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#PostPulpit Mailbag: When will Mac Jones make his regular season debut?

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By: Brian M. Hines

Photo by Maddie Malhotra/Getty Images

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With 12 training camp practices in the books, the Patriots now turn their attention to their first preseason matchup.

Before New England takes the field against the Washington Football Team Thursday night at Gillette Stadium, here is this week’s #PostPulpit mailbag.

@aqua_paris Who’s doing better so far in camp? Mac or Cam

Throughout 12 training camp practices, Cam Newton looks much more comfortable in the Patriots’ offense this year while Mac Jones continues to improve.

Starting with Newton, his overall process of the offense is much more clear. He seems more confident with his decision-making and his accuracy is certainly better. There are still moments where he leaves you hoping for more. One of his biggest struggles has been with turning the ball over. Newton has recorded seven interceptions so far this training camp, many coming on throws behind his intended receiver.

As for Jones, the rookie has looked sharp after a bumpy start to training camp. Jones has flashed his quick decision-making and ability to finish his drop and get the ball out quickly. His accuracy has also come as advertised. Jones has made his fair share of rookie mistakes – as expected – but has shown serious potential.

Take training camp passing statistics with a grain of salt, but for those interested in numbers, here is how The Athletic’s Jeff Howe has calculated the two quarterbacks so far through competitive team periods:

  • Newton: 103 of 165 passes (62.4 percent) with seven interceptions and seven drops
  • Jones: 124 of 186 passes (66.7 percent) with three interceptions and 11 drops

@60065stan mac jones start before week 4?

Based on practice reps and Bill Belichick’s public comments, Cam Newton is the Patriots starting quarterback. But with the rookie gaining steam, how long will the veteran be able to fight him off?

Looking ahead to New England’s schedule, it’s a fairly easy start which could delay Mac Jones’ regular season debut. The Patriots start with divisional games against the Miami Dolphins and at the New York Jets before facing off with a pair of NFC South opponents – New Orleans Saints and Tampa Bay Buccaneers – at home. The Patriots could realistically be looking at a 3-1 start to the year, which make it unlikely for Belichick to make the switch to Jones.

@NerdforFootball What’s the realistic timetable for Mac Jones to make his first start?

If the Patriots do hand over the keys to the offense to Jones in the regular season, Week 7-9 could be the sweet spot. New England faces off against a handful of teams that missed the playoffs in that stretch, as they play the New York Jets at home before hitting the road to face the Los Angeles Chargers and Carolina Panthers. All three games are not scheduled to be primetime matchups.

While the Patriots would probably love their rookie to debut off a bye-week, their Week 14 bye would make that difficult. Giving him the reigns sometime before Week 9 would give Jones time to get his feet wet before facing some tough matchups down the stretch (Buffalo x2, Cleveland, Indianapolis, Tennessee). However, the hope should be Cam Newton plays well enough to finish the entire season and propel the Patriots to the playoffs.

@brenschachtner how much playing time can you guys see for each quarterback during the preseason?

As for the preseason, all three quarterbacks will see their fair share of playing time. Expect New England to give Mac Jones plenty of live reps against the opposition’s starting defense, while Brian Hoyer will likely handle clean-up duty in the second half of games. As for Newton, he should eventually see a few series and potentially an entire quarter of work to prepare for Week 1.

When previewing their matchup against the Washington Football Team Thursday, expect it to be a two man show with Jones and Hoyer handling the quarterback duties. As Belichick explained Tuesday’s in-stadium practice was to prepare for their preseason opener, it was a very light day of work for Newton.

Breaking down preseason playing time will be a new challenge this year with only three games on schedule. However, New England will certainly get their top two quarterbacks plenty of “live” reps in joint practices with the Philadelphia Eagles and New York Giants as well.

@defnotES2 When is hightower cut?

Dont’a Hightower will not be cut. Coming off his Covid-19 opt-out, Hightower looks as good as ever manning the middle of the Patriots defense. The Patriots also have plenty of salary cap space available to them (a shade under $12 million), so they do not need to release their veteran linebacker to save money.

@hvrst_empire Higher chance to make the roster. Zuber or Wilkerson

As of now, Wilkerson has a real chance of playing himself onto the roster. He has been impressive throughout 12 practices and has been one of the most targeted receivers in team drills. Wilkerson also provides value on special teams, as he has noticeably been working with 1-on-1 with Matthew Slater throughout training camp at the gunner position. In Tuesday’s in-stadium practice, Wilkerson downed a Jake Bailey punt at the one-yard line.

@kirb410 Who being overhyped in training camp this year (think Gunner last year)?

Speaking of Wilkerson, while his camp has been impressive and he has a chance to make the roster, he would still find himself buried on the wide receiver depth chart. The value he provides on special teams is noticeable however, making him a solid player to have on the back-end of the 53-man roster (much like Olszewski).

Another name who could be viewed as overhyped to start training camp is undrafted free agent kicker Quinn Nordin. While his stats have impressed – including going a perfect 14-for-14 inside Gillette Stadium through two practices – the kicker has yet to kick against a live rush. And while he certainly has a cannon of a leg, he tends to spray the ball, banking several kicks in off the uprights. With Nick Folk still sidelined, Nordin will have his first true test in Thursday’s preseason opener.

@pfpeters Cajuste? Behind Herron? On bubble?

Yodney Cajuste has firmly landed himself on the bubble. Throughout training camp, Justin Herron has consistently been operating as the team’s third offensive tackle. It also appears Cajuste hasn’t firmly positioned himself over tackles Korey Cunningham and Will Sherman as well. Cajuste, the 2019 third-round pick, will need a few dominate performances throughout the preseason to solidify a roster spot.

@JasonFromEndor Haven’t heard much about Tre Nixon. Can you give an update on him. Thank you.

Tre Nixon has had a solid overall camp for the Patriots. He hasn’t jumped out at all but hasn’t done anything to hurt his cause. His usage has been interesting however. After being used as more of a vertical receiver at UCF, Nixon has been operating mostly out of the slot for New England. The rookie also appears to be building some quality chemistry with Mac Jones, carving up scout team defenses in between the numbers. He looks like a serious practice squad candidate.

@thechris104 Does Hunter Henry play more than 8 games this season?

Health has always been a concern for newly acquired tight end Hunter Henry. After appearing in only two thirds of the Chargers’ games (56 of a possible 82 – including playoffs) since being drafted in 2016, Henry left Sunday’s practice with a shoulder injury.

While the number of missed games appear eye-popping, 16 of the 26 missed games came in 2018 when the tight end suffered a torn ACL. Henry even returned that season for a Divisional Playoff game against the Patriots.

Taking 2018 out of the equation, Henry has appeared in at least 12 games every year for the Chargers, playing 14 or more games in three separate seasons. New England will certainly be cautious with their new tight end, but Henry has been on the field more than one would think in recent years.

@4horsemenPSC Can we trade big kick Nick and Joejuan Williams for Michael Thomas

Unfortunately, it may take a little bit more of a package to pry Michael Thomas from Sean Payton’s hands. If the Patriots were serious about making a push for Thomas, his contract would be extremely team friendly, essentially a four-year, $53 million contract. My guess is they will not be interested either way.

That’s all for this week’s #PostPulpit mailbag. If you have questions you’d liked to be answered next week, submit them on Twitter using #PostPulpit! Make sure to be following @iambrianhines and @PatsPulpit as well!