Monday, August 15, 2022

Mac Jones expectations in Year 2: Can the trimmed down Patriots QB produce supersized production in 2022?

Mac Jones‘ rookie season with the New England Patriots was by all accounts successful as he led all first-year players in completion percentage (67.6%), passing yards (3,801), passing touchdowns (22), and passer rating (92.5). The 15th overall pick of the 2021 NFL Draft and the fifth quarterback selected joined an elite club of rookies to have 3,500-plus passing yards and 20-plus passing touchdowns in their NFL debut season, just the 10th in league history.

Rookies with 3,500+ passing yards and 20+ passing TDs in NFL history

Entering the 2022 season, Jones has put to rest the biggest critique against him, his fitness. Throughout Jones’ pre-draft evaluations, a celebratory photo from Alabama’s national championship win in the 2017 season in which he was a freshman backup, didn’t project the most flattering fitness physique. Fast forward to this summer, and Jones has clearly made a lifestyle shift.

“I think it’s important to assess everything and that was one of the things I want to improve. I made significant strides,” Jones said, via NBC Sports Boston a week ago. “Fixing my body, feeling comfortable, feeling healthier and better. At the end of the day, you’re still a human and you want to eat what you want to eat, but you have to be disciplined the best you can. It all goes back into just trying to be a better player and person. That was my goal this offseason. I feel better, I feel confident, and that’s what’s important. I’m just gonna try and go in there and do my thing and lead everybody and help us come together as a unit. That’s kind of what it’s all about, and the offseason’s a great time to sit back and relax a little bit but also try and make strides in where you want to make strides, so I feel like I’ve done that.”

His teammates have taken notice, labeling the Pro Bowl quarterback a common NFL training camp trope, “in the best shape of his life.”

“Mac, he’s in the best shape of his life, and I think he’s been here [New England] all offseason with [strength and conditioning coach Moses Cabrera],” Patriots wide receiver Kendrick Bourne said during the team’s minicamp in May. “His stomach is gone and he looks really good. He’s definitely a pro’s pro now. When you’re a rookie, you just don’t know until you go through it for a year. He’s definitely a lot more in shape than he ever was. He’s just dominating the conditioning, which is dope to see. He’ll be able to endure more during the game and go through more.”

Accuracy was Jones’ biggest strength as a rookie, nearly setting the NFL rookie completion percentage record as he finished 0.2 percentage points behind Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott’s record of 67.8% from the 2016 season.  

Highest completion percentage by a rookie QB in NFL history

2016

Dak Prescott

67.8%

2021 

Mac Jones

67.6%

2020 

Justin Herbert

66.6%

2004

Ben Roethlisberger

66.4%

Like Prescott and Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, Jones reached the playoffs in his first season, but it was a sour first taste as his Patriots lost by 30 points to Josh Allen and the Buffalo Bills. As far as statistical success goes in a QB’s first two seasons, Los Angeles Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert is the standard, holding the NFL records for most passing yards (9,350) and passing touchdowns (69) in a player’s first two years in the league. Roethlisberger is the record-setter for team success at an early age, winning the Super Bowl in his second season in 2005 at age 23, which made him the youngest Super Bowl-winning starting quarterback in NFL history. 

A 70-year-old Bill Belichick, who is entering his 23rd season as the Patriots head coach, has gone all-in on Jones’ pass-catching unit in order to get the most production from the quarterback while he is playing out his rookie contract. The Patriots have allocated just over a third of their 2022 salary cap, a little above 33%, to their tight ends and wide receivers, the highest percentage any NFL team has allotted to its receiving units, according to Spotrac’s data. For reference, the 2022 Jaguars have the league’s second-highest salary cap percentage tied to their wide receivers and tight ends at 23.01%.

According to Spotrac, New England is the NFL’s biggest spender at the tight end position for this coming season, allocating around $31.8 million in salary cap money and about 15% of its 2022 salary cap room to that group thanks to Hunter Henry’s three-year, $37.5 million deal (led team with nine receiving TD in 2021) and Jonnu Smith’s four-year, $50 million deal, both signed in the 2021 offseason. No other team is set to pay more than $20 million in cap space or carve out over 10% above their cap to tight ends like New England. 

As far as their wide receiver group, the Patriots’ spending is also high — top three in the NFL. The Patriots are currently slated to have over $38 million tied up in their wide receivers, which amounts to around 18% of their salary cap, both third-most in the NFL, per Spotrac. The franchise signed Nelson Agholor (two years, $22 million) and Kendrick Bourne (three years, $15 million) in the 2021 offseason and acquired DeVante Parker (four years, $30.5 million) in a trade with the Dolphins on April 5.  New England also invested a second-round pick in this year’s draft to grab the fastest wide receiver available, Baylor’s Tyquan Thornton, who ran an unofficial 4.21-second 40-yard dash at the NFL combine, which would have beaten John Ross‘ record of 4.22 seconds. However, Thornton was given a 4.28-second official time after review. 

Two days after the Patriots acquired Parker, Jones organized team workouts in Florida to build upon his chemistry with his high-priced compatriots.

The receivers came away from that time with a renewed appreciation for “Mac and Cheese”, the nickname former Patriot Cam Newton bestowed upon Jones as a rookie. Jones will naturally be expected to carry much more of the leadership burden in his second season with longtime Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels now in Las Vegas as the head coach of the Raiders.

“It’s just at another level now,” Bourne said at the beginning of June. “He’s more comfortable, more confident. He knows what’s going on, and the muscle memory is there (from having gone through it) — OTAs, then camp, and the season. He’s just more locked in, more secure in his position.”

Bourne may be the go-to guy as far as assessing Jones’ growth given how the two clicked from Week 6 through the end of the 2021 season with the former San Francisco 49er and first-year Patriot leading the team in receiving yards (593) in that span. 

“He connects with all the players really well. I’m proud of that dude, because it’s not easy,” Bourne said. “Going into his second year after having a year like that, it’s going to be a challenge, but he’s a guy that likes challenges, like all of us in that Patriot building.”

Given that his season ended at the hands of an offensive juggernaut in the Buffalo Bills, Jones is focusing on what he believes is necessary to get to the next level with what could be a top five offense, given the team averaged 27.2 points per game his rookie season, the sixth-most in the NFL, with plenty of room to grow.

“I think it’s important to be with your teammates and build that relationship and build the camaraderie for your team,” Jones said last week. “We have a great group of guys. They’re all good dudes and we’re just excited to get back to work. We’ve put in a lot of work and now it’s time to go, so we’re really excited for the season. … Every year is a new year. This year’s different. It’s my second year, it’s a lot of other guys’ second years, and some guys have been in the league for five-plus years. So everyone’s in a different boat, but we’re all working toward the same goal. Just being great teammates for each other and then going out and putting the product on the field.”

In the Patriots’ 50-10 Week 17 win last season against No. 1 overall draft pick quarterback Trevor Lawrence and his Jacksonville Jaguars, Jones’ performance (22-for-30, 227 passing yards, 3 passing touchdowns) had the notoriously emotionless Belichick cracking jokes with him on the sideline. Perhaps Jones’ continued development could have his head coach loving his offensive product and showing even more positive emotions in their second season together in 2022.

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