PATS REPORTER

Perry's Mailbag: What exactly is Mac Jones' ceiling?

PATS REPORTER

The New England Patriots are set to host the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday. Ahead of the Week 6 matchup, let's take a spin through some of your hard-hitting mailbag questions...

I think it's lunacy to assume he's reached his ceiling, though I'll be honest I'm not sure I've heard that from anyone reputable. I mean, he's five games into his career. He's going to learn more with each start. As a pocket passer, for whom a strength is the ability to make good decisions before and after snaps, it'd be a shock to me if he didn't show noticeable improvement from Year 1 to Year 2 and thereafter.

He can very obviously become a better player in terms of his understanding of NFL defenses and his ability to process in real time. I also think it's possible his arm gets stronger. He probably won't get much quicker or faster, but we've seen Tom Brady work to improve his pocket mobility over the years so maybe that's something Jones can do as well. Those aren't Herculean tasks. Just requires an awful lot of work.

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As for his ability to someday lead a team to the Super Bowl? In essence, you're asking what his ceiling is. (As opposed to whether or not he's already reached it.) The answer there is this: I have no idea. Prior to the draft, I hypothesized his ceiling might be Kirk Cousins or Derek Carr. And, honestly, if that's the case, while Patriots fans may not love the sounds of it, their team still made the right pick at No. 15 overall.

 

Does it mean the Patriots are set up for annual Super Bowl contention? Of course not. But those two names listed above are borderline top-10 players at the toughest position in sports. Neither is tremendously athletic. Neither has a cannon for an arm. Both play within the structure of an offense. Both are accurate. That's well within Jones' reach. And if he gets there -- he's not yet -- while he's on a rookie deal, that's incredibly valuable. The question will be what to do with him in the next three to five years, which is what the Browns are going through at the moment with Baker Mayfield.

Very good. How good? This seems relevant with Dak Prescott headed to town this week. Here are my top-five quarterbacks, if I had to win a game tomorrow: Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Patrick Mahomes, Dak Prescott, Josh Allen. If Russell Wilson was healthy, he'd be No. 4 here.

I think people have forgotten how good Prescott has been since he took over the starting gig in 2016. He's been a top-four QBR guy every year outside of 2018. He was on pace for MVP-caliber numbers last year before getting injured. He's really, really good. 

Fascinated to see what happens with Odell Beckham, who had three targets last weekend in a game where his offense scored 42 points. You can understand why he'd be frustrated

The Patriots could, I'm sure, put together a package of picks the Browns would like. But to get Beckham involved they'd have to demote one of their wideouts or use one of their highly-paid tight ends even less than they already do. For those reasons, I think it would require an injury for the Patriots to be in on that kind of deal.

Still, just for kicks, what would it take? 

Cleveland gave the Giants a starting-caliber defender (Jabrill Peppers) as well as first and third-round picks for Beckham before the 2019 season. Trading him now would mean settling for much less than that.

The Titans acquired Julio Jones, who's four years older than Beckham, for a second-rounder and a Day 3 pick swap. The Cardinals acquired DeAndre Hopkins -- who was 27 at the time -- for a second-rounder and David Johnson. A deal for Beckham, 28, I imagine, would require less based on his recent injury history and production. He played just seven games last year and had 23 catches. He has nine catches through three games this season.

Beckham still has two years left on his deal ($15 million per season) and the Browns can get out from under it without eating any money in 2022 or 2023. But it might be better for them to try to make it work with Beckham at the moment rather than sell low. That is, if he's open to that.

 

What's interesting is that the Patriots might have to focus on Prescott as a "sixth receiver," as Belichick called him earlier this week. That may mean spying him, which we know the Patriots like to do when they have a mobile quarterback on their hands and they still want to do what they do in coverage, which is play man-to-man. So the matchups, I think, could play out this way: J.C. Jackson on CeeDee Lamb, Jalen Mills on Amari Cooper, Adrian Phillips on Dalton Schultz and Jamie Collins or Josh Uche or Kyle Van Noy spying Prescott. He's not necessarily looking to run, but because Prescott can still beat you with his legs even after last year's injury, you may have to dedicate a body to him.

Outside of Prescott, I'd say you have to focus on stopping the Dallas running game. Zeke Elliott, Tony Pollard... focus on stopping both. I know you asked for one name, but work with me. Prescott is a menace in the passing game, and they have a multitude of weapons there. But if the Patriots can't stop the Cowboys run game, it could be a long evening. They're totally willing to continue to hand it off if it's working. They're averaging over 30 carries per game through five weeks. Elliott is limited with a rib injury, which could lead to more of the load being heaped upon Pollard's shoulders. Both guys are problems, though.

Passing league, my friend! I'd be on the lookout for a defensive back, though Shaun Wade was the late-camp addition who was expected to provide them some depth. He's unavailable this week as he deals with a concussion.

The offensive line would be next, though after talking to folks around the league... good luck finding a starting-caliber lineman via trade. There just aren't enough out there that teams are willing to trade them away. 

They hoped they found him last offseason as a free agent. Nelson Agholor is being paid as a No. 1. Hasn't looked like one yet.

Have to get the ball deep. Need protection to be able to do that consistently. It's no coincidence that Jones has struggled to push the ball deep in a season when he's been hit as often as he has. Out of 33 qualifying quarterbacks, when throwing the ball 20 yards down the field or farther, Jones is last in yards (97), yards per attempt (5.1), adjusted completion percentage (21.1) and quarterback rating (8.8). He's second-to-last in Pro Football Focus' turnover-worthy play percentage (16.7) on deep throws.

