ATLANTA -- What is the ceiling for Mac Jones?
It was a question posed ad nauseum before the draft. It continues to pop up on a nearly weekly basis. Is he a quarterback you can win with or a quarterback you win because of? Is he deserving of comparisons to a young Tom Brady? Or should the expectations for him be to play more similarly to Kirk Cousins?
What if the more apt comparison for Jones makes his living here in Atlanta? What if Jones' future self is pacing the opposite sideline at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Thursday Night Football?
What if Jones becomes Matt Ryan?
The reality is, if that's the case, Patriots fans should be thrilled.
Matt Ryan won an MVP in 2016 and led the Falcons to the NFC championship that year. He's been to the postseason half a dozen times despite now playing under his fourth head coach and fifth offensive coordinator since his rookie season in 2008.
Ryan has gone to four Pro Bowls, he's been remarkably available (just three missed games in almost 14 full seasons), and by many metrics he's been a top-10 quarterback in football for the bulk of his career.
From his rookie season, when he won Offensive Rookie of the Year, he's ranked as a top-12 quarterback in passer rating nine times. According to Football Outsiders, he's been a top-10 passer in terms of DVOA nine times. Per ESPN's QBR stat, he's been a top-10 quarterback 10 times.
If Jones ends up with that kind of resume, that's a win for the Patriots. Easily. Especially if you consider how Jones landed in New England with the No. 15 overall pick.
Since 2000, here are the quarterbacks who were taken between No. 10 overall to No. 20 overall, the Russian roulette range of young signal-callers: Dwayne Haskins, Josh Rosen, Patrick Mahomes, Deshaun Watson, EJ Manuel, Brandon Weeden, Blaine Gabbert, Christian Ponder, Josh Freeman, Joe Flacco, Matt Leinart, Jay Cutler, Ben Roethlisberger, Kyle Boller and Chad Pennington.
Are there some home runs in there? Of course. A couple likely Hall of Famers. But only three out of those 15 have been threats to be top-10 quarterbacks season after season the way Ryan has been. If the Patriots get the fourth? A guy who can reasonably be included in a Hall of Fame debate, even if he probably shouldn't get in?
That's. A. Win.
There's another reason why that kind of ceiling for Jones should excite Patriots fans, not disappoint them. Because you can't separate the quarterback from his situation.
Would Ryan still have an MVP award if he'd never been paired with Kyle Shanahan and worked in a scheme that has consistently elevated average quarterbacks to be good and very good quarterbacks (like Ryan) to be great? Maybe not.
But had Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels been paired with Ryan for the last 14 seasons, would Ryan not have had greater career success? Under their tutelage, would Ryan not be more situationally aware? Would he not -- after over a decade of Belichick buzzing in his ear -- understand he can't take a sack that knocks his team out of field-goal range with a one-score lead and less than four minutes left in the Super Bowl?
Ryan has been durable. He's been accurate. He's been able to handle different types of offenses. And when surrounded by the right pieces in the right scheme, he's been excellent. He's also been careful enough -- his 2.1 career interception rate isn't quite on Tom Brady's level (1.8), but it's better than Peyton Manning's (2.7) -- to fit the profile of a player Belichick would appreciate, who generally seems to understand you have to not lose a game before you can win it.
Still, there are those who hope for more from Jones.
That even one third of the responses to that poll would like more from Jones speaks to the incredibly high standard of quarterback play set in New England. It also speaks to the promise Jones has shown through the first 10 games of his rookie season.
Among 29 qualifying quarterbacks, Jones is fourth in completion percentage (69.0), just ahead of several quarterbacks to whom he's been compared over the last six months: Joe Burrow (68.2), Kirk Cousins (68.1), Ryan (67.7) and Derek Carr (67.7). If Jones can maintain, that would break Dak Prescott's record for completion percentage over a full season by a rookie (67.8).
Jones is the only rookie ever to have at least six games with a completion percentage of 70 or higher (minimum 20 attempts). And he has seven games left to play.
Over the last month, no quarterback has a higher quarterback rating (102.6); Tom Brady is second (101.6). And in that span, Jones has become -- as his offensive line has rounded into form -- more aggressive. While over the breadth of the season his average depth of target ranks 21st in the NFL, in his last four games he's bumped up to 14th. He's also fifth in the league in yards per attempt (7.7) during this four-game win streak.
Jones has also been a darling among the advanced analytics crowd lately. He's been the second-best quarterback in football since Week 7 when it comes to his expected points added (EPA) per play, per Ben Baldwin of The Athletic. Jones is also sixth in the NFL in completion percentage over expectation (CPOE) among quarterbacks with at least 100 attempts in 2021, according to NextGen Stats.
Not only has Jones been the best rookie quarterback in football this season, but he's on track to have one of the better rookie quarterback seasons in recent memory.
His performance against the Browns last week was the fifth-highest single-game rating by a rookie in the Super Bowl Era. If he has another solid performance against the Falcons in Week 11, he could end up the fourth rookie quarterback to ever win five straight games and have a 100-or-higher rating over the span of the winning streak, joining Prescott, Roethlisberger and Robert Griffin III.
Jones' 2,333 passing yards through 10 games is tied with 2020 Offensive Rookie of the Year Justin Herbert for sixth-most by a rookie in league history. The Patriots currently have the second-highest explosive pass play rate in the league, behind only the Raiders, per Sharp Football Stats.
What Jones has done has been, in many ways, remarkable. And there remains plenty of room for him to grow. That expectations for his career would now be elevated makes sense for fans who spent 20 years watching the greatest quarterback to ever play.
