Welcome to Season 10, Episode 2 of the Unconventional Preview, a serious-yet-lighthearted, nostalgia-tinted look at the Patriots’ weekly matchup.
No matter what shape their career arcs take, the successes and failures of the five quarterbacks selected in the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft will forever be intertwined.
That’s especially true if one of the quarterbacks happens to end up a superior player to one chosen before him.
While the Jaguars’ Trevor Lawrence (No. 1 overall), the 49ers’ Trey Lance (No. 3), and the Bears’ Justin Fields (No. 11) are off charting their own career paths, no two quarterbacks in the Class of ‘21 have a more compelling connection than the Jets’ Zach Wilson (No. 2) and the Patriots’ Mac Jones (No. 15), who are facing off for the first time Sunday.
The Patriots and Jets have played 124 times (the Patriots have won 69, the Jets 54, with one tie). This game marks the first time since the 1970 AFL/NFL merger that both teams will be starting a rookie quarterback — and both are coming off good impressions in their NFL debuts.
Jones was poised, accurate, and in command in the Patriots’ 17-16 loss to the Dolphins, completing 29 of 39 passes for 289 yards and a touchdown. He played like a veteran, even as many of his veteran teammates made rookie mistakes. He’s clearly ready for this.
Wilson, meanwhile, didn’t look ready in the first half of the Jets’ 19-14 loss to the Panthers, but he settled down in the second half and flashed his impressive athleticism and elite arm strength on a pair of touchdown passes to Corey Davis, finishing 20 of 37 for 258 yards. He’s raw, but his pure talent is evident.
Jones and Wilson — you know, Mac and Zach — don’t have much in common as quarterbacks right now beyond that obvious promise. But they’ll always be connected because of their draft status. The rivalry begins in earnest Sunday.
Kick it off, Bailey, and let’s get this one started …
Three players I’ll be watching other than the QBs
Hunter Henry: Heard a few chirps of disappointment after Henry and Jonnu Smith, the ballyhooed pair of tight ends signed to free agent contracts for a combined $55.25 million in guarantees, finished with just eight combined catches for 73 yards against the Dolphins. To that I say: Have some patience, kid.
I thought there was plenty of evidence that the two will complement each other in a creative and consistent way.
First, they caught all eight passes thrown their way. Henry was quiet in the first half but made three catches in the second half, including a 16-yarder. Smith collected 42 yards on five catches, which is fine, but that total would have looked better if he hadn’t stepped out of bounds on a catch-and-run after 10 yards while rocketing down the sideline in the third quarter.
That play came on first down, right after Jones had found Henry for 6 yards on third and 5 from the Dolphins’ 48. That sequence was a glimpse of what we’re going to see from them as the season goes on.
It may not be in tandem this week, though. Smith is listed as questionable because of a hip injury. If he’s out, that will open the door for Henry, who played 72 percent (54 total) of the offensive snaps last week, to be an even bigger part of the offense against the depleted Jets defense.
Dont’a Hightower: The remodeled and reloaded Patriots defense looked lethargic at times against the Dolphins, allowing long touchdown drives at the start of each half.
Hightower, back after opting out last season, had four tackles and zero impactful plays while shaking off the rust. It’s telling, and an indictment of the front seven’s performance, that safeties Devin McCourty and Kyle Dugger were the top two tacklers.
This should be the Sunday that Hightower and the rest of the defense wreak some havoc.
Left tackle Mehki Becton, arguably the Jets’ best player and inarguably their largest (6 feet 7 inches, 364 pounds), is out 4-6 weeks after dislocating a kneecap. The Patriots’ pass rush — particularly Matthew Judon and Josh Uche — should get plenty of opportunities to introduce themselves to Wilson.
The Jets aren’t much of a threat to run, either. Their top rusher against the Panthers was Tevin Coleman, with 24 yards, or 11 fewer than Damien Harris had on his first carry of the season.
James White: It took one game to realize that the versatile running back is going to be utilized much better than he was a year ago, and for one reason: Jones can make the throws on the routes White runs best. Cam Newton could not.
Ivan Fears, the Patriots’ seen-it-all running backs coach, said as much himself: “I think last year we couldn’t take advantage of him. New scheme. Young. The way we’re doing things. New quarterback. This guy [Jones] has the chance to take advantage of James.”
That’s a polite way of saying Jones doesn’t turn screen passes into bounce passes.
