Analysis

Patriots strike gold with Mac Jones, stellar 2021 rookie class

Three of the Patriots' first four picks in the 2021 draft--Mac Jones, Christian Barmore and Rhamondre Stevenson--have played major roles in the team's budding playoff run.

Mac Jones Rhamondre Stevenson Patriots
New England Patriots quarterback Mac Jones (10) hands off the ball to running back Rhamondre Stevenson during the second half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Nov. 14, 2021, in Foxborough, Mass. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)
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The Patriots made a lot of noise with their tremendous free-agent spending efforts in the 2021 offseason, overhauling key spots on offense and defense with veteran talent.

But even after adding all that experience, New England had to nail their picks in the 2021 NFL Draft.

Not only did the Patriots need a quarterback of the future, but the team also had to shed some of the bad press they’ve gotten for some poor recent drafts that have failed of their promise.

The early returns could hardly be any better.

Mac Jones didn’t just take over the starting job coming out of training camp. He’s owned it ever since, with his stellar play against the Browns (19-of-23, 198 yards, 3 TDs) serving as his new high-water mark as a pro.

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The No. 15 overall pick has far outplayed any rookie quarterback from this year’s class and arguably any rookie passer from the last five years, dating back to Dak Prescott in 2016.

But he’s not just “good for a rookie.” He’s been good good–like, better-than-NFL-average good.

Jones’s estimated points added per play (EPA/play) combined with his completion percentage above expected rank him 11th in the league. That’s right: there’s an argument to be made that Jones is pushing toward top-10-quarterback territory just 10 games into his career.

Don’t get hung up on what Jones looks like physically or what the scouting reports say his limits are. The pure fact of the matter is he gets it done by playing to his strengths: accuracy, timing and knowing what he wants to do on every play.

The Patriots haven’t needed Jones to play hero-ball this season, and it would be great if the defense and running game can ensure that continues. As long as he runs the offense the way New England wants and can keep making plays when it counts, you can’t count out of the Patriots.

But while Jones is the most high-profile of the first-year players balling out in Foxborough, the other two behind him are far from unimportant.

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Second-round pick Christian Barmore’s emergence as arguably the best defensive lineman on the team has been a sight to behold.

Barmore is already second on the team in pressures (28) behind only Matthew Judon’s 47, and ranks ninth in pressures among all interior defenders, according to Pro Football Focus. The Patriots have weaponized the young defensive lineman’s skills as a pass rusher alongside Judon, using their combined threat to force mismatches and batter opposing quarterbacks.

Though he doesn’t necessarily fit the pure “stop the run” mentality the Patriots often preach, Barmore’s explosiveness when getting after the passer makes him hard to take off the field.

Simply put, Barmore is special. That’s what you want to see when you trade up for a defensive lineman in the second round, and that’s what he’s delivering.

Then, there’s Rhamondre Stevenson, the fourth-round running back out of Oklahoma everyone swore would get a redshirt season as a rookie (especially after fumbling in his first game).

Partly due to injuries and also because of his skills, Stevenson has seen his role grow seemingly by the week. He even got his first NFL start against the Browns because of Damien Harris’s absence (concussion).

Naturally, the kid responded with a 20-carry, 100-yard, two-touchdown performance that likely had fantasy owners celebrating and the Patriots’ coaching staff grinning from ear to ear.

As raw as Stevenson seemed in training camp in pass protection and as a receiver, there was no denying he could flat out run with the football in his hands. Now, he’s getting to show it on a weekly basis, powering through arm tackles, stiff-arming a defender off of the screen, side-stepping tackles or accelerating through holes faster than a 250-pound back should.

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The Patriots needed every bit of Baby Beast Mode’s brilliance with James White’s injury testing the team’s running back depth. Stevenson has answered the call and then some.

Though New England still has some questions marks for other rookies in their class who haven’t played yet (Ronnie Perkins, Cameron McGrone, Joshuah Bledsoe, Will Sherman, Tre Nixon), the way their rookie “Big 3” of Jones, Barmore and Stevenson already has this class looking like a smashing success.

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