Football

Mac Jones: 2021’s Best Rookie QB

Mac Jones
Jim Davis/Globe Staff

Drafting a franchise quarterback is far from an easy task. Consensus first overall picks have turned out to be spectacular busts, and a sixth round selection is now arguably the greatest quarterback of all-time. However, teams still have to take their chances in this process year after year, and the 2021 NFL Draft was no exception.

Going into the 2021 draft, many expected quarterbacks to be taken early and often. Some even thought that this draft had the chance to tie (or even break) the record for the most quarterbacks drafted in the top 10 picks. There were quite a few legitimate QB prospects, and the top 10 picks had no shortage of teams looking for their next franchise signal caller. It seemed like the perfect storm.

In the end, the 2021 draft class did not set the record for the most quarterbacks drafted in the top 10 picks. That honor still belongs to the 2018 draft class, which had 4 quarterbacks selected in the top 10. The 2021 NFL Draft did, however, come close to making history in a couple of ways, and it even managed to set a new record of its own.

Historically QB-Heavy Draft

The record for the most quarterbacks drafted in the first round of the NFL Draft was set during the 1983 NFL Draft, which saw 6 signal callers selected in the first round alone. The 2021 NFL Draft fell just short of tying this record with 5 quarterbacks drafted in the first round for only the 3rd time in NFL history (1999, 2018).

Additionally, the 2021 NFL Draft marked only the 3rd time in NFL History that a quarterback was selected with each of the first 3 picks of the draft (1971, 1999).

The 2021 draft class did manage to set one draft day record, however. The 8 quarterbacks selected in the first 3 rounds were the highest such total in the history of the NFL. Table 1 (below) provides a list of the quarterbacks taken in the first 3 rounds of the 2021 NFL Draft:

Player (College)PickTeam
Trevor Lawrence (Clemson)Round 1, Pick 1Jacksonville Jaguars
Zach Wilson (BYU)Round 1, Pick 2New York Jets
Trey Lance (NDSU)Round 1, Pick 3San Francisco 49ers
Justin Fields (Ohio State)Round 1, Pick 11Chicago Bears
Mac Jones (Alabama)Round 1, Pick 15New England Patriots
Kyle Trask (Florida)Round 2, Pick 64Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Kellen Mond (Texas A&M)Round 3, Pick 66Minnesota Vikings
Davis Mills (Stanford)Round 3, Pick 67Houston Texans
Table 1. Quarterbacks Drafted in the First 3 Rounds of the 2021 NFL Draft.

Of these 8 quarterbacks, 3 (Lawrence, Wilson, and Jones) were named their team’s starting QB prior to Week 1 of the 2021 NFL season. Two others (Fields and Mills) started as backups but have since been thrust into the starting role due to injuries to their teams’ starting quarterbacks. Lance has only started one NFL game thus far due to an injury to Jimmy Garoppolo, but he has seen action in a total of four games. Trask and Mond have yet to attempt a pass at the NFL level.

(Far Too) Early Evaluation

Through (roughly) half of the NFL season, Mac Jones has played like the best quarterback in his draft class despite being the last QB taken in the first round and the fifth QB off the board overall. With Mac Jones at the helm, the New England Patriots are expediting their post-Tom Brady rebuild and immediately rejoining the playoff race. If this pattern holds, they may very well have left the 2021 NFL Draft with the steal of the draft.

However, what good would any claim be without statistical support? Let’s get to it. (All statistics courtesy of Pro Football Reference unless otherwise specified.)

Mac Jones: Pacing the Pack

For the sake of comparison, only rookie quarterbacks with at least 100 career pass attempts will be considered in the following statistical analyses. This criteria easily eliminates both Kyle Trask and Kellen Mond. While Trey Lance has shown flashes of playmaking ability (particularly with his legs) in his limited playing time, he also cannot be considered as he falls well short of the 100 pass attempt bench mark with only 48 attempts to-date. After these eliminations, only Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson, Justin Fields, Mac Jones, and Davis Mills remain for consideration.

