a PFF grade above 80. The sixth-rounder, Michael Onwenu, finished with the highest grade out of the group, 84.3.
Joe Thuney left to sign with the Chiefs, while Trent Brown returned home to Foxboro. Brown’s size gives Jones a sense of security for him to repeat his senior season.
Jones sat behind a brick wall at Alabama, allowing him to find his wide-open receivers with ease. Jones ranked atop of the NCAA in passer rating in a clean pocket, 142.5. When he passes from a messy bag, he is just as lethal.
However, Jones does not need to leave the pocket to air it downfield.
Jones broke the university’s record for passer rating when under pressure. He completed 56 passes for 976 yards, 13 touchdowns, and two interceptions for a rating of 131. The slight decline indicates that Jones does not need to leave the pocket to make plays.
Mac Jones did not sign his rookie contract with hopes of getting acquainted with the clipboard; Jones wants to compete. There is a slight problem. Cam Newton is still here.
Newton throws a wrench into the Jones show’s debut. He resigned from a one-year contract this offseason; He wants redemption.
If OTA’s foreshadow anything for fans, then we are in for an exciting training camp. Newton hurting his hand at practice adds fuel to the fiery battle between Stidham and Jones.
Jones took first-team reps after Newton left the practice fields. His first test under the microscope did not go as planned. He tossed two pick-sixes within passes of each other along with failing to display his accuracy. Stidham, who struggles with his accuracy, Completed nearly all of his passes.
Friday’s practice was freaky.
How long does Cam Newton last as QB1?
Cam Newton started 15 forgettable games in 2020. Even in the ones where he shined, Newton found a way to come up a tad short. The fumble in Buffalo was the exact moment the Patriots season’s expiration date was in plain sight.
It is easy to write about Newton’s offensive play, but the factors surrounding him did not help his cause. Newton caught COVID, forcing him to sit out against the Chiefs. A game which they could have won, but Brian Hoyer refused to allow that. When he was healthy, his pass catchers consisted of Jakobi Meyers and Demetrie Byrd. Also, the lack of incorporating tight ends into the offense added even more to their constant struggles.
Mac Jones waltzed his way into a dream situation. He has the opportunity to learn as much as he can from the greatest coach in NFL history. A coach who operates his squad very similar to Jones’ college coach, Nick Saban. He sits behind a former MVP at quarterback, even with the battle for the starting gig.
Success is not going to happen overnight with Jones. It will be a long, meticulous process thanks to Tom Brady leaving behind a sinkhole-sized hole to fill.
Jones brings a Brady-type feel back to Gillette Stadium with being counted out before the preseason kicks off. Both men doubted, overlooked by nearly every team, but have the one thing you need to survive in the NFL, a winning mentality.
Brady has displayed it for the past two decades. The NFL has learned that you do not need to be mobile as a QB to succeed in the NFL. Jones hopes to carry that torch for another two decades, adding a few Lombardis to his shelf in the process.
Anything is possible.