Although the Patriots are focusing on clinching a playoff berth, digesting what we’ve seen from quarterback Mac Jones in his rookie season is beneficial in both the short and long term.
Before you get it twisted, there’s no doubt that Jones is making a strong first impression, proving that he has the physical and mental makeup to be a starting quarterback in the NFL.
Admitting that every player, rookie or veteran, has flaws is a fact of life and should not be viewed as an indication that someone believes that player isn’t good.
There’s also a chicken or the egg conversation for Jones and the Patriots offense.
Outside of Nelson Agholor, Jones doesn’t have much proven outside receiver talent that prolifically wins down the field, nor does offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels’ offense lends itself to a high-volume deep passing game. In many ways, that’s why Mac is a good fit.
However, based on the eye test and metrics, how defenses are game-planning the Patriots’ passing game isn’t solely because of the players catching passes from Jones.
According to Sports Info Solutions, Jones’ completion rate of 31.8% on passes of 20 or more air yards ranks 31st out of 33 qualified quarterbacks. Furthermore, Jones is 27th in on-target percentage on those throws (43.9%) and 31st in catchable pass rate (51.2%).
The numbers are even worse when Jones tries to drive the ball deep outside the numbers, with his on-target rate dropping to 37 percent with a catchable pass percentage of only 44.4.
In last week’s loss, Buffalo’s defense made it clear that they didn’t fear the Patriots’ deep passing game, spending most of the game playing with inside leverage to take away the middle of the field.
Blaming a lacking deep passing game solely on Mac isn’t accurate, but neither is ridding him of all blame, especially looking at his velocity and tight-window throwing ability on deep attempts.
Now there’s also a conversation about quarterback mechanics and how Jones could generate more velocity on his throws by improving his kinematic sequencing.
And, sure, a game-breaking deep threat would make Jones look better, but his strengths as a passer are what they are for the most part.
Again, there’s nothing wrong with that. Jones can thrive in the NFL with the physical tools he is working with, as we’ve already seen at times this year, especially as he grows as a processor and builds up his arm strength.
Still, admitting those flaws as the Patriots build around Jones will help them invest wisely to maximize Mac’s talents in the short and intermediate passing game.
There’s one key ingredient missing from Jones’s current group of receivers that will need to be present for New England’s offense to reach its ceiling with Jones.
The Patriots currently rank middle of the pack, 15th, in yards after catch per reception. Furthermore, only one of their wide receivers, Kendrick Bourne, is adding YAC over expected this season, with Jakobi Meyers and Nelson Agholor subtracting YAC over expected.
Meyers, who plays the high-volume “Z” receiver role in the Patriots’ offense and has nearly double the targets (110) as the next closest Patriot pass-catcher, is tied for 78th among 90 qualified receivers in yards after catch per reception this season (3.0 yards).
There’s a role on the team for Meyers moving forward. He understands New England’s complex scheme, gets open, and works his tail off to earn playing time. But the Patriots might need a more explosive playmaker for such a pivotal role in their offense.
If the Patriots aren’t going to produce big plays through air yards, they need to find receivers who will turn shorter completions into explosive gains.
The player we are describing doesn’t grow on trees or magically appear in an NFL offense, but it feels like the missing piece for the Patriots to become an elite offense with Jones under center.
Rather than chasing the elusive outside or X receiver, bring in an Edelman or Welker clone that will eat in the slot and churn out yards after the catch for Jones in the same vein those two did for Brady.
Without further ado, let’s empty the Week 17 mailbag as we head into January football:
Happy New Year! Did you notice a big difference with the Patriots offense last week with the absence of Agholor? I know he doesn’t get a ton of targets and all but does his ability to stretch the field and keep defenses honest help our passing game just in that alone?
— Jeff Scanlon (@jscancoach) December 30, 2021
It was apparent on the Buffalo tape that they missed Agholor. Teams don’t care about N’Keal Harry’s vertical routes. They’re fine with their corners taking him in single coverage and will live with a contested-catch downfield if it presents itself. Agholor gravity is a real thing, as his vertical presence clears out safeties and gives Bourne, Meyers, and Henry more room to operate. The Patriots’ offense felt like they were playing in a phone booth against the Bills. Even if Agholor isn’t targeted much on deep routes, he’s a critical piece in the passing game.
How do they get my man Jonnu involved? He is such an elite weapon with the ball in his hands, not to mention the teams had guys like that in the past that they’ve schemed up carries or plays in space for. Where is the creativity from Josh?
— Zach Fournier (@The_Zach_Man) December 30, 2021
I’m at a loss with Jonnu. McDaniels tries to scheme touches for him via backfield actions (handoffs, routes), jet sweeps, dump-offs in the flats, and an occasional screen. He hasn’t produced at a high level and looks like he’s fighting the ball every time they throw to him. The difference between the player we saw in training camp versus now suggests that Smith has lost confidence out there. He legitimately looked like a stud tight end pick-up over the summer. Now, he can barely catch a pass without bobbling it, and his blocking went down the drain too. At this point, an offseason reset followed by another year in the system is the only hope.
Happy Holidays Evan!! Assuming we get into the playoffs, which team is our "best matchup" and which team would be our "worst matchup"?
