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Perry: The numbers-based case for Mac Jones having a bright future

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Mac Jones

When we had NFL Media's analytics expert Cynthia Frelund on Next Pats recently, she was the perfect person to ask a question that has been rattling around in my brain for the last several months.

We discuss quarterback play ad nauseum. We spend a lot of time and energy trying to figure out how much coaching impacts a passer and vice versa. We squint hard at the numbers to try to decipher what's happening at the sport's most important position.

But which metric is best for gauging quarterback play? Which one tells us who's good and who's less than that? Is there a number out there that can give us a better sense of what Mac Jones can be?

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"I really look at, the best you can do is what you do from a clean pocket," Frelund said. "Most quarterbacks get pressured on about a third of dropbacks... What are you doing on those other two thirds when you're not under pressure? Are you throwing precisely to a lot of the route tree?

 

"There are some things to take into consideration. Do your wide receivers run the routes you were expecting? What was the play call? Etc., etc. But clean pocket? To me, that is your ceiling."

Frelund went on to say that clean-pocket work deep down the field is especially valuable in terms of projecting out what the upper limits of your ceiling might be.

If you're a Patriots fan, that should be music to your ears. But before we dig into the details on Jones when it comes to his clean-pocket work, let's dive a little deeper into why it matters.

Why being clean matters

On its face, valuing clean-pocket play makes sense, right? If you're trying to project out and determine what makes a good quarterback, you're going to want to lean on what that quarterback can do on the vast majority of snaps (the roughly 70 percent when kept clean) as opposed to the smaller sample (the 30 percent under pressure).

But that kept-clean data set isn't just representative of the bulk of the work for a given quarterback. It also feels more ... stable. That's how plays are drawn up: Passer drops back, scans the field, delivers on time with no one breathing down his neck. Simple.  

Meanwhile, how a player performs when he's flushed to his left versus flushed to his right versus throwing as he's hit, for example, would seem to have some significant fluctuations. And the numbers would bear that out.

Back in 2018, data scientists Eric Eager and George Chahrouri wrote about the stability of play from a clean pocket by NFL quarterbacks. They found that play under pressure was relatively unstable. 

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For instance, Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott was Pro Football Focus' 21st-highest graded quarterback under pressure in 2018. He improved to 13th in 2019, got hurt, got up to fifth in 2021, then plummeted to 19th in 2022.

Derek Carr has had some wild swings in this category as well, going from 29th (2017) to 31st (2018) to fifth (2019) to 17th (2020) to 21st (2021) to 11th (2022) in PFF grade under pressure. And it turns out that below-average quarterbacks -- Kenny PIckett (3rd in 2022), Jacoby Brissett (2nd in 2021) -- can have some remarkable one-year snapshots in terms of their performance under pressure.

"Discovering that quarterback play under pressure was relatively unstable was a surprise to us, to say the least," Eager and Chahrouri wrote in their conclusion back in 2018. "Much is made of what a quarterback does under duress, and for good reason – many of the memorable, high-leverage plays that happen during an NFL season occur when a quarterback is under pressure.

"Be that as it may, the data suggests that a quarterback is most-accurately judged when looking at his clean-pocket dropbacks and that those are the data points that are best used for prognostication."

Eager and Chahrouri detail in the piece why tracking PFF grades is more stable than using traditional passer rating or even a more advanced metric like expected points added (EPA) per play. You can find their reasoning here

 

How Mac Jones factors in

What does all this have to do with Jones, you ask?

Based on what the analytics community seems to value at the quarterback position -- work from a clean pocket -- there should be hope in New England for the starting quarterback headed into his third season. Jones was the NFL's fifth-highest graded passer in 2022 when kept clean, per PFF, trailing only Joe Burrow, Patrick Mahomes, Jalen Hurts and Trevor Lawrence.

To Frelund's point about the importance of being able to throw deep effectively from a clean pocket, Jones ended up having an impressive year. He had a higher percentage of big-time throws -- which PFF defines as a pass with "excellent ball location and timing, generally thrown farther down the field and/or into a tighter window" -- than any of the other quarterbacks in the top five mentioned above.

Clean energy

Mac Jones' PFF rank among NFL QBs with a clean pocket in 2022
5th

Despite missing time injured and accumulating 496 total dropbacks -- Burrow (803), Mahomes (835), Hurts (637) and Lawrence (733) all had more -- Jones still racked up 20 big-time throws (5.6 percent). Hurts (5.0 percent) and Mahomes (4.1 percent) had 22 each. Burrow (4.1) had 26. Lawrence (5.1) had 27. 

