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Bill Belichick's rookie QB track record says Mac Jones is in for a wait

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What kind of impact will Mac Jones have on the New England Patriots this season? Going purely by the historical numbers: not much.

Bill Belichick has coached the Patriots for 336 regular-season and 41 postseason games. In that time, a rookie quarterback has started just two games — or about one-half of one percent — and that, only because Belichick faced an emergency, no-other-options situation. (Who was that QB? We’ll get to that trivia question in a moment.)

Mac Jones doesn’t just represent the highest draft pick Bill Belichick has ever used on a quarterback, he’s the highest by a wide margin, beating the previous high-water mark of Jimmy Garoppolo (2nd round, 62nd pick, 2014) by nearly 50 slots. Were this any other team, it would be reasonable to assume Jones would start getting snaps this year, if not the starting job outright.

But this is the Patriots, where every job is done deliberately, and that means Jones is in for a wait. Asked last week where Jones fits into the Patriots’ quarterback plans, which currently have Cam Newton in the QB1 slot, Belichick didn’t hesitate.

“Cam’s our quarterback,” he said. “Whatever time Jarrett [Stidham] or Mac are ready to challenge him and compete, we’ll see how that goes. Right now, for Mac, he’s got a lot of learning in front of him, and I know he’s very anxious to get going with it and get started.”

No “the job is up for grabs.” No “we’ll have to see what happens in camp.” Not even “Mac Jones is our clear No. 2.” Belichick isn’t giving anything away right now, least of all the quarterback depth chart.

Asked how long it could be before someone would displace Newton, Belichick was about as straightforward as you can be: “Somebody will have to play better than he does.”

Rookies and QBs not named Tom Brady don't get much love from Bill Belichick. (Barry Chin/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
Rookies and QBs not named Tom Brady don't get much love from Bill Belichick. (Barry Chin/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Here’s the trick, though: rookie quarterbacks under Belichick don’t tend to get a whole lot of game time to prove themselves. That, of course, is a function of having the Greatest Of All Time under center for most of your reign. When your starting QB is Tom Brady, you start Tom Brady at literally every possible opportunity. (Belichick did start rookie Eric Zeier for four games at the end of his stint in Cleveland in 1995, but the team was in a tailspin, about to move, and nobody cared about anything at that point.)

In New England, even the great Tom Brady wasn’t the great Tom Brady to start. No, he had to sit behind Drew Bledsoe, and only entered the starting lineup in his second year, when Bledsoe fell to injury. Belichick hasn’t shown a whole lot of patience with rookie quarterbacks; had Bledsoe not gotten injured, who knows what might have happened to Brady?

Belichick has tended to favor players who spent substantial time under center in college, but that hasn’t translated to immediate playing time in New England. So in the interest of preparing Patriots fans and Mac Jones acolytes for 2021, let’s run down how the 11 previous quarterbacks drafted by Bill Belichick fared in their rookie seasons.

2000: Tom Brady (Michigan), Round 6. Played in one game, completed one of three passes for six yards. Would get better.

2002: Rohan Davey (LSU), Round 4. Played in two games, went 1-for-2 for three yards. Would go on to play a total of seven games and throw 19 passes over a three-year NFL career. Like Jones, he was the product of a Nick Saban system.

2003: Kliff Kingsbury (Texas Tech), Round 6. Never actually played for the Patriots; spent the entire year on injured reserve, though still got a Super Bowl ring. Was waived after the 2003 season. Now head coach of the Arizona Cardinals.

2005: Matt Cassel (USC), Round 7. Played in two games, going 13-for-24 with two touchdowns and an interception. Would take over the Patriots for a year in 2008 when Brady went down with a season-ending injury; was later traded to Kansas City, where he’d be rewarded handsomely for that one good season in New England.

2008: Kevin O’Connell (San Diego State), Round 3. Played in two games, going 4-of-6 for 23 yards. Only played one season for New England. Now offensive coordinator for the Rams.

2010: Zac Robinson (Oklahoma State), Round 7. Never threw a pass for New England; he was cut before the first regular-season game of 2010. Also now a coach for the Rams.

2011: Ryan Mallett (Arkansas), Round 3. Was inactive for his entire rookie season behind Brady and Brian Hoyer. Under contract to New England for three years, he would end up playing only one, going 1-for-4 for 17 yards in the 2012 season.

2014: Jimmy Garoppolo (Eastern Illinois), Round 2. The first legitimate potential heir to Brady. In his first game, he debuted by leading the Patriots on a fourth-quarter touchdown drive, throwing his first NFL touchdown to Rob Gronkowski. Playing in garbage time, he appeared in six games, going 19-of-27 with a rating of 101.2. Took over the starting job in 2016 when Brady was suspended for four games over deflate-gate. Was traded to San Francisco in the 2017 season, and Brady, who wasn’t ready to be put out to pasture, was not brokenhearted to see him leave.

2016: Jacoby Brissett (North Carolina State), Round 3. Pressed into service when Garoppolo went down with an injury during the second game of Brady’s suspension, he’s the answer to the trivia question above: the only rookie to start at quarterback for Bill Belichick in New England. Over the course of three games, two as the starter, he went 34-for-55 for 400 yards but no touchdowns. Traded to Indianapolis just before the 2017 season.

2018: Danny Etling (LSU), Round 7. Cut before he could even play a regular-season game. Later added to the Patriots’ practice squad, but never reached the Show in New England.

2019: Jarrett Stidham (Auburn), Round 4. Appeared in three games, going 2-of-4 for 14 yards. Served as backup/cleanup to Newton in 2020, and is still in the mix for 2021.

2021: Mac Jones (Alabama), Round 1. A minor coup for New England, given that many analysts didn’t believe Jones would last into the double digits of the first round. A traditional pocket passer in a dual-threat era, Jones may be the last of a dying breed, or he may be the herald of a new era in New England. Right now, everything's on the table. 

Granted, Jones is clearly walking into a completely different situation than any of his Belichick-era predecessors; it’s not yet clear how much of Newton’s struggles last year were as a result of a makeshift offense, and how much were a result of Newton’s own eroding skills. Either way, there’s more opportunity for Jones than any Patriots rookie under Belichick has ever seen.

“If there’s a spot for Jones to make it,” Yahoo Sports draft analyst Eric Edholm says, “this is it.”

Just probably not in 2021.

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Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter/Facebook/Instagram at @jaybusbee or contact him at jay.busbee@yahoo.com. 

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