Now that the dust is settling from Patriots head coach Bill Belichick’s monumental decision to start rookie quarterback Mac Jones and release veteran Cam Newton, one thing is clear.
Although Newton’s three-day absence in the final week of training camp gave him the nudge over the finish line, the decision to name Jones the starter was about football.
Belichick surprised many when he expressed his skepticism of the COVID-19 vaccine’s efficacy, but this was not smoke and mirrors by a known public manipulator or simply following protocol.
The Patriots head coach’s answer that Newton’s status as an unvaccinated player didn’t play a major role in the former MVP’s release was the truth, multiple sources confirm to CLNS Media.
According to several discussions with offensive players on the Pats, New England’s QB competition wasn’t particularly close and was trending this way for weeks.
After Jones carved up the Giants’ starting defense on the first day of joint practices, we reported that the key decision-makers in the organization saw that the rookie was outplaying Newton.
And speaking to those that knew the play calls, reads, protections, good plays, and bad plays, Jones’s execution of the offense was better than an improved Newton’s this summer.
The question became about the best course of action to transition to Jones, not if Jones would start this season, and Belichick decided to avoid delaying the inevitable.
Although Newton’s timing improved this summer, coaches grew frustrated with his lack of ability to check the offense out of plays that weren’t going to succeed against a particular defense.
On Thursday, Patriots veterans Jalen Mills and Kendrick Bourne spoke about Jones’s ability to adapt the offense on the fly at the line of scrimmage based on the defense.
“They have a predicated call. He [Jones] sees the defense is attacking him a certain type of way, and he changes the whole offense to help them get into a better position,” Mills said.
One of Jones’s pass-catching targets, Kendrick Bourne, added, “the two-minute with Mac, he just seems so relaxed, making his adjustments, we are moving fast, but it’s slowed down.”
This wasn’t about Newton’s reluctance to choose Pfizer or Moderna, but rather Jones’s impressive ability to fast-track his development in an offense that takes some years to master.
Why not keep Newton as a backup? The answer we got was two-fold. One, a quarterback with Newton’s star power doesn’t fit the backup role. Plus, the offense the Patriots will run with Jones is nothing like their system with Newton.
The Patriots drafted Jones because of his three-level accuracy, ability to quickly process defenses, and high production level at Alabama.
Although lofty comparisons to Brady and Brees are premature (let’s pump the brakes, people), it was crystal-clear to everyone involved who gave the team the best chance to win.
The Patriots’ quarterback competition went to Mac Jones in a knockout, but now the real work begins for the rookie and a new-look offense.
Without further ado, let’s empty the mailbag as we head into the regular season:
Give us your ceiling and floor for Mac Jones
— joe (@NextQuit) September 2, 2021
I answered this question in the video version of this week’s mailbag. For starters, capping a rookies’ “ceiling” is annoying to some, while I find it annoying when you hear comparisons to all-time greats like Brady, Brees, or Manning. Let’s chill out with that. In the video, I explained why my “floor” for Jones would be early-career Chad Pennington, and my “ceiling” is Matt Ryan. Again, those are realistic comparisons rather than Hall of Famers. Only time will tell how good Mac Jones will be in the NFL.
Do you think the team handled the QB position well earlier this year when they signed Cam and not Fitzpatrick or trading for Bridgewater?
— David (@KingDave956) September 2, 2021
Not to make excuses for the Patriots, but as much as they liked Jones, they didn’t see him developing this quickly. The plan was to ride Newton as the starter into the season, maybe even for all of 2021, then turn it over to Mac in 2022. But the rookie out-performed expectations. I’m not second-guessing how they approached the position in the offseason. I do wonder if they knew Jones was going to win the starting job before the Jaguars dealt Gardner Minshew to Philadelphia. If they did, I would’ve made an offer on Minshew as a young, cheap, high-end backup who fits the offense they will run with Jones. Hopefully, Jones stays healthy the entire year. But if he gets hurt, and the Niners pivot to Trey Lance, then Jimmy G would be in play. Again, Jimmy G only becomes an option if Jones suffers an injury and Lance starts in SF. Still, that could be a “save our season” move if Jones goes down.
Of all the QBs in the world to put on the practice squad, why Gilbert? What do you think the Patriots see in him?
