The Patriots aren't at a decision point with quarterback Mac Jones's future just yet, but that day is now on the horizon.
With two seasons under his belt, New England is entering a vital third season with their young quarterback for a few reasons. At that point, we should know who Mac is relative to the rest of the league. And the team will need to make a contractual decision in the 2024 offseason on Jones's fifth-year option as a 2021 first-round pick.
The biggest question hanging over the entire organization is this: can you build a championship offense around Mac Jones's skill set, or are his limitations a major contributor to a 16-16 record with Mac as the starter? Thanks to the head coach, we've established that Jones can play in the NFL, but can he lead them back to championship level?
"Mac has the ability to play quarterback in this league. We all have to work together to find the best way as a football team, obviously quarterback is a big position, to be more productive," Belichick said in his season-ending press conference on Monday.
|Mac Jones By Season||2022 (rank)||2021 (rank)|
|EPA/Play||-0.032 (26th)||+0.123 (14th)|
|Total QBR||35.9 (28th)||56.9 (16th)|
|PFF Grade||67.5 (24th)||80.0 (12th)|
|CPOE||-0.5 (21st)||+2.4 (8th)|
We now have 32 starts from Jones to evaluate his game and assess where he individually is as an NFL starter. As we know, the statistical regression in year two was steep. But the goal for everyone in the organization should be to build the best possible offense for Mac Jones to succeed. Let's face it, they didn't do that in 2022.
To answer the bottom line question, let's walk through Jones's strengths and weaknesses as a passer to build a scheme for him to thrive next season:
Although some won't agree with this assessment, there are enough positive traits from Jones's game to build a successful NFL offense around him.
With that said, it will take good coaching to amplify Jones's strengths and mask his weaknesses. Plus, Mac needs to play within himself more often.
Vertical Touch Throws
The first step toward building a high-functioning offense with Jones at quarterback is something they did tap into during the 2022 season: vertical touch throws to produce big plays.
New England made it an emphasis based on Jones's college film to give him more opportunities to take deep shots. The results were mixed, but Jones showed good touch and accuracy on 20-30 yard throws often enough to make this a foundational element of the offense.
For example, the Pats set up chances for Jones to push the ball downfield with touch throws outside the numbers. Above, rookie wideout Tyquan Thornton runs a fade from a tight split to give the quarterback a window to drop it in the bucket, which Mac does here.
Later in the same game, the Patriots scheme a wheel route for wide receiver Jakobi Meyers on third down, and Mac puts the right amount of touch and velocity to hit Meyers in stride.
The Patriots don't have a quarterback who can complete vertical throws into tight windows with pure velocity. But he consistently throws with good touch and accuracy when given a chance to attack downfield.
Under Center Play-Action
Our biggest gripe with the offensive coaches is how they approached play-action. Both in play design and cutting the rate nearly in half.
The Patriots went from 14th in play-action rate during Mac Jones's rookie season to 30th in his second season. New England averaged nine yards per pass attempt on under-center play-action over the last two seasons but only called it 16.7% of the time in 2022.
Furthermore, the Patriots changed the way they scheme up play-action passes. For two decades, the Pats designed plays to influence the second level of the defense by mimicking their gap and lead schemes to pull linebackers into the line of scrimmage.
This season, the Pats are attacking defensive structures with vertical play-action concepts. They're using run personnel and formations to get defenses to pack the box in single-high safety coverages. Then, they're stressing those post-safety structures with vertical route combinations.
There's a method to the madness with the shift in design for play-action. However, it's not a fit for the quarterback and is a far more volatile approach. For example, the 2022 Pats are designed more like Bruce Arians's "no risk it, no biscuit" offense rather than the efficient designs we've seen for 20-plus years.
Whether the Patriots run it back or not with the offensive staff, they need to incorporate more play-action attempts with their old designs to suit the quarterback.
The other major issue we've had with the offense's design is the lack of motion at the snap (example: jet motion). According to NextGenStats, the Patriots were 29th in motion at the snap rate, using it on 10.4 percent of their offensive plays. Miami, the NFL's most efficient passing offense this season with a healthy Tua Tagovailoa, was first in motion at the snap rate at 44.3 percent.
New England finally started incorporating more jet, orbit, or boomerang motions late in the season, especially when rookie Marcus Jones emerged as a gadget weapon. Along with creating advantageous angles for your playmakers in space, motion also influences defenses and allows quarterbacks to use decoys to alter the defense, similar to play-action.
In a nifty red zone touchdown in their season finale, the Pats use Marcus Jones on a boomerang motion where he comes into the backfield and then releases to the same side. By looking at the rookie as his first read, Buffalo's defense reacts to Mac's eyes. The Bills match Jones's motion, so Mac works the scissors progression further down the field. Once he's on the crossers, Jones looks left and comes back right for a touchdown.
The positive plays' general theme is clean pockets, where Jones has an 89.0 passing grade from Pro Football Focus, which is the fifth-best grade in the NFL this season. There are concerns about Jones's play under pressure. But it's evident on film that he can be a productive quarterback when given time in the pocket.
AREAS TO IMPROVE
Other than the attitude jargon we hear all the time about Jones's mental makeup, the on-field criticisms about Mac's game are the same as they were while entering the league in the draft.
