The New England Patriots are sticking with Mac Jones as their starting QB for Sunday's Week 6 game against the Raiders in Las Vegas.
Jones has struggled mightily over the past two weeks with zero touchdown passes and six turnovers (four interceptions, two fumbles). The Patriots have been outscored 72-3 in those games, and as a result, they own a 1-4 record for the first time since 2000.
If Jones struggles against the Raiders, how long will it take for head coach Bill Belichick to replace him? And will he turn to backup Bailey Zappe -- who also has struggled in limited reps this season -- or go in a completely different direction with either Will Grier or Malik Cunningham?
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Cunningham, according to offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien, has shown a lot of improvement in practice. What has Belichick seen from the ex-Louisville quarterback?
"Malik’s really worked hard and made a lot of improvement," Belichick said in his Friday morning press conference. "He never really played in the kicking game at Louisville, so he’s started to show up there, never played receiver – didn’t look very good either, in the spring, but he’s really improved there. He can catch the ball, but just route running and finding zones and things like that.
"But, it’s come pretty naturally to him. He plays a good amount of quarterback. He’s competent there. He’s a smart kid, works hard, and the opportunities he’s had, he’s shown a lot of improvement. It’s a little too early for an induction ceremony here, but definitely a lot of improvement."
Could Cunningham, who's currently on the practice squad, get an opportunity to play in an actual game at some point?
"Well, he’s definitely trending towards – anybody who keeps improving is going to eventually probably get an opportunity to play," Belichick said.
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Cunningham saw snaps at quarterback and wide receiver during the preseason. He played better at QB, including an impressive late-game drive against the Houston Texans in the preseason opener. Cunningham doesn't have to play a ton of snaps at QB to make a difference. He could come in and execute a trick play or a designed QB run just to change it up a bit. He is very athletic and capable of escaping the pass rush and making plays with his legs. That kind of skill set could be valuable on a team whose offensive line is not pass protecting at a high level.
Grier was signed off the Bengals practice squad in September, and he's been the Patriots' emergency QB in recent weeks. He has not yet played a regular season snap for the Patriots.
What kind of progress has Belichick seen from Grier so far?
"The opportunities he’s had, he’s done well with," Belichick said. "It’s just hard to get that position a lot of reps. He’s a smart kid, throws the ball well. He’s got a good arm and has picked up and learned things. Just going to keep going here and try to keep feeding him as much as we can, but there’s only so many snaps out there. Obviously, everyone needs them."
Grier isn't the long-term answer as a starting quarterback, but could he be a quality backup for a couple years? It's definitely possible, but it's hard to know for sure if he doesn't get any reps against real competition. We have a pretty good idea of what Zappe is at this point. He's definitely not a long-term solution as a starter or backup. So, why not make Grier the backup and see if he's a better fit for that role?
The Patriots are making the right decision to stick with Jones right now. But if there comes a time when Belichick has seen enough of the Alabama product, then he should turn to Cunningham or Grier and not Zappe.