FOXBORO, MA — The Patriots sent shockwaves through the NFL by releasing veteran Cam Newton, paving the way for rookie Mac Jones to become the starting quarterback in New England.
Several factors were involved with the decision to move on from Newton, but, ultimately, head coach Bill Belichick’s “we’ll do what is best for the team” mantra holds true.
For the entire Belichick era, the Pats’ head coach stood by the philosophy that the best players will play, regardless of resume, star status, or any outside factors.
At times, it felt like Belichick dug in on the former NFL MVP, especially in his first season with the Patriots when Newton struggled and the Pats were out of playoff contention.
However, score the decision to go with Jones over Newton as a harkening back to Belichick’s old philosophy; Jones was the best quarterback on the Patriots roster this summer. He was the best fit in Josh McDaniels’s offense, he did the most in practice and preseason games to earn the role, and he did what was best for the team by getting vaccinated.
Along with the excitement around a first-round pick taking over at quarterback, Patriots fans should feel confident in the decision-makers in Foxboro for drafting Jones and going with the best option as their starter.
Now that Mac Jones won the starting quarterback job, the question is what will the offense look like with Mac, and what are the potential growing pains to look out for in his rookie season?
We probably should’ve seen this coming with Jones flawlessly reading out a New England staple, HOSS Z Juke, twice in the preseason finale.
First, Jones threw his first preseason touchdown pass to wide receiver Isaiah Zuber by working the seam route in HOSS. With the defense showing a single-high structure pre-snap, Jones knew the seams were vulnerable. He then sees the slot defender over Zuber widen to the flat in zone coverage and rips the ball to Zuber between the boundary corner and post safety.
On the next drive, the Giants defense ran a similar combo coverage. This time, the hook defender (inside linebacker closest to Zuber) is ready for the seam, and the underneath defender holds up Zuber’s route for a beat before dropping into the flat. Jones sees the seam is covered and quickly works to Rhamondre Stevenson on the hitch route.
Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels ran a plethora of formations and concepts with Jones in the preseason. Above, the Pats were in empty sets.
Jones operates out of the gun in a 3×1 formation with a running back in the backfield on this play. The Pats’ rookie recognizes the two outside defenders matching the routes of number one and number two to the outside. Knowing number one and number two were carrying the outside coverage vertically, Jones knows he has a matchup against the inside linebacker with number three, Gunner Olszewski, and moves the chains on third-and-7 with an inside option route.
Along with shotgun snaps, Jones also ran plenty of plays from under center, where he averaged 12.3 yards per attempt off play-action in the preseason.
Here’s another Patriots staple with Jones running under-center play-action. The Pats simulate a fullback lead play for Rhamondre Stevenson, which gets the linebacker level to step up into their run fits, opening a passing lane to Gunner Olszewski on a crossing route. Although Gunner drops the pass, you see the execution and ball placement from Jones.
The Patriots run play-action from under center once again here, sending tight end Devin Asiasi up the seam, another play we’ve seen a million times in New England. With the linebacker inside and the safety over the top of Asiasi’s route, Jones throws the second-year tight end open on a thoughtful back-shoulder ball for another chunk gain.
In all the examples above, new Patriots starting quarterback Mac Jones runs offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels’s offense efficiently and effectively.
Jones won the starting job by executing and opening the passing game up in a way that Newton simply cannot and could not in his one-plus seasons with the Patriots.
However, as is the case for any rookie regardless of position, there will be growing pains for Jones, who had issues with post-snap coverage rotations throughout camp and the preseason.
In this play, Jones wants to work a slant pattern to a flexed out running back, J.J. Taylor, who has a good pre-snap matchup against a linebacker on the outside with the middle of the field wide open. But the defense closes the middle of the field by rotating their safeties post-snap, causing Jones to hold the ball and take a sack. Jones’s single-high beater, a fade-out or branch combination, and Olszewski is open for a first down on the backside of the formation.
The Patriots coaching staff will need to work through the growing pains with Jones while getting him ready for the exotic coverages and pressure packages he’ll see at the NFL level.
Even though Jones came from the SEC at Alabama, the multiplicity of pro defenses and the post-snap complexities do not exist in the college game.
Belichick and McDaniels felt that Jones’s grasp of the Patriots’ passing concepts was enough to name him the starting quarterback in New England.
Plus, Jones is proving wise beyond his years with how he operates at the line of scrimmage before the snap in terms of setting protections and getting the offense in the right plays.
“There were very few, if any, pre-snap errors. Which is really the goal for a quarterback in our system is ‘let’s get out there and set the table right and do it as quickly as we can, so that we give the other ten guys an opportunity to play fast and be aggressive.’ I think he’s improving at that skill weekly,” McDaniels told CLNS Media about Jones’s pre-snap process.
The best quarterback on the field during the summer for the Patriots won the job. Let the Mac Jones era begin.