Bill Belichick surely was watching Monday night as his good friend Nick Saban secured his record seventh national championship.
Was he also watching his future quarterback?
Alabama’s Mac Jones, who lit up Ohio State for a championship-record 464 yards and five touchdowns in a 52-24 Crimson Tide rout, has generated considerable buzz as a potential target for the QB-needy New England Patriots in the 2021 NFL Draft.
With several key milestones in the pre-draft process — Senior Bowl, scouting combine, etc. — still to come, Jones is widely considered the fifth-best quarterback prospect in this year’s class, trailing Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence, Ohio State’s Justin Fields, BYU’s Zach Wilson and North Dakota State’s Trey Lance. He’s not a surefire Day 1 pick but has a chance to be selected in the first round.
But would Jones make sense for the Patriots? Let’s break down his credentials.
First, the positives. Jones was phenomenally productive this season, throwing for 4,500 yards and 41 touchdowns with just four interceptions. He led the nation in completion percentage (77.4 percent) and yards per attempt (11.2) and was picked off on less than 1 percent of his pass attempts.
Though he lacks top-end mobility (more on that in a bit), Jones generally displays good pocket awareness and doesn’t make many mistakes. His fumble Monday night was the only one he lost all season.
Over Alabama’s three postseason games (SEC Championship vs. Florida, CFP semifinal vs. Notre Dame, CFP final vs. Ohio State), Jones completed 79.7 percent of his passes, averaged 10.0 yards per attempt and threw 14 touchdowns with one interception.
The Patriots like quarterbacks who are accurate, make good decisions, take care of the ball and can perform in big games. Jones checks all of those boxes. The program he played for also is a primary Patriots pipeline, as Belichick has selected an Alabama player in each of the last two drafts and four of the last six (and has drafted 11 Saban-coached prospects in all).
The cast Jones performed with, though, makes it difficult to accurately judge his NFL potential. Alabama’s 2020 roster was L-O-A-D-E-D.
Jones’ top receiver, Heisman Trophy winner DeVonta Smith, caught 12 passes for 215 yards and three scores in one half Monday night. Jaylen Waddle missed a large chunk of the season but still is likely to be drafted in the top 15, along with Smith. Sophomore wideout John Metchie might be a first-round pick next year.
Running back Najee Harris is a seemingly untackleable bulldozer who likely secured his own first-round status by racking up 158 yards from scrimmage and three touchdowns against the Buckeyes. Alabama also boasted the best offensive line in college football.
With all of these pieces around him, Jones often had the luxury of throwing to wide-open receivers from clean pockets. Of his five touchdown passes in Monday’s finale, one came after Smith had easily separated from a linebacker, another came on a highlight-reel catch-and-run by Harris, and the other three came on passes completed behind the line of scrimmage.
It still takes a smart, talented, responsible quarterback to get the most out of these playmakers, and Jones is all of those things. But can he succeed in an offense that isn’t jam-packed with elite weapons? That’s the biggest question facing this 22-year-old.
Jones’ mediocre athleticism also could limit his ceiling in an age when more teams are gravitating toward QBs that can threaten defenses in multiple ways. Look at the best young signal-callers to emerge in recent years — players like Patrick Mahomes, Lamar Jackson, Deshaun Watson, Josh Allen, Kyler Murray and Justin Herbert. All have an element of mobility to their game.
Lawrence, Fields, Wilson and Lance all boast varying levels of rushing prowess, too. Jones is rather one-dimensional, carrying the ball 35 times for 14 yards this season. The same is true of Florida’s Kyle Trask, the next man down in this year’s QB prospect heirarchy.
And then there’s the draft value conversation. Jones has been a popular mock draft selection for the Patriots at No. 15 overall. As we detailed last week, he’s probably a reach at that spot.
In the history of the NFL draft, five quarterbacks have been picked in the top 15 just once (1999). The highest the fifth QB was selected in any other year was 24th, and just three drafts have featured five or more first-round QBs (1983, 1999 and 2018).
As this year’s NFL playoffs have illustrated, the easiest and most reliable place to find a franchise quarterback is in the first round. But that doesn’t mean the Patriots should over-draft a player like Jones, especially since they enter the offseason with a boatload of other roster needs.
If Jones is still around on Day 2, though, he’d be worth considering.