Six Thoughts On Patriots Cutting Cam Newton, Making Mac Jones Starter

The Mac Jones era is underway in New England

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The New England Patriots’ inevitable transition from Cam Newton to Mac Jones came sooner than most expected.

After starting Newton in all three of their preseason games, the Patriots reportedly released the veteran quarterback ahead of Tuesday’s 53-man roster cutdown deadline, elevating Jones to the starting spot.

Barring an injury, the first-round draft pick will be behind center when New England opens its regular season against the Miami Dolphins on Sept. 12 at Gillette Stadium.

Here are six quick thoughts on Bill Belichick’s landmark QB decision:

— Newton, who struggled as a passer amid unfavorable circumstances during his first season with the Patriots, played well during training camp and the preseason. This was a solid summer for the 32-year-old veteran.

But Jones simply was better. He showed steady and consistent improvement from the start of spring practice through the end of the preseason, impressing with his anticipation, quick release, grasp of the offense and ability to identify his mistakes and not repeat them.

One notable stat from Jones’ preseason: He upped his yards-per-attempt average by more than 3 yards in each of his three outings, from 4.6 against Washington to 7.6 against Philadelphia to 11.1 against the New York Giants. His completion percentage in those three games: 68.4 percent, 68.4 percent, 71.4 percent.

Jones also was an advanced stats darling this summer. His Pro Football Focus grade of 92.2 was the highest among all quarterbacks with at least 40 dropbacks and the highest by a rookie signal-caller in the preseason since at least 2013.

— Yes, vaccination against COVID-19 is a personal choice and not a requirement for NFL players. But Newton’s decision not to receive the vaccine undoubtedly hurt his QB1 case — and could make it more difficult for him to land a new job in free agency.

Newton’s “misunderstanding” about testing protocols last weekend forced him to miss three days of practice during a vital juncture of this quarterback competition. While he was out, Jones delivered the best training camp performance any Patriots signal-caller had this summer, shredding the Giants’ first-team defense in a joint practice.

Joint practices are important evaluation tools for coaches, as teams often are willing to show more creative and aggressive looks in practice than they would be in a televised preseason game.

Newton’s absence also illustrated the danger of having an unvaccinated starting quarterback, as a similar protocol slipup or close contact could sideline him for another five days during the regular season.

— Jones is a better fit for Josh McDaniels’ offense than Newton was. That was clear this preseason.

When Newton was in, the Patriots mostly ran traditional under-center plays with little creativity. (New England did not use Newton as a rusher at all during the preseason.) But with Jones, McDaniels opened up the playbook. Jones frequently operated out of spread or empty sets, and some of his best drives came in manufactured hurry-up scenarios.

— It was impossible to ignore the praise Jones received from his teammates during the lead-up to this decision.

Matthew Slater, Dont’a Hightower, Brian Hoyer, Trent Brown, Jonnu Smith and Kendrick Bourne, among others, all have raved about the 22-year-old’s work ethic, preparedness and potential.

It’s not common to hear veteran players speak in such glowing terms about a player who has yet to take a regular-season NFL snap.

“I definitely think that he has taken every opportunity and taken advantage of it,” Hoyer said Monday on WEEI’s “Ordway, Merloni & Fauria.” “I think the one thing that I would say is not many rookie quarterbacks have ever gotten the reps and the opportunity that he has, and he has embraced it full-on, head-on. He goes out there every day and does the best that he can and has earned the respect of his teammates, which I think is huge.”

— With Newton gone, Hoyer becomes Jones’ primary backup. He’s been a valuable mentor to Jones this summer, often receiving early-morning phone calls from the eager rookie. The Patriots could get quarterback Jarrett Stidham back midseason. He’s expected to begin the year on the physically unable to perform list as he recovers from back surgery.

Will the Patriots be comfortable carrying just two QBs for at least the first six weeks of the season? We’ll see if they add another body to this group in the coming days.

— Jones’ first NFL start likely will come against former Alabama teammate Tua Tagovailoa, whom the Dolphins drafted fifth overall last year. Miami will be a difficult opening matchup for Jones, as head coach Brian Flores — a Patriots alum — is known for his ability to fluster QBs with elaborate pressure packages.

In Week 4, Jones will face a guy named Tom Brady. You might have heard of him.

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