Patriots aren't any closer to knowing what they have in Mac Jones

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Curran: Patriots aren't any closer to answering Mac Jones question originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

It’s later than you think for Mac Jones.

Career-wise? No. First contract-wise? Yes.

In a month, he’ll be through his second season. By the end of next year, the Patriots will be facing the decision on whether or not to pick up Jones’ fifth-year option. And that’s a big deal.

It’s a commitment to the intention of making an even longer commitment. It’s a moment when teams say, "This is our guy, we believe in him and -- before we even get to that fifth year -- we’ll probably have a long-term deal done and have charted the course for our franchise. But this is our engagement ring."

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For a quarterback, it’s validation or snubbery. And for Jones -- who’s mired in the muck of a forgettable second season -- the Patriots' decision will be a referendum on how they feel about him as their quarterback for the rest of the decade.

The Patriots can certainly decline the option next May and play it out. Let Jones play for his fourth-year salary and then franchise Jones in 2025 if they still want him. Bill Belichick takes pride in delaying decisions until he has all the data.

But in terms of data, this season has been pissed away. The Patriots are no closer to knowing whether they have the second coming of Colt McCoy (and I don’t hate Colt McCoy) or a possible top-10 quarterback.

Meanwhile, quarterbacks -- and their agents and "camps" -- want that long-term commitment. And pressure gets exerted. Kyler Murray, the Cardinals quarterback facing the Patriots on Monday, is a case study for how antsy quarterbacks start to get when they don’t get commitments they presume they deserve.

It was after Murray’s third season – this past spring – that wailing for a new deal began in earnest. Arizona burped up a five-year, $230.5 million extension and Murray has done little this year to convince anyone that was a shrewd move.

Jones has eaten the poop sandwich (no bread) handed to him this year and hasn't complained. Much. If, however, the Patriots start wavering on how much they want to commit to Jones based on his output, it wouldn’t be a stunner if Jones said, "What did you expect?"

Which means 2023 is a very big year for this relationship.

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First, a refresher: All drafted players get four-year contracts. But first-rounders get a four-year deal with a team option on the fifth year. The option must be exercised before the player’s fourth season. The deadline to pick up Jones’ option will be in early May of 2024. Once picked up, that fifth-year salary becomes guaranteed.

If the Patriots pick up Jones’ fifth-year option by May of 2024, they’ll probably be looking at a guaranteed salary for the 2025 season of about $25 million, as he’ll qualify for the "Play Time" level as opposed to the basic.

The outstanding website has the projections for the 2020 draft class options which need to be picked up by May. Quarterbacks (Joe Burrow and Tua Tagovailoa among them) are projected to have options of $22.673 million.

Currently, the Patriots have Isaiah Wynn playing on his fifth-year option for a guaranteed $10.413 million. The team picked up Wynn’s option in May of 2021 despite his having played in just 18 games from 2018 to 2020.

That likely would be one the Patriots "would like to have back," to put it delicately. Wynn’s been rough. But that’s the tough part for teams. The Patriots knew Wynn was snakebitten and injury-prone. They had to make a projection and presumed he’d be better. He hasn’t been.

Now, back to Murray. The Cardinals being the Cardinals, Murray is the best drafted quarterback they’ve had in franchise history. When he’s good, he’s electric. Arizona needs stars and marketability and personalities since the franchise, the coach and the tradition aren’t compelling.

So in the case of Murray -- even though it’s apparent he's got flaws on the field (last year’s playoff performance), some physical limitations (short and injury-prone), isn't beloved in the locker room (former teammate Patrick Peterson blasted him last week) and actually had a homework clause in his contract (it was eliminated after an outcry) -- he still got an insane deal because the Cards were afraid of losing him and their fanbase.

With Jones, it’s different. Belichick is the star. The Patriots have history, tradition and more success in the past 20 years than half the league combined has in its collective history.

By the end of 2023, the 15th overall pick in the 2021 draft will have about a .500 record as a starter, 50 TDs, 35 picks and no playoff wins.

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Jones isn’t going to Bigfoot anybody. And yet … what’s the Patriots' recourse? What’s their plan? If they don’t see him as Murray (or Josh Allen or Patrick Mahomes), do they see him as perhaps Jimmy Garoppolo, who got a five-year $137.5 million deal from the 49ers in 2018? Will they view him as a Ryan Tannehill/Teddy Bridgewater/Andy Dalton-level player?

Or does Bill look at Mac’s agent across the table at some point and say, "I mean, Taylor Heinicke has the same numbers. All due respect..." And how would Jones and Co. react to that knowing the Patriots voluntarily vomited the 2022 offense into the sink?

Robert Kraft left no doubt in March how much he believed in the future of Jones. And, for that matter, Belichick.

"These young quarterbacks, the good ones, in the second year have usually grown a great deal," Kraft said at the NFL Owner’s Meetings. "I’m a big fan of Mac Jones. You see how hard he works. He wants everything to go right. He puts the time and energy, and his personality is as a team guy.

"So we have a chance. Without a good coach and a good quarterback, no matter how good the other players are, I don’t think you can win consistently. Hopefully, I believe we have both -- an outstanding coach and a good young prospect at quarterback."

In a few months, we’ll be back at the Owner’s Meetings. Kraft will be further from the truth about Jones than he was last spring. And he’ll be another year closer to having to decide whether to stay with the steady hand or chase a unicorn.