The New England Patriots' season ended rather unceremoniously. They lost three of their last four in the regular season and got routed the Buffalo Bills in the AFC Wild Card Round.
But there's still reason for optimism in Foxboro, thanks in large part to Mac Jones.
The No. 15 overall pick enjoyed a strong rookie season, completing 67.6% of his passes for 3,801 yards with 22 touchdown passes and 13 interceptions.
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While Jones appeared to hit a "rookie wall" late in the season, it's important to put his campaign into context: The 23-year-old was just the 13th QB in NFL history to lead his team to the postseason in Year 1 (minimum 10 games started), and he was by far the most effective quarterback in the 2021 NFL Draft class, outperforming all four QBs taken in front of him (Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson, Trey Lance and Justin Fields).
In fact, you could make the case that Jones was one of the NFL's best rookies period in 2021. ESPN's ranking of the league's top 10 rookies supports that case: Jones trails only Dallas Cowboys pass rusher Micah Parsons on its list.
Here's the top five of ESPN's list, which drew on polls of league executives in addition to film study:
- Micah Parsons, ILB/DE, Dallas Cowboys
- Mac Jones, QB, New England Patriots
- Rashawn Slater, OT, Los Angeles Chargers
- Creed Humphrey, C, Kansas City Chiefs
- Ja'Marr Chase, WR, Cincinnati Bengals
Jones is four slots ahead of Ja'Marr Chase, who is the odds-on favorite to win Offensive Rookie of the Year after a record-breaking season for the Bengals. He's also the only QB in the top 10.
While Jones benefited from excellent coaching and a strong running game, ESPN's Jeff Legwold noted the Alabama product still had plenty to overcome after beating out Cam Newton for the starting job in preseason.
New England Patriots
"In terms of degree of difficulty, what was on his vocational plate and the expectation level for the team (both inside and outside the building), Jones dealt with more than anyone else in the rookie class," Legwold wrote. "And his team made the postseason with 10 wins."
Jones struggled over New England's final five games -- 59.8% completion rate; six TD passes; five interceptions -- and drew some harsh criticism in the process. But that criticism came in part because Jones had raised expectations for himself: He played like a solid veteran QB for most of the season, so critics began treating him like one.
Patriots fans can and should expect more from Jones in Year 2. But they should also be very encouraged that the Patriots appear to have landed one of the best players in the 2021 draft class at the league's most important position.