Patriots vs. Jets preview: Why the Mac Jones-Zach Wilson debate is complicated

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Perry: In Jones-Wilson battle, brains winning over talent ... for now originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

There hasn't been much for Patriots fans to celebrate to this point in 2021. But they may be inclined to take a victory lap Sunday when they see Mac Jones take the field opposite Zach Wilson. 

The No. 15 overall pick in this year's draft has outperformed the No. 2 overall choice through six weeks of the season. Plain and simple. By just about every measure. By a wide margin.

Jones has the league's fourth-highest completion percentage (71.1), while Wilson's is 31st (57.3). Wilson has thrown fewer touchdowns than Jones (seven to four), more interceptions (six to nine) and he sports a lower yards-per-attempt figure (7.0 to 6.5). Jones isn't lighting it up when it comes to quarterback rating (89.6, 20th in the NFL), but Wilson's is last among qualifiers (62.9).

Week 7 QB Power Rankings: Are Patriots facing the worst QB in football?

The advanced numbers favor Jones as well. Jones is seventh in completion percentage over expectation (6.1), whereas Wilson is 31st (-6.8), per The Athletic's Ben Baldwin. Jones is 21st in ESPN's QBR metric. Wilson is last. Pro Football Focus has Jones graded out as the 14th-best quarterback through Week 6, while Wilson is 27th. 

You get the idea.

In the case study pitting Processing Ability versus Physical Ability at the quarterback spot, it's Jones' brain that has come out on top. So far.

Still, when building a team with a long-term view, the choice between one type of quarterback over another isn't all that easy.

With Jones and Wilson set to square off for the second time this week -- and with the pair getting out to such disparate starts -- it felt like a good time to revisit the quarterback-evaluation conversation that dominated this space before the draft. 

Did teams simply miss on Jones? Did Wilson's ceiling force the Jets to overreach? Has there been enough evidence on either to determine where they're headed?

Hall of Famer Kurt Warner joined "The Next Pats Podcast" this week to share his insight on the pair. These days when Warner isn't helping coach his son EJ, a quarterback at Brophy College Prep in Arizona, he studies the league's quarterbacks in depth for both his job as an NFL Network analyst and his QB Confidential project.

Next Pats Podcast: Kurt Warner: Mac Jones could give Patriots a chance to win a lot for a LONG time | Listen & Follow | Watch on YouTube

Of course, Warner won a Super Bowl ring, two MVPs and earned a gold jacket thriving as a pocket-passing processor. But when asked to play general manager and pick Jones or Wilson as the centerpiece of an offense, he said it was a tough call.

Processing is great, he explained. But the best quarterbacks need to be willing and able to produce explosive plays, too.

"I believe you have to have both parts of the equation to be a championship quarterback," Warner said. "I mentioned myself earlier. Tom Brady is another example. We weren't the most talented guys across the board physically. But both of us did have the high-end ability to throw the football to make those difference-making throws. 

"When you ask that question it's hard because I haven't seen Zach make enough of the right decisions to know. If you can't make the right decisions, you'll never win in this league. That's first and foremost. If you're not that guy, and you're just trying to live on making a special play, you'll never be successful in this league. I don't want that guy.

"But we've seen Zach make the 'Wow!' plays. We've seen him make the special big-time throws to say, 'OK. I know he's got that piece.' But I don't know if he's got the other one.

"Mac is exactly the opposite. Mac has the make-the-right-play piece that I know will give me a chance to win a lot of games for a long time. But I don't know if he's got the other piece. So if you ask me who I would take, if I'm just going off of that, I'm taking Mac.

"I know if I have Mac, even if he can't carry me to a championship, if I can put a good team around him, we can win a championship with that kind of guy. I'll go with Mac, even though I think he's gotta have that other piece if he's going to become a great quarterback in this league."

Warner acknowledged that there is plenty of time for both rookies to make necessary improvements. They're only one third of the way through their rookie seasons. And that's where league evaluators tend to stand as well.

I touched base with multiple league evaluators this week to gauge their feelings on Jones versus Wilson. When asked if they felt the Jets would like to snap their fingers and swap quarterbacks with the Patriots, not one said 'yes.'

Phil Perry

I touched base with multiple league evaluators -- scouts, executives and coaches -- this week to gauge their feelings on Jones versus Wilson at the moment. When asked if they felt the Jets would like to snap their fingers and swap quarterbacks with the Patriots, not one said "yes."

All have been impressed by Jones' start. All want to see Wilson with more time.

"His decision-making is definitely an issue at the moment," one exec said of Wilson. "Right now he's relying on his natural ability, extending plays and arm strength... Get the right OC, scheme and team around him, I'm sure we'll see a more consistent player."

"So much of the position comes down to who's around you," said a scout. "And the Jets are a young team that's still putting the pieces together."

To find a potential Wilson trajectory, I was told, you can stay in the AFC East. 

Josh Allen went 5-6 in 11 games as a rookie starter back in 2018. His completion percentage was abysmal (52.8) and he threw more picks (12) than touchdowns (10). A year later, he made real strides. Another year after that, he was in the MVP conversation.

Allen got hooked up with the right offensive coordinator in Brian Daboll, a scheme that accentuates his abilities, and talent in his offensive huddle that improved year after year. If the Jets can do the same with Wilson -- a significant "if " -- the results should improve.

Jones, meanwhile, is widely considered to be in the better situation. Though his offensive line has struggled, he has a proven offensive coordinator in his ear and an experienced offensive cast around him. Several evaluators pointed to the teams these two rookies are leading to say it's not a surprise that one quarterback has had the better start.

Systems matter, too.

