Patriots Mailbag: Where is the Best Spot for Mac Jones to Take Over at QB?

The Patriots have a late bye week this upcoming season, so when could we see Mac Jones take over as the starter?

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The Patriots have a relatively easy schedule by their standards this upcoming season.

There’s no such thing as a cakewalk in the NFL, but ESPN pegs the Pats with the fifth-easiest strength of schedule based on projected opponent win percentage that factors in offseason moves.

However, the most important aspect of the schedule release isn’t the opponents; we already knew those, or even when you play each team.

Instead, forecasters find that rest and travel correlate most to actual wins and losses, and that’s where the Patriots have an uphill battle.

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According to ESPN’s Brian Burke, the Patriots have the worst net rest differential in the league at -15 days and play a league-high three teams coming off their bye week.

New England built a team with tremendous depth in the offseason. But navigating a grueling first 13 weeks before their own bye while their opponents have a rest advantage will be critical to their success this season.

The rest of the conversation surrounding the schedule release is media fodder. We now know that Tom Brady’s (and Rob Gronkowski) homecoming will be in Week 4, October 3. The late bye week isn’t ideal, but in an 18-week season, it’s doable, and the Pats avoided a London trip that was on the table due to their road matchup with the Atlanta Falcons.

Another schedule angle is that, due to the late bye week in Week 14, there isn’t an ideal soft spot in the schedule to insert Mac Jones into the starting lineup. The best week is probably their home game against the Jets in Week 7, whose defense should be vulnerable. 

Next up on the offseason schedule is rookie minicamp this weekend, followed by phase two OTAs (May 17-21) and mandatory minicamp from June 14-16, which is when we’ll start seeing some real football. 

Three OTAs (May 27, June 4, and June 10) and all three days of mandatory minicamp will be open to the media, so we’ll get our first glimpse at the new-look Patriots then. 

As always, we’ll have you covered on Patriots CLNS with written content on the website and video breakdowns on our YouTube channel, Patriots Press Pass. Even in the dead periods of the offseason, we’ll keep things fresh and discuss a team with plenty of storylines. 

Without further ado, let’s empty the notebook and answer some of your questions: 

At first, it was surprising that Bucs-Pats is so early in the season. The game doesn’t need any more added intrigue, but the optics of one or both teams needing the win due to playoff implications late in the season would’ve added another layer of fun. The most obvious reason that the league chose to put the game in Week 4 is that it wants to ensure that everyone will be healthy for the contest. Although things are moving in a positive direction, there’s also the COVID angle. The NFL made it through the 2020 season, but a potential surge in the winter could’ve ruined the party. The game would go on, but would there be fans in the stands to welcome Brady back? From this perspective, the early matchup also avoids an entire season of buildup to the game. This way, we get it over with, and then we can move on with the rest of the season. 

The Patriots worked out cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick this week, but the veteran left without a contract. Kirkpatrick could be signed once the league finalizes its plans for camp in terms of roster sizes. Last year, you had the option of one 80-man squad or two split-squads with the full 90. The Pats currently sit at 85 players on their roster, so they might be holding a few spots open for that announcement. 

As far as CB depth goes, we’ve been on this for a while now, and it’s why we focused so much on corners pre-draft. Currently, the Pats are counting on third-year corner Joejuan Williams to step up behind Stephon Gilmore and JC Jackson. Williams holds his own when he gets opportunities, but those chances were so few and far between. I think Williams can play. Still, adding another veteran body there would give them some insurance if Gilmore or Jackson goes down with an injury. 

If you missed my first 53-man roster prediction, you can read that here. The toughest cut was second-year edge defender Anfernee Jennings. Jennings will probably make the team when an injury or veteran casualty clears a roster spot. Still, it’s hard to keep five pure edge rushers when evaluating the roster on paper. Jennings looked a step slow and reactionary rather than playing fast as a rookie. He was swimming in it mentality, and with the speed of the game, then the Pats added three more talented players to the group this offseason (Judon, Van Noy, Perkins). I also feel like I was one short along the offensive line, carrying seven, with the thought that the Pats could stash their depth on the practice squad. They carried ten offensive linemen out of camp last year, with Yodny Cajuste immediately landing on IR, so technically, nine. Finding spots for added depth at EDGE and the offensive line was a challenge.

Due to the influx in talent this offseason, it feels like we are sleeping a bit on 2020 top-pick Kyle Dugger. Dugger flashed the makings of an impact defender in his rookie season, and that was while making the leap from DII to the NFL. Now, he’s comfortable with the speed of the NFL game and should ascend even faster. On offense, there’s a lot of shade-throwing at Nelson Agholor. Agholor, who is the third pass-catcher in the pecking order, is getting labeled a WR1 or offense’s top receiving option like Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith don’t exist. Agholor plays faster than Damiere Byrd despite a slower timed speed, stretches the field, can play inside or outside, and is a decent YAC option as well. He might not live up to that contract, but he’s going to be better than the current narratives suggest. 

