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Sports Illustrated
Sports Illustrated
Albert Breer

Why the Patriots Cut Both of Mac Jones’s Backups

A tick late this week with preseason work I’m getting through—sorry about that. And here’s the mailbag for you …

From Ronnie (@Tray4o): How come Bill Belichick let go both of Mac Jones’s backups? And who is expected to be the Patriots’ backup QB now?

Ronnie, I will say that I think a lot of people acting shocked, or feigning shock in blog posts, probably don’t pay enough attention to these things.

There were two things at work here.

One is that the Patriots needed roster spots to get players to short-term IR. To put a player on that list, you need to carry him through the 53-man cutdown, and New England had a number of players who were candidates to go on it (Tyquan Thornton is one who’s already there). So for the Patriots to get those guys through, they had to cut players they otherwise might not have, and could bring back after moving hurt guys to IR.

Zappe won the starting job for a short while last season when Jones was injured.

Eric Canha/USA TODAY Sports

Two, Bailey Zappe didn’t have a great summer. Last year, Matt Patricia and Joe Judge actually did a pretty good job of getting Zappe playing fast and confident, in a simpler system that was a little closer to what he did at Western Kentucky. This year, Bill O’Brien replaced Patricia and Judge, and went back to an offense closer to what New England’s traditionally done (with a lot of responsibility on the quarterback), and one that better leverages Mac Jones’s strengths. And as they did that, Zappe became less of a fit.

You put him on the practice squad now because maybe you think, with some time, you can develop his mind and eyes to run a more quarterback-centric system. But for now, with the offense O’Brien is building for Jones, the QB-scheme marriage is wonky with Zappe.

And remember the underlying thing here, which is the job of a backup quarterback is different than the job of a starter. No one’s building an offense for the backup. The backup has to fit the offense built for the starter, so he can effectively pinch-hit without the coaches having to turn everything upside down on the other 10 guys in huddle.

All of that, for that matter, applies to Malik Cunningham, too.

From Danny (@BetTheOver85): After the whole Trey Lance debacle, would Kyle Shanahan/John Lynch be on hot seat if Niners have a disappointing season?

Danny, I don’t think so, not yet at least. Where I think all of us assessing this have to be able to apply nuance, at least as I see it, is making the distinction between a really bad miss, and why someone would lose their job—which is a lack of a suitable level of performance.

The Niners have probably the best roster in the NFL. They’ve become a draft-and-develop machine, with homegrown stars like Nick Bosa, George Kittle, Fred Warner, Arik Armstead, Brandon Aiyuk and Deebo Samuel creating the foundation of a team that’s positioned itself to add vets like Trent Williams and Christian McCaffrey along the way. And they have a quarterback, in Brock Purdy, that they believe can approximate what the quarterback they passed on in 2021 (Mac Jones) would have given them, that they drafted in the seventh round.

Meanwhile, Kyle Shanahan’s coaching staff has remained among the NFL’s best despite a steady stream of attrition over the past few years, and that staff has gotten the team to three NFC title games in five years and a Super Bowl, with a group of players still young enough to have a few more swings at the Lombardi Trophy together.

And, sure, the time may come when not getting that Lombardi could raise larger questions about where the Niners are going. But I certainly don’t think we’re close to there yet.

From Finna Win (@Too_Many_Mics): Will Nick Bosa or Chris Jones be traded?

From Zach Gerber (@zgerber123): Thoughts on Chris Jones situation?

No and no, Finna and Zach.

We can start with Nick Bosa, who isn’t going anywhere for a long time. The question is whether he’s going to be the highest-paid nonquarterback of all time—he’ll be the highest-paid edge rusher. The difference between the two distinctions is less than $4 million per year, and the Niners and Bosa’s people have been trying to bridge that gap for a while now. They have an artificial deadline coming (the start of the season), and at some point something almost has to get done. It’s when, not if.

Chris Jones’s situation is different. Will he be traded? No, I don’t think so. Could he land on another team next year? That’s a different question. Jones’s leverage point here is that it would be pretty difficult for the Chiefs to tag him next summer, with the lump-sum cost to do so set at $33.6 million. Which means a third tag for him (remember, they also tagged him in 2020) would be 144% of that in ’25, or more than $48 million.

So at some point I believe that, yes, Chris Jones will report, and play out 2023 as a Chief. What happens before and after that remains a question. And with the fine meter at around $2 million, Jones has put his money where his mouth is when it comes to how he measures his worth as a player—something that, as we’ve said, has gotten harder to ascertain when comparing Aaron Donald’s outlier contract (over $31 million per) to where the rest of the defensive tackle market is (under $25 million per).