— ashley1992 (@ashley1992__) December 30, 2021
The best matchup for the Patriots on wild card weekend is where we currently stand, Cincinnati. The Bengals are impressive offensively both at quarterback and the talent around Joe Burrow (Chase, Boyd, Higgins, Mixon). But I’d like New England’s odds against a second-year QB in his first career playoff game and his first taste of Bill Belichick’s defense. Plus, the Bengals’ offensive line and defense are only so-so. The worst matchup is either the Colts or Titans, as both teams can control the line of scrimmage and have a good feel for the Patriots’ schemes. The only current potential opponent in the AFC that I’d feel good about playing is the Bengals, though. Zac Taylor versus Belichick is a huge mismatch.
Hey Evan. The D against the bills obviously struggled. Should we be concerned they weren't able to make in game adjustments or was it more bills ability to counter any changes? Thinking about post season, will that game have given offences a blueprint for their gameplan?
— John (@belfastpatsfan) December 30, 2021
The Pats made adjustments to robber/cross coverages with the safeties leveraging the crossers. But they never got out of man coverage, and Buffalo did a nice job of sending multiple threats across the field to put the middle-of-the-field help in conflict. In short, it was a great game plan by Daboll and some stubbornness by the Pats to stick with man coverage (and their matchups – Bryant on McKenzie, Mills on Sanders). I’m at DEFCON 3 with the defense because they don’t have the personnel to play man coverage as often as they want (42% cover-one, second-highest in NFL). Hopefully, the coaching staff embraces the zone structures we saw for most of the winning streak and only plays man on third down (example: Chargers game plan). If not, manning up with some of the offenses in the AFC playoffs could be their demise.
If McDaniels leaves do you think Bill will finally update the offense and maybe change systems to better fit Mac
— ryan (@ryanm008) December 30, 2021
I don’t think McDaniels will leave the Patriots in this coaching cycle, but to answer the question, yes and no. Yes, I believe updates are coming to the Pats’ system whether McDaniels is here or not. I expect more motion now that Mac has a year under his belt and a sprinkling of run-pass options (RPO) soon. But I would disagree that the system doesn’t fit Mac. A timing-based passing game that relies on quick reads by a quarterback who allows the system to do the heavy lifting? Sounds like an ideal fit for Jones. He fits McDaniels’ offense like a glove.
Does it feel like McDaniels is losing his touch as an offensive innovator? Looking around the league there are so many unique plays especially in the Red Zone and we seem to be running the same plays.
— Thetikos (@ThetikosM) December 30, 2021
I’m not sure why the offense is so vanilla in the red zone, but my charting suggests there isn’t a ton of variety once they get inside the 20. Is it McDaniels? Is it a rookie quarterback? Is it having new pass-catchers still learning the system? It’s probably all the above. It feels like we are watching training camp practice where they’re running their basic red zone concepts and only have a handful of plays to choose from each week. Plus, the fact that Jonnu has one touchdown after scoring nine times for Tennessee a year ago is head-scratching. I wouldn’t go as far as to say that McDaniels is losing touch, but at some point, the training wheels need to come off in the red zone.
Is the Buffalo game a reflection of how important Jonathan jones is?
— Collin St.John (@CollinStjohn) December 30, 2021
I’m not trying to sell Jonathan Jones short. However, I’m not sure how much of a difference he would’ve made last week if the rest of the defense played the same way. Myles Bryant isn’t Jones in man coverage, but he was left out to dry by schemes that lacked help defenders and very little physicality from his teammates. McKenzie got free release after free release, and with that kind of speed and no resistance, even Jones would have struggled to track the Bills wideout coming across the field. I was one of the few that didn’t look at this game as a “they missed Jon Jones” example. Instead, the blame went to the coaching staff for leaving Bryant in off-man without help and not committing a defender to contact McKenzie in the five-yard window to slow him down.
When James White comes back, do you see his role diminishing because of the Harris/Stevenson combo?
— Ryan LeFevre (@feve10) December 30, 2021
Since White was lost so early in the season, we don’t talk about his absence enough. Jones is exactly the type of quarterback that would benefit from having a sturdy and elusive check-down option like White. Bolden has done his best. But there’s a sizable amount of playing time for White when he returns or if they draft his heir this spring. Mac would love to throw to White, so I don’t see Harris or Stevenson impacting his playing time much.
What value is Steve Belichick bringing to the organization?
Besides scowling and pacing, is there creativity, leadership, motivation and analysis happening here?
— Dude looks like a Brady (@lyle_c_johnson) December 30, 2021
I get the question about Steve every week, and I understand the reservations. With that said, everyone credits Steve for his knowledge of the game and work ethic. Plus, my Matt Patricia sensors started flashing after watching Christian Barmore drop off the nose into coverage on a zone blitz last week. I can’t put my finger on how big of a role Patricia has in calling the defense, but he’s a busy man down at One Patriot Place, and his fingerprints are all over the game plans. As Bill points out, Steve might still be relaying the play calls, but it’s under the watchful eye of his dad and Patricia.
Would you try to keep either d-mac, hightower, Collins or Bentley in the off-season or would u blow it up and just go younger and draft their replacements?
— Fuad (@Fuadnehemen) December 30, 2021
Adding Adrian Phillips to the veteran UFA list here, I would keep McCourty, Phillips, and Bentley. As for Hightower, I don’t see him playing anywhere else at this stage of his career, so a team-friendly deal should be on the table. His leadership on and off the field is enough to keep him around. Plus, he has been better than some think. Nevertheless, he is a situational player now that is probably best suited for an early-down run-stuffer role, where he’s only asked to cover play-action. The days of him being an every-down player are over.