PATRIOTS STAND PAT, PICK ALABAMA QB MAC JONES TO LEAD NEW ERA
By MATT SANTOLERI
On Day one of the 2021 NFL Draft the New England Patriots decided not to trade up for any of the other consensus top quarterback prospects, including a falling Justin Fields who landed outside of the top 10, opting to stay put at pick No.15 and select quarterback out of Alabama University, Mac Jones.
After an experimental 2020 season with veteran quarterback Cam Newton and 2019 No.4 round pick Jarrett Stidham yielded less than stellar results, the team decided to look to build an actual succession plan from greatest quarterback in NFL history, Tom Brady.
The connections between Bill Belichick’s Patriots and Nick Saban’s Crimson Tide, along with comparisons in play style with Jones and more traditional pocket passing quarterbacks like Brady that OC Josh McDaniel’s has had success with, made this seem like a match made in heaven.
The big problem is translating what made Jones so successful in Alabama into New England isn’t this perfect missing puzzle piece. On the contrary, its going to take some buy in from both Jones and McDaniel’s if it’s going to work.
The first thing to look at when projecting Jones into the NFL is the supporting cast he was playing with at Alabama. The Crimson Tide saw two primary playmakers on their offense drafted in the first round in 2021 for the second year in a row (Henry Ruggs III and Jerry Jeudy in 2020, Jaylen Waddle and DeVonta Smith in 2021).
Mac Jones filled in for the starter Tua Tagovailoa in blow out games all throughout that 2019 season before permanently taking over when Tua would suffer a season ending hip injury late in the year.
New England may have spent big this offseason on playmakers, especially at tight end with Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith, but they simply do not have the YAC machines that Jones had to just put the ball in the hands of to do the rest.
This is emblematic with his average depth of throw coming in at 8.3 yards, only No. 14 highest in 2020, while he led the nation with 4,500 passing yards on the season.
Alabama offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian schemed up almost 20 percent of the Crimson Tide passing offense was through RPO’s (Run-Pass Options) to highlight Jones’s strengths in decision making and accuracy.
This accounted for just about 20 percent of his total yard output and 25 percent of his total TD passes and saw him collect the second most overall yards on RPO’s in the country while only producing the No.13 most air yards on those passes.
Not a knock-on good coaching and execution to exploit Jones’s abilities to produce on these plays but his 78 dropbacks that featured RPO’s in 2020 is more than the Patriots ran from 2018-2020 by 33. Jones must show he can be proficient without the use of these plays or McDaniel’s is going to have to incorporate more of this into his scheme.
The New England Patriots are typically known for having a good offensive line in place and barring injuries, should be able to field a very competitive unit, but they still allowed Cam Newton to be the No.20 most pressured QB with a minimum of 100 attempts taking heat on over 33 percent of his dropbacks in 2020.
Jarret Stidham only had 50 dropbacks on the year but his 44 percent pressure rate is an even worse sign for the next guy in line. Mac Jones who has played behind four different offensive lineman who have been drafted since 2020 was only pressured on 24.5 percent of his drop backs which was good for third lowest in the NCAA.
Looking at the bright side with Jones is that under pressure he has thrived in these situations up until the point boasting the highest completion percentage, TD percentage, and QB rating when under duress.
Still when projecting how a quarterback will deal with the speed of the game and adversity thrown his way, the fact that Jones hasn’t had to overcome many points towards projections.
If you are looking for an area of the game where both Jones and the Patriots are already on the same page, it’s with the use of play-action. In addition to the RPO game the Crimson Tide were play-action machines calling play-action the second most of any school in the country.
Mac Jones would end up running the most play-action plays for an individual quarterback and to no surprise, he would end up leading the country in yards, touchdowns, and completion percentage out of these calls.
Brady’s play-action drop back rankings in the league were third, second, and ninth over his last three seasons in New England and even Cam Newton posted a top 15 finish in 2020, even after missing a few starts.
The worry begins to kick in when you realize that Jones ran some form of play-action on his passing attempts over 50 percent of the time and the highest season that Brady ever posted in this category was that 2018 season where he would run play-action on just about 32 percent of his attempts.
Again, like with the RPO’s, helping your quarterback gain an edge with play-action isn’t a bad strategy but at some point, your quarterback needs to be able to just take a snap from under center and rip it.
This is why it's up to both Jones and McDaniel’s to be on the same page if they are to make this relationship work. McDaniel’s has the capability to dial up play-action to confuse the defense and give his quarterback an edge but finding ways to mix in more RPO’s and protection packages that keep Jones upright are paramount to his success.
At that same token its up to Jones to use these tools to the same efficiency they were used at Alabama, plus pick up more traditional pocket passing concepts seen in this Erhardt Perkins system and make the most of his pressurized attempts.
Just because it’s not as seamless of a fit-on paper doesn’t mean it can’t work. Replacing Brady was always going to be an improbable challenge.
Time will tell if Jones and McDaniel’s are up for the task.*