From Donald Sweeney (@DonSw2525): There were a lot of stories about how terrible Jordan Love has looked. Is he terrible, mediocre, average or above average?

Love will take over for the Packers after sitting behind Aaron Rodgers for three seasons.

Benny Sieu/USA TODAY Sports

Donald, I think he’s going to be fine, because the Packers have talent around him. They’ll be able to run the ball, so long as the line’s bedrocks, David Bakhtiari and Elgton Jenkins, stay healthy. The defense has a boatload of talent. Green Bay will be positioned to hold Love’s hand a little and allow him to grow with the young talent (Christian Watson, Romeo Doubs, Luke Musgrave) around him.

And one important thing to remember is that Aaron Rodgers had his ups and downs early on. In fact, through a year and a half, the Packers were 10–14 with Rodgers as starter.

You know the rest, and the rest happened because Green Bay was self-assured that it got it right on Rodgers, and that with time they’d have a guy worthy of carrying the baton as Brett Favre’s successor. Love deserves some runway to prove the same. For now, though, I think he’ll be fine, with glimpses of the upside that made him a first-round pick three years ago.

From Alchemjung (@Jungiter): Rams O/U for the season? And do you think they should be in the running for Caleb Williams?

Alchemjung, let’s go with eight for their over/under. My snapshot of where the Rams stand right now is as a team that’s got a good layer of core and starting players and an interesting evolution happening on offense. That, in addition to the mere presence of Sean McVay, should halt any talk of tanking, which was pretty silly to begin with.

Now, there are realities to this year for the Rams. The big one is that they’re carrying around $74 million in dead cap charges—that, for those who don’t know, is money accounted for by players who are no longer on the team. That’s one big reason why at different points this offseason they had far fewer than 53 players on their roster, or an inordinate amount of rookies (which they carried into training camp).

That leaves the team, as it has others in the past that go through a “purge year,” in a spot where they’ll be unable to afford many, if any, serious injuries without on-field repercussions. Last year’s Bears (even if they’re in a different spot roster-wise than these Rams) are a good example of what can happen, with new coach Matt Eberflus able to keep the team competitive early (3–4 start) before the $75 million in cap charges for players no longer on the roster caught up to them late (0–10 finish).

And forget about Caleb Williams. I see zero chance the Rams are that bad.

From ericthehuge (@EricthePet): Why aren’t all 53 available on game day?

Eric, this is actually a way of protecting injured players from losing their spots on teams. It gives teams seven spots every Sunday to put guys who are banged up, but maybe not so hurt that they would land on short-term IR. Absent those game-day inactives, my guess is teams would probably churn those spots (47 through 53 on the roster) more aggressively, which would be a really bad thing for players on the fringes of the league.

From Ryan (@Ryannn9717): When will Patriots ownership get rid of the blue-on-blue uniforms?

Ryan, I actually think they tried to do it last year—and then when they broke out the silver pants for the first time since changing their uniforms in 2020, the football team played its worst game of the year, getting blown out by the Bears, and we never saw those lowers again. It reminds me a little, actually, of the Patriots wearing blue-on-blue back in ’02, and taking a bad loss in them, and then putting that look away for more than a decade in the aftermath.

Jinxes aside, I’m with you. The blue-on-blue looks like an old NFL Europe uniform, and the silver pants fixed that. If I were them, I’d actually go silver pants full time and ditch the navy pants altogether. Then again, I don’t if anyone should be taking fashion advice from me.

From Andrew Ross (@ARossRdskins): Confidence level in Sam Howell?

From Rick Murphy (@rickm127): How is Sam Howell going to progress?

Andrew and Rick, I think the hope here would be that the defense and run game can help take the burden off Sam Howell early, and that’ll allow the coaches to develop him effectively.

Ron Rivera has made it clear he has complete confidence handing over the offense to Howell.

Geoff Burke/USA TODAY Sports

With the defense, it’s not hard to see it materializing. If Jamin Davis and Cody Barton hold up as the Commanders hope they will at linebacker, and Kam Curl and Darrick Forrest can be what they have been in camp, then there’s a shot they’ve got a top-five group, with what they’re bringing up front and the high-end potential at corner.

Getting the run game where it needs to be on offense is a bit trickier. That, of course, will start with an offensive line group that’s been a trouble spot the past couple of years. And how that offensive line group comes together will depend on a variety of things—primarily how Sam Cosmi transitions inside to guard, how the talented Saahdiq Charles (converted from tackle a couple of years back) looks as a full-time starter and whether Andrew Wylie can prove his worth for what Washington paid for him to come over from Kansas City.

