What a 24 hours it’s been in Foxboro. With Mac Jones’ official anointment as the starter under center for Bill Belichick’s Patriots following the release of Cam Newton, the do-it-all team executive has ushered in a new era of New England Patriots football.
After a preseason in which Jones, the No. 15 overall selection in April’s draft, proved as successful as any first-year quarterback—amassing a 92.2 grade, the highest of any quarterback with a minimum of 40 dropbacks—a once muddied quarterback dilemma faced by Belichick just a few weeks ago was made clear by the play of Jones in just three exhibition appearances.
Soon to be 23 years old, Jones joins a youth-infused group of divisional signal-callers set to lead their respective franchises in just over a week's time. With Jones, Josh Allen, Zach Wilson, and Tua Tagovailoa set to start, the 2021 AFC East will represent the first division since the 1973 AFC Central to have each team’s starter aged 25 years or younger in their season opener.
But, how did we get here? Just days removed from off-field issues surrounding Newton’s COVID-related disruptions, he’s now found himself unemployed. And in turn, the Patriots, a veteran-littered roster clinging to any available slivers of optimism within an uber-competitive division, will now enter the fall with Jones as their leader under center in a campaign where expectations are hard to lay a finger on in New England.
Let’s take a look back at how Jones earned the job, and more importantly, Belichick’s confidence to let the rookie lead his Patriots back to the postseason.
Week 1 (Washington Football Team)
In what was his professional debut, Jones totaled 89 yards through the air by completing 13 of his 19 passes in a nine-point win over Washington. Playing the entirety of the second and third quarters spelling Newton, Jones’ stat line by no means opened eyes, rather his accuracy and captainship of the offense are what stood out in his NFL debut.
Week 2 (Philadelphia Eagles)
This is special here from Jones, as he uncorked a rocket to the chest of Gunner Olszewski for a 21-yard gain. With pressure aplenty, Jones remained unfazed, staying tall and sturdy in his base, tucking the rock through traffic to set up his dart to the Patriots slot-man.
What was even more impressive was his progression through his routes, as Olszewski was option two in the route concept. Jones quickly looks left, then right, recognizing the soft spot in coverage, quickly followed by a dart through two Eagles defenders to complete the play.
This is about as pretty as it gets from the quarterback spot. Lined up with a simple 2x1 concept with N’Keal Harry split out to his left, this play call from New England offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels was as much an attempt to showcase Jones’ ball placement ability, as it was to give Harry, who reportedly requested a trade earlier this offseason, a chance to finally make a play on the football. But, let’s focus on Jones.
From pre-snap, Jones recognizes the Eagles are running man on the outside with four wideouts present. Following a decisive five-step drop in which Jones quickly bounces off his back foot to hop up in the pocket, he unleashes a beautiful 50-yard throw Harry absolutely has to come down with if he envisions a role moving into the regular season. Jones’ lofty throw couldn’t have been placed better if you walked up and put it into Harry’s hands.
Simply put, it was a big-time throw.
Week 3 (New York Giants)
His performance against New York put any doubts in Belichick’s evaluation process to bed.
Here, Jones uncorks a beautiful touch pass to the back shoulder of tight end Devin Asiasi. With pressure aplenty, Jones remained unfazed, staying tall and sturdy in his base, maneuvering up in the pocket to set up his dart to the Patriots tight end. What was even more impressive was his ball placement, as his critically acclaimed pinpoint accuracy was put on full display.
When Jones releases the football, Asiasi is blanketed with zero throwing lane to the inside shoulder, which Jones immediately recognizes. The ball is placed toward Asiasi’s back shoulder, a throw in which Jones allows his tight end to turn and make a play on the football.
This is stuff beyond his years. Gone are the days of 5-10 yards of space to loft footballs to the likes of DeVonta Smith and John Metchie III. As tight as throwing windows will prove to be on Sundays, to see Jones show off his ability to sneak footballs into spots that were originally covered is a masterful trait Belichick hopes Jones can build upon.
Lined up in empty with five wideouts, this play call from McDaniels showcases Jones’ pre-snap ability to a T.
From the onset of the play, Jones recognizes the Giants running zone across the field, which inside the red zone can present trouble due to the lack of space, but Jones executes his hookup to Isaiah Zuber with extreme precision and pocket savvy. From the onset of the play, Jones immediately shades his eyes to the right side of the field, holding the deep safety for as long as possible before sliding back to Zuber. By doing that, Jones allowed Zuber to clear the second-level defensive end in coverage, finding the soft spot for an easy pitch and catch for six before the safety could close on the football. It was a touchdown pass executed in the mind of Jones pre-snap, and everything Belichick and McDaniels could hope for out of their youthful signal-caller.
Jones was masterful during the preseason. From his pocket prowess to his ability to identify defensive alignment pre-snap, there’s nothing else Patriots brass needed to see to denote him as the leader of the franchise moving forward. Now, it’s on to Miami, where Jones’ former Alabama teammate Tua Tagovailoa and the Dolphins await in Week 1.