Big Step Forward from QB Mac Jones Key to Patriots Success in 2022

Gary Davenport@@IDPSharksFeatured Columnist IVJune 14, 2022

BUFFALO, NEW YORK - JANUARY 15: Mac Jones #10 of the New England Patriots warms up prior to a game against the Buffalo Bills at Highmark Stadium on January 15, 2022 in Buffalo, New York. (Photo by Bryan M. Bennett/Getty Images)
Bryan M. Bennett/Getty Images

By many measurements, Mac Jones of the New England Patriots had a successful rookie season. After being drafted 15th overall in the 2021 draft, Jones wound up starting all 17 games for the Pats, winning 10, guiding New England to the playoffs and making the Pro Bowl.

However, the season ended in inglorious fashion, followed by an offseason of change and tumult in Beantown. Given the expectations for success that dominating the AFC for two decades have created in New England, the pressure is on the Patriots to do more than have a cup of coffee in the postseason in 2022. This team is supposed to make some hay in the playoffs.

For that to happen, Jones is going to need to take a sizable step forward in his second season. And while the Patriots brought in a new top target for Jones in the passing game, there are also factors that aren't going to make progress in 2022 any easier.

MIAMI GARDENS, FLORIDA - JANUARY 09: Mac Jones #10 of the New England Patriots looks on under center against the Miami Dolphins during the first quarter at Hard Rock Stadium on January 09, 2022 in Miami Gardens, Florida. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
Michael Reaves/Getty Images

Jones and the Patriots had regular-season success as a team last year, but from a statistical standpoint, the former Alabama star didn't play as well as that Pro Bowl nod might indicate. Jones' completion percentage (67.6) ranked eighth in the league. But he was 13th in passing yards, 14th in touchdown passes and yards per attempt, 18th in air yards per attempt, 19th in yards per completion, 17th in passing yards per game, 15th in passer rating and 16th in QBR. Jones also tied for the ninth-most interceptions in the league with 13.

For a rookie, those numbers aren't bad. But while the Patriots went 10-7, the team was a so-so 14th in the league in passing. Jones was essentially a game manager in his first season. And while that was good enough to get the Pats into the postseason tournament, New England was hopelessly outmatched offensively against the Buffalo Bills in the AFC Wild Card Round.

Per ESPN's Mike Reiss, Jones' numbers in the vertical passing game also left something to be desired. Of Jones' pass attempts thrown at least 20 yards downfield last season, 41 percent were over- or underthrown—5 percent over the league average. Jones checked in 24th in the NFL with a 38.8 percent completion rate on vertical routes in 2021, per NFL Next Gen Stats. His completion percentage above expectation on those throws was minus-4.5 percent (26th out of 31 qualified QBs).

For the Patriots to take the next step, the team has to become more dangerous down the field—a fact Jones himself is aware of.

"We want to be able to do whatever we want to do at any given time, whether that's a run, pass, play-action—short, medium, or long. We're trying to be able to have a little bit of variety," he said.

FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS - JANUARY 02: Mac Jones #10 of the New England Patriots looks to pass the ball during a game against the Jacksonville Jaguars at Gillette Stadium on January 02, 2022 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images)
Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

To his credit, according to Reiss, Jones was sharp on downfield routes in minicamp. But there's a difference between throwing against air in shorts and shells and fitting passes into tight windows in live game action.

The Patriots spent big on upgrading the weapons at Jones' disposal a year ago, but while tight end Hunter Henry logged nine touchdowns, wide receivers Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne were relative disappointments. Neither wideout had more than 800 receiving yards, and the pair combined for fewer touchdowns than Henry had by himself. Tight end Jonnu Smith also failed to live up to his four-year, $50 million contract, managing just 28 catches, 294 receiving yards and a single touchdown after crossing the goal line a career-high eight times in 2020.

The Patriots attempted once again to bolster the wideout corps this offseason, swinging a trade with the Miami Dolphins that brought veteran wide receiver DeVante Parker to town. Per Henry McKenna of Patriots Wire, Parker said he has been impressed by what he's seen from Jones so far on the practice field.

