Mac Jones, New England Patriots' rookie class primed to contribute early

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Quick-hit thoughts/notes around the New England Patriots and NFL:

1. First-year players: The Patriots haven't played a regular-season game, but the early outlook on the team's 2021 draft class is promising.

"They've been up and down with draft picks over the years, and this might be the best class they've ever had," ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay said.

McShay had projected quarterback Mac Jones to be the Patriots' pick at No. 15 in his final mock draft. Jones has already earned the starting job, perhaps sooner than even coach Bill Belichick anticipated.

Meanwhile, defensive tackle Christian Barmore (second round, No. 38) projects to be a disruptive front-line contributor; outside linebacker Ronnie Perkins (third round, No. 96) is waiting in the wings; and Rhamondre Stevenson (fourth round, No. 120) has run with LeGarrette Blount-type power, flashing No. 1 running back potential.

It all starts with Jones, and the financial implications of his rise to QB1 is significant. A four-year, $16 million contract (with a fifth-year option) is outstanding value for a starting quarterback -- especially when comparing it to top picks Trevor Lawrence ($36.8 million, Jacksonville Jaguars), Zach Wilson ($35.1 million, New York Jets) and Trey Lance ($34.1 million, San Francisco 49ers).

"To get a starting quarterback at 15, you rarely get that," said McShay, who had a close look at Jones from calling four Alabama games in 2020, and draws similarities between him and 2020 first overall draft pick Joe Burrow of the Cincinnati Bengals.

"It was only one year [as a starter] instead of two years [like Burrow], and he's not as mobile as Joe, but it's the same kind of pocket presence and ability to feel where the rush is coming from. And the accuracy and toughness -- mental and physical. He's a special cat, he really is."

After spending a record $163 million guaranteed in NFL free agency, the addition of lower-cost rookies who can contribute quickly was critical for New England, especially considering it won’t have the same salary-cap flexibility in the offseason, and not all free-agent signings pan out.

They have built themselves some important margin for error.

2. Mac and Brady: Jones' rise to QB1 adds another storyline to the highly anticipated Week 4 matchup when Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers visit Foxborough. Brady (born Aug. 3, 1977) is 21 years and 33 days older than Jones (born Sept. 5, 1998). That would be the biggest age gap between starting quarterbacks since at least 1950. Also, Jones is celebrating his 23rd birthday today.

3. UDFA streak: When the Patriots signed one rookie free agent after the draft -- Michigan kicker Quinn Nordin -- it threatened to break a streak of 17 years that an undrafted free agent was on the team's opening-day 53-man roster. Few saw Nordin as a legitimate threat to veteran Nick Folk. But Nordin's strong leg and potential -- as well as how he weathered adversity in the second preseason game with multiple missed extra points -- earned him a spot on the initial 53-man roster. Barring a flip to Folk (who is on the practice squad) in the Sept. 12 opener, the streak will extend to 18 years -- third in the NFL behind the Los Angeles Chargers (25) and Indianapolis Colts (23).

How did Nordin find out he was sticking around?

"Came into the building, I was kind of walking on egg shells. No one told me I made the team. No one told me I didn't make the team. So I'm just kind of still here," he said. "And I'll be here until they ask me to leave."

4. Judon at Premiere: One of the signature events on the team's calendar -- the Patriots Premiere to raise money for the charitable foundation -- took place Tuesday inside Gillette Stadium. After a year away because of COVID-19, everyone attended in person again, and a different wrinkle saw free-agent signee Matt Judon (linebacker) joining returning captains David Andrews (center), Matthew Slater (special teams) and Devin McCourty (safety) on stage for an interview.

Judon's presence with longtime team leaders highlights how things have gone well in his first year.

"The guys embraced me with open arms and allow me to be who I am. They haven't tried to change me one bit," Judon said, in a video posted to Patriots.com. "I get to be loud, silly. They let me play my music in the locker room. It really made the transition really smooth."

5. Gilmore's PUP stint: Cornerback Stephon Gilmore opening the season on the reserve/physically unable to perform list, which means he will miss at least the first six games, has sparked questions as to how much his displeasure with his contract has played into it. Gilmore was front and center at the team's Premiere event and has been an active participant in the defensive backs room, which runs counter to an unhappy player who might be "holding in." Those close to the situation insist Gilmore isn't medically cleared from the torn quad suffered in December, but believe a return after six weeks is within the projected target range.

6. Mac-Hunter bonding: The Kraft family hosted players and their families at their Cape Cod home Wednesday for the annual get-together on the water, with jet skis, basketball hoops, cornhole and lots of food part of the itinerary. Jones and tight end Hunter Henry made the trip together, reflecting on how they are developing a connection. Wide receiver Kendrick Bourne said something similar has unfolded with him. "We got a little connection already," Bourne said. "Just plan on growing that."

7. He said it: "I just think Mac has been incredibly poised, and been a trusted player for us since he's gotten here. Some of the qualities he had at Alabama, some of those things are starting to show now. He's shown leadership you rarely see in a young player." -- Patriots Hall of Famer Troy Brown, currently serving as assistant receivers/returners coach.

8. Taylor made for passing game?: For those curious why Patriots running back J.J. Taylor didn't play much last season after making the team as an undrafted free agent out of Arizona, veteran assistant coach Ivan Fears shared why in his trademark blunt terms.

"I have to admit, J.J. has come a long way. Last year, we wouldn't have thrown him into the passing game to save his ass," Fears said, before adding he has since made some "great strides."

The 5-foot-6, 185-pound Taylor joins the 6-foot, 246-pound Stevenson as backups with contrasting styles to No. 1 option Damien Harris. "He's going to cause people some problems," Fears said of Taylor. "He's little as s---, and people kind of find it hard to find his butt. He gets some plays that [other] guys don't get because of his size."

9. Youth is served: What is set to unfold in the AFC East on opening weekend hasn't happened in 35 years. In Josh Allen (Buffalo Bills), Jones (Patriots), Tua Tagovailoa (Miami Dolphins) and Wilson (Jets), the division has four starting quarterbacks who are 25 or younger, marking the third time a division has had that distinction in a season opener since 1970. According to Elias Sports Bureau, the other times were the 1985 AFC East (Dan Marino, Ken O'Brien, Tony Eason, Art Schlichter) and the 1973 AFC Central (Terry Bradshaw, Ken Anderson, Dan Pastorini, Mike Phipps).

10. Did You Know: The Patriots will start a third different quarterback in their season opener in as many years -- Brady (2019), Cam Newton (2020) and Jones (2021). It's the first time New England will start a different quarterback in three straight season openers since 1991-93 -- Tommy Hodson, Hugh Millen and Drew Bledsoe.