FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Mac Jones has the keys to his first NFL offense.
The rookie quarterback won’t be the only one tasked with steering the New England Patriots back into relevance in the AFC East following a fiasco of a first season without Tom Brady.
Bill Belichick spent a lot of money this offseason to help the Patriots put a 7-9 finish in 2020 behind them.
He started by bringing in two of the most sought free agent tight ends in Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry, while also securing the services of two of the market’s top receivers in Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne.
On defense he added Matt Judon, Davon Godchaux and others up front to beef up a unit that went from allowing the fewest yards per game in 2019 to ranking 15th in the NFL this past season.
Still, the biggest change by far was Belichick’s decision to cut ties with Cam Newton at the end of training camp, setting up Jones, the 15th overall pick in April’s draft, as the first Patriots rookie to start a season opener at quarterback since Drew Bledsoe in 1993.
“He’s had a high level of production,” Belichick said of Jones. “He’s young. I’m sure he’ll continue to learn and grow. We’ll see where that goes, but that’s why we drafted him. I think he’s come in and performed at a level that supports that.”
Jones split reps with Newton this preseason and maximized an opportunity to separate himself in the competition when Newton missed five days because of a misunderstanding of COVID-19 testing protocols.
In the end, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said Jones ultimately earned the job by impressing the coaching staff with his approach, ability to process information, and to learn from his mistakes.
Jones said he’s focused only on continuing to build on the foundation he built this preseason.
“There’s a lot of work to do. But I think I’ve made progress,” he said. “Honestly the only thing that matters is today. And then tomorrow I’ll focus on tomorrow. I think the past is the past and we’re kind of moving on to the new season here.”
As many changes as the Patriots made on defense, safety Adrian Phillips said they were all geared toward being a more physical group.
“The easiest way to slow down a fast offense is just to be physical with them. They can’t run full speed when they’re getting hit in the mouth,” he said. “We know what we did last year. We kind of had an underwhelming season and you got that bad taste in your mouth. And you don’t want that anymore. So, it’s like the defense is kind of putting it on their back.”
What the defense won’t have for at least the first six games is the services of 2019 NFL Defensive Player of the Year Stephon Gilmore.
The cornerback will begin the season on the physically unable to perform list as he continues to recover from offseason quadriceps surgery. There is also still no resolution on Gilmore publicly seeking additional compensation on top of his $7 million base salary for 2021.
That will put a lot of responsibility on J.C. Jackson to take on opponents’ top receivers.
Though Gilmore is currently not playing, Jackson said Gilmore very much remains in his teammates’ ears.
“Stephon, he’s been around,” Jackson said. “He’s helping us in meetings and stuff like that. He’s always there. You got any questions about football, he’s a great teammate. He’s gonna be there whenever you need him.”
The Patriots will open the season with their third kicker in three seasons after undrafted rookie Quinn Nordin beat out Nick Folk for the job.
It seemed as if Nordin had lost his chance to unseat Folk after he missed a field goal and two extra points in the Patriots’ second exhibition game against the Eagles. But special teams coordinator Cam Achord said how Nordin responded in the preseason finale against the Giants (went 2 for 3 on FGs with a make from 48 yards) was key.
“He had the one rough outing and then came back and had solid performance. … That’s the big thing — you continue to get better,” Achord said. “You’ve got to continue to look at guys. As long as they’re continuing to get better in their progression, it makes a big difference for you in the end.”
New England opens the season with back-to-back division games against the Dolphins and Jets, before hosting the Saints in Week 3. That will set the stage for the most-anticipated game of the season when Brady and the Buccaneers visit on Oct. 3.
It will be Brady’s first trip to New England since he departed in free agency following the 2019 season.
Story by Kyle Hightower, Associated Press