If that’s taken care of, between Brian Robinson Jr., Antonio Gibson and promising rookie Chris Rodriguez (a violent, efficient runner), there should be enough in the backfield. And if the run game can get rolling a little, and the defense keeps scores under control, Howell will be in more manageable situations more consistently, which should allow for him to maximize Terry McLaurin and Jahan Dotson.

So, yeah, I’d say my confidence would be tied to that happening. If it does, I think Howell will play well, based on what I know about the offseason he’s had.

From Denver Dougherty (@JoeDougherty24): Which division is most likely to see a team go worst to first?

Joe, I touched on this last week, I believe. Easy answer is the Falcons, but that feels like a cop-out because they finished in a three-way tie for last place, and just a game out of first. (I do have Atlanta winning the division, by the way.) Outside of that, the Jets would probably strike me as the next most likely, and that’s because I think they’re gonna be good, not because the Bills, who I have winning the division, are slipping.

You’ll get my picks next week, by the way. My favorite part of the job! (Not really.)

From John Richardson (@JohnIsaac55): Josh McDaniels is too smart and respected to have back-to-back losing seasons right? They were in every game last year, have talent, have no expectations and all the hate, etc. I see 10 wins. I’m a crazy fan, right?

Yeah, John, I think the Raiders will be right around 8, 9, 10 wins. Last year came undone for the team because Las Vegas was bad situationally—something that had to kill McDaniels and GM Dave Ziegler—and bad up the middle on defense.

The Raiders addressed that aggressively in the offseason by adding middle-of-the-roster vets at key positions, bringing in linebacker Robert Spillane from Pittsburgh and Marcus Epps from Philadelphia. The idea is that those moves should fill holes, make the team smarter situationally and help to develop younger guys who get to play alongside the new guys (Spillane has helped Divine Deablo; Epps has helped Tre’von Moehrig).

Now, if Jimmy Garoppolo gets hurt, and Aidan O’Connell isn’t ready, then that certainly could change the equation. And the division the Raiders are in will be unforgiving, again. But I do think the basis for a team contending into January is there, with how far the team goes beyond that riding on the health and performance of guys like Garoppolo, Davante Adams, Maxx Crosby and Chandler Jones.

From Mitch Beiter (@MitchBeiter91): Thoughts on Kyle McCord being named starter? Is he a future NFL prospect at all?

Mitch, given the recent history at Ohio State, it’d be dumb to count whoever starts at quarterback for Ryan Day out as an NFL prospect—remember, C.J. Stroud didn’t exactly look like one in September 2021, and his arrival on the pro-football radar didn’t come long after that.

I have heard Devin Brown was really good early in camp, and McCord came on strong late, which is indicative of both young quarterbacks battling some of the normal bouts with inconsistency. Also, what’s around those guys will be pretty spectacular. Hopefully it looks that way Sept. 23.

From Michael Cole (@michaelcole79): If the Patriots are in the hunt for the playoffs midseason, will Belichick come back to Zappe (2–0 as starter) if Mac struggles or gets hurt?

Michael! No, health permitting, despite what they’ve said, I think they’ve put too many eggs in the Mac Jones basket not to ride it out with him over the next four months. He got damn near all the first-team reps, and, like we said earlier, they’ve built an offense for Mac, not for Zappe, which is one reason why Zappe had a rugged summer.

Bottom line, I think he’d have to be awful to get benched this year, which is different than where the team was last year. And good luck to the second graders!

From David C. Baker (@davidcbaker): When you have a left-handed QB (e.g., Tua), is suddenly the RT more valuable and highly paid than the normal LT?

David, yes, it does make the right tackle more valuable, especially if a team is playing with the tight end to the left more often, to give the quarterback another receiver to the side he has full vision to.

That said, in today’s game, it’s not what it used to be. Oftentimes, the best athlete on the line is raised to play left tackle, and playing him to his strength means playing him to that side. And the way defenses operate now, there’s a lot more moving pass-rushers around to generate matchups, so if you have a deficiency at one spot or the other, the opponent will find a way to exploit it. Which means you’ll be helping over to that side anyway.

So I’d say the way you could look at it is it turns right tackle into a spot you can’t be a trainwreck at—you’d at least need to be competent there, because that guy will be on an island sometimes. But you don’t need Walter Jones over there.

The Eagles, for what it’s worth, provide a good example here, where they’ve left their best lineman, Lane Johnson, on the right side, because they know that’s where he’s at his best, with Jordan Mailata more than serviceable in covering Jalen Hurts’s blind side.

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