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Ben Volin | On Football

Mac Jones and the Patriots are garnering plenty of hype: ‘You’re going to see them come back’

There are big expectations being placed on Patriots rookie quarterback Mac Jones like making the playoffs even before the Alabama standout plays his first NFL regular-season game.
There are big expectations being placed on Patriots rookie quarterback Mac Jones like making the playoffs even before the Alabama standout plays his first NFL regular-season game.Mike Stobe/Getty

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The 2020 NFL season was a respite for fans who were sick and tired of the Patriots always winning and always being the center of attention.

They couldn’t score points, they couldn’t throw the ball much, and they whimpered to the finish line with a 7-9 record.

But the NFL’s reprieve from Patriot dominance may only be temporary — at least according to those whose job it is to prognosticate and analyze the league.

The NFL has had at least four new playoff teams in 31 straight seasons — there were seven last year — and many NFL observers expect the Patriots to be right back in the thick of the playoffs .

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“I think you’re going to see them come back very quickly,” said CBS’s Tony Romo. “I’m convinced the Patriots are for real, and no one wants to play them. I think they’re better than people are even realizing right now.”

That’s because the 2021 Patriots bear little resemblance to the 2020 version.

Bill Belichick spent $175 million fully guaranteed on more than 20 free agents this offseason to give the Patriots a full makeover.

The Patriots should have nine to 13 new starters this year — new tight ends and receivers; a fortified offensive line; stronger reinforcements on defense, including the return of Dont’a Hightower and Kyle Van Noy; and, of course, a new quarterback in Mac Jones.

“They had a really good offseason,” said former Jets and Dolphins GM Mike Tannenbaum. “Knowing Coach Belichick, I’m sure he was down in the tunnel on the last game [of 2020] knowing that they had to make significant improvements, and in a very typical way, systematically did that.”

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Bill Belichick heads into the 2021 season with a revamped roster.
Bill Belichick heads into the 2021 season with a revamped roster.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

Add Belichick’s coaching brilliance to the upgraded talent, and you have a Patriots team that is getting a lot of hype — maybe not as a top Super Bowl contender, but at least as a feisty playoff team.

“Think Russell Wilson when he was a rookie in Seattle,”CBS’s Boomer Esiason said of the 2012 Seahawks, who reached the second round of the playoffs. “They had a team that could support him and he could grow, and they were successful right out of the get-go. And I think this is where they are with New England.”

The most significant change for 2021 is at quarterback, of course. The Patriots were 27th in points scored and 30th in passing yards last year with Cam Newton. They also went 1-5 against playoff teams, unable to keep pace withWilson, Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen, and Jared Goff.

Even though Jones is a rookie, his performance during the preseason has created big expectations.

“In the AFC I have Kansas City, Buffalo, Cleveland, and then New England, and I would not have put New England as a top-four team last week if Cam Newton were the starter,” said ESPN’s Dan Orlovsky, an 11-year NFL quarterback. “I just think the kid is that good. The talent is so upgraded, and they’re going to be really good on offense and defense.”

Interestingly, the sportsbooks aren’t quite buying the same hype. Most have the Patriots ranked with the Cowboys and Colts with the 12th-best Super Bowl odds. The FanDuel Sportsbook actually lengthened the Patriots’ Super Bowl odds from +2900 to +3700 after the news broke that Jones was the starter and Newton was being released.

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But most of the NFL analysts see it differently. NBC’s Cris Collinsworth said Jones looked like a young Tom Brady running the Patriots’ offense, and shouldn’t be rattled by much in the NFL after playing in massive stadiums and under enormous pressure while at Alabama.

Cris Collinsworth likes the look of Mac Jones.
Cris Collinsworth likes the look of Mac Jones.Tony Avelar/Associated Press

“He has that big-game experience,” Collinsworth said. “What is it that you could throw at him that he hasn’t seen in some way, shape, or form? He just looks so calm and in control and making the right throws. If you didn’t know he was a rookie, you wouldn’t even be asking that question.”

The sportsbooks certainly like Jones to have a big rookie season. Since Jones was named the starter, every book has elevated him to either the front-runner for Offensive Rookie of the Year or a close second behind No. 1 pick Trevor Lawrence.

“The minute the Patriots took Mac Jones at 15th, I said, ‘That’s the steal of the draft,’” said former Saints QB Drew Brees, now with NBC.

With his upgraded weapons and improved offensive line, Jones completed 69.2 percent of his passes in three preseason games and didn’t throw an interception in 60 drop-backs.

“I was a Mac Jones fan coming out, and he impressed me even more through the preseason,” said 11-year pro quarterback Bruce Gradkowski, now a lead analyst with Pro Football Focus. “You see his poise, his composure, and how he’s just run this offense like a veteran.”

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Mac Jones is poised to be the first rookie to start at quarterback for the Patriots since Jacoby Brissett in 2016.
Mac Jones is poised to be the first rookie to start at quarterback for the Patriots since Jacoby Brissett in 2016.Barry Chin/Globe Staff

And many observers believe Jones will enhance the offense, rather than hold it back, as many rookies do.

“I think they can be successful this year because Mac Jones is a smart, polished quarterback,” Tannenbaum said. “I fell in love with Mac Jones at the Senior Bowl. I saw in my opinion a very young, more athletic Matt Ryan.”

The rest of the NFL reveled in the Patriots’ demise in 2020. But no one is laughing at these 2021 Patriots.

“They’re loaded on the defensive side of the football,” said Esiason. “I would not be surprised if they win 10 games this year. They will definitely be in the playoff mix by the time we get to Week 17.”


Ben Volin can be reached at ben.volin@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin.