The New England Patriots will eventually make the switch from Cam Newton to Mac Jones, the club's first-round selection in the 2021 NFL Draft. That's inevitable given the lofty draft capital the organization has already put in the Alabama product. The big question, however, is when that switch will take place. While the only person with even the slightest inkling of when he may pull the trigger on such a team-altering decision is Bill Belichick (and he may not know for sure yet), the release of New England's 2021 regular-season schedule does give us an opportunity to throw a couple of darts at the 17-game slate and theorize when a change could come.
Of course, this is mere speculation at this point in the process as nothing that happens in May will truly shift that top spot on the depth chart. As Belichick noted in the immediate aftermath of the Jones pick, Newton is still QB1 as things currently stand in Foxborough. As we saw last season, he was extremely loyal to Newton throughout his ups and downs and kept him cemented as the starter even when nobody would have batted an eye had he decided to roll out Jarrett Stidham late in the year. This is all further hammering home that there's very little reason to believe that Newton's status as the Patriots' Week 1 starter is in jeopardy, meaning a change -- if there even is one in 2021 -- will have to occur at some point beyond that.
Where could that be exactly? Let me pick up a few darts.
Week 5: Patriots at Texans
This is likely the earliest chance we'd have of seeing Jones start under center for the Patriots. It's hard to envision a scenario where Belichick unseats Newton over the first month of the season, especially with the looming matchup with Tom Brady on deck when the Buccaneers come to town in Week 4. If that game proves to be a blowout, however, and Brady gets the last laugh over his former team and head coach who could be under .500 at that time, this would seem like a prime spot to make a change.
This pocket in the schedule would also provide an easy landing spot for Jones as New England's opponents over the next few weeks aren't exactly world-beaters on the defensive side of the ball. The Houston Texans are looked at as arguably the worst team in the entire NFL heading into 2021. If they are without star quarterback Deshaun Watson at that point, it's that much easier for Jones as he gets his feet wet in the league. After that, he'd get a home matchup with the Cowboys in Week 6. Last season, Dallas ranked 21st in the league against the pass according to Football Outsiders' DOVA metric, and if those struggles bleed into this coming season, Jones could look to stack up two soft openings.
One of the main things that give me pause about this possibility actually going down, however, is Belichick. Would he be so reactionary after a loss to Tom Brady and hit the nuclear button? I'd guess the more likely scenario would be Belichick holding firm, rolling Newton back out in Week 5 against a clearly inferior team in the Texans, and looking to bounce back. That said, if Jones is ready and the confidence in Newton starts to dwindle early, this is an early date to keep your eye on.
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Week 12: Patriots vs. Titans
This is a bit of an underrated spot, but one that could make a lot of sense. New England travels to Atlanta to face the Falcons on Thursday Night Football to kick off Week 11. If they are treading water by this point in the year and fall to the Falcons on a national stage, I like this as another area where we could see a change. After playing on Thursday night, Belichick would have a little extra time to prep Jones leading up to a home matchup with Tennessee, making this an advantageous pocket for him. In all, there is a 10-day window between Week 11 and Week 12 for New England.
Not only would the rookie have ample time to gear up for his first start, but New England's schedule beyond that also gives him some breathing room. After facing Tennessee, the Patriots have extra time off before they visit the Bills in Buffalo for Monday Night Football to wrap up Week 13. Then, they hit the bye in Week 14 before playing out the final month of the season. When it comes to having as much time as possible to get ready to go, this is as ideal of an area that you'll find on New England's 2021 schedule.
Meanwhile, the Titans were one of the worst defenses in the league last year against the pass and particularly struggled to pressure the quarterback. The club did add Bud Dupree in free agency to try and address that issue, but if they still turn in mediocre results applying pressure, Jones could be looking at a relatively clean pocket in his debut.
Week 15: Patriots at Colts
Whenever there is a looming quarterback change, the game after the bye week will always garner a ton of attention.
For the Patriots, their bye comes late in the year in Week 14. If they are out of playoff contention by mid-December and Newton is still entrenched as the starter, it makes all the sense in the world for the organization to turn things over to Jones for the final four games of the year. At that point, the pressure to win would be taken off of Jones' shoulders, and things really become solely about getting him as many live reps as possible for him to be better prepared in 2022.
Facing the Colts in Indianapolis with DeForest Buckner leading that front seven isn't exactly a dream first matchup for your young quarterback, but there's also a case to be made that throwing him into the fire out of the gate may prove to be the best thing for him and the club in the long run.
After the Colts in Week 15, the Patriots finish out the year with home matchups against the Bills and Jaguars before heading down to Miami to wrap up the regular season with a game against the Dolphins.