Passing

Mac Jones currently leads all rookie quarterbacks in every major volume passing category. He has the most passing yards (1,996), passing touchdowns (9), and completions (192). He has also thrown for the fewest interceptions of all qualifying rookie quarterbacks despite having attempted the most passes out of the entire group.

PlayerGGSRecordPass Att.CompletionsPassing YdsPassing TDInt.
Mac Jones884-42821921,99696
Trevor Lawrence771-62701611,70389
Zach Wilson661-51811041,16849
Justin Fields862-41589499137
Davis Mills760-62091401,35778
Table 2. 2021 Volume Passing Statistics for Qualifying Rookie Quarterbacks. All stats courtesy of Pro Football Reference.

Rushing

Perhaps surprisingly, Mac Jones has proven to be more of a rushing threat than he was given credit for coming out of college. In fact, he has already surpassed his entire college rushing total (42 yards) in just eight games of NFL action (55 yards).

Still, Justin Fields is clearly the cream of the crop when comparing the qualifying rookie quarterbacks (a title that Lance would almost certainly vie for if given more playing time). He has the most rushing yards by a comfortable margin, and he is tied with Trevor Lawrence for the most rushing touchdowns (2).

PlayerRush AttemptsRushing YdsRushing TDFumbles Lost
Mac Jones175501
Trevor Lawrence2913223
Zach Wilson82200
Justin Fields4424322
Davis Mills7801
Table 3. 2021 Volume Rushing Statistics for Qualifying Rookie Quarterbacks. All stats courtesy of Pro Football Reference.

It is worth noting, however, that Mac Jones appears to be one of the more “opportunistic” rushers among the rookie quarterbacks. Despite being in the middle of the pack in terms of rushing attempts, he is second in first downs gained on the ground. In fact, 52.9% of his rush attempts have resulted in a first down. This number is easily the highest for rookie quarterbacks, as Fields is in a distant second place with 29.5%. While Jones is not particularly known to be a dangerous scrambler, he has demonstrated an impressive situational awareness that has allowed him to be effective with his limited rushing attempts thus far this season.

PlayerRushing First DownsPercentage of Rush Attempts Resulting in a First Down
Mac Jones952.9%
Trevor Lawrence827.6%
Zach Wilson225.0%
Justin Fields1329.5%
Davis Mills228.6%
Table 4. First Down Rushes for Qualifying Rookie Quarterbacks. All stats courtesy of Pro Football Reference.

The Impressive Efficiency of Mac Jones

However, volume statistics are probably not the fairest manner in which to compare this group of rookie quarterbacks. Due to byes and/or injuries sustained by his peers, Mac Jones has started the most games (8) of the entire group. As such, it seems only fair to compare performance through volume-adjusted statistics.

When looking at such statistics, Jones still stands a head above the rest. He has the highest completion percentage despite attempting the most passes on the highest yards per attempt. He also has the highest average passing yards per game, the second highest TD% (barely edged out by Mills), and the lowest Int%. Perhaps most notably, Mac Jones is also the only rookie quarterback with at least 100 pass attempts to have a touchdown to interception ratio that is greater than 1.0.

PlayerComp. %Passing Yds/GY/ATD:IntTD%Int%QBR
Mac Jones68.1%249.57.11.503.2%2.1%52.9
Trevor Lawrence59.6%243.36.30.893.0%3.3%34.7
Zach Wilson57.5%194.76.50.442.2%5.0%25.9
Justin Fields59.5%123.96.30.431.9%4.4%23.1
Davis Mills67.0%193.96.50.883.3%3.8%29.6
Table 5. 2021 Volume-Adjusted Passing Statistics for Qualifying Rookie Quarterbacks. All stats courtesy of Pro Football Reference.

