2021 was a quarterback-heavy NFL draft year. Three came off the board in the first three picks and another two were selected by No. 15. Those five first-round QBs were one short of the record six drafted in 1983. It was easy to look at a few of them and see not just dependable future starters, but potential world-beaters. Trevor Lawrence was the most touted recruit in college football history in 2018, went on to win a national championship and mock most of his competition at Clemson, and routinely made throws most of his peers couldn’t dream of making. Ohio State’s Justin Fields had a similar track record to Lawrence and some of the best athletic measurements of any QB prospect ever. Zach Wilson wowed everyone at BYU in 2020 by uncorking hilariously powerful and accurate passes from a frame that looked 16 years old. And Trey Lance, a quarterback who looked like he could also play running back, had starred for the most dominant program in college football, Football Championship Subdivision dynasty North Dakota State.
Then there was Alabama’s Mac Jones. He hadn’t been prominent on most people’s radars heading into his last Bama season, but then he piloted the Crimson Tide offense to one of the most impressive seasons in college history. He did not bring a wowing physique to the table, and media scouts didn’t spend a lot of time drooling over his sublime throws. It helped to play on a team loaded with future NFL receivers, linemen, and running backs. But the results—41 touchdowns, four interceptions, and 11.2 yards per throw in an undefeated national title season—were the results. Jones naturally invited a wide range of predictions, including many who thought he could be a good NFL passer. But when rumors at one point connected him to the San Francisco 49ers with the third pick, a lot of us in the prognostication business were aghast. That media reaction turned out to be moot; the New England Patriots wound up drafting Jones at No. 15—behind Lawrence, Wilson, Lance, and Fields. Few thought he’d be the best of the rookie crop, which is just what he’s been for 10 weeks.
The book won’t be written for years on any of these new QBs—please don’t take any of this as a proclamation that Jones will forever outshine Lawrence and Fields—but more than halfway through one season, Jones is at the top of the class by a wide margin. He has already shown he can be a playable starter, which is no small feat and well worth the pick the Pats spent on him. Overall, he’s 17th in ESPN’s Quarterback Rating, 17th in yards per pass, and 19th in touchdown-to-interception ratio. If you shrink your evaluation field to more recent periods, his placements would be better. But on the whole, he’s been an average-ish starter as a rookie, good enough for New England to ride to a surprising 6–4 record. And his numbers might undersell him. The game-charters at Pro Football Focus have graded him as the fifth-best QB in the NFL this season, right between Justin Herbert and Kyler Murray. Nobody else in the rookie class is higher than 28th. Lance hasn’t taken over the San Francisco 49ers yet. Lawrence and Wilson are in meat-grinding situations with the Jacksonville Jaguars and New York Jets. And Justin Fields has had a really bad time with the Chicago Bears, though he has recently flashed some encouraging signs.
What’s set Jones apart doesn’t seem like anything revolutionary. The Patriots have put him in a comfortable system, and it looks like they were right that he has high-quality NFL throws in his repertoire. There’s no reason Jones can’t be good for a long, long time.
On the surface, the Patriots do several things to make Jones’ life as easy as possible. There are some particulars about the offense that don’t seem all that well tailored to him, as the Ringer’s Steven Ruiz detailed in October, but there are basic things to like. They call more designed runs than all but a few teams, despite having essentially a league-average run game. When Jones throws, he doesn’t throw that deep. His average intended target is 7.7 yards downfield, the 24th-deepest passing depth in the league, according to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats hub. The Patriots keep him safe; of 34 qualifying quarterbacks at Pro Football Reference, only seven have faced pressure on a lower percentage of their drop-backs than Jones’ 20 percent. (The other rookie QBs are on the verge of getting killed on much higher percentages of their attempts. Wilson “leads” the league with a 30.7 pressure rate.) The Patriots do an OK job in protection—they’re 13th in the most recent update of ESPN’s passer-protection rating—but part of Jones staying clean is that he throws the ball quickly. His 2.6 seconds to throw are fifth-fewest in the league and mimic how the Patriots used Tom Brady in his last years there, when they seemed to think he didn’t have the juice to act like his old self.
All of that makes Jones sound a little bit like a “system QB,” the knock that people on the internet like to levy against QBs whom they don’t deem sufficiently exciting as they thrive under good coaches such as Bill Belichick and his offensive coordinator, Josh McDaniels. I have participated in this myself, probably unfairly. When Jones put up gaudy yardage totals in a loss to Brady’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers in early October, I argued that he hadn’t actually been good, because a lot of his yards didn’t translate into better scoring opportunities for New England, which asked Jones to dink and dunk his way down the field. But that belied the fact that merely keeping an offense on schedule against the excellent Bucs defense should be considered quite a feat for a rookie QB, particularly one without a good run game to take some of the load.
The numbers so far don’t support the idea that Jones is a helpless QB being dragged around by his coaching staff. The difference between his actual completion percentage and his expected completion percentage, based on the difficulty of his throws, is seventh best in the NFL, per Next Gen Stats play-tracking data. Jones’ completion rate is 2.6 percent higher than it “should” be based on where he’s throwing the ball and what the coverage looks like. His arm talent was on display last weekend against the Browns, both on sideline routes …
… and into small, rapidly closing windows in the middle of the field:
The Patriots don’t ask Jones to do that often. He’s near the bottom of the NFL in the percentage of his throws that go into tight coverage, per the league. But he can deliver difficult and deep throws at a respectable clip when asked, and he could get even more comfortable with them as the weeks pass. Against the Browns, he threw just four passes that traveled 15-plus yards beyond the line of scrimmage. Three were caught, including one for the touchdown above. His lone deep ball, a 43-yarder, fell harmlessly to the ground. For the whole season, his efficiency numbers on intermediate and deep passes are plenty good.
Altogether, the output so far is a triumph for Jones, who’s shown he has the passing ability and processing speed to be a fine NFL quarterback right out of the draft womb—a hard thing, even given how much better a situation he’s in than some of the other first-years. It’s also a nice feather in the cap for McDaniels, the offensive coordinator who spent most of his career working with Brady but had a mixed (and mostly bad) track record in his limited non-Brady coaching experiences. The Patriots figured Jones could throw at an NFL level, and so far, they’ve likely helped him make them correct by not shoveling too much onto his plate.
Jones will spend his whole career being compared with other QBs, to an extent that feels extreme even by NFL QB standards. Brady’s shadow will hang over Foxborough for years, and Jones will also exist in a bucket with Lawrence, Fields, and the rest of this year’s rookie class. He’ll have to be good for a long time before some observers believe it. But he was already good enough for Bama’s Nick Saban, the best college coach ever, to trust him with a rocket ship of an offense en route to a 2020 championship. And he’s already been good enough for Belichick, the best NFL coach ever, to give him the launch codes in his first year. So far, it’s working, and at some point, those endorsements and Jones’ results will have to be enough for the rest of us.