Curran: Setting the stakes for Mac Jones in Year 3 with Patriots

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By the end of the 2021 season, there were three Mac Jones "camps."

Residing in the first? People believing Jones was very good, potentially elite and a 10-year answer at the position.

The folks in the second camp believed Jones was fine, maybe better than average, a potential top-10 guy if surrounded by the right support and coaching. He was "an" answer if not "the" answer.

Camp three? Jones was average. Jones would remain average. A placeholder.

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Nobody thought he sucked. Nobody thought the Patriots erred in selecting him with the 15th pick. Nobody was expecting that, by the end of Year 2, two new camps would spring up.

But they have. The "He’s Not That Guy" camp, and the even less forgiving, "He’s Really Kinda Bad" camp.  

The harebrained plan to overhaul the offense AND have it run through Matt Patricia backfired and took a flamethrower to Jones’ second season.

He threw picks. He got hurt. He got booed. He got pseudo-benched. He got beat up. He got whiny. He got criticized. He got outplayed by a rookie backup. He had a no-good, very bad year that was physically and mentally punishing.

Was Mac Jones merely a victim of circumstance? Will hiring Bill O’Brien as offensive coordinator be the antidote to what ailed Jones and the offense? Or was 2021 about as good as Mac Jones could be, a realization of that "low ceiling" we discussed when we would talk about him being a "low-ceiling, high-floor" player?

 

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As we evaluate and project into next year, that’s the focal point of the entire organization: figuring out if the most important on-field position is staffed by the right guy.

Bright spots

Jones’ on-field and sideline histrionics were a major talking point. So were things he said and didn’t say at the podium. I saw a player who felt like the plan to replace Josh McDaniels was doomed.

For the most part, he stiff-upper-lipped it. But finally, playing the Bills in primetime on December 1, he snapped at the ineptitude, conservativeness and lack of imagination.

He took it too far the next two weeks before tamping it down, but the act itself to me showed a guy who, A) did shut up and take it for five months, and B) had the guts to say something when he felt the product was wholly unacceptable.

You may disagree, but I thought he showed some serious resiliency, especially during the three-game span when he was sacked 16 times. Jones was under constant heat but still completed 73 percent of his passes as the Patriots won all three against aggressive defenses. The edict was to stop with the turnovers. He did.

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The early-season edict was to be aggressive. He was. The loss to the Ravens where he threw three picks and got injured actually featured some of the best throws of his career so far.

Jones’ strengths of smarts, accuracy and toughness were on display frequently enough to know they are still there.

An even brighter spot? Bailey Zappe. After Jones got hurt in Week 3, his backup, Brian Hoyer, relieved in Week 4 at Green Bay. When he got knocked out, Zappe came in cold and kept the Patriots in the game all the way against Aaron Rodgers.

Zappe started the next two and showed decisiveness, accuracy and poise as the Patriots walloped Detroit and Cleveland.

Bill Belichick went back to Jones to start against Chicago, pulled Jones after a hellacious pick and inserted Zappe. He had a couple of moments before crashing back to earth.

But the kid went 65 of 92 with five TDs and three picks in two starts and two relief appearances. Physically, he’s not that far from Jones. In terms of experience and smarts, he is. But those are things that improve.

Zappe’s progress will be fascinating to watch in this camp and COULD ultimately impact how the Patriots proceed with Jones.

The disappointments

Jones' arm remains pedestrian. In a clean pocket with a stable base, he can throw with enough velocity to make people say, "HA! AND THEY SAY HE CAN’T THROW!!!" but if he’s not in a test tube, it’s meh. The brain and anticipation have to be on-point.

Hoyer will turn 38 next season. The concussion he suffered was tough to watch. Given Zappe’s encouraging performance, he should be the No. 2 in 2023. We’ll see where that leaves Hoyer.

Contract statuses

Jones enters the third year of his four-year rookie deal. He has cap hits of $ 4.25 million and $ 4.95 million the next two years. If the Patriots pick up the option on Jones’ fifth year next May, his 2025 salary will be around $ 30 million fully guaranteed.

Curran: Back to elite? That's a matter of dollars and sense for Patriots, Mac Jones

If they don’t pick up the option, Jones will be an unrestricted free agent after the 2024 season and the Patriots can either franchise him (expect that to be close to $ 45 million), get him on a new deal or say ta-ta.

Hoyer is under contract for 2023 at $ 1.4 million. Zappe is under contract through 2025 and his cap hits are all lower than $ 1.3 million (file that under "things that make ya go hmmmm…").

Offseason priority (Scale of 1-5)

For shopping purposes? Call it a 2. Might want to shore up with a veteran quarterback. Maybe throw another dart at the board in the draft. But figuring out how good the players you have actually are is more important than bringing in new ones.

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