Mac Jones may have been the most polarizing prospect in April’s NFL draft.
Some saw an unathletic quarterback that had been propped up by his stellar supporting cast at Alabama. Others saw a lightning-quick processor that could make up for any physical shortcomings with his intelligence.
Jones was projected to go as high as No. 3 overall to the 49ers, but eventually slipped on draft day to the New England Patriots at No. 15. Jones has lived up to the rosier career outlook thus far, winning the starting job over Cam Newton heading into the season and putting together an impressive rookie campaign through 10 weeks.
Former Crimson Tide player Rashad Johnson was an off-field analyst for the team in recent years, and got an up-close look at Jones, as well as Tua Tagovailoa and Jalen Hurts.
Even though the other two had more fanfare, Johnson said it was Jones who stood out.
“This is no shot at (Tagovailoa and Hurts), but there was something about Mac Jones, something I felt was a little bit more unique and special than the other two guys,” Johnson said. “And it was between his ears. Maybe it’s because that was the type of player I was — really mental in the game, understood it.
“For him, he gets the ball out of his hands fast, doesn’t make many mistakes. He doesn’t have an issue processing what he’s seeing and sticking to the game plan. He did such a tremendous job here at Alabama that his senior year I was like, ‘Mac, with his smarts and his brain, I think he’s going to have a much better start to his career and maybe a longer career than those two guys, even though they’re more talented than him.’”
Mac Jones is now the 5th-highest graded QB:
1. Tom Brady
2. Kirk Cousins
3. Ryan Tannehill
4. Justin Herbert
5. Mac Jones
Of further note: Kirk Cousins is 0.1 points (on a 100-point scale) behind Brady for No. 1 pic.twitter.com/FHNIHeK9R9
— Computer Cowboy (@benbbaldwin) November 15, 2021
Johnson knows a little something about football intelligence. He walked on at Alabama and then went on to have an eight-year career in the NFL as a safety with the Arizona Cardinals and Tennessee Titans.
While Johnson wasn’t as naturally gifted as other players, he made up for it with preparation. He said the next step for Tagovailoa is processing quickly enough to find gaps in defenses.
“Sometimes talent can hold you back a little bit if you’re not dialing in to the other details,” Johnson said. “Tua holds the ball a little bit too long because he’s so special with his arm and with his talent, and sometimes that can hurt him as a player. That left arm is special, with his accuracy and his precision. (Diagnosing defenses) may be his biggest thing.”
Jones was 19-of-23 for 198 yards and three touchdowns as the Patriots torched the Browns, 45-7, on Sunday. New England is 6-4 on the season and has a point-differential of plus-98, which is tied for second in the NFL behind only the Bills.
Jones has an overall PFF grade of 87.0 this season, which is fifth-best in the NFL, ahead of Kyler Murray and Dak Prescott. While the four other first-round signal-callers — Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson, Trey Lance and Justin Fields — have yet to make their stamp on the league, Jones is already turning heads.
There is no question he landed in a perfect situation, as New England coach Bill Belichick is the master at tailoring his team to its strengths and an opponent’s weakness. But Jones still had to hold up his end of the bargain.
Mac Jones on throws 10+ yards vs. Browns:
🔹158.3 Passer Rating pic.twitter.com/AmKg8LRGcJ
— PFF College Football (@PFF_College) November 15, 2021
Jones was criticized heavily before the draft, which may have a lit a fire inside him, but Johnson said there has always been an ember burning. That’s the way Jones is wired.
“I remember when I was working at ‘Bama and he wasn’t the starter,” Johnson said. “It was Jalen and Tua on Field 1, and he would be on the scout-team field where I was, working against the first-team defense. And he was competitive, to the point where guys had to calm him down a little bit over there. He was fiery, had a mouth to him, and just enjoyed the game. You saw a guy that knew he wasn’t playing on Saturdays, but he was ballin’, him and some of those young receivers. I was highly impressed.”
Jones hasn’t arrived quite yet, but the early returns are very encouraging. The AFC is hard to gauge at this point of the season, and the Patriots could be playing their way into contention. They have won four consecutive games and sit only a half-game behind the Bills for first place in the AFC East with a pair of head-to-head matchups remaining.
Maybe the other four rookie quarterbacks will catch up to Jones this year or sometime down the road. Maybe Tagovailoa and Hurts will end up with better careers.
But for now, Jones is in the driver’s seat, and Patriots fans are enjoying the ride.
THE FUTURE OF BAKER MAYFIELD
While Jones looked like a savvy veteran on Sunday, Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield was awful. He finished the game 11-of-21 for 73 yards with a touchdown and an interception before leaving with a knee injury.
Mayfield’s statistics look OK this season but his ESPN Total QBR tells a different story. Mayfield has a score of 42.9, which is 25th in the NFL. The Browns have a talented team on both sides of the ball but the inconsistency of their quarterback has kept the group from jumping into AFC contention.
Cleveland will obviously ride it out this year, but the front office will have an interesting decision to make after the season. Mayfield is due $18.9 million next year, which is a low salary for a starting quarterback. The Browns could ride with him for another year at that price point, but a trade would also clear all of that salary off the books.
Rex Ryan says Baker Mayfield is overrated 😳
"Baker Mayfield is NOT an elite quarterback! … Baker Mayfield doesn't lose games for you, but he doesn't win games for you either." pic.twitter.com/yFxGXjdAs8
— Get Up (@GetUpESPN) November 15, 2021
This year’s class of draft-eligible college quarterbacks have not looked good, so if Cleveland wants to replace Mayfield in 2022, it will likely need to look around the league at options. Aaron Rodgers and Russell Wilson would be home runs, but it’s hard to know if one or both will truly be available.
The Browns seem on the precipice of dominance, but Mayfield keeps holding them back. If the season ends without a playoff berth, his spot as the starter next year could be precarious.
COWBOYS COMING ON STRONG
Dallas shook off a bad showing against the Broncos two weeks ago by dominating the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday. The Cowboys are now 7-2 and quarterback Dak Prescott is inserting himself into the MVP conversation.
Dallas has seemingly had the NFC East wrapped up for weeks, but now it is the favorite to finish as the No. 1 seed in the conference, according to Football Outsiders.
The Cowboys are given a 28.9% chance to earn the top spot. The Green Bay Packers have a 24.9% chance, the Cardinals a 19.7% chance, the Buccaneers a 14% shot and the Rams an 11.6% chance.
The No. 1 seed is the only team with a first-round bye and will have home field advantage up to the Super Bowl, so it’s a critical race.
The Titans have a 51% chance to finish as the top seed in the AFC after holding on to beat the Saints on Sunday.