FOXBORO -- In more ways than one, Mac Jones is in a tough spot.
He's a young quarterback trying to learn what might be the most intricate offense, developed over the course of two decades, in the NFL. He's a first-round pick, coping with all the demands and expectations that come along with passers drafted early. And he's sitting on the depth chart behind one of the biggest personalities and one of the most well-liked leaders on the Patriots roster in Cam Newton.
On the one hand, he's expected to lead to a certain extent because of the position he plays. Just the nature of the beast.
On the other, how can he lead as he's just figuring things out? And how can he lead when Newton is, at the moment, looked to as the top quarterback on the roster?
Bill Belichick has seen his share of quarterback transitions in the past -- though not nearly as many as one might expect from a coach who's been at it as long as he has thanks to Tom Brady -- and was asked about Jones growing into a leadership role with the Patriots.
"I think those things will happen naturally and run their course," he explained. "I think, right now, all of our rookies need to really focus and concentrate on becoming a professional football player, making that commitment in all the areas that they need to make it in, learning the plays, the playbook, the techniques that go with the plays, the adjustments that go with the plays and be ready to execute their assignments and their job. Until anybody can do that, I don't really think there's very much leadership that takes place.
"We all have to be able to do our job, and until we can do a good job at what our job is, then it's hard to earn the respect of the other people that are on the team. So it's got to start there, and that's where it is starting. We'll see how that goes. I think that'll all happen in some kind of natural pattern, so we'll see."
The topic came up after Newton was asked about Jones following Tuesday's practice. Jones appears to be getting the hang of things when it comes to the matters of learning the playbook, the team's offensive concepts, and the techniques he's asked to execute. On Tuesday he was given more reps than any other Patriots quarterback and flashed the accuracy and quick decision-making that made him a highly sought-after prospect leaving Alabama.
But Newton went out of his way to say that Jones has done what he can as a leader thus far.
"Mac and Cheese, he’s pretty cool, man," said Newton, a Patriots captain last year. "He’s quiet. And I think he’s trying to figure everybody out, and I’ve been there before. I’ve been a rookie, and I’ve been a first-round pick where it’s just, like, so much is asked [of] you. Coming from a situation where you have a lot of people that are your peers, your same age group, and now... What is Mac? Twenty-one? Twenty-two? I’m 32. And [Brian Hoyer] is 35, 36. So it’s, like, tough.
"He’s doing a great job with being everything as advertised. From a leadership perspective, he’s holding himself accountable. And that’s all you can ask from a young player."
Devin McCourty has been around Jones for only a handful of practices but seemed to like what he'd seen through Tuesday.
"He seems like a hard-working guy. He's used to being on a big stage, playing college at Alabama. He just seems like he's here to work, you know," McCourty said. "It's like all the other rookies kind of come in and are here to work, try to get better each day, and he's done that. Obviously he's had -- like all of us as players, you have good days or bad days, just keep at it. He seems like he has the right attitude.
"I think he's getting to know the guys on the offense and that's a different position being a young guy, because you're automatically kind of in that leadership role. But like I said, I think he's used to that. I think as older guys all think we can do is continue to try to support him and help him with all the things that come with being a professional.
"I think guys naturally do that for all our young guys here in New England and I think that's what's fostered kind of great relationships as guys get to come in and learn from some of these older guys."
The Patriots are at an interesting point in their arc as a franchise. They're still figuring out who will succeed Brady and when. Julian Edelman and Patrick Chung have retired, leaving McCourty, Matthew Slater, Dont'a Hightower and James White as the lone members of the team who've been with the club for each of its last three Super Bowl wins.
That group of leaders could come from the veteran additions the team made this offseason like Hunter Henry, Jonnu Smith, Nelson Agholor, Matt Judon and Jalen Mills. There are career Patriots like David Andrews, Shaq Mason, Jonathan Jones and Joe Cardona who serve as leaders in different capacities.
But it's no secret that at some point the Patriots will need to find that next core of young leaders. Though Jones may not be quite ready for that part of the gig just yet -- it may take some time for him to work his way out of Newton's ample shadow -- it's coming.
"This organization has had players that have come through here, starting with Tom and others, that you just don't replace," Slater said earlier this week. "And you don't try to be that guy. You've just got to be yourself. So look, we need guys to be tough. We need guys to be accountable. When the time is right, we need guys to be vocal and try to encourage their teammates to bring their game to another level. But they've got to do it their way.
"They can't try to do it like Julian did, because there's only one Julian. So I'm excited to see who steps up, how guys lead. I think young guys need to start taking ownership of this football team because the old guard only has so much time here left. I look forward to seeing that next wave, that next generation of leaders and men who are really going to try to take ownership of this team."