By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — To have an open quarterback competition, or not to have an open quarterback competition; for the 2021 Patriots, that is the question.
Of course, Bill Belichick’s modus operandi for 20-plus years has always involved making the decisions that most benefit the football team. He’s stated it once or twice or several million times during his time in Foxboro, and the approach will not change this year.
In that sense, first-round pick Mac Jones will have every opportunity in the world to earn playing time this season. But when looking at the quarterback position as a whole, there’s a lot more to it than just that.
Offseason additions: Hoyer (re-signing)
Offseason departures: Jake Dolegala (practice squad)
It was, of course, quite fascinating when Bill Belichick broke tradition and spent a first-round draft pick on Mac Jones. It was equally — if not more — interesting when Belichick declared confidently just minutes later that Cam Newton remained the starting quarterback for the team.
In a place where jobs are always earned not given, it stood out that Belichick was so decisive at the most important position on the field, where Newton struggled mightily last year.
As you know, Newton threw just eight touchdowns with 10 interceptions. He did complete 65.8 percent of his passes, with a 7.2 average yards per attempt, but the passing game was a mess in 2020. The supporting cast — or lack thereof — surrounding Newton did not help, but the veteran QB clearly wasn’t among the top 20 starters in the NFL last year.
Mac Jones had a very different 2020 season, albeit in the collegiate ranks. He completed an NCAA record 77.4 percent of his passes, throwing for 4,500 yards with 41 touchdowns and just four interceptions. He led Alabama to a perfect 13-0 record and a national championship.
One might look at those two situations and believe Jones earning the starting job in New England is a no-brainer. But of course, we know the transition from college to the pros is not always the easiest, and the ideal way for any quarterback to acclimate to life in the NFL is to do so without the pressure of having to start and win games each week.
In that sense, the best-case scenario for the Patriots would be Cam performing better with the new quartet of receiving options — Jonnu Smith, Hunter Henry, Kendrick Bourne, Nelson Agholor — and in his second year in the playbook, thus giving Jones a smooth landing and a longer runway. The worst-case scenario would be if Newton is just as bad this year as he was last year, thus forcing Jones into action before he may be ready.
By all accounts, Jones was on point during OTAs and minicamp, impressing teammates and coaches alike. But he’ll still likely need time to adapt — mentally and physically — to the NFL. So the safest bet still seems to be on the job being Newton’s to lose, at least to start the season.
Elsewhere, the team brought back Brian Hoyer, who got one chance to start last year, made a mental mistake before halftime, immediately got benched, and then never dressed on game day again. The Patriots also brought back Jarrett Stidham, whom the team claimed to love last year after Tom Brady left, only to then sign Newton late in the offseason. Stidham ended up getting in to five games, throwing two touchdowns and three interceptions.
Neither Hoyer nor Stidham has a guaranteed spot on the roster. The Patriots haven’t been averse to carrying three quarterbacks, but Jones’ strong spring could lead to the team feeling comfortable with Jones as the lone backup.
Which QB earns the potential spot as the third man on the depth chart is an interesting story line, but it will of course be the competition for the starting job that garners the most interest this summer.