As the Irish rock band Thin Lizzy once enthusiastically declared in their 1976 hit of the same name, "The Boys Are Back in Town."
Or, at least they will be on Monday.
The New England Patriots are set to begin the next phase of their offseason program for 2021, as mandatory minicamp opens in Foxboro, Massachusetts. The Pats made quite the proverbial splash in the free agent market during the offseason, and several new faces are leading to lofty expectations.
For the next three days, evaluations will be made, predictions will be offered and the occasional "take" will provide ample fodder for the sports debate fire that will rage throughout the region until the start of training camp in late July.
However, if we are being honest, one storyline will stand above the rest: the state of the Patriots quarterback position in 2021.
For the first time since 1993, when the team selected Drew Bledsoe with the first overall selection, the Pats took a quarterback in the first round of the NFL draft. With the 15th selection in 2021, the Patriots selected Mac Jones from Alabama.
By utilizing such valuable first-round draft capital, the Patriots are sending a clear message that Jones is their plan for the future of the position. After all, the Pats are coming off of a 7-9 finish to the 2020 season when they missed the playoffs for the first time since 2008.
Unfamiliar territory, to say the least.
2020 was also the first time in recent memory that New England had legitimate questions surrounding the quarterback position heading into the season. With Tom Brady having his spot as the undisputed starter firmly secured since 2002, New England typically had little-to-no concern in the quarterback department.
With Brady deciding to take his talents to Tampa in March 2020, the Patriots were now faced with a question that plagues far more NFL franchises than not: What Now?
Former Auburn quarterback Jarrett Stidham seemed to be the logical choice to succeed Brady as New England’s new man under center. The Pats’ fourth-round selection in the 2019 NFL draft had been touted as a prospect with good arm strength and adequate mobility. Despite a very limited sample size of pro-level game action, Stidham was already being heralded as a quarterback who could fit the ball into tight spots with the ability to drive the ball vertically when he had space to step into his throws.
Out with the GOAT, on to the Stidham Stump.
And, where did the legend of Jarrett Stidham begin? Well, the seedlings were planted during Patriots minicamp in 2019.
In the midst of rifling through completion statistics from 11-on-11 drills, the narrative of the backup quarterback began to take shape. The future of a highly successful franchise being placed on the arm of a quarterback yet to take an NFL snap. Even with Brady still very much in the Foxboro fold, the occasional practice completion by Stidham to a receiver in tight coverage had Patriots fandom wondering, can he be "the guy"?
In 2020, concerns over the COVID-19 pandemic halted plans for minicamps throughout the NFL. Still, it was widely expected that New England was content to start Jarrett Stidham at the position for the upcoming season. The team did not draft a quarterback in 2020 and added veteran Brian Hoyer to field an expected backup role. With Stidham now the assumed starter, the Patriots would have to wait a bit longer to get a live look at QB1.
Plans abruptly changed in late June when the Patriots signed 2015 NFL MVP Cam Newton. Newton’s previous reputation and prowess at the position served him well in earning the starting job from both Stidham and Hoyer during an abridged 2020 training camp.
However, one is left to wonder whether a strong performance by Stidham in minicamp might have prevented the Patriots from pursuing Newton? Unlikely as it may seem, the lack of a mandatory minicamp in 2020 at least allows for the question to be asked.
Pats Have Got a Brand New Mac
While it has been nearly one year since Newton’s signing, the narrative for this year’s minicamp is sure to be the same. Newton is likely to be sidelined with a hand injury, opening the opportunity for the remaining quarterbacks to make a lasting impression. Although Stidham (along with Brian Hoyer) remains on the roster, the future now seems to belong to Mac Jones. The 22 year-old had an impressive season as Alabama’s starter in 2020. He completed 77.4 percent of his passes for 4,500 yards, 41 touchdowns and just 4 interceptions. His season culminated in leading the Crimson Tide to the national championship.
In Jones, the Patriots hope to have procured the services of a clear leader; as well as a very smart player at the position. His ability to understand pro-level object reads and multiple level progressions has earned him the praise of former Patriots coaches Dante Scarnecchia and Charlie Weiss. Jones has also demonstrated an understanding of the variety of concepts that will be required of him to succeed in the Patriots offensive system under head coach Bill Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels.
Jones’ naysayers will point to his limitations outside the pocket as the reason for the Patriots making a mistake with this selection. While it is an accurate assessment to describe his arm strength as average, he does demonstrate a greater amount of athleticism than for which he is given credit. Jones has great field awareness and is capable of moving up in the pocket and delivering the ball to his target accurately and on-time. He is not a quarterback who will routinely create off-script plays outside the pocket. However, he has shown (even as recently as his Pro Day workouts and Senior Bowl practices) that he has enough mobility to take advantage of the space he has within the pocket.
‘Two Buckets’ From the Same Well
Now that Jones has donned a Patriots jersey — albeit a practice jersey, sporting a number (50) that he will not be wearing at the start of the season — the expectations continue to grow with each rep and completion. The Crimson Tide product has shown some signs of promise during the past few weeks of OTA practice sessions. Though his time on the field has been limited, he continues the daunting task of learning the Patriots playbook. By his own admission, Jones still has a lot to learn.
In fact, he is taking a mature and organized approach to his learning.
“I have a lot of room to grow and I have to make strides every day,” Jones told reporters last week. “I kind of have two buckets: The things I know, I keep in one bucket, and the things that I keep messing up or the things I’m not getting, I have to put them in another bucket and figure out what’s wrong. I gotta take that approach and learn from all the quarterbacks. So, it’s not just me. Learn from the older guys on the team and watch them practice and learn how to practice the best way I can so that when we get to the games, it will be easier.”
While it is unlikely that Jones will earn the Pats’ starting job in the advent of his rookie season, he is clearly the future plan at the position in Foxboro. However, he should be given the time and space necessary for him to grow into his prowess. Expectations beyond that do a disservice to Jones, his coaches and his teammates. The best way to fit into the Patriots offense is to win pre-snap reads, make anticipatory throws and demonstrate the ability to get the ball out on time.
Jones can do that.
The team with which the Patriots surround him will allow him to do it.
That being said, it will almost certainly take a lot longer than three days of Patriots mandatory minicamp for him to begin the process of creating some Mac Magic.