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Curran: Back to elite? That'll be a matter of dollars and sense for Pats, Jones

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PHOENIX -- Sigh. Another Patriots-free Super Bowl. We’re now up to four in a row.

The planet hasn’t seen four consecutive Super Bowls without the Patriots since 1997-2000.

Will the drought ever END?? And when?

That’s what we’re trying to pin down this week. Of course, we won’t get an exact date for the team’s return to glory. But we can at least talk to smart people and figure out whether they’re on the Glory Road.

The general consensus? They seem to be. Even with a nearly 71-year-old coach and a modest-armed quarterback taking turns driving, the big brains on Bill Belichick and Mac Jones combined have the Patriots’ basic sedan moving along at 60 MPH in the correct direction.

That’s good news since 2022 was spent "Recalculating Route" after a disastrous wrong turn with the offensive coaching staff.  

Patriots Talk: Making the most of Mac Jones with Greg Cosell and Mike Lombardi | Listen & Subscribe | Watch on YouTube

Now that they are pointed in the right direction, a simple truth needs to be faced.

They don’t have a singularly great player on either side of the ball. Most importantly, their most important player would be best described as "OK" in the wake of a disappointing second season.

 

Mac Jones could top out at "very good." He might just remain OK. But if he’s ever going to appear in the last game of an NFL season he’ll need a lot of help.

To become an elite team, the Patriots need to be a complete team. They don’t have one guy -- like Patrick Mahomes -- serving as the tide that lifts all boats.

To become a complete team, you need to spend your money wisely and evenly.

With this in mind, I asked former Patriots executive Mike Lombardi about the arc of Jones’ early career. The current going rate for a "good" quarterback is $30 million per year.

Jones is halfway through his rookie contract. If the Patriots decide to pick up his fifth-year option for 2025, that will likely be around $25 million guaranteed but as much as $35 million if Jones is selected to a couple of Pro Bowls the next two years.

(Check out all the fifth-year option rules and projections right here)

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For comparison, Jones will make $2.7 million in salary and have about a $5 million cap hit in 2024. What will they do when he starts to get expensive?

"You can never overpay a great player," said Lombardi. "But if you overpay a good player, you’re in trouble. That’s the difference.

"Good players? You need ‘em on your team but you can’t overpay ‘em. Because every dollar you give away to a good player above what he (should get), it takes away from another player. Kansas City could never overpay Mahomes. But when you overpay (a player like Giants quarterback Daniel Jones, who is set to hit free agency with a likely asking price of $35 million), you’re in trouble. And you gotta have a player that realizes that. A player who says, ‘Hey, look ... I need good players around me,' and the greatest player of all-time, Tom Brady, did that."

The question is, will Jones? It may be a harder sell than it was for the greatest quarterback ever.

Why? Well, first off, Brady was the 199th pick. As a result, Brady was eternally grateful for the chance he was given by Belichick in 2001. Also -- even though Brady earned everything -- he was put in position to succeed every single time he was on the field. He got brilliant coaching.

The success made Brady a believer in Belichick’s 2001 saying that, "The strength of the wolf is the pack." (H/T Rudyard Kipling). He won three Super Bowls before he’d made 50 regular-season starts.

That happened because they were a complete team. Defense. Special teams. Coaching. Offensive line. Running game. Hugely-talented Hall of Fame-level talents. And -- despite the recent positing making it seem Early Brady was a Schmoe along for the ride -- his own poise, accuracy, toughness and talent.

 

The prospect of taking less with the promise of competing for a Super Bowl every year? Yes please, said Brady.

And Jones? The 15th overall pick. Expectations of excellence, especially after being drafted to ostensibly succeed Brady in 2021. Playoffs and a Pro Bowl appearance in his first year with a talented offensive coordinator.

Then, in 2022, sent into a gun fight armed with a butter knife. Jones took a beating on the field. His game regressed. His leadership and in-game antics were criticized. He wasn’t put in a position to succeed. Maybe it wasn’t intentional. Maybe it was wholly unavoidable. But the prospect of taking less than he could command on the open market? That might be a no from Mac, dog.

Curran: Why Greg Cosell thinks Patriots can win plenty with Mac Jones

Which would leave the Patriots franchising Jones at $35 million or dipping back into the draft where -- unless they finagle their way into the top three -- they’ll again be looking at adding quarterbacks who aren’t being billed as "generational talents." Rolling the dice.

There’s time between now and then. But this upcoming season is pivotal for both the Patriots and Jones.

"What does he do really well that will enhance the players around him and allow them to play better?" asked Lombardi. "All quarterbacks have to have that.

"What style of offense are we going to run that utilizes his skill set? We know Mac’s not the most overly athletic guy so you have to rely on his intelligence, the ability to get in the right play, be accurate with the football, make throws downfield and don’t do dumb things like he did early in the season."

In short, Lombardi is saying, if Mac works well with others on his rookie deal, the Patriots will want to keep him around. But the price has to be right because he’s always going to need "others" to help him.

"When you look at the Final Four (teams that made the conference championship), there was only one quarterback that was (on his second contract, Patrick Mahomes)," Lombardi pointed out.

Of course, in a couple of years, Joe Burrow will be making Mahomes money and Jalen Hurts might be. And their teams in Cincinnati and Philadelphia will be wondering if they have enough money left to get good players who’ll prop up their big-ticket QBs.

Already, Burrow’s Bengals teammates are weighing in on whether Burrow will take less

Jones isn’t in Burrow’s class. He is, however, damn similar to Daniel Jones. Dan runs better than Mac and has a stronger arm. Mac’s more poised and accurate. Both Jones are going to put up efficient but not eye-popping passing numbers.

Albert Breer did a nice job last month laying out Daniel Jones’ pending free agency.

 

Can you imagine the Patriots hearing in January 2025 that Mac Jones is going to command $35 million? Can you imagine them paying Jones $25 million guaranteed by picking up the fifth-year option just a few years after refusing to go that high with Brady?

Hard to swallow. But that’s the toll on the Road to Glory. And that’s why there aren’t really that many cars on it.