Mac Jones Vs. Justin Herbert: How Young QBs’ Rookie Seasons Compare

Jones has outperformed his fellow 2021 draftees through seven starts


October 28, 2021

Mac Jones is off to the best start of any 2021 rookie quarterback.

Last season, that honor belonged to the signal-caller Jones’ New England Patriots will face this weekend: Justin Herbert of the Los Angeles Chargers.

Ahead of that Week 8 matchup at SoFi Stadium, let’s take a closer look at how Jones’ impressive rookie campaign compares to what Herbert was able to accomplish in his first seven pro starts:

Weeks 1 through 7, 2021
Team record: 3-4

Completions/attempts: 174 of 247
Passing yards: 1,779
Touchdowns: nine
Interceptions: six
Sacks: 14

Completion percentage: 70.5%
Yards per attempt: 7.2
Passer rating: 92.8

Adjusted completion percentage: 78.0%
Expected points added per play: 0.137 (20th)
Completion percentage over expected: 4.9 (ninth)
EPA+CPOE: 0.121 (15th)
Air yards: 7.7 (23rd)

Deep passing: 9 of 28 (32.1%), 247 yards, two touchdowns, two interceptions
Pro Football Focus grade: 82.5 (13th)

Weeks 2 through 9, 2020
Team record: 1-6

Completions/attempts: 181 of 269
Passing yards: 2,146
Touchdowns: 17
Interceptions: five
Sacks: 14

Completion percentage: 67.3%
Yards per attempt: 8.0
Passer rating: 104.7

Adjusted completion percentage: 77.4%
Expected points added per play: 0.204 (18th)
Completion percentage over expected: 2.9 (12th)
EPA+CPOE: 0.136 (17th)
Air yards: 8.1 (18th)

Deep passing: 16 of 35 (45.8%), 597 yards, nine touchdowns, three interceptions
Pro Football Focus grade: 75.7 (16th)

Advanced stats via and Pro Football Focus

Jones has the edge in completion percentage, CPOE and, somewhat surprisingly, PFF grade, but Herbert has him beat in nearly every other statistical category, with the largest gaps coming in touchdowns and 20-plus-yard passing.

Herbert threw deep both more often and more successfully than Jones has this season — the latter was 1-for-5 in one game and 1-for-11 in another — and those downfield shots accounted for more than half of his 17 touchdown passes.

It helped that Herbert had (and still has) one of the NFL’s best receivers in Keenan Allen and a dangerous No. 2 in Mike Williams. The Chargers also boast one of the league’s premier pass-catching running backs in Austin Ekeler, but he missed four of Herbert’s first seven starts and hardly played in another. Herbert and Jones shared the same productive tight end, Hunter Henry, who jumped from LA to New England this past offseason.

The Patriots’ weapons have been solid this season — certainly much better than they were in 2020 — but either Allen or Williams instantly would become New England’s No. 1 wideout over Jakobi Meyers, Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne.

It’s also important to consider the circumstances surrounding these two QBs. Jones won the Patriots’ starting job in the preseason. Herbert did not. The Chargers entered last season with veteran Tyrod Taylor as their starter and planned to stick with him, allowing Herbert, the sixth overall pick in the 2020 draft, time to develop.

But when a trainer inadvertently punctured Taylor’s lung minutes before LA’s Week 2 game against Kansas City, Herbert was inserted and instantly threw for 300 yards against the defending Super Bowl champs. Taylor never got his job back, and Herbert went on to win Offensive Rookie of the Year, enjoying one of the best seasons ever by a rookie QB.

The Chargers stunk in Herbert’s rookie season — they started 3-9 before winning their final four games — but, like these Jones-led Patriots, they usually were competitive. Herbert’s first six NFL defeats — including losses to Patrick Mahomes, Tom Brady and Drew Brees — came by a total of 24 points, and two went to overtime. LA only was routed once: a 45-0 spanking against the Patriots in Week 13.

“I thought a lot of him coming out (of the draft) and have been impressed watching him play this year,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said before that game last December. “He seems to get a little better each week as he gains more experience and more confidence and gets a better understanding of defenses and different problems that they try to present.

?He’s obviously young, got a long way to go, but you can certainly see the improvement and the talent. The Chargers are working with a good player here.”

(Belichick has since upped that praise, saying this week that Herbert “is going to be one of the top quarterbacks in the league for a long time to come.”)

The Patriots have lost games by one, two and six points (in OT) during Jones’ young tenure, with one ugly 15-point loss to the New Orleans Saints. That was the only game in which Jones’ completion percentage dipped below 66% (to 58.8%) and his passer rating fell lower than 89.9 (to 55.2), and it featured three of his six interceptions to date (though one came off a Jonnu Smith drop and another was a garbage-time prayer).

Herbert didn’t have a forgettable performance like that until much later in his debut season. He posted a passer rating of 88.0 or better in each of his first seven starts, and in the two in which he completed less than 66% of his passes, he threw seven touchdowns with no picks.

The Chargers phenom also added a rushing element, totaling 166 yards and two touchdowns on 33 carries before deemphasizing that part of his game in the back half of the season. Jones has picked up a couple of first downs with his legs this season, but he’s much closer to the Tom Brady end of that spectrum (13 carries for 45 yards, including kneel downs).

The verdict: Jones has looked good thus far, especially in comparison to fellow 2021 first-rounders Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson, Trey Lance and Justin Fields. He should be one of the front-runners for Offensive Rookie of the Year, along with wildly productive Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase. But he hasn’t matched Herbert.

The two will square off this Sunday at 4:05 p.m. ET.

Thumbnail photo via David Butler II, Gary A. Vasquez/USA TODAY Sports
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