FOXBOROUGH — There is no denying Mac Jones is the future of the Patriots, and perhaps the not-too-distant present.
Jones, the 15th overall pick in April’s draft, received a lot of personal attention from Josh McDaniels during the Patriots’ voluntary offseason practice on Thursday. Jones also got second crack at running the offense during the few periods of team drills at the end of the relatively short practice.
“Comes to work and you just can feel his energy and his leadership already,” new Patriots receiver Kendrick Bourne said of Jones. “He has a swag to him that I didn’t know that he had at first.”
But the Patriots have another quarterback that oozes swag. They are still Cam Newton’s team, and Jones isn’t going to have an easy time wrestling away control.
Bill Belichick, for one, doesn’t seem to be in any hurry to elevate The Kid to QB1. Belichick loves Newton’s work ethic and energy, and noted that Newton has been a full participant throughout the voluntary offseason program. That’s not insignificant in a year where nearly one-third of the Patriots roster is skipping voluntary workouts, including a large chunk of the starting lineup.
“He was here at the beginning and has been a consistent participant,” Belichick said Thursday of Newton. “Continues to give us the usual leadership and energy that he brings to the field and the workouts and the practice.”
Newton was the one going first in drills among the four quarterbacks at Gillette Stadium. Newton was the one dancing to the music throughout practice, and chiding his teammates during friendly competitions, and bringing energy to a mundane practice in the middle of May.
The four quarterbacks played a game where they squared off 1-on-1 to see who could get the ball out faster from under center to a receiver. Newton showed a little zip on his passes and competed like his job depended on it.
“Energy is amazing, man. A workhorse,” Bourne said of Newton. “He just knows how to keep the game fun. He knows when to turn it on and he knows when to turn it off and stuff like that. It’s just awesome to be around a guy that kind of matches energy like me.”
All four quarterbacks were present at practice — Newton, Jones, Jarrett Stidham and Brian Hoyer — but Newton’s presence in particular seems to be further establishing himself as the team’s leader.
“Whenever I get down or something, he’s there to pick me up,” Bourne said. “He’s that kind of guy. And when I do good, he’s there too, to push me and motivate me at the same time. So he’s just all-around a great teammate.”
Of course, offseason workouts don’t tell us much — they are without pads and contact, and 60 of the 75 minutes Thursday were spent on individual positional drills.
The fact that Newton looked a little slimmer to the naked eye and his arm strength looked a little better doesn’t erase his poor 2020 season, nor portend a better 2021. Newton’s 82.9 passer rating last year ranked 28th among quarterbacks, his eight touchdown passes ranked 34th, and the Patriots finished 7-9, scoring the sixth-fewest points in the league.
There is plenty of reason to think that Newton’s days as the Patriots’ quarterback are numbered. The Patriots made little financial commitment to him — a one-year deal with $3.5 million guaranteed, and a likely payout of around $5 million — then drafted Jones in the first round.
But Belichick genuinely enjoyed coaching Newton last year, their first together in Foxborough. Newton really was a first-in, last-out kind of guy, and he tried his best to make it work in a difficult environment.
Now that Newton is back for another go-around, it is not unreasonable to expect him to have a better 2021 season with a full year in the system, more time to practice and better teammates around him. Belichick also believes that having a first-round pick breathing down Newton’s neck will only bring out the best in him.
“Cam’s very professional, and I’m sure that he’ll continue to work hard and do his best out there like he’s always done for us,” Belichick said. “It’s never been anything but that from the day he got here.”
Belichick was less complimentary of Jones, but that’s just because he’s trying to moderate the hype. Asked how Jones is doing, Belichick responded that, “all the quarterbacks are working hard.”
“Mac dove into the playbook and continues to do that,” Belichick said. “Like everybody out there we all have a lot of things we have to work on.”
But Thursday’s practice felt like the Newton & Jones Show. McDaniels spent almost equal time giving one-on-one coaching to both players.
The guy who looked like an after-thought was Stidham, the third-year pro. The other three quarterbacks have defined roles. Newton is the starter, Jones is the QB-in-waiting, and Hoyer is the surrogate coach who knows the Patriots’ system better than anyone on the planet other than Tom Brady and McDaniels.
As for Stidham, Belichick could only stumble and stammer.
“Jarrett’s had, you know, some off and on opportunities,” Belichick said. “But, you know, he’ll continue to get opportunities. And so will Mac. We’ll just see how it goes.”
The odds of the Patriots keeping four quarterbacks, even with one on the practice squad, are slim. Hoyer’s contract is worth the league minimum with only $100,000 guaranteed, so he’s not a lock for the roster. That said, I hope Stidham is renting and didn’t buy.
The Patriots’ offseason workouts won’t tell us how well Jones really looks, since he’s not facing a pass rush or much of a defense. These pad-less practices are more about teaching than competition.
But the practices do tell us how the Patriots currently view the QB depth chart. And while Jones one day will be in the driver’s seat, this is still Newton’s team for the foreseeable future.