Patriots

Re-evaluating Mac Jones as QBs work out at 2022 NFL Combine

Though some evaluators are still unsure about Jones's ceiling, others suggest last year's success was only the beginning for the Patriots QB.

Mac Jones Patriots NFL Combine
Mac Jones after being selected by the New England Patriots in the 2021 NFL Draft. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)
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INDIANAPOLIS – This time a year ago, Mac Jones was getting ready to prove to the NFL, including the Patriots, he was the best quarterback in the 2022 NFL Draft at his pro day workouts. Thursday afternoon, this year’s quarterback crop will show off their skills at the NFL Combine’s on-field workouts at Lucas Oil Stadium.

Like Jones, they’ll be dissected and scrutinized from top to bottom as teams will try to project their future NFL performance. “Is he accurate enough? Are his hands too small to throw the ball in less-than-ideal conditions? Is he athletic enough to succeed in the league?”

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Jones is especially familiar with that last knock: aside from questions about how he’d fare without Alabama’s elite weapons, the biggest sticking points on Jones were his lack of elite arm strength and pedestrian athleticism compared to peers like Trevor Lawrence and Justin Fields.

But evaluators around the combine, as well as those who have broken down Jones from the moment he entered the draft, said the signs that he could succeed in the NFL were there from the beginning.

“You could tell just from his film in college, he was the guy that could process it,” said Bruce Gradkowski, a former NFL quarterback who now runs Pro Football Focus’s quarterback grading team. “He could get through his progressions, and he was going to put the ball where it was supposed to go…Mac Jones is my kind of guy. He’s going to get through his progressions and he’s going to do what he’s coached.”

“He was definitely the most ready guy in that class last year,” agreed one college coach at the combine. “And he ended up in the perfect situation [in New England].”

Before ending up with the Patriots, though, Jones was passed on by the 49ers for the No. 3 overall pick after weeks of speculation that Kyle Shanahan wanted him in San Francisco. Then, the Carolina Panthers and Denver Broncos chose to roll with Sam Darnold and Teddy Bridgewater, respectively, rather than selecting either Jones or Justin Fields, moves that have come under scrutiny at the combine as representatives for both teams talk about needing better play at quarterback.

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Similarly, an NFC insider said the Minnesota Vikings, who reportedly inquired about trading up to the Panthers’ No. 8 overall pick for Fields, had no similar interest in doing so for Jones once Fields went 11th overall to the Bears: “They said, ‘We need an athlete [at quarterback]. That’s why they waited for [Kellen] Mond.'”

Jones, meanwhile, immediately won over the Patriots and earned the starting quarterback job over Cam Newton right out of the gate. He then went on to far outpace his rookie counterparts in just about every major statistical category for quarterbacks and earned Pro Bowl and All-Rookie honors.

“I’m not sure I’ve been around a more mature young football player in terms of understanding the game and being able to process at such a speed and such a level that Mac was,” Josh McDaniels, Jones’s ex-offensive coordinator, said of the young quarterback during his NFL Combine presser Wednesday.

Still, while his first year in the NFL was impressive, a number of league-wide voices at the combine questioned Jones’s ceiling and suggested the gap between him and the likes of Lawrence and Fields could decrease this coming season, which a recent PFF study has also posited.

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But Gradkowski maintains Jones does have “a lot of room for improvement” and isn’t as close to a finished product as people think. His leaps just have to be different than those of his more athletically inclined peers.

“Mac Jones isn’t going to run a 4.3 40 and break all kinds of tackles. But he does need to be better under pressure and when things are covered,” Gradkowski explained, noting Tom Brady, Jones’s predecessor with the Patriots, showed it’s possible to extend plays without being a threat to run.

“[Brady] could shuffle around and buy some more time, and he was sneaky good that way. And I think that’s where Jones can continue to improve. He’s got to be just a monster in the pocket, being quick and decisive making reads and getting the ball out of his hands.”

Jones has also pledged to work on his physique in the offseason, and throwing guru Tom House has said a throwing program could help the young passer significantly strengthen his arm going into next year. But his “ceiling” as a quarterback will likely be more defined by his mental faculties than the physical dominance of a player like Josh Allen.

As for this year’s quarterback class, Gradkowski can see one quarterback who has the capability to make the kind of immediate impact Jones did in 2021: Pitt’s Kenny Pickett.

“Pickett seems like just a good football player to me,” the PFF analyst said, downplaying concerns about the quarterback’s hand size measurements at the NFL Combine. “Does that matter? Maybe a little bit, but he did play in Pitt.

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“Is he a one-year wonder? He had one of the biggest single-season grading leaps ever seen in Year 5 at PFF. But I think he’s a guy that is accurate, can make all the throws. Maybe not the biggest-armed, but I just think he’s athletic. So I’m very intrigued to see how Kenny Pickett shapes up.”

If Jones’s emergence last year demonstrated anything for sure, it’s that sometimes good football players just find ways to succeed regardless of the question marks around them. Pickett might have a chance to prove the doubters wrong this season, and Jones will strive to keep the detractors at bay by making another leap in his second pro season.

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