When it came to Mac Jones and his potential as an NFL quarterback, Panthers' head coach Matt Rhule was ahead of the game.
Back in January, at the Senior Bowl when Rhule and the Panthers staff coached Jones as part of the American team there, Rhule had no problem heaping praise on the Alabama product.
"The guy was just playing two weeks ago," Rhule said at the time. "The fact that he's here, I think, speaks a lot about who he is. You get a chance to see his intelligence. He makes really quick decisions. He processes information quickly. Highly intelligent. He's an alpha. He's the first guy on the practice field. He's the first guy in the runnings. He's got a lot of really, really, really strong traits."
Rhule added: "The thing you see about Mac right off the bat is he's a gamer. He's got a great presence about him. He loves the moment, loves the competition, so there's not much doubt that he has that quarterback swagger that you can feel when you're on the field."
Rhule may have an odd grasp of relevant football analytics. But it's hard to knock his scouting chops, even if he chose not to act on them in the draft. (The Panthers passed on Jones to draft South Carolina corner Jaycee Horn at No. 8 overall.)
Through the first half of his rookie season, Jones has proven he possesses many of the traits Rhule noticed in Mobile, Ala.
His ability to make quick decisions and process what he's seeing has drawn rave reviews from Hall of Fame quarterbacks and former personnel directors alike. Former Patriots defensive end Rob Ninkovich detailed on the "Next Pats" podcast why Jones' competitive edge is so apparent to those who understand how Bill Belichick's program operates.
He's been as advertised.
Even the "swagger" Rhule described has carried through to the pro level. That was not necessarily at the top of the list of traits typically associated with Jones before the season. "Good anticipation, accurate and extremely smart," one NFC quarterbacks coach told me after studying Jones prior to the draft and seeing some of Jones' work with the Patriots before the season.
Back when Jones was still fighting for the starting job, "alpha" might've been more readily applied to his veteran teammate Cam Newton. Turns out the shoe fits for the rookie, too.
Safety Adrian Phillips didn't hesitate to answer when asked if he agreed with Rhule's assessment of Jones.
"Definitely. Definitely," Phillips said. "As soon as he came into the locker room, one of the things you tend to notice from guys is if they beat their chest a lot when they come into the locker room, if they pump their chest out, and he wasn't like that. He sat back, he kind of learned a little bit, learned the ropes, and once he got comfortable with himself, he started to take more of a leadership role, and being a guy owning up when he messed up, not selling anybody else out.
"To me, that's what being an alpha is about, just owning up to your mistakes, and whatever's going on in the locker room. He does all of that. If he makes a mistake out on the field, it's not anybody else's fault, it's his. And he's going to get it fixed. He's not a super big rah, rah guy. But he [exudes] confidence and that's what you want to see in your quarterback."
There haven't been many moments of Jones dancing after touchdowns this season, the way he might've at Alabama, but his confidence has shown up in other ways. Against the Chargers, toward the end of arguably his worst performance as a rookie, when the Patriots needed a clock-killing drive, he went 4-for-4 for 43 yards, converting three first downs through the air and one with his legs.
"I thought he slowed himself down as the game wore on," Josh McDaniels said of Jones. "I thought he played really good football in the fourth quarter. The timing doesn't necessarily stay that way for the entire game or the next week or whatever. But it can happen. It happens to every one of them. And he was very aware of it, which is a good thing for a young player."
"I think sometimes, especially for young players, or [for every player], you're not sure how you're supposed to lead," safety Devin McCourty said. "We all get this imagery of what we see on TV. Call it 'Any Given Sunday,' 'Remember The Titans.' We all think of that epic speech. Even years ago in the Super Bowl against the Falcons, everyone was like, 'What did someone say at halftime?' Because you always picture this big speech.
"Don't get me wrong, there's a time and place when that's needed. But consistency and being yourself, for any player, any person, the biggest thing you have to do is find out who you are as a person first. When you know those things, you establish who you are as a person, you can lead because you're confident in who you are and you can be consistent in who you are. When you're trying to be somebody else or do something it's very hard to be consistent at something that's not natural to you."
Jones seems to have that consistency element to his game already, McCourty said.
"He's been consistent since Day 1," McCourty explained. "That doesn't mean he's played perfect. None of us played perfect. But just his attitude. How he shows up day in and day out. How he improves each day, to me, is hard to do in this league. Especially as a young player and then as a quarterback, where you come from college where you probably get to your off-campus house and you're reading -- especially at Alabama -- you're reading about how you're the greatest thing. You're No. 1 in the college playoffs. Then you get to the NFL, you keep reading that stuff, one day you're the greatest, the next day you suck. It's so up and down. I've been blown away just how consistent he's been and how he's been able to just be the quarterback on the Patriots. Nothing else. Nothing more. Nothing less. Just show up and that's his job title day in and day out. As players, that's all we can ask of us in the locker room."
No surprise to Rhule, of course.
"I think if you spent five or 10 minutes with him (you would know he'd succeed in the NFL)," Rhule said Thursday. "He's just got juice. He's such a competitor. He wanted to go play at Alabama and trusted himself (to play). A day into the Senior Bowl, I already knew a little bit about him.