Along those lines, I don’t totally understand the clamoring for wide receivers. Every team wants more weapons in today’s game, and so does every fanbase. But the Pats spent big on free-agent pass-catchers, and those signings tell us that the offense will run through the two tight ends. 12 personnel is back in New England, and we are talking about reps for two or three wide receivers on game day. I don’t see a significant move coming at wide receiver unless it comes in-season to put the offense over the top. Again, every team would love to have Julio Jones or Odell Beckham on its roster, but I don’t think it’s a desperate need for the Patriots. You have to view the pecking order in the passing offense like this: 

1A. Hunter Henry

1B. Jonnu Smith 

3. Nelson Agholor 

4. Kendrick Bourne 

5. Jakobi Meyers/RBs 

Speaking of trades, a handful of players could be candidates as the Patriots try to whittle a deep roster down to 53. The one potential hiccup is that teams aren’t parting easily with 2022 draft picks due to the uncertainty of the 2021 draft class. The Pats could pull off a player-for-player swap, though, by taking from a position of strength to bolster a position of need. The most likely candidate is running back Sony Michel. Michel is entering the final year of his rookie contract, and the writing is on the wall with the selection of Rhamondre Stevenson and the team declining Michel’s fifth-year option. If Damien Harris and Stevenson have strong camps, I could see the Pats shopping Michel. N’Keal Harry, Chase Winovich, and Jarrett Stidham are potential trade chips too. Wino is their most valuable asset to flip for a player that can help the team immediately. 

I flirted with the idea of trading Stidham to free up a roster spot, but I doubt he’ll get cut outright, especially with COVID still looming. If Mac Jones climbs to at least QB2, Stidham is on the squad for depth purposes only. They told us how they feel about Stidham by drafting Jones in the first place; Stidham is an unlikely future starter. It feels like Stidham is one big preseason game performance away from having enough trade value to move him in a similar vein to Jacoby Brissett back in 2017. Brissett had a monster fourth preseason game, and then the Pats traded him to Indy for Phillip Dorsett. I could see something similar going down with Stidham this summer, but again, it all depends on how the team wants to approach the season with the pandemic. 

Let’s take Mac Jones out of this discussion because that one is obvious. My pick would be Christian Barmore, who has a chance to factor in as an interior pass-rusher right away. Outside of Deatrich Wise, the Pats D-line is built to stop the run, and Barmore’s skillset is a one-for-one replacement for Adam Butler. Butler’s playing time increased to 50% of the snaps last season, which is probably too high of a projection for a rookie, but something like 35% seems likely with a role on passing downs for Barmore. Barmore is instantly the best pass-rusher of the group, and there’s an obvious path for him to carve out a role. 

Sticking with the defensive line, and without the benefit of seeing this group together yet:

  • Lawrence Guy (strong-side DE)
  • Davon Godchaux (NT)
  • Deatrich Wise (weak-side DE)

Veteran free-agent addition Henry Anderson could factor in if Wise has an inconsistent camp as a run defender, but the expectation with that contract is that Wise will play more this year. As noted in the previous answer, Barmore is probably a situational pass-rusher at this stage until he develops his technique as a run defender. But if he catches on quickly, it’s going to be difficult to keep him off the field. 

For the record, if I’m comparing Gunner to Julian Edelman, it’s tongue-in-cheek. Gunner is on a similar developmental track, he was Edelman’s shadow over the last two seasons, and some of Edelman’s personality rubbed off on him, so I understand the comparisons. Still, let’s be realistic about it. Likely due to his inexperience at the position, Gunner’s explosiveness that we see on punt returns isn’t translating yet on offense. He looks unsure of his angles and how to gauge defenders in pursuit, so it slows him down. Olszewski flashed some improved burst in his routes during camp last summer but still strikes me as someone who was better running the vertical aspects of Edelman’s route tree rather than the quick-hitters underneath. I don’t see the technique and change of direction in his breaks just yet with Gunner, but if he’s going to make that leap, we should start to see it this year. Either way, Belichick will not cut an All-Pro returner, so Olszeksi will make the team. 

That’s pretty much the plan as I see it: the two tight ends work between the numbers and move the chains while Agholor stretches the field. Jones is better suited to start than Newton other than what Cam brings as a veteran leader and runner. I truly mean no disrespect to Cam, but Jones is a much more natural fit in Josh McDaniels’s offense.