Team Effort

While Mac Jones certainly deserves a lot of credit, it would not be entirely fair to completely discount overall team play in this comparison. Jones currently has the second lowest sack percentage of all qualifying rookie quarterbacks. He may deserve some credit for this, however, as he is also tied for the second lowest average time in the pocket (barely above Mills and tied with Fields). Perhaps part of Jones’ low sack percentage is the result of an impressive pocket presence and a well-developed sense for when to throw the ball away.

With that being said, Jones has benefited from the lowest pressure rate of all qualifying rookie quarterbacks. Though New England’s offensive line has been far from perfect this season, it still seems to have afforded Jones a bit more protection than his peers have received.

[Side Note: Jones is also the only qualifying rookie quarterback whose team has run a higher percentage of plays from under center than out of shotgun so far this year (per NFL Savant). While this may not have contributed to the sack numbers for each quarterback, it does seem somewhat indicative of varying offensive approaches across the teams.]

Mac Jones has also been the beneficiary of the lowest drop percentage out of all qualifying rookie quarterbacks. Additionally, he has the highest average yards after catch per completion of the entire group, though this may be due in part to Jones’ knack for finding receivers in space.

PlayerPocket Time (s)Pressure%Sack%Drop%YAC/Comp
Mac Jones2.320.4%5.1%3.3%4.9
Trevor Lawrence2.421.4%3.9%3.8%4.7
Zach Wilson2.430.7%9.5%5.7%4.0
Justin Fields2.325.1%14.1%5.2%4.2
Davis Mills2.223.4%8.7%3.5%4.2
Table 6. Advanced Pressure/Catching Statistics for Qualifying Rookie Quarterbacks. All stats courtesy of Pro Football Reference.

Mac Jones: Consistently On Target

However, this is not to say that Jones has not been doing his part. While he may have been the beneficiary of more consistent performances by his receivers thus far, he also paces all rookie quarterbacks in throwing accuracy. He is tied for the lowest bad throw percentage among all qualifying rookie quarterbacks at 16.1%. Additionally, he has the highest on target throw percentage of the entire group despite having attempted the most passes.

PlayerBad Throw%On Target%
Mac Jones16.1%78.4%
Trevor Lawrence22.2%68.2%
Zach Wilson23.9%70.5%
Justin Fields24.8%73.9%
Davis Mills16.1%76.9%
Table 7. Advanced Passing Statistics for Qualifying Rookie Quarterbacks. All stats courtesy of Pro Football Reference.

Winning Ways

Perhaps most notably, Mac Jones has as many wins as a starting quarterback as all of the other quarterbacks drafted in the first three rounds of the 2021 NFL Draft combined. The New England Patriots are the only team with a rookie starting quarterback that has a winning percentage of at least .500. They currently sit at 2nd in the AFC East and 8th in the AFC, which puts them just outside of a playoff spot. They have won their past two games, including a recent win over a Chargers team coming off an impressive start to the season.

While they have been playing well as of late, the Patriots and Mac Jones only seem to be getting better. The Pats averaged 15.2 points per game over their first five games and went 2-3 over that span. Over their past three games, they have averaged 36.7 points per game and have gone 2-1, with their only loss coming in overtime against the Cowboys.

Mac Jones deserves a decent amount of the credit for his team’s past two wins. Over his first five NFL starts, he averaged 248.6 passing yards per game and threw for five touchdowns with five interceptions. Over the past three games, he has averaged 251 passing yards per game, which is a similar average to the start of the year. However, his improvement is noticeable when looking at his ball security. Over his past three games, he has thrown for four touchdowns to only one interception. Almost 50% of Jones’ total passing touchdowns for the season have come in the past three games. If he can keep up this pace, his final stat line for the season will look all the more impressive.

Onward and Upward

Moving forward, Mac Jones will look to build on his recent success in an effort to help the Patriots grab a playoff spot in the AFC. Such a playoff push is a distinct possibility, as the Patriots have only the 21st hardest remaining strength of schedule based on their scheduled opponents’ current combined records.

Mac Jones and the New England Patriots will look to extend their win streak to three games when they travel to Charlotte, NC to take on the Carolina Panthers this Sunday at 1 p.m. EST.

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