Perry's mailbag: Is concern over Mac Jones warranted entering Week 3? originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston
Our Patriots insider Phil Perry answers your questions each week in his mailbag. Here's the latest edition...
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To me, this answer breaks down into three parts.
The first thing to do to make Mac Jones more confident in the pocket is simple: Protect him. After a rough Week 1, they did that. He wasn't sacked. He was hit a handful of times but really only took one hard shot (which came on an attempt to DeVante Parker that was picked). A game like that one from the Patriots offensive line should make him more comfortable moving forward.
The second piece to this? Put more of the offense in his hands. There were times in Miami when the Patriots ran into disadvantageous defensive fronts, but in PIttsburgh the Patriots (and Jones in particular) were credited with adjusting and hitting the Steelers where they were softest against the run. We also saw the Patriots run several RPOs in Week 2. Those are the types of free-yardage plays Jones ran extensively in college and that the Patriots worked on extensively this summer. While the Patriots didn't run any RPOs in Miami, they got a serious uptick in usage last weekend.
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Third: Continue to involve Bill Belichick as much as possible. The head boss of the football operation was clearly very focused on the offensive side of things Sunday, even having his back turned to the field -- because he was talking to Jones on the bench -- when the Patriots defense was working against Mitch Trubisky and Co. That's rare for Belichick. But, after scoring just seven points in Miami, he adjusted and was in deep discussion with both Jones and his assistants at different points of the first half. There's real faith in the locker room in Belichick and his all-around football acumen, so having more frequent powwows with the head coach -- during the week or during the games themselves -- would likely only further Jones' confidence level in how things were unfolding around him.
There are changes happening in New England. Clearly. Jones referenced a "little different philosophy" of throwing up 50-50 passes to covered receivers after the win at Acrisure Stadium. The language in the huddle has changed. It's a new offense, players will tell you. But if the Patriots can keep Jones upright, give him as much of Belichick's attention as possible, and allow him to work the concepts he feels most comfortable with, that should lead to a more efficient -- and confident -- quarterback behind center.
It's early yet. New system. New coaching staff. An injured back after a punishing Week 1. It should come as no surprise that Mac Jones hasn't clearly progressed from where he was as a rookie. This is why the coaching conversation was such a focus all spring and summer.
But he hasn't regressed from an understanding-of-the-game standpoint. I think it's too early to say he's regressed from a mechanics or arm-strength standpoint. (Additionally, I was told before Sunday's game, he still wasn't quite at 100 percent even though he'd been removed from the injury report. His back injury may have impacted him some in Pittsburgh.)
It's certainly worth paying attention to whether or not the offensive braintrust in Foxboro is putting Jones in the best position to succeed on a weekly basis. It's worth wondering if the staff is doing enough with other positions -- on the line, especially -- to get the best out of Jones. But, to steal a line, the coaching situation is what it is at this point. As I mentioned above, perhaps even more offensive involvement from Belichick can help nudge Jones' progression in the direction fans are looking for.
Speaking of early! We'll do a drive-by here and hammer it more on Next Pats as we get closer. I think you're looking at every non-quarterback premium position, to be honest. Here's a list of players who aren't under contract for next year: Nelson Agholor, Jakobi Meyers, Jon Jones and Isaiah Wynn. I think receiver, corner and tackle should all be on the list of first-round options.
Tackle may take priority. You can find players at those other spots a little later on draft weekend. If you want a tackle who can play? You're probably going to have to be willing to expend a first-round pick there.
The Patriots have been encouraged by Nelson Agholor's play going back to early this summer. His cap hit was viewed as a bit of an issue, and so if a team had come calling with a worthwhile trade offer, then Belichick may have been enticed to move him. But that didn't happen. And now he looks like perhaps the team's most dynamic receiver.
Agholor has the ability to play inside and out, but it's his work along the boundary that may end up being most valuable. It was his work along the boundary in Vegas that got him signed in the spring of 2021. And with DeVante Parker struggling to produce out of the gate, it'd come as no surprise if the Patriots find more snaps for Agholor, who played 50 percent of New England's snaps (34 of 68) on Sunday.
Speaking of Parker...