But if Jones is able to match Ryan from an ability perspective and a consistency perspective, especially given the coaching he'll receive in New England, Patriots fans should be on their knees and thanking the football gods for delivering them another excellent player at the sport's most important position.
Is that Jones' ceiling, a Ryan-ish quarterback? Who knows?
But it should be good enough for a fan base that could have ended up like the many whose teams were lost for years after losing great quarterbacks.
As for Thursday, against one of the worst defenses in football (31st in DVOA), Jones should look very good once again. Ryan, plopped in the middle of a low-level surrounding cast and working under rookie head coach Arthur Smith, should look pedestrian against one of the best defenses in football (fifth in DVOA).
This will be a rout.
Prediction: Patriots 31, Falcons 10
X-Factor: Kyle Pitts
Pitts is truly more a receiver than he is a tight end. He spends about a quarter of his snaps as a blocker. (Hunter Henry, by comparison, is closer to a 50-50 split as a blocker and pass-catcher.) He's spent more time aligned as a slot (180 snaps) and a wide receiver (128) than he has as an in-line player (122).
But that doesn't mean he's not a problem. When Bill Belichick was reminded of a coverage he used on tight end Tony Gonzalez years ago -- when he had two linebackers mug Gonzalez at the line like he was a gunner on a punt team in the middle of a pair of vice players -- he smiled.
"We’re not allowed to vice them like we could back when we went up against Gonzalez," Belichick said this week. "But if we could, this would probably be a good week to do it. Pitts is a really talented player. He’s very long, has excellent hands, has good quickness to get off the line, good quickness at the top of his route. He has a huge catch radius, has made some spectacular one-handed catches where the defenders are kind of grabbing at his other arm, he can only get one hand on the ball, and he still hauls it in.
"... Somewhere between a Julio Jones and a Tony Gonzalez, but he’s a big, strong guy, too, like Gonzalez was. If you start pushing off against him, he’s probably going to win that because he’s bigger and longer and just as strong as anybody that’s pushing on him unless they’re a linebacker, and then, if it’s a linebacker, he has a huge advantage against those guys from a speed and quickness standpoint. He’s really good and going to be really good. I’m sure he’ll break all the tight end receiving records for a rookie this year. This is going to be a tough matchup for us."
Pitts already has 606 yards receiving on 40 grabs. He's scored just once this season, which speaks to the attention he's received thanks to a lack of true red-zone targets in Atlanta -- particularly with receiver Calvin Ridley taking time away from the team in recent weeks to address his mental health.
The Patriots have had their share of difficulty against tight ends this season. They rank 27th in the NFL in yards allowed per tight end target (8.1), and they're 24th in the success rate they've allowed on targets to tight ends (59 percent).
But with a dearth of capable offensive threats, the Patriots should be able to tilt their coverages in Pitts' direction. A recent shift to more zone coverage should also help Belichick's club on Thursday.
Through the first four weeks of the season, the Patriots played more man-to-man than any other team (about 60 percent of the time). But in the last four weeks, they've shifted gears. Hard. In that span, they're playing about 70 percent zone coverages.
Should they stick with that kind of approach, they won't need to rely on a safety (Kyle Dugger or Adrian Phillips) to track Pitts all over the field. If he's out wide to be used like a receiver, maybe J.C. Jackson handles him with help over the top. If he's tighter to Falcons formations, then safeties and linebackers can help one another deal with the uber rookie taken fourth overall back in the spring.
Slowing down Pitts would render an already bogged-down offense (25th in points) even more so. Don't be surprised if the Patriots end up with multiple sets of eyes on him all over the field, not just on third down and in the red zone as they typically do with other top receiving options across the league.
"I would say, more than Gonzalez and more than [George] Kittle or even [Travis] Kelce, he extends out (as a wide receiver) more than they do, too," Belichick said of Pitts. "His ability to really be a receiver to a tight end is pretty impressive."
Number to Know: 11.9
For the second consecutive week, the Patriots will take on a passing game that is totally reliant on its ability to use play-action. Ryan, like Baker Mayfield, is a heavy play-action passer and without it the Falcons could have trouble moving the football.
The Number to Know this week is the difference in completion percentage Ryan has seen this year when faking a handoff (76.0) versus not faking a handoff (64.1), per Pro Football Focus. At nearly 12 percentage points better when using play-action, only Washington's Taylor Heinicke (15.5) and Jacksonville's Trevor Lawrence (14.2) benefit more from that type of pass play being called into the huddle.
Prior to becoming Falcons coach, Arthur Smith worked under current Packers head coach Matt LaFleur in Tennessee. And LaFleur worked under Kyle Shanahan in Atlanta years ago. Therefore, with Smith coaching Ryan, it makes sense that the play-action-centric Shanahan style of offense would return to A-Town. Ryan now uses play fakes at the eighth-highest rate in football.
If the Patriots -- who rank 12th in the league in yards allowed per carry (4.2) -- can stop old friend Cordarrelle Patterson (questionable to play with an ankle injury) and the Falcons running game, then that should sap Atlanta's play-action game of its impact and put the game in New England's hands.
The Falcons certainly won't want to get down on the scoreboard and then have to mount a comeback with their straight dropback passing game. Matt Judon, in particular, would benefit from that type of game. He aligns primarily on the offensive right this season and has already tied a career-high in sacks (9.5).
Against Atlanta, on that side of the line of scrimmage, he'll square off with right tackle Kaleb McGary, who has the seventh-worst PFF pass-blocking grade in the NFL among tackles with at least 250 pass-blocking snaps.