Mark Daniels: Patriots are falling behind. The only remedy is a playmaker for Mac Jones

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NFL fans were on the edge of their seat as two high-octane offenses shot up and down the field last weekend. Sunday’s AFC divisional matchup saw the Kansas City Chiefs and the Buffalo Bills score 25 points in the final 1:54 of regulation. That was fun.

When it was all said and done, Patriots fans probably took some solace knowing that the Bills were 13 seconds away from hosting the AFC Championship Game, before it quickly and painfully fell apart. However, there’s little for Patriots fans to take comfort in after watching two stud quarterbacks in the AFC go to war with their much-better offensive units.

Lessons Learned: Pats can learn from QB Jim Plunkett when it comes to developing Mac Jones

Top 10 Patriots players under 25: The building blocks for the future of the franchise

Buffalo’s Josh Allen (age 25) and Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes (age 26) are in their prime and surrounded by good players. There’s a foundation set with the Chiefs and Bills that’s going to make them AFC contenders for the foreseeable future. That’s not the only problem. In Cincinnati, you have quarterback Joe Burrow (age 25) and his fantastic receivers set to play in the conference championship game.

Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen (17) throws a pass during the first half of an NFL divisional round playoff football game against the Kansas City Chiefs, Sunday, Jan. 23, 2022, in Kansas City, Mo. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)
Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen (17) throws a pass during the first half of an NFL divisional round playoff football game against the Kansas City Chiefs, Sunday, Jan. 23, 2022, in Kansas City, Mo. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

After seeing the Bills and Chiefs score 25 points in almost a minute and a half, it's fair to wonder how on earth can the Patriots keep up?

Simply put, the Patriots need to revamp their offense and defense to become contenders in their own conference. Considering Bill Belichick’s background, there should be little doubt that he can figure out what happened on defense and find the right pieces moving forward. This past season, however, also showed the Patriots are falling behind on offense when it comes to dynamic playmakers.

That’s why priority No. 1 needs to be to help Mac Jones. He put together one of the best seasons for a rookie quarterback in NFL history. When looking at what other quarterbacks, currently in the playoffs, have at their disposal, it’s clear the Patriots are falling short. If you look at what other successful quarterbacks, who developed in the right direction, worked with, you also see a common trend.

The Patriots need to acquire more offensive weapons for the future of their franchise.

Best second-year QBs had legit weapons

Over the course of NFL history, we’ve seen plenty of quarterbacks make a big jump from Year 1 to Year 2. There’s a common theme here: Pro Bowl caliber help. When you Look at players with the most passing yards in their second season, it’s evident.

In his 2018 sophomore campaign, Mahomes put together one of the best seasons in NFL history when he threw for a career-high 5,097 yards with 50 touchdowns. Mahomes has Hall-of-Fame talent and his top two targets — Travis Kelce (1,336 yards) and Tyreek Hill (1,479 yards) — are also Hall-of-Fame talents.

The next best sophomore quarterback season came from Dan Marino, who threw for 5,084 yards in 1984. His top two targets were two Pro Bowlers in Mark Clayton (1,389 yards and 18 touchdowns) and Mark Duper (1,306 yards and eight touchdowns).

Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes (15) throws a pass during the first half of an NFL wild-card playoff football game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Sunday, Jan. 16, 2022, in Kansas City, Mo. (AP Photo/Travis Heying)
Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes (15) throws a pass during the first half of an NFL wild-card playoff football game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Sunday, Jan. 16, 2022, in Kansas City, Mo. (AP Photo/Travis Heying)

Justin Herbert (5,014) and Burrow (4,611) put up the third and fourth most passing yards for second-year quarterbacks. Herbert accomplished that with Pro Bowler Keenan Allen (1,138 yards) and Mike Williams (1,146 yards). Burrow has one of the best young receivers in NFL history in Pro Bowler Ja’Marr Chase (1,455 yards and 13 touchdowns) and 2020 second rounder Tee Higgins (1,091).

Go down the list and you see it over and over again.

Deshaun Watson was a Pro Bowler by his second season and he had DeAndre Hopkins (1,572 yards). Kyler Murray made his first Pro Bowler by his second season – after the Cardinals traded for Hopkins (1,407 yards). Peyton Manning developed with Marvin Harrison at his disposal. Derek Carr made a Pro Bowl in his second season after the Raiders drafted Amari Cooper (1,070 yards) and signed Michael Crabtree (922 yards). Even Blake Bortles took a giant leap in Year 2. His 4,428 passing yards wouldn’t have been possible without Allen Robinson (1,400 yards) or Allen Hurns (1,031 yards).

