Mac Jones entered the 2021 NFL Draft viewed as the No. 3 passer, at best, in most analysts’ quarterback rankings. But the New England Patriots’ starter had arguably the best rookie season out of the whole class.
The former Crimson Tide signal-caller wasn’t surrounded by nearly as much intrigue as other players like Justin Fields and Trey Lance in the pre-draft process because he didn’t possess the same type of physical tools that were attention-grabbing for so many.
But when it comes down to the basics and fundamentals, Jones proved a point in that a quarterback’s job at the end of the day is to throw the ball and do it well.
That’s something that comes down to more of what’s between the ears than it does to what a player can do on the ground. Because of that, he’s already shaping to be one of the biggest steals in the 2021 NFL Draft.
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Putting on a show in 2021
It’s not easy for any quarterback to come in as a rookie and have a lot of success as the team’s starter. But Jones did that, leading New England to the postseason and earning Pro Bowl and All-Rookie honors thanks to an outstanding first season.
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While the 22-13 touchdown-to-interception ratio is something he should want to see improve moving forward, the body of work as a whole in Year 1 is far from anything to be mad at. In fact, it’s one of the most impressive rises by a quarterback making the transition to the NFL in recent history.
Jones finished out the season with an 80.4 overall Pro Football Focus grade, the highest among rookie quarterbacks and the 11th-best at the position. Also according to PFF, Jones had the 10th-quickest average time to throw in the league with a 2.6-second release that also makes him the eighth-quickest among all rookies within the past 10 years.
Looking back through the tape, there were a few questionable decisions that Jones made on certain plays, the classic rookie growing pains. But he put the ball in harm’s way less than any other quarterback from the same draft class and didn’t put himself in situations to be sacked, at times looking experienced well beyond his years with the poise he showed under pressure.
Not every quarterback needs to be the second coming of Lamar Jackson
There has been a trend over recent years in which teams have opted for a more athletic quarterback and there have been several attempts by teams to create a Taysom Hill-type Swiss army knife of their own.
But lately, it seems like the NFL has been moving in a different direction, perhaps toward passers who are first and foremost solid in the pocket but who also have enough mobility to evade pressure and move around a bit when the situation calls for it.
Obviously not a Lamar Jackson-esque quarterback, Jones was knocked for his lack of mobility several times ahead of the 2021 NFL Draft, and some worried that he would limit a playbook. When I asked Jones about that during the Reese’s Senior Bowl last year, he said he thought he did quite the opposite.
One former Alabama coach described Jones and Tua Tagovailoa, who Jones once played backup to, as complete opposites who could find similar levels of success. Tagovailoa is more naturally gifted and certainly has more mobility and athleticism than Jones does, but Jones’ firepower lies in his elite mental processing ability.
“They are two entirely different quarterbacks,” the source told me ahead of the 2021 NFL Draft. “Tua has a natural, quick release, can get the ball out and also create things. Mac sees things quick and studied it and he gets it out because he makes quick decisions. Both of them were effective. Tua is as accurate as Mac… with a quick release, Mac made quick decisions to get it out of his hand.”
2022 season outlook
There’s a lot for Jones and the Patriots to be excited about building upon after what he accomplished last season. Moving into 2022, Jones has already made his way into the early MVP conversation. Obviously how he performs down the line when the season starts up is going to affect how much he remains in the mix for those honors.
In regards to how he’s set up with the Patriots, Jones couldn’t have landed in a better system for a quarterback of his type. The way the team was drafted in 2022 drew mixed opinions, especially with zero linebackers selected by New England, which is thin at the position and not finding a solid replacement to fill the void following All-Pro cornerback J.C. Jackson’s exit. But this team did make some moves that should prove advantageous for Jones.
The Patriots drafted seven offensive players: Chattanooga interior offensive lineman Cole Strange (29th), Baylor wide receiver Tyquan Thornton (50th), South Dakota State running back Pierre Strong (127th), Western Kentucky quarterback Bailey Zappe (137th), South Carolina running back Kevin Harris (183rd), LSU center Chasen Hines (210th) and Michigan offensive tackle Andrew Stueber (245th).
While hardly anyone saw the Patriots taking Strange in the first round and some believe that pick could have been utilized by taking a player at a different position, they gain a Week 1 starter who can serve as added protection for Jones after the Patriots lost their two starting guards, Ted Karras and Shall Mason, during the offseason.
New England checked the box on adding speed to its offense with the acquisition of Thornton and Strong Jr., bringing that element of the game on the run and through the air, respectively.
Thornton, who the Patriots traded up to select in the second round, ran a 4.28 40-yard dash at the 2022 NFL Scouting Combine. That’s the fourth-fastest time by a wide receiver since 2006. How he and Jones establish chemistry will be something to watch and something that should bring a lot of electricity to an offense that needs it. He is expected to see the field much sooner than Strong, who posted an impressive 4.37 40 of his own at the combine, but he’ll have to break through a stout backfield that includes Damien Harris, James White, and Rhamondre Stevenson to truly get his shot.
Another thing to watch in the coming seasons will be just how high Jones’ ceiling is. It’s clear he’s a player with a high floor, but how he steps up in big-time moments and how many clutch plays he helps deliver when the team needs it the most will define how much of a difference-maker he is at this level — and he won’t do it by running all over the place and breaking tackles, but his mental capacity may prove special enough to eventually put him up there with the greats if he stays on the same trajectory he’s been on since he took the reins at Alabama.