Jones' big-time throw percentage from a clean pocket was second in the NFL behind only Josh Allen (6.3) He also took care of the football when kept clean, posting a turnover-worthy play percentage of just 0.8, which led the league among 32 quarterbacks with at least 100 dropbacks under pressure.

But if Jones was so effective on 71 percent of his dropbacks -- he was pressured on 29 percent of his drops in 2022 -- then why didn't he and the Patriots offense have a better season? 

Breaking down an odd 2022

Part of what limited Jones' overall success is that even though he graded out well and had a number of well-placed throws down the field from a clean pocket, his yardage totals from clean pockets were, in some cases, ho hum. 

His touchdown-to-interception ratio when kept clean was tremendous at 11-to-3. But his yards per attempt from a clean pocket was just 7.3, which ranked 17th in the NFL. That could be in part a function of the playmakers around Jones. According to Pro Football Reference, he ranked just 18th in the league in terms of the yards after the catch produced on his throws (5.0 per completion). 

Furthermore, having more time to throw might help Jones improve on the yardage totals generated from clean pockets. Sit back longer ... let routes develop ... strike down the field. Among the 32 quarterbacks with 280 dropbacks this year, Jones had the 10th-shortest time to throw, per Next Gen Stats.

A more aggressive style of offense also could help Jones' numbers from a clean pocket. He finished as the 16th-ranked quarterback when it came to average depth of target last season. Dead average. But when you look at the two-month stretch between Weeks 8 and 15, when the Patriots offense took an uber-conservative path, Jones was the shortest thrower in the league (ADOT of 6.4). 

 

The other seismic hinderance to Jones' individual success and the overall effectiveness of the Patriots passing game in 2022 was his performance under pressure. He ranked 31st out of 32 quarterbacks in PFF grade under pressure, ahead of only Jets quarterback Zach Wilson. That's preposterously low, as was his 35.1 quarterback rating under pressure, which was better than only Wilson and Arizona's Kyler Murray.

Although Jones was only pressured on 29 percent of his dropbacks, when he was, those reps were inordinately harmful. He was picked off eight times when under pressure (most in the NFL) and averaged 5.1 yards per attempt (26th) when under duress. 

Looking ahead to 2023

Jones should see his basement-dwelling under-pressure grade bump up in Year 3.

First, as a rookie under offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, Jones graded out as the league's 12th-best passer under pressure, per PFF. Getting into a similar range next season shouldn't be beyond the pale. Plus, as we mentioned, performance under pressure is relatively unstable. Without any changes whatsoever, there would be the opportunity to see improvement from Jones in those situations.

But we know changes have already occurred that should lead to improvement from Jones when he's heated up -- and therefore lead to overall improvement -- next season. 

Bill O'Brien has been hired as offensive coordinator, which will likely serve as the biggest impetus for change. Under O'Brien, Jones will have answers he didn't always have in 2022 for where to go with the football when things get dicey.

When there's a blitz off the edge, who's the "hot" receiver? What are the outlet options in case there's pressure up the gut early in the down? An experienced coordinator like O'Brien should be able to help Jones in those moments and provide him with a clearer picture on what to do when the threat of a sack is looming.

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Additionally, Adrian Klemm has been hired as offensive line coach, which should allow Jones more time to throw if he wants it. The Klemm addition also could help elevate the percentage of snaps during which Jones is at his best, increasing his clean-pocket rate by a few percentage points from where it was in 2022. 

There will also be personnel changes. Adding a capable offensive tackle is near the top of the Patriots' list of priorities this offseason after they dealt with a turnstile situation at right tackle last year. If and when they land one, that'll mean more time to throw and more clean pockets.

Jones should also get some receiving upgrades -- perhaps in the draft, as we mocked here -- who, A) get open quickly to help him get rid of the football before he's pressured, or B) provide the Patriots reliable targets for Jones when he's pressured and needs to be bailed out. 

Clean-pocket work is predictive, the numbers will tell you. If that's the case, then it would stand to reason Jones is a much better quarterback than last season's results would indicate.

 

"Mac Jones from a clean pocket is good," Frelund said. "Mac Jones is a good quarterback... There's a lot of upside here."