The New England Patriots stood pat during the 2021 NFL Draft and ended up with Alabama QB Mac Jones with the No. 15 overall slot. Jones was projected to go as high as No. 3 during pre-draft coverage but ended up sliding after the Niners took Trey Lance instead. He is now the quarterback of the future for the NFL's most successful franchise of the 21st Century, and many eyes will be on him as he develops under Bill Belichick. The Patriots' short and long-term success and ability to compete for Super Bowls rides almost entirely upon his shoulders.
Jones does not need to become the team's savior immediately, though. Cam Newton is under contract for 2021 on a one-year deal that could be worth eight digits if he hits all of his incentives. This was probably the ideal outcome for Belichick & Co. after they signed Newton ahead of free agency two months ago. There's no need to give the rookie a trial by fire if they can use what they know they have in Newton while seeing what they have in the newcomer, and they have someone not named Jarrett Stidham to step in if either gets hurt.
But we the people like instant gratification, which is why ESPN had two separate segments by two personalities air today arguing why Jones should and will start over Newton. Dan Orlovsky did so in the early morning and Stephen A. Smith followed shortly thereafter. The arguments are similar and fairly simple: Newton was terrible last year, he won't be the long-term starter even if he improves, and New England is better off figuring out what they have in Jones immediately instead of slow-playing his development.
The difference is that Orlovsky thinks it should happen immediately, whereas Stephen A. believes Jones will take over by the playoffs, a stunningly reasonable take from a man prone to the most scalding of opinions.
Were I to place a wager right here and now, I'd go with Smith's prediction. It's unclear what the training camp schedule will look like with COVID vaccinations now more common, but Belichick is going to want as much time as possible to analyze Jones after in-person scouting was interrupted earlier in the year. He and Josh McDaniels are in no rush, especially since they know for sure what they have in Newton. Letting the former Panthers star play until the bye and then re-evaluating is a highly likely course of action.
I am here today to argue that Jones should sit for his entire rookie season, with the obvious caveat that he doesn't beat out Newton in training camp. If he proves definitively that he's a better option in practice, then in Bill We Trust. But if he's equal or below Newton's standard of play, there's no reason to throw him in just to see what the team has.
Newton was terrible in 2020 for the most part. That is indisputable and I'm not here to argue otherwise. But it was so bad that we shouldn't consider it the status quo going forward, even for this beat-up version of Newton that doesn't resemble the guy who won MVP and nearly won a Super Bowl. Last year was bizarre, with basically no on-field time to prepare for a brand-new quarterback, a quarterback who also missed a week and a half of practice and a game because of COVID (not to mention the physical side effects of that diagnosis).
Newton cannot be worse than he was in 2020, and the Patriots still managed to win seven games. They may have even snuck into the playoffs if not for the two very winnable games they lost, one due to the absence of Newton and one that was his first game back after coming down with coronavirus. What's more, Belichick built a new offense using all the money at his disposal that is tailored to Newton's strengths. Bringing back Trent Brown means they'll shift to a more power run-heavy offense, and Newton now has two of the best tight ends in the league to target after struggling through 2020 with easily the worst receiving corps in the NFL.
Even acknowledging the ineptitude of his supporting cast, it is concerning that he only threw eight TD passes, three of which came on the last game of the season against a terrible Jets secondary. But previously, the fewest TDs Newton threw in a mostly-healthy season was 18 in 2014. It is very reasonable to argue that 2020 was a perfect storm of terrible circumstance that resulted in the worst year of Newton's career and the worst passing season from a starting QB we've seen in a long time.
Even if Newton makes only a marginal improvement in 2021, that combined with general improvement across the roster means the Patriots are a playoff team next year. It feels supremely unlikely Jones will be able to raise their ceiling any higher than that as a rookie. That's really the basis of the whole argument. If Jones cannot take his team from good to great, why rush him along?
That works both ways, I acknowledge. If New England is going to be a playoff team regardless of who is under center (assuming Jones isn't horrid as a first-year starter), why not let the young guy see what he can do? And to that, I would say that the damage of Jones playing poorly as a rookie would be significantly higher than Newton playing poorly. If Newton is bad, the Patriots move on next year and everyone forgets that he even wore the jersey. But if Jones is bad, the noise starts to build up. Fans get nervous they blew the pick and loudly express it. Jones' confidence takes a blow. The coaching staff might lose faith and bench him, hurting that confidence even more. The ripple effects are possibly endless.
That isn't likely, but it also isn't out of the question. We've seen that happen with rookie QBs before. If Jones proves he gives the team a better chance to win every week, then fire away. But if it's a toss-up between him and Newton? Stick with Newton. It's the smart long-term play, and with a rookie signal-caller, the long-term is the only thing that matters.