— robert luttrell (@robertlutt) September 2, 2021
Gilbert and Brian Hoyer aren’t saving the Patriots if Mac gets hurt. But Gilbert checks some of the Patriots’ boxes at quarterback. He has experience in the system, decent size (6-4, 220), and operates somewhat respectably in a quick passing game. Although it only lasted about six months, Gilbert’s first stint with the Patriots practice squad in 2014-15 gives him some familiarity with the playbook.
Who do you think is the offensive player who is gonna to benefit more by having Mac under center?
— Rafa López (@R2L0826) September 2, 2021
The answer here to a good question is easily James White. As we saw in the preseason, Mac’s ability to make quick decisions with the football and accurately put the ball on his check-downs will help White immensely. Another Newton issue in McDaniels’s system is that he held the ball in the pocket to wait for longer plays to develop. As a result, his check-downs were often late, allowing the defense to collapse on White before he could make a move upfield. Having Jones at quarterback will bring White back to his days with Brady.
Will we see the Pats unleash the Smith/Henry arsenal from the first drive of the season or will they need time to build up to it?
— Owen Grohman (@Grohman) September 2, 2021
Moving away from the quarterback questions, one element of the offense that feels like a work in progress is New England’s 12-personnel package. Belichick built this offense to run through two tight ends in the offseason, but we haven’t seen much of Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith on the field together in camp. Still, Henry is now a full-go in practice, and Smith was full tilt since the final week of camp. Jonnu’s role should be fun to break down as McDaniels has teased his versatility all summer. Motions, multiple alignments, several ways to get the ball in Smith’s hands, etc. As for Henry, he’ll be a consistent option between the numbers for Jones and a chain mover in this offense. Although they haven’t had much practice time together, I doubt McDaniels will waste much time unleashing the duo.
Hey Evan. Does the crystal ball see any moves at the WR position? I see dorsett is available, or perhaps a trade?
— Stephen Cue (@cue_stephen) September 2, 2021
So many of you are clamoring for a trade at wide receiver, but it’s not going to happen any time soon. The bottom line is that the Patriots spent $77.5 million guaranteed this offseason on Henry, Smith, Nelson Agholor, and Kendrick Bourne. They believe that the additions will significantly elevate their passing attack, and adding another receiver that will demand targets before they see the group together isn’t going to happen. If they find out it’s not enough, then they’ll reassess. But I wouldn’t expect that until the 2022 offseason. The team wants to see what this collection of pass-catchers looks like with Mac Jones before investing more capital in pass-catchers. If Jones is good enough to win a Super Bowl, then a “get us over the hump” move at wide receiver makes more sense.
What's going to happen to N'Keal Harry?
— Adam Folger (@nightjar51) September 2, 2021
The decision to place Harry on the injured reserve was close. He’ll be healthy enough to play before the three-game window ends, but his status for the first two weeks was uncertain. Harry will be back in Week 4, and he’ll have a role in the offense. The 2019 first-rounder showed real progress in his confidence and explosiveness in camp. They don’t have another option with Harry’s size and downfield ball skills at wide receiver. Plus, he could play his way into a better trade market, which was nonexistent this offseason. Rather than giving up on Harry for peanuts, the team is inclined to see how he develops.
Who is filling in at CB2 ? – And without Gilmore playing will the Pats play more zone than man?
— A_geordie_abroad (@ageordieabroad9) September 2, 2021
The situation at outside corner is probably the biggest question mark for the Patriots heading into the season. I wrote about their options in a post here. Based on what we saw this summer, Jalen Mills is their best option and feels like the guy alongside J.C. Jackson and Jon Jones. As for man versus zone, I wouldn’t expect to see more zone coverage. The Patriots sprinkle in everything coverage-wise. Yes, they typically play a more aggressive press-man coverage system but keep in mind only 54% of their defensive snaps were man coverage last year.
Is Winovich a redundant piece? Why not trade him if, as many feel, he is not best fit for NE's D scheme? What is his upside on a team with an attacking defensive scheme?
— bryan zukowski (@floes420) September 2, 2021
Yes, Winovich feels a bit redundant to Josh Uche. But with Uche’s injury issues in the past, the Patriots would rather keep their depth at edge defender than regret dealing Wino later in the season. Depth is a good thing to have, and you almost always need it. Winovich has experience in the system and is a highly effective pass rusher. He will have a role in passing downs, and the team wants to keep a strength a strength.
