Patriots

Why Patriots’ Mac Jones has a leg up on other rookie quarterbacks

Jones had maybe the cleanest performance of any first-round rookie passer this weekend, and the Patriots helped make it possible.

Mac Jones Patriots
Mac Jones. Jim Davis/Globe Staff
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Preseason football has arguably never been so interesting if you’re a Patriots fan – well, at least over the past 20-odd years.

The professional debut of Mac Jones, albeit in a preseason scrimmage, has the New England Patriots fan base hungry for more. And rightfully so: the rookie performed solidly in his first preseason game, running the offense smoothly for a young quarterback and building on his strong recent week of practice.

The Foxborough faithful aren’t the only ones Jonesing for their rookie quarterback, of course.

We got to see all five first-round quarterbacks in action over the past weekend, from No. 1 overall pick Trevor Lawrence to Trey Lance, the man who went to the San Francisco 49ers instead of Jones, to Justin Fields, whose draft-day slide stopped just four spots ahead of the Patriots.

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The coolest part: all of them looked pretty good. At the least, none of them looked out of place. Even Zach Wilson, the Jets’ No. 2 pick who has reportedly had some erratic practices, managed to avoid major mistakes. In fact, none of them committed a turnover this weekend (though there were a couple fumbles).

But the question everyone wants to know the answer to: who looked the best?

If you prefer the raw stats, Fields wins that running away, putting up 142 yards on 14-of-20 passing, two touchdowns (one rushing) and a 106.7 passer rating. Jones, by contrast, completed 13-of-19 passes for 87 yards for a 78.2 rating.

If you like Pro Football Focus grades, you’ll find more love for Jones, who was PFF’s highest-graded first-round quarterback in Preseason Week 1. That number, while somewhat arbitrary, speaks to Jones’s solid decision-making and accuracy, which aren’t always clearly reflected in raw stats.

The real answer, though, is probably that it’s immaterial at the moment.

For one thing, they weren’t all playing with the same levels of competition throughout those contests – some played more against first-string opponents or with their own first-team offenses than others.

For another, they all had good moments and rookie moments in their first live NFL action as should be expected. Given that they’ve hardly played against other NFL teams yet, it’s hard to predict how they’ll look from practice to practice, let alone in games.

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Take Monday’s joint practice against the Philadelphia Eagles for instance: after having a fairly easy time last Thursday, Jones reportedly had a much tougher go of things against the Eagles. (That said, several reporters suggest he still had a better overall day than Cam Newton.)

But after watching Jones’s calm, confident debut, here’s something we can say: there’s no team better than the Patriots to put Jones in a position to succeed.

When the Chicago Bears first put Fields in the game with the “first-team” offensive line — the Bears were playing with second and third-string tackles due to injury — it looked like they were trying to make things as difficult as possible for their hopeful franchise quarterback.

They didn’t let him throw to starting skill players. They gave him slow-developing full-field reads with a patchwork line. And when all else failed, Fields had to pull things out of a hat to move the ball before halftime.

By contrast, what did the Patriots do when Jones first entered the game?

Josh McDaniels gave him quick reads and progressions that allowed the rookie to get the ball out of his hands quickly — within an average of 2.53 seconds, in fact.

His first-down throw to Kristian Wilkerson was a simple half-field read designed to have him hit his back foot and throw with anticipation.

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His next completion — a beautifully layered strike to Kendrick Bourne over the middle — was the same: hit the top of the drop and throw the ball, no hesitation needed.

Jones’s narrow miss on the deep ball to Wilkerson down the left sideline? Same thing. If you’re seeing the look you want, you throw to that first read without questioning it.

The Patriots even threw in some RPOs for quick completions, which is something Jones did a ton of in college and clearly has comfort with. Put simply, New England took what Jones does well and accentuated it, and he seemed to thrive.

For that reason, the No. 15 pick in this year’s draft, while not lighting the world on fire, looked smooth and comfortable and, importantly, moved the football down the field.

He had a couple of less accurate throws and took a few hits Thursday, but one could argue his debut looked cleaner — if less exciting — than any other first-round rookie quarterback this past weekend.

Now, let’s keep it a hundred here: Mac Jones is nothing like his fellow first-round quarterbacks in terms of pure physical talent. He’s not going to throw the ball 40 yards on a clothesline or race past linebackers for 20-yard scrambles. He’s not going to give defenses headaches when the Patriots roll him out of the pocket.

The eye test might tell you that he, while advanced for a rookie, might not have the ceiling of a player like Fields, for instance.

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But Jones has one critical thing in his corner: he plays for the New England Patriots, and those other guys don’t.

Though the Patriots don’t have the world’s greatest offensive unit, they have a solid line that can both grind things out in the run game and protect Jones when he drops back, plus a better group of receivers and tight ends than they did a year ago.

On top of that, they have an adaptable offensive coordinator in McDaniels who knows both how to appeal to Jones’s detail-oriented nature as a passer and how to get him in rhythm when the live bullets fly.

The short of it: Jones is going to succeed both because of the unique skills he brings to the table — timing, accuracy and anticipation — and because the Patriots offer him an ideal situation in which to show them off.

Those other guys might have the “wow” factor on their side more than he does. But it wouldn’t be hard to envision him having the most successful rookie season of them all.

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