FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Last year at this time, quarterback Mac Jones had yet to take his determined walk across the stage at the 2021 NFL draft as the New England Patriots’ first-round pick.
Fast-forward one year and Jones is spending time this week in Tampa, Florida working out with three top returning receivers (Nelson Agholor, Kendrick Bourne and Jakobi Meyers) and newcomer DeVante Parker in what could be viewed as a decisive reflection of his willingness to expand his leadership within the team.
It’s what many, including those at the highest levels of the organization, hope to see unfold.
“I actually believe he has a little more edge than we’ve seen. But he’s been respectful of coming in as a rookie,” owner Robert Kraft said last week at the NFL’s annual meeting in Palm Beach, Florida.
Jones’ on-field workout with teammates in Tampa, Agholor’s hometown, figures to be one of many this offseason. The Patriots’ official voluntary offseason program begins April 18 at Gillette Stadium, and Jones is expected to be a full participant, but there are no rules that prohibit players from gathering on their own to build additional rapport.
Bourne provided a sneak peek, via Instagram, of what is happening in Tampa this week.
Today’s report about a QB with Patriots ties in Tampa has a twist: It’s Mac Jones bonding and working on the field with WRs Nelson Agholor, Kendrick Bourne and Jakobi Meyers, as well as RB J.J. Taylor.
— Mike Reiss (@MikeReiss) April 5, 2022
After the Patriots acquired Parker from the Miami Dolphins in a trade last week, Parker’s injury history was noted on ESPN’s “NFL Live” on Monday, with analyst Tedy Bruschi highlighting the role of Jones in helping Parker thrive.
“When you bring in a receiver that you need to get the most out of, you put him in the offense, and who plays a big part in that? The quarterback. In terms of getting on a relationship with this guy … Mac has to become that quarterback now. You’re no longer a rookie. Those conversations, the serious ones, receiver to quarterback, man, ‘I need you out there.'”
Jones’ potential increased leadership within the team was foreshadowed by coach Bill Belichick when he was asked last week about longtime franchise stalwarts such as safety Devin McCourty, special teams ace Matthew Slater and running back James White returning in 2022 as they near the end of their careers.
“Just like some of the great players in the past, whether it be Tedy Bruschi or Logan Mankins, and go right down the line — Willie McGinest and Vince Wilfork. Jerod Mayo. Troy Brown. We all know it’s not going to last forever. Other leaders need to develop. These guys all stepped in for somebody before them. And somebody will step in for them in the future. It’s the NFL. …
“I think Mac will step into those roles eventually. Start with that.”
The Patriots had two offensive captains last season — White and center David Andrews. The other three captains were on defense (McCourty and linebacker Dont’a Hightower) and special teams (Slater).
So the door is open for Jones to become a captain in just his second season, and White — returning for his ninth season with the Patriots — saw the early signs of that becoming a possibility last year.
“As soon as he stepped into the building, you could see the kid was going to be a good football player, and I think he got better and better each and every week. He took on that leadership as a rookie,” White said. “First off, being a rookie and starting all the games, that’s not an easy job. He’s a good competitor, works hard, and he attacks each and every day.”
Jones’ leadership evolved during his college career at Alabama, with coach Nick Saban noting that Jones’ body language and avoiding negative reactions when things went wrong were hurdles for him to clear.
Jones showed his growth late in the 2019 season, throwing two pick-sixes in an Iron Bowl loss, but coming back each time to lead touchdown drives and ultimately put the team in position to tie (if not for a missed field goal attempt). The way Jones took big hits in that game, and didn’t waver, earned him additional respect among teammates when he was voted a team captain.
In his final season at Alabama in 2020, “he presented a genuine personality to his teammates in which he didn’t take himself too seriously,” said Mike Rodak, who covers Alabama for AL.com. That connection with teammates showed itself at Alabama’s second pro day, when receiver DeVonta Smith — already a sure-fire top-15 pick — risked injury to catch passes from Jones.
Kraft believes similar growth as a leader could unfold for Jones this year, and the workouts with teammates in Tampa seem like a good sign.
“These young quarterbacks, the good ones, in the second year have usually grown a great deal. I’m a big fan of Mac Jones. You see how hard he works. He wants everything to go right. He puts [in] the time and energy, and his personality as a team guy,” Kraft said.
“He’s such a good person, and humble. I come in there sometimes on the weekend, or early, and he’s there working out, watching film, just doing things that I wouldn’t believe someone of his background would have that kind of commitment given his past. The guys in the locker room really like him. I’m very high on him and I think the staff did a great job drafting him. We’re lucky to have him for our future.”