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Bills’ opponent analysis: New England Patriots quarterback Mac Jones

It’s a rookie microscope kinda week

It sucks to write this, but the New England Patriots are in first place in the division over the Buffalo Bills. A good chunk of this is being attributed to the faster-than-expected growth of rookie quarterback Mac Jones. Not everyone is willing to crown Jones the new king though, and the Patriots signal caller has become a lightning rod for hot takes. Let’s take a look.


The Stats

Since we’re talking QBs you know there are a ton of stats. Let’s start with some Next Gen Stats charts. Here’s a link to see all of his charts, which includes precise passing distribution charts for each game. We’ll take a look at his aggregate one to keep this brief. Well, maybe not “brief.” Less protracted we’ll say.

Passer rating isn’t my favorite measurement but it’s a decent place to start. I might get torn apart in the comments for this but here’s another link if you want proof. We would have killed for early Josh Allen to have this type of chart. It’s not painting a picture of an elite QB by any means, but there’s really only a couple zones that show definite struggles. And yes, it does support his reputation as a check-down artist. Let’s explore that further with a screen grab from another site.

There’s my usual heat mapping in green and red. Note there’s only one red area. The Patriots are overall lousy deep middle. Passes short right they’re fantastic at. Same with deep right. Short left and middle are merely good overall. I’m not ready to crown Jones based on this (though seriously this is an excellent graphic for the Patriots). Notice a lot of this tends to mirror the completion percentage. A high completion rate removes a lot of “zeroes” aka “incomplete passes,” which lowers the average gain. In other words, this shows a highly efficient team but doesn’t dispel the check-down reputation.

One last thing before we get to the next stats I’d like to cover. I bracketed the number of plays and league rank in blue. They throw deep left quite a bit despite being truly mediocre at it. They’re ranked quite low for deep middle and deep right passes. So actually, this chart does support some truth to Jones’s rep.

Let’s rapid fire some more key stats:

  • Per the Next Gen Stats site, Mac Jones has 7.6 average intended air yards. That’s the average depth the QB throws downfield. Jones’ 7.6 is below the league average of 7.95, but within the normal range of average. This has improved over the year for Jones.
  • The NFL measures “air yards to the sticks,” which is like intended air yards but places the average depth to the first-down marker on each pass. The idea being to answer if a QB is trying to gain the first down with the pass or is relying on the receiver to get there after the catch. Mac Jones comes in at -1.4 AYTS, which is tied for 23rd of 37 qualifying QB. -0.96 is average. Josh Allen is -0.2 (eight best) if you’re wondering.
  • The Patriots currently have the seventh-most yards after catch in the league. On a per play basis they have 5.5 yards after catch per completion. That’s 12th in the league, which isn’t jarring.
  • Stop me if you’ve heard this before about a Patriots QB, but Mac Jones currently has the fourth-fastest average release time at 2.61 seconds.

Put it all together and it paints a picture that there’s a bit of truth to the captain check down reputation. The Patriots are emphasizing shorter passes in their play-calling tendencies and there’s some reliance on letting the receiver take care of the rest. That said, it’s not so heavily skewed as to call Jones a one-trick pony. Let’s look at some plays.

The Film

I’m emphasizing the latest game for Jones as his supporters are saying New England has opened up the playbook for their quarterback and he’s already shown a lot of growth. And to be fair, it was a great game for the Patriots so this should be Jones at his best.

Play 1

Really fast time to throw. Predetermined target. If there’s two phrases to memorize, those would be it. I think there’s some debate on the throw quality. I will go on record and say it’s a bit underthrown. It does the job though.

Play 2

What were those two phrases again? There’s a chance Jones is looking through a read or two, but I don’t see enough helmet movement here to think it was going anywhere else on this play. Also, if he WAS looking for a read in the middle he has Jonnu Smith wide open for a big gain that he misses on.

Play 3

This is a pass that has a high potential to be underrated. Please don’t. That’s a good deal of control and understanding of the play.

Play 4

A few things I wanted to point out here. The first is that there’s not much of a running threat from Mac Jones. The second is that he will try to hang in there and make the throw. Lastly, pressure might impact the throw a bit.

Play 5

The answer is “yes.” Mac Jones has some head scratchers. Not surprising for a rookie, though the way some people talk about him you’d think he was flawless.

You can see hints of it here, and if I kept adding GIFs I could give some really good examples (Play 1 is a good example). There’s a difference between a catchable ball and a great one. If I criticized younger Josh Allen on his ball placement, I’m certainly going to call out Mac Jones on it when I see the same thing.


Summary

I’m not the first person to say this leading up to this game, but I definitely support it:

Mac Jones is a better quarterback than fans of 31 teams want to admit. He’s also nowhere near as good as what some are trying to hype him as. I don’t disagree that, right now, Mac Jones is best labeled as a “system quarterback.” That’s not meant as an insult. If it’s a good system and you’re effective running it, I fail to see the problem.

The Patriots have won six in a row. That’s hard to overlook. A stellar defense has helped—a lot. But Jones is doing his part well and his coaches and teammates are doing their parts on offense too.