Once the offensive line gets solidified, that should lead to better down-the-field opportunities, which should lead to better numbers for Agholor.

I think it's for a variety of reasons, Tucker. He's on the active roster so they like him enough to keep working with him. But the fact that he continues to be a healthy scratch would suggest a few things. Either he's not ready to contribute offensively, he's not ready to contribute in the kicking game, or the team doesn't feel it needs to protect itself in the event Hunter Henry or Jonnu Smith get hurt in order to preserve their 12-personnel packages. Or it's a combination of all those factors.

 

The fact that Patriots 12-personnel looks haven't been all that effective thus far this season probably isn't helping Asiasi's case to be in uniform on game day.

In terms of his physical skill set, Yodny Cajuste might be the most impressive of the three backups the Patriots have at that position. But that doesn't necessarily mean he's the best option. Experience matters. That said, Cajuste may find himself back on the field Sunday. Isaiah Wynn remains on COVID reserve and has missed two weeks of practice. Justin Herron is questionable for the Cowboys game with an abdomen injury.

If Herron can go, the Patriots may roll with the same tackle pairing they used last week, with Herron on the left side and Cajuste on the right. If Herron can't go, Cajuste could be an option at left tackle with Yasir Durant at right tackle. I've been told the Patriots could use Mike Onwenu at tackle if they were in an emergency situation. But to this point in the season, when they've had backup tackles at the ready, they've kept Onwenu at left guard.

They view him as a very good guard option. Over the years, the explanation for not shuffling multiple positions in the event of an injury is they don't want one absence to cause them to get worse at two spots. And they want to be especially strong along the interior for Jones as a pocket passer who can step up (if he has room) to help offset edge pressure. If they have to move Onwenu, they have to. But I think that's the reason for their reticence.

Both Hunter Henry and Kendrick Bourne have gained some momentum in recent weeks, KO. I'd say that at the moment they're the second and third-best receiving options on the team, right there with Jakobi Meyers.

The Patriots can score on the Cowboys. The Dallas defense is a good-not-great unit, in my opinion. Its youth and aggressiveness is something Josh McDaniels should try to exploit. The question is whether or not the Patriots can slow down the Cowboys offense in order to allow a much less explosive offense to keep pace.

What's their record? I think, if anything, they might be buyers. They're often busy this time of year. And my guess is they'll still be in the mix for a playoff spot by then. They are a team built to win right now so unless they're completely out of it, I'd be shocked if they sold real pieces for draft picks.

 

Big-bodied linebacker. Understanding of the Patriots defense thanks to his time with Matt Patricia in Detroit. Belichick likes the type. Tavai isn't exactly the same as either Brandon King or Harvey Langi. Those two are more core special-teamers. Tavai has played on two units with the Patriots thus far. Maybe he'll work into that kind of wide-ranging special teams role, but not sure he's there yet. 

The One Who Got Away. Wasn't Jimmy Garoppolo. It was Lamar Jackson. Special player. But the Patriots, at that time, were in Maximize Brady's Window mode. That's why they went tackle and running back that year. They went with a receiver the next year, something they'd never done before. Drafting a quarterback in the first round after Brady won the MVP might've made an already touchy situation even more so. 

They're trying, Andrew. They used Smith in the backfield for four snaps last week. And if he can help make them a force running the football when he's on the field, that would benefit the Patriots in a couple of ways. No. 1, they'd take being "a force" in any facet of their offense. They're near the bottom of the league right now in yards per carry (3.8). But No. 2, if they can run more effectively behind Smith and Henry, then teams may have to answer Patriots multi-tight end sets with more linebackers on the field. That, in turn, would help them in the passing game.

But at the moment Smith is having trouble just catching the ball cleanly. Maybe if the Patriots can send him a few catch-and-run targets to build up his confidence, that will lead to Smith looking a little more comfortable, and allow McDaniels to use Smith in some more dynamic ways. Smith ran just six routes as a receiver last week, his fewest since a Week 14 game in 2018.

Not sure there would be a whole lot out there for N'Keal Harry if the Patriots were inclined to trade him. That would be the definition of a sell-low situation.

Running behind their best run-blockers might be the easiest solution to start, Dwayne. Unfortunately, one of their best run-blockers is out this weekend. Shaq Mason is dealing with an abdomen injury that'll keep him out for the second straight week. But if they can get downhill behind Onwenu's behind, that might produce the desired results. The wide runs seem to be the ones that have been more an issue of late.

The Patriots are at their best out of 11 personnel. They've been effective in the moments they've opted not to huddle. It's one way of doing things. But for a quarterback who was on a record-setting pace for hits not that long ago, running the entire offense entirely through him would qualify as playing with fire. They've shown they can run downhill. They certainly can't abandon that portion of their playbook. But sticking with that part of their offense doesn't mean they can't go spread as well.

 

Feels like if they aimed to be something similar to the end-of-2018 offense -- a downhill running team that uses play action and can spread out occasionally to let the quarterback operate a quick-hitting passing game -- that wouldn't be a bad goal. The Patriots of course had Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman that year. This year's group won't get to that level. But if the style is similar, that could maximize what they do well.