"Spending time with him, you can tell he loves football. He'd just won the National Championship Game and he's out there practicing with us. You could see how intelligent he was on the first day. We put a lot of install in, a lot of work in. He had a feel for the game. He had moxy. He was really, really intelligent and accurate and he could throw the deep ball at a high level."
The question now is whether or not those traits will translate this weekend against one of the NFL's top-ranked defenses. Rhule's club ranks second in the NFL in total yards (295.6) and pass yards allowed per game (188.9). The Panthers are third in the league in third-down percentage (32.0), fourth in sacks (21) and fifth in points allowed per game (19.9).
Carolina defensive coordinator Phil Snow is making the most of a front that features two talented edge rushers in Haason Reddick and Brian Burns, both of whom rank in the top-35 in the NFL in total pressures, according to Pro Football Focus. Burns sits at 17th (27 pressures) while Reddick is 34th (21).
It's a young unit that came into the season tied for the fifth-youngest defense in football, per ESPN, with an average age of 25.6. And at times under Snow -- who worked for Rhule at Temple and Baylor -- they've been deployed as some college defenses are, with three-man fronts or one-linebacker looks.
“It’s a lot of principles you see at the college level. The 3-3-5 stuff, very strange alignments," Aaron Rodgers told The Athletic following a 24-16 Packers win over Carolina late last season. "They played very soft in the secondary with a lot of two-high [safeties] and even some -- I don’t even know what you call it -- but it’s like five guys are high. The pressure package, I felt like we picked up pretty good. It was more of the four-man rush when we didn’t have guys open that gave us problems."
Given that the Panthers four-man rush is dynamic once again this season -- particularly with some aggressive blitz looks mixed in -- it would behoove the Patriots to stay away from obvious passing situations as often as they can.
As was the case last weekend against the Chargers -- stout pass defense, porous run defense -- the Panthers are stingier when opponents try to attack them through the air. They rank 22nd in the NFL in rush yards per carry (4.4), and the two games in which they've given up 30 points or more -- a 36-28 defeat to the Cowboys and a 34-28 overtime loss to the Vikings -- they've been gashed on the ground.
Both Dallas in Week 4 (245 yards on 34 carries, a 7.2 average) and Minnesota in Week 6 (198 yards on 36 carries, 5.5 average) have a distinct playing style offensively. While they have the ability to make explosive plays in the passing game, both units have shown an affinity for using heavier personnel groupings.
Dallas has had two tight ends on the field for 32 percent of their offensive snaps this year, and it has been their most efficient personnel package (9.4 yards per pass attempt, 5.7 yards per carry). Minnesota, meanwhile, has played 31 percent of its snaps with either 12 or 21 personnel this season. In Week 6 against Carolina, they went with two tight ends on almost 70 percent of their plays and ended up rushing for 5.2 yards per carry and throwing for 7.8 yards per attempt.
Thanks to fullback Jakob Johnson and tight ends Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith, the Patriots have played over 45 percent of their plays with two backs or two tight ends this year. It would come as little surprise if they opted to get into those heavier packages in Charlotte and see if the Panthers can stand firm against the run.
When the Patriots opt to pass? It'd make sense for Jones to do what he's done all year: Get it out quickly.
Jones ranks sixth in the NFL in terms of his average time to throw (2.55 seconds), per PFF. With Burns and Reddick looming, he may want to be even faster than that. Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott released the football in an average of 2.20 seconds in his team's win over Carolina earlier this year. Kirk Cousins of the Vikings had an average release time of 2.25 seconds to beat the Panthers two weeks later.
Quick throws to backs and tight ends out in space could stress Carolina's ability to tackle, since that has been an issue in some of their worst defensive performances. They missed a combined 24 tackles against the Cowboys and Vikings, according to PFF.
Despite Carolina's apparent weakness against the run, despite their apparent permissiveness in the quick passing game, there will of course be moments when Jones has to drop back and look down the field. When that happens, he could be faced with a decision of whether or not to throw at former teammate Stephon Gilmore, who Rhule said will play primarily on third downs as he did last week in Atlanta.
While challenging the Defensive Player of the Year from 2019 might not be wise for Jones, it wouldn't be surprising if the Patriots tried to gauge Gilmore's readiness early on.
After squaring off with rookie tight end Kyle Pitts primarily in his 17 snaps, can the Patriots get a faster player (Nelson Agholor, for instance) on Gilmore to see if Gilmore can keep pace down the field? Can the Patriots do something the Falcons did not and stress the communication between Gilmore and his new teammates in the secondary by running bunch formations, stacked receivers and motions his way?
Whatever the game plan, however the Patriots dress it up Sunday, it'll be on Jones to make the right decisions in real time, as he has more often than not through the first half of his rookie season. If he can stay on that trajectory against one of the top defenses in the NFL, he'll continue to put his own spin on "alpha."
"I've always just tried to look up to the older guys," Jones said Wednesday, "see how they do it, see how they get better every day. A lot of that is just staying consistent."