The Patriots don't have a toosly young quarterback in the Allen, Herbert, or Mahomes mold. Jones is not going to extend plays or scramble for yards with great mobility, and his ceiling might be capped to a good but not elite starter because his arm talent is middling.
There are examples from Tom Brady to Drew Brees of quarterbacks who have improved arm strength with cleaner mechanics and by building up their bodies as pros. Jones already worked with legendary throwing coach Tom House to improve his velocity, and it did improve in year two.
Still, it's fair to wonder if Jones will ever have above-average arm talent to make throws from muddier pockets or under pressure consistently.
Playing Under Pressure
Although Jones graded out extremely well from clean pockets, he was on the opposite end of the spectrum when making throws while under pressure this season.
The Patriots quarterback had the third-worst passing grade this season while under pressure (26.4), finishing ahead of Jets QB Zach Wilson (23.5) and Arizona's Kyler Murray (26.0). Also, 11 of Jones's 14 turnover-worthy plays and eight of his 11 interceptions were under pressure.
Here's an example from New England's opening drive in Sunday's loss to the Bills. The left side of the offensive line gives up pressure when they don't properly pass off a T/E stunt. Jones has DeVante Parker on a shallow crosser where, if he shows some poise, he can stand in there and dump the ball off to his receiver, who would hopefully pick up the rest of the yards after the catch with a pass that hits him in stride. Instead, Jones tries to escape the pressure and pays the price on a sack.
With Jones's level of mobility, he needs to remain composed and beat pressure with quick decision-making. Ideally, the Pats have a better offensive line next season where the quarterback can operate from more clean pockets, and Mac was better under pressure with more trust in the things they were doing as a rookie (59.5 grade while under pressure).
The Patriots need to get their quarterback's poise back to where it was in his first NFL season.
Throwing on the Move/Off-Platform
There's evidence that Jones can perform better under pressure with a cleaner operation around him, but we are two years into having discussions about his arm talent.
Mac generates enough velocity when he has a pocket to step into or when his feet are set as he throws. However, the ball lacks zip when he's throwing off-platform or can't set his feet.
The Patriots pick up Buffalo's zone blitz in this play thanks to great recognition by running back Damien Harris to spot the slot CB blitzing. Harris's block allows Jones to keep himself clean by stepping through the pocket, and tight end Hunter Henry is open past the sticks. But with Jones throwing on the move rather than resetting his feet, the ball dies on him and sends Henry to the ground to make a sliding catch. The Pats TE has room to run if he hits Henry in stride.
In the instance above, Jones might have time and space to reset his feet after he moves off his spot, allowing him to get more on the throw. But there are other plays where Jones has tight-window options downfield but has to release the throw from a muddy pocket, and the ball hangs up on him.
Making plays outside the pocket and throwing with significant velocity off-platform isn't everything. More important traits exist, such as timing, accuracy, and decision-making. The league is shifting towards quarterbacks who make high-level throws on the move, though, which gets into the bonus plays guys like Josh Allen produce for the offense.
There's a case to be made that the Pats quarterback is leaving plays and yards on the field because he doesn't have the physical tools of an elite, out-of-structure playmaker.
We can pick and prod at Jones's game all we want. It comes with the territory of being a quarterback in this league. At the end of the day, the Patriots need to answer a simple question:
Is Jones a quarterback you can't win with, can win with but need a great supporting cast, or can be the main reason you win the organization's seventh Super Bowl championship? As we mentioned, they need a definitive answer to that question after his third season.
From this perspective, Jones is currently in the second category of quarterbacks who you can win with but need a great supporting cast and coaching. Other quarterbacks we'd put in that category are Jimmy Garoppolo and Kirk Cousins, while the ceiling is Tua in 2022. If the Patriots want to return to the playoffs and potentially make a deep run with Jones, they'll need to upgrade their coaching and offensive personnel significantly.
The Pats called their offense far too often like they had an elite quarterback and great playmakers on the field. When you have those things in place, you can have the quarterback in the shotgun most of the time and spread the field. The quarterback can make plays on his own, while the outside receivers can win one-on-one matchups without being heavily aided by the scheme.
In 2022, Jones was in the shotgun on 83 percent of his drop-backs and ranked 32nd out of 40 quarterbacks in EPA per shotgun drop-back (-0.19). With Mac under center, he produced +0.11 expected points added per drop-back, yet the Patriots were only under center on 15 percent of his passing plays.
New England, for example, loved to run vertical 989 (go-post-go) concepts where they're asking receivers to win one-on-one. However, they didn't have the playmakers who could consistently win like that, so it made life too difficult for the quarterback. The Pats were a better rushing team from under-center, too, with a 41.9% success rate on under-center rushes compared to a 36.6% success rate on gun runs. Again, this is an offense that lived in shotgun.
Along with upgrading their offensive tackles and skill positions, the Patriots need to scheme things open more often using play-action, motion, and misdirection to help out their young QB.
There's a winning formula with Jones at quarterback. But until he proves otherwise, it's one where the system and playmakers are doing the heavy lifting for an accurate, in-rhythm passer.