Who wins the FB battle?
— Tim Naughton (@timnaughton) September 2, 2021
Fullback battles are fun, and the Patriots have a good one on their hands. Jakob Johnson didn’t do anything in camp to lose the job, but when you can potentially upgrade at a position, you do it. Mason was someone they scouted heavily in the draft but didn’t last to their next selection at no. 188 in the sixth round (Mason went 184th overall to Baltimore). The former Michigan fullback is a battering ram with brute downhill force and has long-term potential on this team. My guess is they keep both Johnson and Mason around, with one on the practice squad. Mason has higher future upside, but he may need to prove his worth on the practice squad before he takes Johnson’s spot on the 53.
Will J.J. Taylor see significant playing time this year?
— Sigmanor107 (@RobertSignorel4) September 2, 2021
Patriots running backs coach Ivan Fears gave some interesting insight into Taylor’s rookie season when he proclaimed, “last year we would’ve have thrown him in the passing game to save his ass.” Many have tabbed Taylor as the successor to James White, but Fears feels he’s further along as a runner than pass-catcher. Taylor might get some carries as a change-of-pace to Harris and Stevenson if that’s still the case. But this could be another developmental year for Taylor behind White in the receiving back role.
@ezlazar Does R. Stevenson get those Goalline carries over Harris? Now that Cam is gone this might be a perfect "rookie-role" for him.
— KingLeviathan (@KingLeviathan3) September 2, 2021
As for Stevenson, he’s going to get real carries this season. A goal-line and short-yardage role seems plausible based on his skill set, but with Sony Michel in LA, Stevenson should get 80-100 carries as a rookie. The Patriots are going to ride Damien Harris. Still, you can’t overwork the third-year running back, and Stevenson is ready to carry the ball some.
Who surprised you the most that made the 53 man roster?
— thomas moore (@thomasm41529545) September 2, 2021
Although Harvey Langi was the 53rd player to make the team, the answer is easily Quinn Nordin. A rookie kicker who missed three extra points and two field goals somehow did enough to make the initial roster. The Patriots’ coaches spoke about Nordin’s mental toughness to bounce back after missing three consecutive kicks against Philadelphia. Sure, that’s nice to have in a kicker, as is a cannon leg. But over steady Nick Folk? That was a surprise. A potential explanation for this leads us to our next question on veterans and guaranteed salaries. Plus, the Pats avoided losing Nordin on waivers by keeping him on the roster while Folk was a vested vet who wasn’t subjected to waivers.
Thanks for hosting the mailbag Evan! Can you explain to us how vets on the practice squad are paid and how the effects the cap? Are they paid peanuts like other rookies or do they get the vet minimum and not have their salaries count in the top 51 against the cap.
— David Sliski (@DavidSliski) September 2, 2021
I’ve spoken to a few agents around the league about the high number of veterans signing with practice squads this year, which is allowed in the current CBA, not a COVID rule. The reality is for guys like Hoyer, LaCosse, and Folk is that their salaries for the season become fully guaranteed if they are on the Week 1 roster. The team can save some coin and a roster spot by keeping vets on the practice squad, using a game-day elevation to activate them for Week 1, then send them back to the practice squad after the opener. Once the calendar turns to Week 2, those vets can sign to the 53, and their salaries aren’t guaranteed. The high number of vets on the practice squad speaks directly to this roster loophole. It’s tough out there for veteran players who were released on cutdown day.
Always wanted to ask you this. I could never understand why Brandin Cooks was so successful as an X in the Patriots system, but Phil Dorsett was a relative non factor. Looking at their measurable, they are very similar.
— Tom Sabin (@tpsabinjr) September 2, 2021
This is a great opportunity to talk about the difference between timed speed and game speed. Guys like Dorsett (4.33s) and Damiere Byrd (4.25s) are fast on a track, but defensive backs don’t feel their speed in the same way they do with Cooks. Cooks might not be faster than those guys in a race after practice, but he’s more explosive with pads on in a game. Another example would be Nelson Agholor versus Dorsett and Byrd. Agholor’s timed speed was well behind those two former Pats receivers (4.42s), but he’s far more dangerous on a football field. That’s why he’s here with $16 million guaranteed in his pocket, and it took Byrd a while to find a new home.