You won’t find Buffalo’s Allen on this list. His career didn’t take off until Year 3 – after the Bills traded for Pro Bowl receiver Stefon Diggs.

Patriots pass catchers didn’t compare to playoff contenders

The Patriots have even experienced this before. Drew Bledsoe turned into a Pro Bowler by his second season in 1994. He had one of the best tight ends in the NFL in Ben Coates (1,174 yards) to go with Michael Timpson (941 yards) and Vincent Brisby (904 yards).

Both Timpson and Brisby finished in the top 25 in receiving yards that season. The Patriots had no one finish in the top 25 in 2021.

Compare that to the final four NFL teams in Kansas City, Cincinnati, Los Angeles and San Francisco. All four teams have one player in the top ten in receiving yards: Rams (Cooper Kupp, No. 1), Bengals (Chase, No. 4), 49ers (Deebo Samuel, No. 5) and the Chiefs (Hills, No. 7).

San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Deebo Samuel leaves the field in celebration after the game against the Dallas Cowboys.
San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Deebo Samuel leaves the field in celebration after the game against the Dallas Cowboys.

The Chiefs have two players in the top 25 with Hill and Kelce (No. 14). The Bengals have two in the top 25 with Chase and Higgins (No. 17). The Rams have two in the top 50, but after losing Robert Woods they traded for Odell Beckham to go with Van Jefferson (No. 42). The 49ers have three in the top 50 with George Kittle (No. 31) and Brandon Aiyuk (No. 40) supplementing Samuel.

Again, the Patriots have zero players in the top ten or the NFL’s top 25 in receiving yards. Jakobi Meyers (No. 33) and Kendrick Bourne (No. 44) are their two in the top 50.

You see how far behind the Patriots are with the above list and you see it again with the team’s that lost in the divisional round. The NFL’s final eight teams all had clear No. 1 receivers.

The Bills had Diggs (No. 8). Green Bay had Davante Adams (No. 3). The Bucs had Mike Evan (No. 23) and also Chris Godwin (No. 15), who didn’t play. Tennessee didn’t have a receiver in the top 25 because AJ Brown was injured this past season.

The Patriots cap problem

The Patriots clearly need to surround Jones with more help. That’ll make it easier on his development. Although Meyers, Bourne and Hunter Henry are all solid pieces, this team lacks a clear-cut dynamic playmaker. We’re talking about someone who scares an opposing defense.

The problem comes with how the Patriots will find that person.

According to Overthecap.com, the Pats have just under $10 million in cap space. If the Pats tender their three restricted free agents (Meyers, Gunner Olszewski and Jakob Johnson), the number drops to around $3.1 million.

Jan 15, 2022; Orchard Park, New York, USA; New England Patriots quarterback Mac Jones (10) warms up before the AFC Wild Card playoff game against the Buffalo Bills at Highmark Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports
Jan 15, 2022; Orchard Park, New York, USA; New England Patriots quarterback Mac Jones (10) warms up before the AFC Wild Card playoff game against the Buffalo Bills at Highmark Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

The big issue is that when the Patriots lost, we all saw that the team’s defense was the major culprit. Jones and his group at least put up some fight. This represents the Patriots biggest challenge for the 2022 offseason: How do you improve your defense to slow down your main competition while also surrounding your young quarterback with the right amount of talent?

The Patriots can clear cap space by several ways — restructuring, trading, extending or cutting players. They need help everywhere on defense. On offense, they need a playmaker. They also need their big cap hits (Nelson Agholor, $15 million) and Jonnu Smith ($13.75 million) to step up. Due to their cap numbers, those two players likely aren’t going anywhere in 2022.

Due to the Patriots limited cap space and defensive issues, it would be a surprise if they acquired a big-named receiver. At this point, they really can’t afford someone like Calvin Ridley and his $11.1 million cap hit. You can also argue, if the Pats doll out one big contract it should go to someone like J.C. Jackson.

In a perfect world, they find that receiver in the 2022 NFL Draft. As we all know, the Patriots have failed miserably finding any competent receivers in the NFL Draft. Do we really need to bring up drafting N’Keal Harry over Brown, Samuel, Terry McLaurin, Hunter Renfrow or Diontae Johnson?

Simply put — the Patriots have a lot of work to do if they want to make another deep playoff run. Last weekend’s games were a stark reminder that the future of the NFL is in the hands of great quarterbacks with great weapons.

It remains to be seen if Jones can develop into a great quarterback. To help the process, the Patriots should find him some great weapons.

This article originally appeared on The Providence Journal: What the New England Patriots need to do to become contenders again