Grievance of the week
Fumbling the football has long been the most surefire route to Bill Belichick’s doghouse. Kevin Faulk is a Patriots Hall of Famer now, but early in his career his untrustworthiness with the ball cost him a rung or two on the depth chart.
Stevan Ridley ran for 1,263 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2012, but his four fumbles — and four more the following season — probably had something to do with his Patriots career being relatively short (52 games over four seasons).
If a core skill player fumbles, Belichick might not bury him for long. But if you’re a role player, you might as well book an immediate flight to the site of the following week’s game, because you’re probably done in this one.
That happened to Rhamondre Stevenson in his NFL debut last Sunday. He lost a fumble on his fifth touch. He didn’t get a sixth.
The grievance here is really more of a query: Should Belichick keep making a ball carrier who makes a mistake persona non grata for the rest of the game?
I thought burying Stevenson hurt the Patriots. There was no standard backup for Harris, and it seemed like he got worn down. He had a career high in carries (23) and offensive snaps (40), and after picking up 60 yards on his first six carries, he gained just 40 on his remaining 17 (2.3 yards per attempt).
Then, running hard but dealing with an unprecedented workload, he fumbled when the Patriots were poised to take the lead late in the fourth quarter.
Presumably, Harris and Stevenson won’t repeat their mistakes. Maybe Belichick has something to learn from this, too.
Jets receiver Corey Davis vs. Patriots cornerback J.C. Jackson
Davis came into his own last season, then came into a lot of money in the offseason.
Selected No. 5 overall by the Titans in 2017 — three spots before Christian McCaffrey and five before Patrick Mahomes — the Western Michigan product provided bursts of production in his first three seasons, including a 65-catch season in 2018.
Davis never did quite live up to his draft status in Tennessee — more productive receivers from his draft class include the Steelers’ JuJu Smith-Schuster, the Rams’ Cooper Kupp, and the Buccaneers’ Chris Godwin — but he did blossom into a consistent threat last season, catching 65 passes for a career-high 984 yards and five touchdowns in 14 games.
The Jets, believing they were getting a proven player still ascending, signed Davis to a three-year, $37.5 million contract during free agency in March. A month later, they drafted Wilson, and the receiver and rookie quarterback have said they made a conscious effort in training camp to build chemistry.
Their work paid off against the Panthers. Davis had five catches for 97 yards and both Jets touchdowns. Three of his receptions went for 20 or more yards.
Wilson will have more receiving options Sunday with slot receiver Jamison Crowder expected to play after missing the opener while on the COVID-19 list. But Wilson likes to show off his arm and take shots downfield, which means it will likely be Jackson who gets the primary assignment on Davis.
Davis, who stands 6-3, has a 2-inch height advantage on Jackson, but the Patriots cornerback is an accomplished ballhawk, having picked off nine passes last season and 17 in his three full NFL seasons, which ties him with Tim Fox, Steve Nelson, and Duron Harmon for 14th in Patriots history.
The hunch here is that Jackson will end up as one of Wilson’s accidental pass catchers Sunday, and maybe more than once.
Prediction, or Weeb Ewbank must be the coach of the all-time all-name team
Since the historic day of Jan. 4, 2000, when Belichick resigned after his several-hour reign as HC of the NYJ and, soon, headed to Foxborough to build the kind of prolonged NFL dynasty that isn’t supposed to be possible, the Jets have … well, let’s just say they’ve struggled to find continuity in the most important roles.
Fourteen quarterbacks have started at least three games in a season since 2000, including a couple charter members of the Wait, That Guy Was A Jet? Club in Quincy Carter (2004) and Michael Vick (’14).
That almost makes their coaching situation seem stable; they’ve had six head coaches in the time Belichick has been in New England. Only one had a winning record, Al Groh, who got the job when Belichick quit in 2000, went 9-7, and resigned to become head coach at the University of Virginia.
The Jets might have it right this time, on both fronts. Wilson’s talent is obvious, and first-year coach Robert Saleh was widely respected as an assistant coach, most recently as the defensive coordinator for the 49ers.
This is not going to be the Sunday, however, when Wilson and Saleh begin to build a strong case for their mutual competence. As Patriots coach, Belichick is 21-6 against rookie quarterbacks. Wilson is going to be lured into trusting his arm a little too much. Or a lot too much.
The Patriots have a talented roster coming off a frustrating loss. That’s usually the recipe for a big win. They’ve beaten the Jets 10 times in a row. This one goes to 11. Patriots 34, Jets 16.