A lot has changed with the New England Patriots since they last took the field for a regular-season game, hasn't it? Back on Jan. 3 in Week 17, Bill Belichick's club was doing something that has been foreign in these parts for the better part of two decades: merely playing out the string against the New York Jets, ending the year in a whimper. Fast forward a few months to Sunday and the Patriots almost look like an entirely new team. They spent more money in free agency than they ever have in franchise history and drafted a quarterback in the first round, which is something that had never been done during Belichick's tenure in Foxborough.
It's there where we'll be focusing our attention as we open back up our Patriots notebook for the 2021 season (Welcome!). For just the third time in the common draft era, New England will be starting their first-round rookie quarterback to begin the year (Drew Bledsoe in 1993 and Jim Plunkett in 1971 being the others).
But what should we expect from Mac Jones, the No. 15 overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, as he steps into his rookie year? By looking at some first-year quarterbacks that came before him and found success, we'll try to create a clearer picture of what can be done as we continue to formulate our expectations for the 23-year-old.
Arguably the No. 1 trait that Jones has going for him as a prospect is his accuracy. During his final year at Alabama, he completed an NCAA-record 77.4% of his throws. Post-merger, the top five highest completion percentages among rookie NFL quarterbacks goes as followed (minimum 13 starts): Dak Prescott 67.76% (2016), Justin Herbert 66.55% (2020), Ben Roethlisberger 66.44% (2004), Robert Griffin III 65.65% (2012), Kyler Murray 64.43% (2019). That averages out to a 66.1 completion percentage, which should be a solid target for Jones. Last season, Newton completed 65.8% of his passes, albeit with a lack of deep shots down the field which should be more prevalent with Jones -- who completed 69.1% of his throws this preseason -- under center.
If you're looking at passing touchdowns, Herbert -- who completed the most prolific rookie season in NFL history in 2020 -- holds the top spot with 31. Baker Mayfield (2018) comes behind him with 27 touchdowns, followed by Russel Wilson (2012) and Peyton Manning (1998) with 26, and Prescott (2016) and Andrew Luck (2012) with 23. Touchdowns could prove to be a bit finicky for assessing Jones in 2021 with the Patriots projected to be a run-heavy offense, but a worthy gauge nonetheless.
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The final individual statistical barometer we'll zero in on is passing yards. Luck has thrown for more yards than any other rookie in league history with 4,374 yards in 2012. Herbert last year follows him with 4,336 yards, and then it goes Newton (4,051), Jameis Winston (4,042), Carson Wentz (3,739). It's not a shock to see that all of these quarterbacks in the top five are from the modern-day given that there is much more of an emphasis on the passing game than there was previously.
With this run of quarterbacks specifically, now is a good time to highlight that we're looking for a ceiling for Jones in Year 1 when we bring up these numbers. Remember, he was the fourth quarterback taken off the board this past spring and the signal-callers mentioned above are largely either No. 1 or No. 2 overall picks in their respective draft classes, of course, with a few exceptions sprinkled in. Jones certainly has the talent to put together a season that has him in this caliber, but it's not something we should take to the bank as a certainty as a No. 15 overall selection.
Lastly, let's look at wins. That's naturally going to be the top item on the agenda for Jones as he takes over Belichick's offense. Roethlisberger is naturally going to be the target as he was a perfect 13-0 in his regular-season starts to begin his NFL career. Prescott also had 13 wins during his rookie season coupled with a trio of losses. Only six other quarterbacks post-merger recorded double-digit wins in their rookie seasons, which isn't a high percentage in favor of Jones. That said, Jones does have the benefit of an additional 17th game this season. It also doesn't hurt that he has the greatest mind the NFL has ever seen in Belichick to learn from.
So there you have it. Those are the types of rookie seasons that Jones will now try to put himself next to as he begins his NFL career when the Patriots take on the Dolphins. Where will he ultimately fall among these ranks? We're about to find out.
Here are some notable nuggets surrounding the Patriots as we enter the Week 1 opener:
Cam Newton speaks
Cam Newton's release was unquestionably the surprise of the summer for the Patriots. Many expected the veteran to begin the year as the team's starter, but New England elected to hand the keys over to Jones out of the gate and release Newton during cutdown day across the NFL. This Friday, Newton broke his silence regarding his release from the Patriots during his "Funky Friday" video released on YouTube. Here are some of the main highlights (h/t Ben Volin of The Boston Globe):
On being released by Patriots: "Did it catch me by surprise being released? Absolutely"
On his absence due COVID-19 testing confusion: "To find out I had to sit out, that's when I kinda felt bamboozled, because y'all told me to go."
If his five-day absence led to his release: "Do I think this would have happened without me being away from the team for 5 days? Honestly yes, it was going to happen. Did it help ease the decision? Yes."
Recognized presence behind Jones could be distracting: "The reason why they released me was because indirectly, I was going to be a distraction — without being the starter. Just my aura. That's my gift. That's my curse. When you bring a Cam Newton to your facility, when you bring Cam Newton to your franchise, people are interested. The truth of the matter is this: He would've been uncomfortable. He would've. And they knew, and it comes by mere fact of me being me."
If he would have been willing to accept a backup role: "I would've said absolutely."
New England's prospects this season: "They're going to win football games with Mac Jones."
Patriots name captains
Earlier this week, the Patriots announced their five captains for the 2021 season:
- David Andrews, center
- Dont'a Hightower, linebacker
- Devin McCourty, safety
- Matthew Slater, special teams
- James White, running back
This is the eleventh time that McCourty and Slater have been named team captains. Andrews is entering his fifth season as captain, while White and Hightower have received the honor for the fourth time. Hightower returns as a team captain after sitting out last season amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
J.C. Jackson set to step in as CB1
One of the storylines worth following to begin the season for the Patriots is J.C. Jackson stepping into the No. 1 cornerback role with Stephon Gilmore beginning the year on PUP. Jackson -- who is playing on a one-year tender in 2021 -- will get to show what a secondary looks like with him leading the way, which could be a lucrative endeavor if he succeeds as he's set to enter free agency next offseason. How he performs could also impact Gilmore's future with the team as he also enters the final year of his contract. If Jackson proves to be a true No.1 corner, it wouldn't be surprising to see the Patriots put an emphasis on keeping him long-term.
"I'm ready," Jackson said, via Mark Daniels of the Providence Journal. "I'm embracing the challenge, man. I love it. I'm ready. I prepared for it all offseason, all training camp. We'll see."
RIP Sam 'Bam' Cunningham
Sam Cunningham, the Patriots' all-time leading rusher, died this week at the age of 71. The fullback played for New England for nine seasons and is one of the greatest players in franchise history. He was inducted into the team's Hall of Fame in 2010 and was a member of the Patriots 50th Anniversary Team.
"We are deeply saddened to learn of yet another loss to the Patriots family this week and our hearts ache for Sam Cunningham's family and all who are mourning his passing today" said Patriots owner Robert Kraft said in a statement. "Sam 'Bam' Cunningham was one of my favorite players throughout the '70s and my sons all loved him. After I bought the team in 1994, it was my honor to welcome him back to the team on multiple occasions, recognizing him as a 50th anniversary team member and again for his induction into the Patriots Hall of Fame. As much as I admired him as a player, my affection for him only grew after spending time with him and learning more about him as a person. He made a tremendous impact, both on and off the field, and was beloved by his teammates. As a Patriots Hall of Famer, Sam's legacy and contributions will be preserved and celebrated forever, but today his loss is felt with heavy hearts."
Cunningham's 5,453 rushing yards still stand as a franchise-best for the Patriots. He's also second all time in team history for rushing touchdowns (43).
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