The Jets, under offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur, run a version of the Shanahan scheme that is widely-regarded as a quarterback-friendly attack. In theory, it leans on a strong running game, simplifies a quarterback's reads, and accentuates the abilities of passers who can throw on the move. Though it hasn't worked for Wilson yet, he has the on-paper attributes to make it look better than it has.

The Patriots, on the other hand, place a premium on the ability to process, make good decisions and get the ball out quickly. It's one reason why folks at One Patriot Place are so high on Jones, and it helps explain how he's hit the ground running as the best rookie quarterback in this year's class.

Mac's quick attack

Jones' average time to throw, in seconds (T-5th in NFL)

2.68

Wilson's average time to throw, in seconds (32nd in NFL)

3.11

Variation

Double

Jets coach Robert Saleh has a background rooted on the defensive side of the ball, but he's broken down young quarterbacks long enough to know what makes a good one, and he likes what he's seen from his Week 7 opponent.

"He's got a lot of consistency to him," Saleh said of Jones. "He's very decisive. The ball is coming out of his hands in like 2.6 seconds, which is one of the fastest in the NFL, and Josh [McDaniels] has done a really good job of scheming some plays for him down the field. Otherwise he's doing a really nice job. He's checking for the big one, (and if the) big one's not there he's checking it down, moving the chains. He's playing an efficient brand of ball right now."

That description of Jones is almost antithetical to the scouting report on Wilson at the moment. With an average time to throw of 3.11 seconds, per PFF, Wilson spends more time with the ball in his hands than any passer in football other than Baltimore's Lamar Jackson. 

So would Saleh want his young quarterback to play a brand of ball similar to Jones? Or do their differing skill sets mean different definitions for desirable quarterback play?

"I think that's just playing quarterback, to be honest with you," Saleh said. "Within the structure of the offense there are differences, but most offenses in this league, to me, are similar. You're going to take your shots on play-action passes. You're going to run the ball. You're going to move the pocket. You're going to try to be efficient on first and second down, move the chains on third down. Every once in a while you want to take your shots. 

"... The quarterback has to play within the scheme and understand when something's there versus when something's not. [Jones] is doing a good job of it. Our guy, same thing. He's making the right reads, but for one reason or another it's not clicking right now. 

"But it's moving in a direction that we're excited about ... The things that he can do that are spectacular, you can't teach. You can't teach some of the things that he's capable of doing. And what he's capable of doing is in the upper-echelon of football. Now it's just getting him to understand quarterback, which I think he's starting to grasp every day."

And that gets us back to the evaluation conversation. 

Which quarterback should have gone first? Depends. Would you rather the less-spectacular player who understands how to play the position? Or do you want a potentially-transcendent one who has a ways to go in his grasp of the nuances of the most difficult job in sports?

The Jets made their choice when, with Jones still on the board, they took Wilson at No. 2. 

For now, Warner leans the other way.

"I'm gonna always take the guy I can win with if he makes the right plays," Warner said. "Then I have to say to myself, 'OK, I might not be able to win because of him, but I can win with him.' Now it's my job to surround him with a team that helps us to be successful, as opposed to just wallowing around with a guy that's ultra-talented but just never comes to the point where he makes the plays that give us a chance to win on a consistent basis."

As for this week? It'll take some time for the Jets to provide Wilson the kind of situation he'll need to succeed. It'll be a while, in all likelihood, before Wilson embraces being right over being special. For the Patriots, that should mean an opportunity to force Wilson into a few mistakes and to get back into the win column.

Prediction: Pats 23, Jets 17

 

X-Factor: David Andrews

In his first go-round against the Jets, Mac Jones was hit four times on his first 12 true dropbacks. It turned into a screen and draw-based attack for Jones from there on, as the Patriots tried to find ways to slow down the Jets defensive front. 

But it wasn't as if the Jets brought boatloads of exotic pressure in Week 2. They blitzed six times on 33 dropbacks. A great deal of their success -- they held the Patriots to 3-for-12 on third down and 1-for-3 in the red zone -- was predicated on winning with just a four-man rush. 

It'll be up to Andrews to help sort out the communication in the middle of an ever-changing offensive line. The Jets will undoubtedly try to run myriad games and stunts up front, both against the run and the pass. They did exactly that in the first meeting between these two teams, and it paid dividends.

"They moved quite a bit in our first game," Josh McDaniels said. "Some of which we handled OK, some of which we did not."

Perry: These five players need to step up right now for Pats

But if the communication is right, the Patriots should be able to handle what's thrown at them by a group that includes defensive linemen Quinnen Williams, John Franklin-Myers, Shaq Lawson and uber middle linebacker C.J. Mosley. Dealing with a hamstring injury this week, it's unclear if Mosely will play. But if he does, he's a game-changer.

"I think they have one of the best linebackers in football in Mosely," McDaniels said, "who finds the football, difficult to block, hard to trick. We tried, in the first game, to get him off-balance a little bit. But, this sucker, he reads his keys very well. He knows where the ball is, and he usually finds it. Then when he gets there, he hardly ever misses a tackle. He's a special player."

Patriots backs ran for 3.7 yards per carry in Week 2. Jones averaged just 6.2 yards per attempt. The offensive issues were masked partly by Zach Wilson's four picks. They'll need a better performance on Sunday. And a better performance will require a better performance from the offensive line. 

Getting Shaq Mason back after two weeks out injured would help. But the spotlight here is on Andrews, the one constant for this group in 2021, against an aggressive Jets front.

Number to Know

1,739. Through five weeks, before the Jets went on their bye, no team in the NFL had their rookie class play more snaps than that of the Jets. That number -- 1,739 -- represents the work of 13 of Robert Saleh's first-year players, per TruMedia.

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