Calls that Mac Jones won the quarterback battle in spring practices were premature. Very premature. Calls that he is winning the job in training camp are also premature. But on the eve of the preseason, it’s important to acknowledge one unique element of the New England Patriots rookie quarterback’s trajectory. Bill Belichick has laid out a path for Jones to win the starting job. The Patriots are, in a way, setting Jones up to win the job.
That wasn’t a given. Belichick wouldn’t give ample reps to Jones if he didn’t earn them. Considering Jones was a first-round pick and an Alabama prospect with a college football record for completion percentage, he certainly had a darn good chance of competing for QB1 with Cam Newton. College pedigree wouldn’t be why Belichick gave Jones a shot at winning the job, however. Jones has established a trajectory to win the starting job, because of his aptitude for the offense and his comfort in New England’s system.
Under Belichick, there has been no rookie since Tom Brady that has shown Jones’ level of comfort in this highly complicated system. This is my sixth season on the beat, so I chatted with the Herald’s Karen Guregian, whose experience on the beat spans over Belichick’s stint as coach. She confirmed that Jones is, indeed, the best rookie she’s seen since Brady. Jones’ preparedness for the NFL level is already beyond what Matt Cassel, Brian Hoyer, Jimmy Garoppolo and Jacoby Brissett showed in their rookie years.
Jones’ situation is also different than that of the previous rookie quarterbacks. He has a tremendous amount of Josh McDaniels’ attention, in a way that’s unlike what the offensive coordinator could afford with Brady under center. Brady required plenty of attention. And Brady dominated snaps, leaving little to no first-team work for the rookies who were trying to develop behind him. So not only does Jones seem to possess a rare understanding of the game, but he’s also been set up for success in ways the past quarterbacks have not.
It’s important to acknowledge that Jones’ path (or trajectory) toward winning the starting job will get knocked out of whack. Quite literally, the Washington Football Team has studly defensive linemen who can get Jones upside down, sideways and on his back. So it’s possible that after the first week of the preseason, you will point and laugh at this article for putting the center in front of the ball.
BUT! If I catch you pointing and laughing (digitally), I’ll tell you about Jones’ first padded practice. It wasn’t a disaster, but it was messy. The rookie quarterback looked somewhat overwhelmed by the contact, going 1-for-6 in 11-on-11s. It was probably his worst practice of training camp and a clear setback in his efforts to unseat Newton. When Jones returned for the following three padded practices, he was excellent. The second padded practice, in particular, was one of Jones’ best outings, even with heavy rain. Jones was 10-of-14 in fully competitive 11s — and as sharp as the stats showed. On Monday, the most recent padded practice, Jones led a pair of 2-minute drills for back-to-back touchdowns.
Jones is resilient. If Washington knocks Jones on his butt, he’s going to get back up — and probably get better because of it.
That’s what has helped Jones earn more reps than Newton in 11-on-11 drills in recent days, even if Newton is still getting more reps with starters. That’s what makes me believe the Patriots are fast-tracking Jones to try to get him ready for Week 1.
Jones isn’t the best quarterback on the Patriots’ roster. That’s Newton. But Jones is improving at a clip that’s faster than any Patriots rookie quarterback since Brady — and he has the quiet confidence of the Play60 kid. It’s easy to see why Jones can win the job if the coming weeks look like the past few weeks. It’s easy to see how Jones becomes QB1 by Week 1.