Prediction: Patriots 24, Panthers 10
X-Factor: Jalen Mills
One way to make what could be a two-score result much closer?
An untested secondary.
It looks as though the Patriots could be without top corner JC Jackson for Sunday's matchup. He's missed each of his team's first two practices of the week with an illness. Though the Panthers may be forced to start PJ Walker, Sam Darnold hasn't yet been ruled out. With Darnold, the Panthers passing offense has been bad -- they average just 6.4 yards per attempt, 29th in the NFL -- but with Walker it has the potential to be abysmal.
Either way, the Patriots may have to cover NFL-caliber receivers without any of their top-three corners headed into this year's training camp. One of them, Gilmore, will be on the opposite sideline. Jonathan Jones is on injured reserve with a shoulder injury. Jackson's status is to be determined.
That leaves Jalen Mills as the next man up, the de facto No. 1 for New England. Billed as a jack-of-all-trades when he signed as a free agent in the offseason, Mills has graded out as the 67th best corner in football, per PFF, of 90 players with 150 snaps in coverage. He's allowing 12.2 yards per catch with a rating of 124.6 allowed when targeted. He's tied with several corners for second-most touchdowns allowed this season (4). In 35 targets, he has two pass breakups and no interceptions.
Carolina's top wideout -- DJ Moore -- has 645 yards receiving on 50 catches this season. He's far and away the team's most explosive receiving threat. The Patriots could try to stick Mills on Moore with some help, but that's a matchup the Panthers will target if it comes to pass.
Robby Anderson on Joejuan Williams is another potential one-on-one battle Carolina may feel good about. Anderson has just 204 yards receiving on 18 catches this year, but he's coming off a 1,096-yard receiving season in 2020, and apparently Belichick liked the former Jets wideout well enough two offseasons ago that he tried to sign him as a free agent.
“Last year," Anderson said this week, "when I was in free agency, when he tried to get me to sign there, he was like ‘I’m tired of scheming against you. I’m tired of going against you.'
"It came down to them and a couple other teams, but y'know, business decision."
The Patriots have held Anderson to only 179 yards in eight career games with the Jets. But, in those matchups, they also haven't been as thin at corner (if Jackson can't go) as they are now.
Even though the Panthers passing game is far from imposing, Mills will need to provide the Patriots defense meaningful snaps Sunday. Same goes, in all likelihood, for Williams and Myles Bryant. Rookie Shaun Wade could see his first career pro action Sunday, and the Patriots have the ability to call up practice-squadders Brian Poole, De'Vante Bausby or D'Angelo Ross.
But all eyes will be on Mills if Jackson can't go. He was in coverage on a third-and-18 conversion late in last weekend's win over the Chargers. Soon thereafter he was out-jumped for a 24-yard touchdown thrown by Justin Herbert to rookie Josh Palmer. Still, Mills got a positive review from veteran safety Devin McCourty this week.
"It doesn't take long to see what type of competitor he is, and how fiery and feisty he is," McCourty said. "I'd say our group is just a fiery bunch of guys. Obviously J-Mills being the old guy of the group who has played a bunch of different positions. And then with JC, to me, he has grown and I call him 'Veteran Jerald.' He's taken the next step."
If Christian McCaffrey returns for the first time since being placed on IR in Week 4, and if he plays a significant number of snaps for the Panthers, he's an X-factor among X-factors. He has the big-play ability that could break a game open at any moment. But it's hard to predict he'll make a massive impact for the first time in over a month. Instead, we go with Mills in this spot as he and the rest of the Patriots secondary work to keep Carolina explosives to a minimum.
Number to know: 306
Sam Darnold and Mac Jones have the same number of dropbacks through eight weeks of the season: 306.
Jones has 26 more completions for 184 more yards, two more touchdowns and two fewer picks. Darnold has 14 of PFF's highest-graded throws called "big-time throws." Jones has 13. Darnold has 12 turnover-worthy plays, per PFF. Jones has eight. Jones has an adjusted completion percentage (75.5) -- which accounts for drops and throwaways -- that is slightly higher than Darnold's (72.7).
Here's the biggest discrepancy between the two, seemingly: How their teammates have played around them.
Darnold has had 18 passes dropped. Jones has had eight dropped. Darnold has also been pressured on 22 more dropbacks compared to Jones. Darnold's 113 pressures is tied for third in football. Jones' 91 place him 16th. Quarterbacks have a say in how often they're bothered in the pocket, but the Panthers have five offensive linemen who rank in the top 35 in the NFL when it comes to total pressures allowed. The Patriots have none.
The blocking in front of Jones, a problem for the first month of the year, has cleaned up over the last three. Twenty-one quarterbacks have been pressured more than Jones (25 pressures) in that span, including Darnold (36).
Whether it's Darnold or Walker behind center, if the Panthers are chasing on the scoreboard Sunday, Patriots pass-rushers Matt Judon, Christian Barmore and Josh Uche should have ample opportunity to create some chaos in the Carolina backfield.
For more on how that trio has done and where they're headed, check out this week's Next Pats Podcast -- which includes some tape study of all three -- with former Patriots defensive end Rob Ninkovich.