I have a point wrapped in a hypothetical wrapped in a question for you:
If the NFL decided this morning, six-plus months after it happened, to institute a do-over of the 2021 draft, where would Mac Jones be selected?
(Never mind the semantics or logistics of this exercise, please. Why would the NFL redo the draft? Well, it wouldn’t. It couldn’t. But for these purposes, let’s imagine it’s because Roger Goodell is desperate for a distraction from the league’s assorted public relations disasters. That part, at least, is believable.)
So where does Jones go? Top 10? Top five, along with Trevor Lawrence, Kyle Pitts, Ja’Marr Chase and, oh, Micah Parsons? Top three? Do the Jets take him without a second thought over Zach Wilson at No. 2?
This much is certain: He’s not lasting until No. 15, where the Patriots stole him.
And that’s the point: Not all of us, but many of us, are actually underestimating not only how important it was that the Patriots got this pick right but just how right they got it.
After a season of the Cam Newton Experience, the Patriots found their successor to Tom Brady, who was the successor to Drew Bledsoe, at the most important position in sports — and they did it in the middle of the first round, with the fifth quarterback selected.
In a span approaching three decades now, Patriots fans have had to fret about the quarterback situation once, maybe twice. And now, presuming the offensive line can tighten up and keep Jones from being spindled, it’s set for the foreseeable future. It’s nothing short of remarkable, and it must be appreciated.
What’s that? No, we’re not getting ahead of ourselves. I’ve seen enough after eight games to go all-in on believing. Haven’t you?
This is a kid who we weren’t even sure was going to start entering the season. Many of us — maybe a majority — thought Newton would grip the job for another year while Jones apprenticed.
I was among them, until late in the preseason, when it was clear Jones was outplaying Newton by a decent margin, had a grasp on the offense that seemed almost preternatural for a rookie, and was not just winning over his coaches but also his teammates. The joint practice with the Giants in which Jones completed nearly 20 passes in a row is in essence his NFL origin story.
Jones has had some major advantages over his fellow rookie quarterbacks, the most important being the competence he has around him. Lawrence should still be the No. 1 pick on our do-over, for he is the most talented quarterback in this draft class, and one who must overcome the smug incompetence of rookie NFL coach Urban Meyer.
Wilson, that No. 2 choice with the laser arm and woefully misguided instincts, also plays for a first-year head coach in Robert Saleh, a fine defensive mind whose capabilities as the main boss are still being determined. Trey Lance (No. 3 overall) plays for a coach in San Francisco who was complicit in blowing a 28-3 lead in a Super Bowl (perhaps you are familiar with that tale?). And Justin Fields plays for the Bears, who haven’t had a truly competent quarterback since Jim McMahon mastered the art of handing off to Walter Payton.
Jones is in about the best situation a young quarterback can be in when it comes to having coaches who know how to acclimate and succeed with an inexperienced player. But he deserves the vast majority of credit and praise. Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels can tell him what to expect and what to do, but he’s the one who must do it. The calculus of playing in the NFL is so incredibly complicated. And he’s acing the class so far.
After the Patriots’ 27-24 win over the Chargers Sunday, Jones ranks in the top 10 in several passing categories. He’s fourth in completions (192), behind Brady, Patrick Mahomes, and Jared Goff. He’s eighth in yards (1,997), ahead of Aaron Rodgers, Josh Allen, and Dak Prescott. And he’s eighth in completion percentage (68.1), ahead of Brady, Mahomes, and Rodgers, among other notables.
It must be noted, too, that this praise comes after one of his more uneven performances. Jones was just 8 of 22 in the first half against the Chargers. He missed some open receivers, including Kendrick Bourne in the end zone on the series when the Chargers forced a turnover on downs after a first-and-goal situation.
That would have weighed heavily on many young quarterbacks. Instead, Jones didn’t mope or shrivel. He played his best when the Patriots needed him most, completing 10 of 13 passes in the second half, and his best throw of the afternoon — a rope to Jakobi Meyers on third and 8 to convert a crucial first-down — came when it was needed most.
I’m not comparing him to Brady, because there will never be another Brady (as the Chiefs, who counted about five Super Bowl wins before they hatched, are currently finding out). But that was the sort of thing that young Brady did, back in his so-called “game manager” phase. He rose to the occasion even on a day when success did not come easily. It’s just about the most encouraging knack a young quarterback can have.
You know whom I did compare Jones to, at least when he first arrived? Chad Pennington. That’s not an insult. Pennington went in the first round in 2000, the year Brady went in the sixth, and before his right shoulder turned to mincemeat, he was a darned good quarterback, leading the NFL in completion percentage, touchdown percentage, and passer rating in 2002, his first season as the Jets’ starter.
Pennington didn’t have a strong arm by NFL standards, but he was a strike-throwing machine. Jones is the same way; sometimes his passes can take a leisurely flight, but they’re usually right on the money upon arrival.
I’m sticking with the Pennington comp, but with a halftime adjustment here. Pennington’s peak is Jones’s floor as an NFL starting quarterback.
His ceiling? Well, it’s going to be awfully fun to find out.