We’ve spent the last few months debating whether Mac Jones is worthy of the New England Patriots-owned 15th overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft.
It now sounds like the Alabama quarterback could be long gone by then.
The San Francisco 49ers swung a blockbuster trade last week, sending two future first-round picks to the Miami Dolphins to vault from No. 12 to No. 3 in this year’s draft. The move puts the 49ers in position to grab whomever they believe is the third-best QB prospect behind Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence (the no-doubt No. 1) and BYU’s Zach Wilson (a safe bet to go No. 2 to the New York Jets).
Most NFL draft analysts have either Ohio State’s Justin Fields or North Dakota State’s Trey Lance next in the pecking order. The Niners, though, reportedly covet Jones, who’s been widely considered the fifth-best prospect at his position.
The Jones-to-San Fran speculation began last Friday when NBC Sports’ Chris Simms, a former college teammate and close friend of 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan, pointed to Jones as Shanahan’s likely target at No. 3.
Simms later said he would be “shocked” if San Francisco did not take Jones with its newly acquired pick.
Then, on Sunday night, NBC Sports’ Peter King reported Shanahan and Niners general manager John Lynch both plan to attend Alabama’s pro day Tuesday rather than watch Fields throw at Ohio State’s showcase, which will be held on the same day.
The strongest indication yet came Monday morning when Daniel Jeremiah, NFL Media’s lead draft analyst, said “the majority of people around the league believe this (trade-up) is for Mac Jones.”
“Of the people that you would want to believe and put your faith in, the overwhelming majority of them believe this is going to be Mac Jones with that pick,” Jeremiah said on “The Athletic Football Show” podcast. “So that’s what’s so shocking.”
Jeremiah is among those surprised by this development. He has Jones — long rumored as a potential Patriots option at No. 15 — rated as the 32nd-best prospect in this year’s draft class. Lance and Fields are Nos. 7 and 8, respectively.
This is smokescreen season in the NFL, and all pre-draft rumors of interest in particular players should be viewed through a skeptical lens. But if these reports are accurate and Jones truly is the Niners’ target, what would that mean for the Patriots, who are one of many QB-needy teams set to pick in the top half of the first round?
For starters, Jones going third overall would push Fields and Lance further down the board, theoretically giving New England a better chance of landing one of the two. Doing so still might require an aggressive trade-up, however.
The Carolina Panthers (No. 8) and Denver Broncos (No. 9) clearly are in the market for a quarterback, and both own higher picks than the Patriots. The Atlanta Falcons (No. 4) also could draft their QB of the future, though Matt Ryan’s massive dead cap charges in 2021 and 2022 could prompt them to wait. The Cincinnati Bengals (No. 5) and Miami Dolphins (No. 6) won’t be interested in signal-callers, and the Detroit Lions (No. 7) are more likely to target other needs.
Either Fields or Lance would be an intriguing addition to the Patriots, as both have similar skill sets to current Patriots starter Cam Newton and could benefit from learning under the former NFL MVP for a season. Neither is a flawless prospect, however, with evaluators questioning Fields’ processing speed and Lance lacking experience after starting just one year at the FCS level and playing just one game in 2020.
In NESN.com’s latest Patriots Mock Draft, we had the Patriots swinging a trade with the Bengals to move up 10 spots to nab Fields. That mock was assembled before the Niners gave up 2021, 2022 and 2023 first-round picks to jump nine spots, though, so our package of the Patriots’ top three picks this year (Nos. 15, 46 and 96) might not cut it anymore.
There’s a realistic chance we see quarterbacks taken with each of the first four picks this year, and the fifth — be it Fields or Lance — likely won’t last past No. 7 or No. 8. That would be unprecedented: Five QBs have gone in the top 20 just once in NFL history, and the fifth one went 12th overall that year (Cade McNown, 1999). QBs never have gone 1-2-3-4 and have gone 1-2-3 just twice (1971 and ’99).
The Patriots might be left out on this early run of signal-callers if they’re unable to trade up or unwilling to pay the price to do so. They’d come away with a solid consolation prize, though, as that scenario would lower the draft slots of elite players at other positions. New England could wind up with a top-flight receiver (DeVonta Smith, Jaylen Waddle), offensive tackle (Rashawn Slater, Christian Darrisaw) or cornerback (Patrick Surtain II).
Finally, drafting a more pro-ready player like Jones rather than a project like Lance, who might not be ready to start until Year 2, could make San Francisco more willing to trade Jimmy Garoppolo instead of keeping him around as a bridge starter for another season. The Patriots would be an obvious landing spot for Garoppolo if Lynch wavers from his publicly stated plan to retain the former New England backup.
And regardless of which QB the Niners ultimately draft, Garoppolo almost certainly will be available next offseason at the latest, leaving the door ajar for an eventual Patriots reunion. Newton, who re-signed with New England earlier this month, is on a one-year contract.