At this time a year ago, there was no doubt that Mac Jones represented the future in Foxborough. A disastrous sophomore season later, there is now legitimate doubt about whether Jones is the franchise quarterback answer and the heir apparent to Tom Brady.
Instead of a Joe Burrow-like leap, Jones backslid in a lost season in which he was hampered by ill-equipped and underqualified offensive coaches and dealt with an ankle injury, pedestrian weapons, and an outbreak of Zappe Fever. Jones threw as many tantrums as touchdown passes.
Other than confirming that he’s not Brady 2.0, he did nothing to clarify what type of quarterback he can be. The 8-9 season ended with him getting the lukewarm coffee of endorsements from coach Bill Belichick: “Mac has the ability to play quarterback in this league.”
How far has Mac’s star fallen? Former Patriots quarterback Matt Cassel recently released his 2023 quarterback rankings for the football site The 33rd Team. Cassel ranked Jones 25th, one spot ahead of former Patriots backup Jacoby Brissett and three behind, ugh, Andy Dalton.
That feels unfairly low. He’s Middle-of-the-Pack Mac under the right circumstances, which include a competent offensive coordinator and coherent play-calling replete with imagination and motion. The Patriots have injected that with the return of offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien.
But is building around Mac the surest path back to contention? No, they should divest him for draft capital and invest in another No. 10-wearing QB, Jimmy Garoppolo.
Garoppolo is forever the One That Got Away for Belichick. He planned to bounce Brady and turn the team over to Jimmy G.
Even after Garoppolo was dealt to the 49ers in 2017, Belichick texted him after the QB’s games. Bringing back Garoppolo could reinvigorate Belichick and help him repair the dents to his reputation after compiling a 25-26 mark and zero playoff wins since Brady departed.
Garoppolo is a free agent. He’s coming off an injury (shocker), a broken foot that sidelined him for the final five games of San Francisco’s season and the playoffs. Fragility is Garoppolo’s middle name. But when Garoppolo plays, he wins. His career record as a starter is 44-19, including playoffs. Despite San Francisco constantly trying to exile him, he has been to a Super Bowl and two NFC Championship games.
Garoppolo’s ability was overstated when he was Brady’s successor-in-waiting. Now, he’s being undersold.
He’s the fully-formed version of Jones with a bit more playmaking ability and more charisma, which is important as Patriots ownership figures out how to repackage the team to the Foxborough Faithful. This team needs a rebranding because the product features too many defeats and too little buzz.
A New England reunion with Garoppolo could be a chance for both sides to prove the doubters wrong. But, more importantly, the Patriots would be able to build a better team around their Top-15-type quarterback if they went this route. When the quarterback carousel stops this offseason, some team is going to be left without a desirable option. That will make Jones, still playing on a rookie contract, appealing.
As Belichick said, Jones can play quarterback in this league. That’s a given. It’s not for QBs in the draft. Jones is still young enough that a team could believe he has a higher ceiling than a retread such as Derek Carr.
Maybe New Orleans, which has the 29th pick in the first round and 40th pick overall in the second, would be willing to send one of those picks to the Patriots for Jones, whom New Orleans liked coming out of the draft.
Or if old friend Josh McDaniels and the Raiders strike out at quarterback, then Mac could be appealing enough for them to surrender their second-rounder (No. 38 overall).
The reality is that regardless of whether the Patriots starting QB in 2023 is Jones, Garoppolo, or some other non-elite entity, the roster around them requires upgrading. The old “System” of relying on QB play covering up and covering for roster holes and shortcomings is kaput. Belichick has learned that the hard way.
It’s not that Jimmy G is a massive upgrade over Mac. It’s that Jimmy G and the players from the draft capital obtained for Mac would represent a real upgrade.
The free agent options at the Patriots’ positions of need such as wide receiver and tackle don’t easily fit. The wide receiver class is weak. The tackle class is stronger, but the price tags for players such as Orlando Brown and Mike McGlinchey induce sticker shock.
It would be better to spend money on bringing back Garoppolo and trading Jones. Given that the quarterback market has gone crazy and Daniel Jones is asking for $45 million per season, Garoppolo could be a relative bargain. He would ostensibly accept a discount to rejoin Belichick, speculatively something in the $25 million-$28 million per year range.
Plus, he’s familiar with and excelled at running some of the Shanahan-style concepts and college concepts the Patriots tried to install last year, failing spectacularly.
Mac is slated to carry appealing low cap numbers of $4.25 million and $4.6 million in 2023 and 2024. However, the Patriots must decide on picking up his fully-guaranteed fifth-year option after this season. They have until early May of 2024 to do so.
Because Jones made the Pro Bowl as a rookie, he’s eligible for the equivalent of the transition tag as his fifth-year option. Next year, which is what Jones’s option will be based upon, it’s projected to balloon to more than $35 million.
Nothing cripples a team faster than overpaying for a quarterback who doesn’t move the needle.
Dating back to the last five games of his rookie season, including the playoffs, Jones is 7-12 as a starter with 22 TDs and 18 interceptions, a 63.9 percent completion rate, and an 83.1 passer rating.
It appears ownership is more on-board with Jones at this point than Belichick is, with owner Robert Kraft praising Mac in a Fox Business interview this month, saying he’s a “strong believer” in Jones.
That’s a factor in Jones’s favor, since this entire offseason is a Kraft sports production.
But would they really tell Belichick no if he presented the case that he could build a better team by trading Jones?
What the future holds for Jones is unclear. The same could be said of his status as the QB candidate to restore the Patriots to the playoffs.