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Opinion: Mac Jones' perfect pairing with the Patriots has New England back in the mix

·5 min read
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Leading up to the 2021 NFL draft, few prospects generated more polarizing reactions than did Alabama quarterback Mac Jones.

Most draft analysts agreed that Jones had a fine 2020 season as he put up prolific numbers and helped lead the Crimson Tide to a national championship title.

However, there was a split when it came to NFL projections.

Some saw his limited experience – with only one full season as a college starter – as a detraction. They also had questions about how average arm strength and limited athleticism would serve Jones on the next level. Others looked at Jones’ accuracy and ability to deliver in high-pressure moments while directing a pro-style offense and projected him as one of the best prospects in the draft. And some believed Jones – thanks to the tutelage he received at Alabama – to be the most pro-ready passers in the draft. But they also felt Jones might not have as high a ceiling as some of his peers.

Mock drafts slotted Jones anywhere from No. 3 overall to somewhere in the mid teens.

Finally, draft day arrived and Jones went 15th overall to New England, with four other quarterbacks (Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson, Trey Lance and Justin Fields) taken ahead of him.

Now seven months later, the positive projections, it turns out, were right. More than halfway through the NFL regular season, Jones has not only outshined every one of his quarterback classmates, but he has also played a key role in a resurgence that has the Patriots back in the mix of the contenders a year after Bill Belichick’s squad missed the playoffs for the first time in 12 years.

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Mac Jones #10 of the New England Patriots celebrates the touchdown by Rhamondre Stevenson #38 against the Cleveland Browns during the third quarter at Gillette Stadium on November 14, 2021 in Foxborough, Massachusetts.
Mac Jones #10 of the New England Patriots celebrates the touchdown by Rhamondre Stevenson #38 against the Cleveland Browns during the third quarter at Gillette Stadium on November 14, 2021 in Foxborough, Massachusetts.

While helping direct the Patriots to a 45-7 blowout of the Cleveland Browns, Jones posted career highs in completion percentage (82.6%), touchdown passes (three) and passer rating (142.1). Jones and the Patriots also converted nine of 11 third downs.

And what’s more, Jones and the Patriots extended their win streak to four games and improved to 6-4. They now sit a half-game back of Buffalo for the AFC East lead.

Meanwhile, the four passers taken ahead of Jones have combined for only five wins as starters while plagued by poor and/or inconsistent play.

Jones has experienced individual and team success thanks in part to how his strengths translate to the pro game. But it’s quite possible that he would not have enjoyed this kind of impressive start had he not wound up with the Patriots.

From the offseason to this midway point of the season, Belichick and the Patriots have put on a clinic in rookie quarterback development and support.

Breaking from his usual frugal approach to roster construction, Belichick spent freely as the Patriots handed out $163 million in guaranteed money in free agency. He bolstered the defense to ensure that a stingy unit would ease pressure on the offense (and quarterback) by generating turnovers and limiting points allowed (New England ranks among the top five in the league in both categories).

Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels has guarded against putting too much on Jones’ shoulders by relying on a strong run game while emphasizing a passing attack that features a number of safety valves and is designed to get the ball out of the rookie’s hands quickly.

Jones, meanwhile, has exhibited the same strengths in New England he displayed at Alabama. Much to the delight of his coaches, who are sticklers for proper technique, he plays with strong fundamentals, whether moving in the pocket, carrying out fakes, dropping back to throw or delivering the ball. Jones’ ability to make quick decisions, throw with good anticipation and accuracy (he ranks fourth among NFL starters, completing 69% of his passes) also fits well with the timing-based execution McDaniels craves. With each passing week, Jones’ confidence and efficiency improves.

Now, a year after New England’s struggles sparked questions about Belichick, the coach has returned to the recipe that he used to turn the Patriots into an NFL power while bringing Tom Brady along from game manager to field general over the span of two decades.

Jones has a strong understanding of what his coaches expect of him, and how he fits into the desired well-oiled machine. Similarly to how he operated at Alabama, Jones doesn’t feel pressure to be a hero. Instead, he simply strives for consistent execution while putting the ball in the hands of the team’s playmakers.

“That's how you want to play the game of football,” Jones said after Sunday’s victory. “I think it starts with the offensive line. They deserve all the credit in the world. ... And then, obviously, everyone making the plays that they were supposed to make. They did a great job, and that's what happens when you play football like that. You score a lot of points and it becomes way more fun and you're scoring touchdowns and the defense is going out, they are getting stops. Special teams are making their plays, so it's just a three-level game, and when we click on all cylinders, we can be pretty good.”

In Jones, Belichick seemingly has found the perfect quarterback to direct the Patriots’ resurgence. And in the Patriots, Jones couldn’t have asked for a more ideal landing spot.

Follow USA TODAY Sports' Mike Jones on Twitter @ByMikeJones.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: New England Patriots: Mac Jones is perfect QB for this team