Bill Belichick just took a huge step away from the Tom Brady era. Now Mac Jones has to live up to the ghost of the GOAT

Every year, we talk about “on brand” or “perfect fit” selections in the NFL draft. These are often the players who embody precisely what the coaching staff is looking for in attitude, toughness or skill — or in some cases, they're simply a close image of the franchise star who they will be tasked to replace.

Occasionally you find a draft pick who fits all of the above, like he was constructed in a laboratory and matched to the exact specifications of the team selecting him.

This is where Mac Jones and the New England Patriots met on Thursday, a place where draft patience and the ideal prospect found each other. It led Bill Belichick to spend a first-round pick on a quarterback for the first time in his 26 years as an NFL head coach, including the past 21 years with the Patriots. It materialized at the perfect intersection of need, familiarity and skill set, not to mention a dire moment in time, when New England had to come out of this offseason with another quarterback option that wasn’t simply Cam Newton, Jarrett Stidham or some other developmental mid-round roll of the dice.

Make no mistake, what we saw Thursday was the first big step by Belichick to resolve the next decade without Tom Brady. That’s what it means when you take a quarterback at 15th overall in a draft — a sign that you’ve found someone worthy of stepping in sooner than later and then carrying the franchise beyond the five-year stretch of a rookie deal. In the case of first-round quarterback picks, anything less goes down as a failure.

This is what makes Jones both an intriguing and obvious pick for the Patriots. On one hand, he’s the first player in decades who truly represents a franchise-changing draft gamble by Belichick. But on the other, he comes from an Alabama program that Belichick knows inside and out thanks to his decades-long friendship with Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban. Their relationship is so intimate that on a football level, arguably no college and NFL coach in today’s game could so perfectly select players for the other’s team. That suggests that if Jones is a flop with the Patriots, it will represent a unified mistake by two of the best football minds in the history of the game.

If Mac Jones busts in the NFL, that means both Bill Belichick and Nick Saban were worng about a prospect, which seems unfathomable to think. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)
If Mac Jones busts in the NFL, that means both Bill Belichick and Nick Saban were worng about a prospect, which seems unfathomable to think. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)

If there was ever a reason to believe Jones should succeed in New England, it's that both Belichick and Saban believe he's worthy of being the first-round pick the Patriots can finally hang their hat on at the quarterback position. And why not? After all, a wide swath of Jones’ skillset overlaps with parts of Brady’s game that made him special in New England.

From his accuracy and next-level feel to his ability to navigate inside the pocket and deliver deep balls with uncanny touch, the comparisons have come easily. Even Jones patiently riding out his time until his chance to start at Alabama, not to mention his less-than-perfect physique, call back to Brady’s memorable draft transition from the University of Michigan to the NFL. The only major difference being that Jones is arriving with national championship fanfare, an immense spotlight and the hype of having been considered for the third overall pick, while Brady arrived as a low-risk and barely regarded sixth-round flier.

That’s part of what makes all of this a great fit for Jones — but also what saddles him with great expectations. Brady wasn’t following Brady. He wasn’t following two decades of red-hot success. He wasn’t trying to fill shoes of any GOAT. Really, Brady was just trying to get along and make the roster, while smoldering inside about what he deemed to be a draft snub he’d never forget.

Jones, on the other hand, comes in riding a draft arrow that has only pointed up in the process. And now he’s stepping into the immense canyon of success carved by Brady, aiming to quench the thirst of a fan base both unaccustomed to failure and desperate to have their next great quarterback.

Jones might be that. At the very least, he’s already earned the faith of both Belichick and Saban, which is a major football accomplishment. He also handled taking the reins from Tua Tagovailoa at Alabama — a college powerhouse that legitimately dwarfs many NFL environments in terms of the pressure-cooker created by a fervent fan base. All of that means something in the evaluation process. But none of it means anything if he can’t translate the success to the next level quickly, if only to placate a fan base that craves results over long-term grooming.

Not that Belichick is putting that kind of pressure on Jones. If anything, it’s the opposite. Whatever anointing of Jones that might have taken place before the draft has been replaced by earning his spot and learning how to navigate the expectations of a coach not historically prone to heaping out praise.

“Look forward to working with him,” Belichick said of Jones Thursday. “He’s a smart kid. He’s been in a system that’s similar to ours. We’ve had a lot of good conversations with him. I think he’ll be able to process the offense. It’s obviously going to take a lot of time. We’ll see how it goes. … Cam’s our quarterback. Whatever time Jarrett or Mac are ready to challenge and compete, we’ll see how that goes. Right now for Mac, he’s just got a lot of learning in front of him.”

Those are the kinds of even-handed words you’d expect from Belichick. But there’s no hiding what this is for him, either. He’s coming off a free-agent spending spree that was partially necessary because of a litany of poor draft decisions in past years. And this is the first time Belichick has really needed to wager a first-round pick on the most important position in the NFL.

If Jones fails, it’s going to linger on Belichick’s record. And it’s going to accentuate what all of this is really about: that Tom Brady is elsewhere and still winning, while his former team and head coach are trying to move beyond him.

Thursday was the biggest step yet. But the ghost of Brady is still lingering. And that’s just one more opponent that puts Jones in an exponentially tougher position than any other quarterback in this draft.

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