AFC East Reporter
You will hear — throughout the 2023 season — that this is Mac Jones’ make-or-break year. And that’s exactly right. The New England Patriots and their quarterback have a looming deadline next May: the fifth-year extension.
That is the soft deadline for Jones and the Patriots to decide what he’s worth.
The fifth-year option for Jones, which would cover the 2025 season, is likely to be valued somewhere near $30 million for one year. It’s strange that they make these decisions a full year in advance, but that’s the collective bargaining agreement for you.
If the Patriots pick up Jones’ option, he’d have two years left on his deal (2024, 2025) and if New England passes on his option, then he will have just one year left on his deal.
As it stands now, Jones is not worth a fifth-year option. That $30 million sum doesn’t equate with the quarterback we saw on the field during the 2022 season.
In 14 games last year, Jones threw for 2,997 yards, 14 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. He completed 65.2% of his passes. His average depth of target was 8.3 yards and his yards per attempt were 6.8. It was a regression year for the young quarterback, whose play declined under the leadership of Matt Patricia, the Patriots’ former offensive playcaller. There were times when Bill Belichick clouded the quarterback dynamic, with Jones appearing to get benched for Bailey Zappe amid Jones’ recovery from an ankle injury.
But Jones is QB1 in 2023. There is absolutely no question.
New England has done what it can to make this season a career year for Jones. The Patriots added offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien early in the offseason. New England then made an effort to upgrade the slot receiver position by signing JuJu Smith-Schuster and letting Jakobi Meyers depart in free agency. (Time will tell whether that was a real upgrade or whether Belichick made a grave mistake letting Meyers, Jones’ favorite target, leave.) The Patriots also added Mike Gesicki to a tight-end group that includes Hunter Henry.
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The offensive line is likely to have its problems, particularly at right tackle where the Patriots still don’t seem to have a starter. But perhaps Jones and O’Brien will unlock their quick passing and their play-action while bringing in more zone-read, all types of plays that Jones excelled in using at Alabama, where he won a national championship and threw for 4,500 yards, 41 touchdowns and four interceptions in 2020. Those schematic adjustments can help slow or avoid a pass rush. And they should, generally speaking, play to Jones’ strengths.
The adjustments will get the ball out of Jones’ hands quickly and into the hands of his playmakers. And while New England’s receiving corps pale in comparison to that of Alabama’s in 2020, the Patriots have a multitude of options: DeVante Parker, Kendrick Bourne, Smith-Schuster, Demario Douglas, Henry, Gesicki, Rhamondre Stevenson and Ezekiel Elliott.
A large part of Jones’ success will depend upon those players.
“We have great playmakers here, and I feel like I did my best at Alabama when I just got the ball to other people and let them make plays,” Jones told WEEI sports radio on Aug. 21. “Just be a point guard and let them go make all the plays and score the touchdowns and then celebrate with the offensive line.”
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These adjustments — between the scheme and personnel changes — have Jones playing at a different level in 2023, according to his teammates.
“He’s a way better quarterback,” safety Adrian Phillips told reporters on Aug 23. “He took last year on the chin. He’ll be the first one to tell you that’s not how he wanted to play. And for all of us, that’s not how any of us wanted to play. But he’ll be the first to tell you that, and he’s coming out here every single day and he’s trying to light our defense up. Like, literally, light us up.
“I’m talking bombs, anything that he can do. You just love to see that. He’s always checking the play [at the line of scrimmage]. He’s always ready to give you something that you have to think about. I just think his confidence is through the roof right now.”
The Patriots have rebuilt that confidence over the course of this offseason, after, frankly, shattering it during the 2022 season. Because while former Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels built up Jones to a potential rookie of the year candidate, Patricia and Belichick had Jones playing at a level that made many question whether he was a viable NFL quarterback. New England owed it to Jones to give him a better supporting cast, given what he showed in his rookie year.
“I just feel like we have a good mojo going,” Jones said in July when asked about O’Brien, his third offensive coordinator in as many years.
It’s all well and good to see the Patriots in a happy place on Sept. 1. But training camp is hype season. Every player is in The Best Shape of their lives. Every player is performing at The Next Level. Every player is poised for The Breakout Year.
In Week 1, we get to separate fact from fiction.
The Patriots’ playoff hopes hinge upon Jones’ hype turning into reality. And Jones can determine his financial future over the course of this season. If he plays well and gets New England into the playoffs — particularly in an AFC East that is more competitive than it has ever been — Jones will get that fifth-year option. If Jones and the Patriots offense flop again, then … well, then it gets complicated. Maybe New England won’t pick up that option.
Generally, it’s a bad sign when a team passes on the fifth-year option. Teams can more easily move on from the player, whether by trading him in the fourth year of the deal or letting him hit free agency after the contract expires. But there have been situations, like that of Giants quarterback Daniel Jones, where the team and player stay together long-term despite the team passing on the fifth-year option. That’s an outlier. It’s more common for the relationship to quickly deteriorate.
That said, the fifth-year option doesn’t fix everything. It’s a signal from the team to the player that it values him as the franchise QB. But then, of course, the player knows he’s the franchise QB. And franchise QBs get paid more than $30 million per year. So then it’s only a matter of time before the team and the quarterback work out a long-term extension, because the quarterback will angle for more money.
Jalen Hurts and Justin Herbert received extensions this offseason before their fourth NFL seasons. Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, who is currently playing on his fifth-year option, may be expecting a contract extension — though the Dolphins seem unwilling to commit due to his spotty play and concussion concerns. It’s an awkward situation, perhaps one that the Patriots should study if they take on Jones’ fifth-year option.
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New England may string along Jones, like the Dolphins are doing to Tagovailoa. Belichick is notorious for his stingy approach to contracts. He makes players prove themselves for as long as possible. So Jones’ 2023 season is merely — as I put it earlier — the soft deadline for the Patriots’ commitment to him.
If he plays well enough in 2023 to warrant a fifth-year option, then there will be the hard deadline at the end of 2025 when the Patriots will have to decide on a long-term extension. That feels a world away, given that Jones is in such an uncertain place in his career. But surely, he and Belichick have already begun thinking about it. And the conversation of Jones’ future starts Sunday in the Patriots’ season-opening matchup against the Philadelphia Eagles.
The Patriots can’t dawdle in their pursuit to find a franchise quarterback, whether he’s on their roster or not. They haven’t won a playoff game since Tom Brady’s departure. And they probably won’t win one until their QB spot is settled. Jones will spend the 2023 season proving to New England he’s that guy. Or, he’ll fail trying.
Prior to joining FOX Sports as the AFC East reporter, Henry McKenna spent seven years covering the Patriots for USA TODAY Sports Media Group and Boston Globe Media. Follow him on Twitter at @henrycmckenna.
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