Dating back to the pre-draft process, the debate surrounding Patriots rookie quarterback Mac Jones was always about his ceiling.
Jones’s detractors acknowledged that his accuracy under 20 yards and efficient coverage reads would make him a reliable game-manager.
Even as someone who supported the pick and was pro-Jones in this summers’ QB competition with Cam Newton, I had my doubts about Jones’s ceiling. After the Week 4 loss to the Bucs, I wrote that the Pats should turn their focus to maximizing a quick-passing attack where efficiency at the short and intermediate level would make up for the absences of big plays.
In some respects, I stand by that. But here’s the main point: stop capping Mac’s ceiling because he’s already better than his initial NFL projections.
With each passing week, the Pats’ rookie is breaking through the “ceiling” many built for him and making those who think he’ll be a career JAG look like fools. Don’t be a fool.
Through the first seven weeks of the season, Jones is 16th out of 33 quarterbacks in expected points added+completion percentage over expected composite. According to CPOE, Mac is the seventh-most accurate quarterback in the league through Week 7 (also look at where all the other rookies are in the chart).
Jones is Pro Football Focus’s 12th-rated quarterback sandwiched between Lamar Jackson and Josh Allen. He’s already a top-ten QB in clean pockets (90.8, ninth), which is a stable metric year-to-year since it’s the most common condition for a quarterback to throw a pass. And he has fewer turnover-worthy plays (8) than Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen, and Joe Burrow.
The Patriots’ rookie is also as-advertised in his college evaluation as a processor, getting the football out quickly and decisively, with an average time to throw that ranks seventh among starting QBs (2.55s).
For the average air yards folks, Jones is 23rd out of 33 QBs (7.7 yards). But right in the ballpark is Mahomes again (7.7), Dak Prescott (7.6), and Justin Herbert (7.4), bringing into question the validity of the metric altogether (does a high aDOT = good QB? Not really).
Plus, Jones’s aggressiveness is improving in recent weeks. Over the last two games, 15.8% of Mac’s pass attempts are 20-plus air yards downfield. In the first five games, it was ten percent.
Based on the metrics, Jones is already better than average, while it’s apparent to those who watch him every week that he’s correcting mistakes and improving his weaknesses as we go.
If this is how good Mac is now, seven games into his first year in the league, then who’s to say how good Jones can be in the future with more experience in the NFL?
The numbers say he’s trending towards a level of quarterback play that some didn’t think he’d ever reach in the pros, and the tape tells a similar story:
2ND QTR, 10:23, 3RD-&-10: M. JONES PASS COMPLETE TO J. MEYERS FOR 19 YARDS
When coaches and teammates say that Jones’s mental grasp of the game is beyond a typical rookies’ intellect, here is an excellent example of what they mean from the Patriots’ first-year QB.
The Patriots initially break the huddle in a 3×1 set on third-and-ten, and the Jets put seven rushers up on the line of scrimmage. Once Jones sees the threat of all-out pressure, he knows exactly how to adjust the protection. First, Jones calls in tight end Hunter Henry, tells running back Brandon Bolden to stay in to block, and resets the protection to account for the blitzers. The Jets then bring six rushers, and the Pats block it up with their max protection, giving Jones enough time to work the dagger concept (N’Keal Harry – clear out, Meyers – dig). With the post-safety staying over the top of Harry’s vertical route, Meyers is open on the in-cut, and Mac hits him for a first down and more.
2ND QTR, 1:06, 1ST-&-10: M. JONES PASS COMPLETE TO J. MEYERS FOR 11 YARDS
Another area where Jones’s processing skills shine is the quick game, a staple of offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels’s offense.
Here, the Pats run play-action with their “branch” concept to Jones’s left. Agholor’s route is an option against man coverage if it’s there while Meyers is on the branch route where he’ll break off the leverage of the nearest defender. Mac and Meyers read the slot defenders’ inside leverage, and Agholor’s vertical route takes the boundary corner upfield away from the flat. Jones anticipates the leverage throw and leads Meyers upfield for some YAC.
2ND QTR, 0:57, 2ND-&-6: M. JONES PASS COMPLETE TO B. BOLDEN FOR EIGHT YARDS
Speaking of ball placement, the Patriots’ rookie has a great feel for placing the football against underneath coverage to lead his receivers into YAC and away from oncoming defenders.
In this play, the Jets are in a quarters structure. The Pats flood the underneath zone at the top of the screen with a curl-flat combination from Kendrick Bourne and running back Brandon Bolden. The underneath linebacker stays in the curl window, so Mac throws the flat. Knowing that the Jets’ linebacker is coming from the middle of the field, Jones throws a back-shoulder pass to Bolden, allowing him to spin away from the oncoming hit and get the first down.
3RD QTR, 4:16, 1ST-&-10: M. JONES PASS COMPLETE TO N. AGHOLOR FOR 26 YARDS
Along with Jones mastering McDaniels’s playbook, the Patriots’ offensive coordinator is starting to adjust to Mac’s style of play.
This time, the Pats run an Alabama staple, the run-pass option (RPO). The run option for Jones is power lead with a glance/flat combination as the pass option. Mac reads the backside of the box from the weak side linebacker and the backside defensive end. When those two players stay in to fit the run, Jones pulls the ball and works the pass routes. The slot defender clears out of the glance (five-step slant) window, so Jones throws to an open Nelson Agholor.
4TH QTR, 14:18, 2ND-&-7: M. JONES PASS COMPLETE TO H. HENRY FOR 22 YARDS
Another adjustment McDaniels is making for Jones is more play-action out of the gun rather than under-center, where Mac is more comfortable.
The Pats were having success all game long with fullback lead plays out of their go-go formation, and McDaniels saved a play-action call out of it for the second half.
New England mimics another lead play by having fullback Jakob Johnson lead through the hole, which gets the linebacker level to step towards the line of scrimmage. In the secondary, the Pats run a sail concept with Agholor clearing out the sideline for Hunter Henry to fill in the void with an over route, and Jones hits an open Henry with ease.
4TH QTR, 9:54, 3RD-&-4: M. JONES PASS COMPLETE TO K. BOURNE FOR 46 YARDS
Lastly, as we noted in the introduction, Jones is starting to hunt with the football downfield when the defense presents him with one-on-one matchups for his outside receivers.
The Patriots’ success running the football caused the Jets to play predominantly single-high coverages, and Mac tried twice earlier in the game to hit vertical routes against man coverage.
On the third attempt, Jones hit his best downfield pass to date on a 46-yard bomb that traveled 37 yards in the air. Mac sees the post-safety playing on the far hash in the middle of the field and doesn’t hesitate to give Bourne a chance on a perfectly-placed go ball (also notice the clean pocket from an improved O-Line).
Before you chalk everything up to the Jets defense having a lousy performance, remember, Jones also had a good performance against Dallas’s defense last week.
Plus, New York hadn’t allowed more than 27 points in a game this season (Mac scored 47), and there was a noticeable improvement for Mac compared to Week 2 against the same Jets defense.
The in-structure efficiency from Jones is rapidly becoming a consistent thing to count on week-to-week, while he’s now adding a more aggressive mindset on downfield throws.
All of it is starting to come together for the Patriots offense, from Mac Jones’s comfort level with the system and NFL passing windows to Josh McDaniels’s play-calling.
Although the key is now replicating it against better competition, Jones is greatly exceeding expectations that people had for him in his NFL career, let alone his rookie season.