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Mac Jones vs. Cam Newton: Who will be New England Patriots’ starting QB in 2021?

Matt Fitzgerald

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The Mac Jones vs. Cam Newton quarterback competition will be on once the New England Patriots open training camp.

Who will win this highly-anticipated QB derby in Foxborough between a former MVP and No. 1 overall pick and the rookie first-rounder out of Alabama? Let’s dive deep into this showdown, as Jones and Newton duke it out in the midst of a huge transition period in the Patriots franchise.

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Mac Jones stats

  • Mac Jones stats (Alabama, 2020): Completed 311 of 402 passing attempts (77.4%), 4,500 yards, 41 touchdowns, four interceptions, 203.1 passing efficiency rating

A perfect NFL mark for passer rating is 158.3, so don’t read too much into that latter figure for Jones. What is noteworthy is the fact that he completed an FBS-record 77.4% of his passes.

One stat that isn’t captured in the initial snapshot is Jones’ air yards per attempt from 2020, which was a ridiculous 12.8. This is significant, because it proves Jones wasn’t inflating his completion rate with a bunch of dink-and-dunk passes. He consistently stretched the field, with enough arm talent to make all the throws required in the NFL.

Cam Newton stats

  • Cam Newton stats (New England Patriots, 2020): Completed 242 of 368 passing attempts (65.8%), 2,657 yards, eight touchdowns, 10 interceptions, 82.9 passer rating; 137 carries, 592 yards, 12 rushing touchdowns

The clear difference here is that Newton is much more of a dual-threat QB and a freakish athlete compared to the awkward build Jones has drawn criticism for.

Newton posted a 7-8 record as a starter for a 2020 Patriots team that was clearly in the process of rebuilding. He also signed late in the offseason and was entering a system that had been built around Tom Brady for two decades. Brady is quite a different player from Newton to say the least.

Tim Tebow is now playing tight end for the Jaguars.

Key factors in Mac Jones vs. Cam Newton competition

Mac Jones’ accuracy vs. Cam Newton’s mobility

Key factors in Mac Jones vs. Cam Newton competition
Jan 3, 2021; Foxborough, Massachusetts, USA; New England Patriots quarterback Cam Newton (1) fights off New York Jets linebacker Neville Hewitt (46) and stretches the ball across the goal line for a touchdown during the second half at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

Now, the numbers say Newton’s completion percentage isn’t exactly awful, but when we’re talking about Jones, again, what he did for the Crimson Tide was downright historic. That’s why he was drafted 15th overall.

What Jones absolutely can’t do to this point in his career is make plays outside the structure of the offense, or with his legs in general. That’s where Newton is so dangerous and often at his best.

Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels is used to having Brady stand in the pocket and deliver in a precision-based short passing attack. Jones has the ball placement to thrive there more than Newton, yet if New England’s receiving corps doesn’t live up to the hype in 2021, it could get pretty ugly.

There’s merit to saying Jones is the better “fit” in the Pats’ traditional system. However, based on how this roster is constructed, they may need an unconventional playmaker like Newton to lead the offense. He’s more along the lines of the emerging prototype at QB in the NFL anyway, isn’t he?

Who will be the best QB from the 2021 NFL Draft?

Betting on a rookie vs. Giving the vet a fair chance

Mac Jones
Jan 11, 2021; Miami Gardens, Florida, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide quarterback Mac Jones (10) celebrates with the trophy after defeating the Ohio State Buckeyes in the 2021 College Football Playoff National Championship Game. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

First-year quarterbacks, particularly those drafted in the first round, are hitting the field earlier than ever these days. Jones is especially renowned for his high football IQ, so it’s hardly a surprise he’s generating buzz even before training camp.

Of course, with Jones there’s the element of the unknown — and the lingering concern about how much his Alabama supporting cast had to do with his raging collegiate success.

Jones had the benefit of throwing to excellent receivers in Heisman Trophy winner DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle. They were both top-10 draft picks. He was also behind a phenomenal offensive line and had Pittsburgh Steelers first-rounder Najee Harris in the backfield.

As we touched on before, the deck was stacked against Newton last year. He also came down with COVID-19 during the season, which impacted his performance the rest of the way. New England went on an aggressive spending spree this offseason in part due to how bad its group of pass-catchers was in 2020.

Not one to really make excuses — not that Belichick would tolerate such things — Newton recently spoke out about how he’s embracing the make-or-break nature of this coming season, and praised the Patriots organization, per ESPN’s Mike Reiss:

Has Newton really been able to show what he can do? Probably not. The bigger question is, will Jones be so impressive in training camp that even Newton’s unique skill set and improvement during his sophomore Patriots season won’t matter?

Jones could very well thrive with the opportunity to hit the ground running as the starter. We saw it happen this past season with Joe Burrow and Justin Herbert. Given that the team is ready to win now and Newton already has one full year under his belt in McDaniels’ offense, though, it creates a real dilemma.

How will the New England Patriots build their new-look offense?

Jun 10, 2021; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Patriots quarterback Mac Jones (50) talks to offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels during OTAs at the New England Patriots practice complex. Mandatory Credit: Paul Rutherford-USA TODAY Sports

This is as important as any factor. Obviously, Jones is the QB of the future based on his draft status, and Newton is only on a one-year deal. The QBs’ skill sets couldn’t be much more different.

McDaniels struggled to adjust on the fly to what Newton did best last year. Then again, he didn’t have near the weapons to work with that currently occupy the Patriots’ roster.

Legendary coach Bill Belichick knew he didn’t put the offense in a good spot a season ago. So, he went shopping in free agency, picking up tight ends Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry, along with receivers Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne.

The latter two wideouts aren’t spectacular, but if Jakobi Meyers can keep making strides in Year 3 and former first-round pick N’Keal Harry gives New England anything, suddenly it’s not such a bad group. Having matchup nightmares like Smith and Henry at tight end makes the Pats’ passing schemes so much more multiple in the ways it can beat opponents, too.

So, with such an upgraded collection of offensive talent, the Pats’ system figures to evolve, and will fit one QB better than the other. Chances are, it’ll skew in Jones’ favor.

That doesn’t mean Newton can’t execute what Jones will be asked, and it’d be foolish to neglect what Newton can do as a runner. It’s just the reality of where both signal-callers at in their careers.

New England Patriots starting QB prediction

Sep 13, 2020; Foxborough, Massachusetts, USA; New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick talks with quarterback Cam Newton (1) before a game against the Miami Dolphins at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brian Fluharty-USA TODAY Sports

All the momentum feels like it’s working in Jones’ favor. Belichick has close ties to Nick Saban, the legendary coach at Alabama. Jones is the typical dropback passer The Hoodie has won at an historic rate with, and the NFL game doesn’t seem too big for him given how he excelled at the biggest program in college football.

Having stated that, don’t discount Newton. Belichick has had nothing but high praise for him ever since he arrived, and given the state of the world and when he got to Foxborough last summer, circumstances could nary have been more challenging. That Newton still nearly posted a winning record as a starter is a minor miracle.

Because Newton brings the threat of the run to the offense, has a proven track record of success in the NFL and is the more physically gifted player, he should at least start the 2021 campaign after a heated training camp competition with Jones.

The opposing QBs New England faces in the first five weeks include Tua Tagovailoa, Zach Wilson, Jameis Winston/Taysom Hill and Tyrod Taylor. If the Patriots don’t win most or all of those games, maybe Jones gets thrown into the fire thereafter.

More likely, Belichick will want to do everything he can to ensure he bounces back from a down season. That means rolling with Newton to build his confidence, trusting he’ll click in Year 2, and coming out of the gates with at least a 4-1 start.

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