Mac Jones was the last first-round quarterback taken in the 2021 NFL Draft. There’s no question, however, that halfway through all their rookie seasons, the Patriots’ No. 15 overall pick has been the best of the bunch.
Zach Wilson, who went No. 2 to the Jets, remains on the shelf with a knee injury. Trey Lance, the No. 3 pick of the 49ers, rides the bench behind a suddenly red-hot Jimmy Garoppolo. Justin Fields had to wait a while to play after going No. 11 to the Bears and still could finish strong.
Because of that Jones, who has started since Week 1, can be only compared to the Jaguars’ Trevor Lawrence. The No. 1 overall pick also has held that season-long status for Jacksonville.
By every metric, from the Patriots’ strong winning record to passing efficiency, Jones has been the better rookie QB. Jones has begun his career at 6-4 with an solid 94.1 rating at 7.2 yards per attempt. Lawrence is 2-7 with a bad 72.2 rating at 6.0 yards per attempt.
Does that mean the Jaguars made a big mistake by taking the wrong college championship QB, Lawrence instead of Jones? With the Patriots in playoff position under Bill Belichick and the Jaguars sputtering with Urban Meyer, that narrative has gained steam as Jones keeps improving and Lawrence seems to be regressing. But the real question is, had the situations been reversed, which rookie passer would be looking better now?
Jones has had superior coaching with Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels from the get-go. He also has benefited from being able to complement a strong defense (No. 2 scoring, No. 6 total) and solid rushing attack (No. 10, 114.5 yards per game). The Patriots’ offensive line also remains sturdy in front of Jones.
Lawrence seemed to at least have superior weapons going into the season with D.J. Chark Jr., Marvin Jones Jr. and Laviska Shenault Jr. as his top three wide receivers. But he lost that one advantage when Chark went down with a season-ending ankle injury in early October and as inexplicably, Jones and Shenault have seen their roles diminish the passing game since.
So now also give Jones the offensive skill support advantage with wide receivers Kendrick Bourne, Jakobi Meyers and Nelson Agholor, along with his clear go-to guy, tight end Hunter Henry. Lawrence’s best targets now are tight end Dan Arnold and hybrid kickoff returner Jamal Agnew.
Don’t be fooled by Lawrence being sacked only 16 times when compared to Jones being dropped 19 times. Lawrence’s protection and the Jaguars’ overall blocking is above average, but it is nowhere near great. The Jaguars have had a good running game, however, with second-year back James Robinson helping them average 5.1 yards per attempt. With more positive game scripts, Jacksonville would be a lot higher than No. 16 in rushing offense.
But the Jaguars, with Meyer and offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell, have reined in Lawrence from showing off his big arm. They also haven’t let him run to support his passing at times given his athleticism. While Meyer and Bevell are treating one of the most promising QB prospects in NFL history like a limited veteran bridge option, Belichick and McDaniels are trusting the cerebral pocket-passing Jones with complicated concepts they used to throw on the GOAT, Tom Brady. The Patriots, as they always are, have been more versatile, multiple and creative in getting as many players as possible into the action to help Jones.
The scouting report on Lawrence coming into the league was off the charts in terms of physical skill set. But Meyer and Bevell have done no him service with the mental part of his game. Jones doesn’t have the same natural attributes but he’s executing within a superior system, which shouldn’t surprise anyone given the half-season sample size.
The Patriots seem to be much more aware of the type of quarterback they drafted and are playing to Jones’ strengths and minimizing his weaknesses. In contrast, the Jaguars have been rather clueless with the jackpot they landed at the top.
This is why it’s often good to drop a little in the draft for a skilled QB, to avoid bad teams and land with better-schemed offensive teams. Justin Herbert (No. 6 in 2020), Lamar Jackson (No. 32 in 2018), Patrick Mahomes (No. 10 in 2017) and Dak Prescott (fourth round in 2016) are great recent examples of this. Had any of those QBs landed into a Lawrence-like situation with questionable offensive coaching and limited support, they would haven’t found early success and built on that.
Imagine if Jones had been a Jaguar. There’s no doubt he would have struggled. Likewise, Lawrence would be lighting it up for the Patriots.
Whenever a team has a first overall pick on a QB, it should operate like the Cardinals with Kyler Murray in 2019. They knew what they were getting in the dual threat of Murray, knew what he did well and went to work to find the right offensive-minded coach for him in Kliff Kingsbury and then quickly, aggressively, upgraded his personnel support.
The Jaguars have no excuse for not lifting Lawrence early. All young QBs, no matter how talented they are, are dependent QBs. They can be either accelerated into top-flight play by their coaching, or fast-tracked to bust status, squandering something that could have been special.
It doesn’t matter had the Jaguars taken Jones, Wilson, Lance or Fields. They would have not helped any of them well as rookies. The Bears, getting limited returns from Fields, need to make their expected coaching change with his immense upside in his mind for 2022 and beyond.
So, no the Jaguars should not have taken Jones instead of Lawrence. They would have lost either way, while the Patriots, because of Belichick and McDaniels, already were in a win, win, win, win or win situation with whichever top QB prospect fell to them.