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Training camp for the New England Patriots — the real “evaluation period” for the team, as coach Bill Belichick calls it — won’t begin until July 27.
But the 13 spring practices the Patriots just concluded with OTAs and mandatory minicamps will provide plenty of food for thought until then. The big story, of course, revolves around the quarterback situation.
Who looks better so far between first-round pick Mac Jones and presumed starter Cam Newton? Will Jones push Newton for the starting job in training camp?
Let’s get this out of the way first: there is no quarterback competition yet — and not because Bill Belichick proclaimed Newton his starter after Jones was drafted.
Sure, Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels are likely taking note of how each quarterback has thrown the ball during this “teaching phase.” But they’re not going to factor completion stats from 13 non-padded, half-competitive practices into their decision about who starts at quarterback in Week 1 of the regular season.
Plus, making any meaningful evaluation of Jones after 13 professional practices while he’s still figuring out how to run an NFL huddle would be unfair. (Keep in mind, also, that media has only observed six of those sessions. What you’ve seen reported from practices is an even smaller slice of the already small sample size of Jones’s work so far.)
But for those that say “we won’t really know anything about Jones until training camp,” that’s not necessarily true, either.
Both the limited snapshot of his play and his first comments to Patriots media tell us a bit about the first-year passer: who he is, where he is now, and a glimpse of where he could be in the near future.
Six practices in front of media are more than enough to see why the Patriots drafted Jones in the first round.
His throwing motion is compact, smooth, and repeatable, allowing him to throw with solid accuracy in short and intermediate areas (once again, against air). He’s also shown he can throw with anticipation when he’s feeling confident, which was the case during the first two days of mandatory minicamp especially.
One of his nicest “competitive” plays so far came during his final OTA practice when he fired a quick slant to Kendrick Bourne during 11-on-11s against an oncoming blitz. That’s a sign of a young quarterback who has a “plan” each play.
Though the third down and red zone drills he participated in weren’t against a full-throttle defense, Jones still stood out for his precision in those situations. He also rarely has made obviously poor decisions with the football.
Even more importantly, Jones was already catching reporters’ eyes and ears in his first practice in front of media with his ability to diagnose blitzes pre-snap, slide protections, and check out of plays as a rookie.
Put simply, he looks like he was born to be a New England Patriots quarterback.
Belichick and McDaniels have seemingly thrown a lot of information and challenges at Jones during his first 13 practices, and he’s held his own against a hungry pass rush and a demanding offensive system.
During minicamp, the team clearly treated him like the No. 2 quarterback on the roster. They pushed him harder and fed him more reps than the other veterans — even Newton at points — and he generally responded well.
His ability to pick things up quickly and act decisively at his best are glimpses of what’s to come when the Patriots eventually call his number as the starter.
What’s more, listening to Jones talk about how he’s approaching this “teaching period” speaks volumes about where his head’s at — even as a rookie.
On one hand, you can see the perfectionism and demand for greatness in his demeanor despite his deference to the veteran quarterbacks ahead of him.
You notice it when he slaps his thigh, claps loudly in frustration, or walks over to a receiver to say “my bad” when he misplaces a ball or throws late even in the slightest.
And media certainly saw it when Jones ended his minicamp with a bad interception, which made the rookie more visibly angry than they’ve yet seen.
The self-described “super-competitive” Jones wants to excel now. But he also has enough perspective to know that this process will take some time.
He’s talked about bringing two figurative “buckets” with him to practice each day: One for all the things he knows and does well, and one for the things he struggles at or messes up. As he said: “You have to improve on the bad and keep the good in the good.”
“You can’t have too high of an expectation and put too much pressure on yourself,” he added. “Like I said, I’m very hard on myself. You have to stack good plays together and keep moving forward.”
Belichick has already praised Jones for his attitude toward learning the playbook and the respect he’s earned with his work habits. Whether he plays a down for the Patriots this season, the rookie’s mentality toward the NFL grind seems to be putting him in a good position to succeed long-term.