"He’s a leader," Parker said. "He's a young guy, but he's vocal as a leader. That's what this team needs. And even though I've just been out here a few weeks, I still see it."

Theoretically, Parker offers Jones something he didn't have last year: a true No. 1 receiver. In 2019, the 29-year-old posted an impressive 72/1,202/9 line with the Dolphins. But that big year was the only 1,000-yard season of Parker's seven-year NFL career, he has missed nine games in the two seasons since, and last year Parker posted his lowest reception (40) and yardage (515) totals since 2018.

FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS - DECEMBER 26: Quarterback  Mac Jones #10 of the New England Patriots looks to pass during the second quarter of the game against the Buffalo Bills at Gillette Stadium on December 26, 2021 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Omar Rawlings/Getty Images)
Omar Rawlings/Getty Images

Long story short, Parker is no sure bet. And he's not the only uncertainty Jones will have to overcome.

After a decade as offensive coordinator for the Patriots, Josh McDaniels left the team to become the head coach of the Las Vegas Raiders. Somewhat puzzlingly, the Patriots did not replace him. It's believed that either Senior Football Advisor Matt Patricia or offensive assistant Joe Judge will call the plays in 2022, but in true Bill Belichick fashion, the head coach didn't rule out doing the job himself.

"I've called them and I haven't called them," Belichick told reporters. "Other people have called them and haven't called them. We'll see."

Thanks for clearing that up, Bill.

Wide receiver Jakobi Meyers lauded the mastery of the "new" offense that Jones has already displayed.

"Has he taken control of the offense? That's a capital yes, exclamation mark, exclamation mark,” Meyers told reporters. "He's the real deal. We're all trying to catch up what's in his mind, his vision.”

For his part, new scheme and terminology or not, Jones said it's still the same old game.

"At the end of the day football is football," Jones told reporters. "Offensive football there is only so much you can do. You can't recreate the wheel with every different system. You either run it or you throw it. It's really that simple. And that's pretty much all there is to it."

INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA - DECEMBER 18: Mac Jones #10 of the New England Patriots warms up before the game against the Indianapolis Colts at Lucas Oil Stadium on December 18, 2021 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images)
Justin Casterline/Getty Images

No one should question Jones' ability to pick up a new scheme—from all indications, he's a highly intelligent young signal-caller who seemed to acclimate to McDaniels' offense a year ago with relative ease. But even if whoever's new offense in New England is similar to the one he already knows, instead of taking play calls from one of the most highly regarded offensive minds in the league, in 2022 he will be doing so from either an assistant with exponentially more experience on defense than offense (Patricia), a special teams coach with very limited offensive experience (Judge) or a man known a lot more for crafting defensive game plans than offensive ones (Belichick).

Bill Belichick is arguably the best head coach the NFL has ever known. But he isn't going to suddenly become Bill Walsh.

It's not all doom and gloom and questions at receiver and potential play-calling issues. The Patriots fielded a top-10 offensive line last year, per Sam Monson of Pro Football Focus, and while the team traded guard Shaq Mason, it hopes to have found a readymade replacement in first-round pick Cole Strange. The Pats also fielded the eighth-best ground game in the league, with running backs Damien Harris and Rhamondre Stevenson combining for 1,535 yards.

Running to set up the pass may be old school, but it can still be effective. However, it only goes so far. Teams fall behind. Or run into an offense they have little to no success stopping.

When that happened to the Patriots in 2021 (like in the playoff loss to the Bills), the team was in big trouble—because Jones and the passing attack just couldn't keep up.

Now, it's possible that Jones can overcome these obstacles. That Parker will turn back the clock and sail past 1,000 yards. That the offense won't miss a beat with a new coach at the helm. That Jones will improve his vertical throws and guide New England back to the postseason and deep into it.

But the odds do not appear in his favor. Parker has had one big year out of seven. Judge and Patricia are complete unknowns as play-callers.

And if so-so weaponry and staid play-calling prove to be too much of a detriment and Jones can't make substantial headway as a player in his second season, then in a loaded AFC the Pats probably won't make the playoffs at all.