I don't see a Parker release happening any time soon. The Patriots did give up a third-round pick to acquire the former Dolphins wideout and a 2022 fifth-rounder. But it's clear his summertime production hasn't yet translated to the field. He was one of their most impressive offensive players in camp, but he told me after the game on Sunday that he and Jones haven't had the right timing on the jump-ball "50-50" passes they connected on so frequently through August.
Parker right now has the third-worst yards-per-route-run figure in the NFL among wideouts (0.15) with at least four targets. He has one catch for nine yards in 60 routes and 109 total offensive snaps. He's the only player in the league with at least 50 routes under his belt and just one catch. The Patriots surely will have a plan for Parker moving forward -- it'd make sense to have his big-bodied frame on the field in red-zone situations -- but perhaps he won't find himself out there for nearly every snap as he has been to this point.
And if things don't pick up for Parker, that could force Belichick to sit him more frequently. Reinforcements are on the way...
The Patriots have already had a relatively difficult time finding time for all five of their wideouts -- Bourne was the No. 5 receiver in Pittsburgh in terms of usage (24 snaps) -- through two weeks. Rookie Tyquan Thornton could be back off of injured reserve next month. What then?
These situations can sometimes solve themselves over time simply because, unfortunately, injuries happen. The Patriots are fairly well-positioned to sustain one at one of the most valuable positions in the sport with Parker, Agholor, Bourne, Jakobi Meyers and Lil'Jordan Humphrey. Add Thornton to the list and there's even more depth there. Given the focus on getting more explosive -- Jones is seventh in the NFL in average depth of target under this year's "different philosophy" -- Thornton should have a role upon his return. If everyone remains healthy, perhaps a trade is an inevitability. Don't see either tight end being moved or shelved because they both a) are making too much money and b) play a position where there is no depth behind them.
All right, Soor! Mailbaggers unite! I think the Marcus Jones playing-time situation is boiled down pretty simply to his lack of a defensive role right now. He barely played in Week 1, which I viewed as a nice matchup for him. His speed and shiftiness makes him, in my opinion, an ideal man-to-man defender for someone like Jaylen Waddle. But it's Myles Bryant who has received a great deal of the slot snaps on the Patriots defense. And that appears as though it will continue.
With Jon Jones also in the mix, the Patriots are fairly well-covered in the slot-corner department. Makes sense that -- if the team views Bryant as the better defender right now -- Marcus Jones wouldn't see much defensive action. But the punt-return question is a good one.
Bryant has been the choice there to start the year, but he had an almost-disastrous rep to start the game in Pittsburgh. He hasn't returned punts consistently since his senior year of high school, he told me after the game. And it looked like it there. But the team still didn't move him off the job, as opposed to handing the gig to experienced return man Jabrill Peppers.
Maybe Bryant's muff will get Marcus Jones back into uniform after being a healthy scratch last weekend. I think one could make the argument that the Patriots are in need of explosive playmaking ability, and Marcus Jones has that. Finding a game-day roster spot for him would certainly make sense to me. But unless or until he can earn a defensive role, his punt-return skills may not be enough to get him on the field.
We'll have plenty more on this as the week goes along, but suffice it to say it starts with limiting Lamar Jackson on the ground... Partly because their backs have done nothing in that regard. Of the 29 running-back attempts the Ravens have called for thus far, 16 have gone for one yard or less. If the Patriots can keep Jackson in the pocket and force him to win through the air, he can do that. But at least Belichick's club would make him earn it as opposed to giving him free rush lanes.
Can't run past the quarterback. That's one of the Cardinal sins in a Belichick-coached defense. Check out this week's edition of Next Pats with Rob Ninkovich for more detail here...
Five catches for 53 yards through two games just wasn't doing it for you guys, huh?
I get it. And I thought it was fascinating to see how quickly the Patriots pivoted away from their 12-personnel packages last weekend. They ran a whopping 97 percent of their plays against the Steelers out of three-receiver, one-back, one-tight end looks. Jonnu Smith (39 snaps) and Hunter Henry (34) basically split the workload.
That may just be a Week 2 deal. Maybe against Baltimore they'll go back to using "Detroit" more frequently. But if the Patriots are forming an identity that doesn't include much in the way of two-tight end huddles, that would be a shift from the way they appeared to be shaping things in the spring and through training camp.