A strong case could be made that Mac Jones is facing more pressure to play at a high level entering the 2023 NFL season than any other quarterback in the AFC.
He's certainly not the only QB in the conference facing immense pressure and lofty expectations. But this is a massive Year 3 for the University of Alabama product. He won the starting job as a rookie in 2021 and played well enough to lead New England to the playoffs with a 10-7 record. The 2022 campaign was a disaster. Injuries, lackluster performance and a horrible offensive coaching setup resulted in an underwhelming sophomore season for Jones.
Jones has the potential to be a franchise quarterback for many years. But to convince fans, the media and the Patriots he's that kind of player, he needs a strong Year 3.
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Luckily for Patriots fans, Jones' teammates are optimistic he'll rise to the challenge, including veteran safety Adrian Phillips.
"I just think overall he's a way better quarterback," Phillips told reporters after an Aug. 22 practice. "He took last year on the chin. He'll be the first one to tell you that that's not how he wanted to play, and for all of us that's not how any of us wanted to play. He'll be the first to tell you that.
"He's coming out here every single day and he's trying to light our defense up. Literally light us up. Anything he can do. You love to see that. He's always checking the play. He's always ready to give you something you have to think about. I just think his confidence is through the roof right now."
What can we realistically expect of Jones in his third season?
There were 20 quarterbacks selected in the first round of the NFL Draft from 2015 through 2020 -- the most recent draft class where a QB could have at least three years of NFL experience. Sixteen of them played 11 or more games in their third campaign.
Here's how those quarterbacks fared from a statistical perspective in Year 3.
The average stat line of those 16 quarterbacks who played 11 or more games in Year 3 is 3,598 yards, 23 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. If those stats look familiar, it might be because Jones posted something similar as a rookie. He led all first-year QBs with 3,801 yards and 22 touchdowns, along with 13 interceptions in 2021. Jones potentially could reach 4,000 yards and 25 touchdowns if he plays all 17 games in 2023.
There are a few Year 3 success stories worth noting.
Josh Allen, the Bills' No. 7 overall pick in 2018, threw for 5,163 yards with 30 touchdowns and 21 interceptions over his first two seasons combined. He completed just 55.8 percent of his passes during that span, too. His Year 3 jump was sensational. He completed 69.2 percent (still a career high) of his passes for 4,544 yards, 37 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. The Bills went 13-3 and lost to the Chiefs in the AFC Championship Game.
Could Jones have a similarly impressive Year 3? Reaching those numbers seems unlikely, but if you remember, very, very few people predicted Allen having that kind of season in 2020. Jones and Allen are different players. Allen is more mobile, for example. But it's not totally unrealistic to think Jones could have a monster 2023 if a few things go right.
Jared Goff struggled his rookie year, improved in his sophomore season and then broke out in Year 3. His 4,688 yards and 32 touchdowns helped the Rams reach Super Bowl LIII in 2018, where they lost to the Patriots. Goff is more similar to Jones than Allen.
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The 2020 draft class was in its third season in 2022, and the group played remarkably well. Joe Burrow led the Cincinnati Bengals to an AFC North title and an AFC Championship Game appearance. Tua Tagovailoa, when healthy, played like a top 10 QB and contributed to the Miami Dolphins earning a wild card playoff spot. Justin Herbert completed nearly 70 percent of his passes and made his first playoff appearance with the Los Angeles Chargers. Jalen Hurts, who was drafted in the second round in 2020, was the favorite for league MVP until he got injured late in the season, and then he led the Philadelphia Eagles to the Super Bowl.
Context is important, of course. All four of those quarterbacks have better supporting casts than Jones. They all have better offensive lines as well. But the point remains: Year 3 is often a pivotal year in the development of a quarterback. It's often the time when we figure out if a QB actually has franchise cornerstone ability.
There are reasons to be optimistic that Jones can make a serious leap in his third season. Maybe not an Allen-in-2020 kind of jump, but a significant one nonetheless.
The arrival of Bill O'Brien as the new offensive coordinator is a huge deal. O'Brien was the Houston Texans head coach when Deshaun Watson enjoyed a successful Year 3, and his track record overall speaks for itself. By all accounts, O'Brien and Jones have worked well together. In a recent interview with Sports Illustrated's Albert Breer, Jones described their time together as "fun."
"We speak the same language," Jones told Breer. "He used to coach for [Bill] Belichick and [Nick] Saban, and I played for Belichick and Saban. … We speak the same terminology. Sometimes I’ll bring up an old play, and everyone’s like, What’s that? And O’B’s like, It’s this. We’re talking the same language. It’s fun."
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The Patriots' wide receiver depth chart lacks a true No. 1, but the group's depth is solid. Kendrick Bourne, DeVante Parker and JuJu Smith-Schuster (when healthy) are all competent players. Hunter Henry and Mike Gesicki should form a pretty good tight end tandem. Rhamondre Stevenson and Ezekiel Elliott have the potential to be a top 10 running back duo. The offensive line is a real concern, but we still haven't seen all of the starters healthy and on the field yet.
Have the Patriots done an amazing job surrounding Jones with high-end talent at the skill positions? Of course not. But it's not a horrific roster, either.
Jones is a good quarterback. He's fully capable of making a Year 3 leap. And the Patriots really need him to do that if they're going to be competitive. The biggest reason for that is their schedule. It's the toughest 17-game slate in the league, based on opponents' 2022 win percentage and ESPN's Football Power Index model. Ten of the Patriots' 17 games in 2023 are against the top-16 scoring teams from last season. They play five games against the top four scoring teams from 2022.
The Patriots aren't likely to make the playoffs. But the season can still be a big success if Jones takes a meaningful step or two forward in his development. Finding a long-term answer at quarterback is pivotal to the team's success going forward. Jones has an opportunity this season to prove he's the solution with an impressive Year 3.