Both the good and the “needs improvement” pieces of Jones’s game must be prefaced with this truth: he doesn’t entirely know what he’s doing at the NFL level yet.
For one thing, he’s feeling out the speed and athleticism of NFL defenses and figuring out what’s open and what’s not.
Take the interception he threw to Dont’a Hightower on Tuesday as an example. He seemed to know Hightower was there and tried to fit the ball over the linebacker with a touch throw, and Hightower made him pay. College linebackers don’t usually make plays like that.
Though he showed noticeable improvement during minicamp, he still has plays where holds the ball too long as he tries to sort through his progressions. Every practice, there was at least one play where he seemingly wanted to pull the trigger on a deeper throw but had to check down because he was indecisive.
On other occasions, Jones appeared to mistime his deep throws — such as one to Nelson Agholor in 7-on-7 on Tuesday — because he’s waiting for receivers to get open as opposed to “throwing them open.” On the Agholor play specifically, he then overcompensated for the late decision by overthrowing the ball.
And even on his best days, miscommunications and missed adjustments still happen, sometimes forcing the Patriots to re-align before the snap or re-run a play. He is, after all, a rookie.
At one point during 11-on-11s Tuesday, he slid protection away from and then completely disregarded unblocked defensive end Henry Anderson rushing from his right.
In Patriots practices, that’s just a tag on the hip from a defender. In a game, that might’ve been a hit Jones would have a hard time getting up from.
He’ll will be the first to tell you he has a ways to go.
“There’s a lot going on in my brain,” he explained after his third OTA practice. “You’re just trying to seeing everything. Sometimes you see too much or whatever. And then you see nothing. So I have to figure out, in this offense, how I can do that — how I can break down the plays, what’s my job, what do I have to do on this specific play, and then slot the plays individually. I did that obviously good in college, or whatever, but this is the pros and I have to figure out how to do it here.”
There’s plenty of evidence to suggest Jones will figure it out, and quickly. Furthermore, he’s getting plenty of hands-on coaching from Josh McDaniels and veterans like David Andrews and Brian Hoyer.
But it’s important to note two things about Jones and where he stands.
Jones is everything the Patriots seem to covet in a quarterback: accurate, smart, precise, and studious.
One could argue he might be a better pure passer than Newton is right now — at the least, his throws and mechanics certainly look more aesthetically pleasing.
But if the small sample we’ve seen is any indication of his overall status, no one can expect him to run the Patriots offense like a well-oiled machine by Week 1 of the regular season — or possibly at any point this year.
And that, more than how tightly he throws a spiral or how well he places the football, will be the determining factor of when he takes the field and how he’ll perform when he does.
A lot can change between the end of minicamp Wednesday and the end of preseason August 29.
But two things probably won’t change between now and then: Jones won’t be be a master of the Patriots offensive system, and he won’t be a better overall football player than Newton.
Also, asking Jones — a pure pocket passer without exceptional mobility — to beat NFL defenders on Week 1 as a rookie simply by out-thinking and out-processing them feels like an unrealistic expectation.
People want to see Jones as the next Tom Brady, and his style of play suggests he’s far closer to that than Newton.
But even Tom Brady wasn’t Tom Brady as a rookie. Fun fact: he only threw three passes his entire first season despite the Patriots going 5-11 and Drew Bledsoe struggling. (Admittedly, though, he was a sixth-round pick, not the No. 15 overall selection in his draft.)
Jones will almost certainly play at some point in 2021. Highly drafted rookies almost never sit for entire seasons anymore. The moment Newton’s performance or health make him unable to run the offense well and the Patriots feel Jones can handle the live bullets, the rookie will be in there.
But if all goes according to Belichick’s plans — meaning, Newton stays healthy, throws the ball adequately, and runs the offense like he did the first three games of last year — Jones likely won’t start Week 1.
The first-round rookie is the future for the Patriots. But he hasn’t shown unequivocally that the future should be now. Not yet.
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