Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Bruce Arians says four-time SuperBowl champion Rob Gronkowski will be a "game time decision" to play on Sunday against the New England Patriots.

The Bucs take on the Patriots in Tom Brady's return to Foxborough, with Tampa Bay currently 2-1 after a Week 3 loss to the Los Angeles Rams 34-24.

Five-time Pro Bowler Gronkowski missed two practices this week with a rib injury and is questionable to play.

Gronkowski, who was also with the Patriots from 2010 to 2018, suffered the injury in the third quarter against the Rams but did return to play.

The tight end has been a key offensive weapon for the Bucs this season, with 16 receptions for 184 yards and four touchdowns.

The Bucs have further injury worries with outside linebacker Jason Pierre-Paul in doubt with a hand/shoulder issue.

Brady going to his former side has been the subject of plenty of attention this week but Arians said the team's main focus was on a strong response after the Rams defeat.

"Hell of a week of practice," Arians said. "You could really feel the difference in intensity this week.

"It doesn’t have a damn thing to do with Brady. It has to do with losing. I liked the way we bounced back on the practice field."

The debate over whether Bill Belichick or Tom Brady was more responsible for the New England Patriots' dynasty is not one likely to die down any time soon.

But for Belichick's part, the Patriots coach has long since accepted he would not have enjoyed the same success, which saw New England win six Super Bowls in Brady's 20 seasons as quarterback, had another player been under center.

Asked at a media conference if New England would have dominated to the same extent without Brady, Belichick replied: "Of course not. We talked about that for two decades.

"I think I've been on the record dozens of times saying there's no quarterback I would rather have than Tom Brady and I still feel that way.

"I was very lucky to have Tom as the quarterback, to coach him, and he was as good as any coach could ever ask for."

Belichick's fondness for Brady did not stop him from allowing the Patriots' greatest player to leave in the offseason before the 2020 campaign.

Brady moved on to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and promptly won a seventh Super Bowl ring.

While Belichick will have to plan for a game against Brady for the first time when the Buccaneers visit the Patriots at Gillette Stadium on Sunday, he will likely not have to face tight end Rob Gronkowski, whom the Patriots traded to the Bucs last season after he came out of retirement.

Gronkowski was listed as doubtful on the Bucs' injury report, having suffered a rib injury during Tampa Bay's Week 3 loss to the Los Angeles Rams.

Running back Giovani Bernard and cornerback Jamel Dean have both been ruled out, the latter's absence potentially meaning playing time for a new signing in five-time Pro Bowler Richard Sherman.

There probably won't be too much focus on Mac Jones come Sunday night at Gillette Stadium.

In the ranking of cast and characters as Tom Brady makes his return to Foxborough, having left New England after 20 seasons and six Super Bowl rings and gone on to add another in his first year away from the Patriots, Jones might struggle to even be considered a supporting actor.

Indeed, the dominant narrative as Brady brings the defending champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers to the place where he built a legend that stands above all others in the NFL will be one of quarterback versus former coach.

This is a chance for Brady to get one over on Bill Belichick and, for many, to prove that he was the chief reason for the two decades' worth of success the Patriots enjoyed. In a landscape where hot takes rule over balance and nuanced conversation, the most obvious explanation that New England's dominance was a product of a quite beautiful marriage between the greatest quarterback and greatest coach of all time is drowned out.

Talk of Brady claiming a narrative-winning triumph over Belichick ignores the fact that the deck is firmly stacked against New England. In almost every area, the Patriots enter this one shorthanded compared to their opponents and the reality is the Bucs should win handily regardless of who is coaching the opponent.

But for most this is a game where that narrative trumps analysis and, with Brady almost certain to break Drew Brees' record for all-time passing yards at the home of his former team, little importance is likely to be assigned to the Patriots' first-round pick and how he performs with a team ill-equipped to topple the Bucs.

Yet in terms of the long-term outlook, that is the most important aspect of Sunday's game for New England. Belichick will not care about Brady breaking records. His focus will be on how Jones meets the challenge of facing the team that entered the season as the class of the NFL.

Coincidentally, that test comes three days after the 20th anniversary of Brady's first start for the Patriots in 2001, a season that saw him improbably lead New England to Super Bowl glory. The NFL has changed so much in those two decades that a direct comparison between Brady's first games as a starting quarterback and those of Jones is difficult to make.

However, the timing of the most challenging and most significant game of Jones' career to this point provides an opportunity to answer the question: is he on track to be the long-term successor to Brady?

A superior start?

Having used the 15th overall pick on Jones, the Patriots will hope the answer is an emphatic yes.

On the surface, the difference in his numbers from his opening three games and those from Brady across the same limited sample size provides reason for encouragement.

Brady completed 57.4 per cent of his passes across his first three starts for 618 yards and two touchdowns. Through Week 3 of this season, Jones has completed 67.5 per cent of passes for 737 yards and two touchdowns. He has six passing plays of 25 yards or more so far in his career, Brady had only three in his first three starts.

Yet Jones' advantage in those raw numbers is more than likely a reflection of a modern NFL that is far more hospitable to the passing game than it was in 2001.

And in the one area where Jones and the young Brady could be considered comparable, it is the latter who has the edge. Brady did not throw an interception across his first three starts, Jones has already thrown three.

They all came in last week's loss to the New Orleans Saints, a performance that lent credence to the argument that, while Jones has arguably been the most composed of the rookie quarterbacks to start a game this season, his poise and decision-making is not on the same level as Brady's was back in 2001.

Cleaning up the decision-making

Jones cannot be considered at fault for all those picks. He certainly takes some share of the blame for the first, which saw him step up into the arms of Kaden Elliss, who hit Jones as he delivered the ball, producing a wobbly pass that landed in the grateful arms of P.J. Williams.

The second, which was returned for a touchdown by Malcolm Jenkins, saw a well-thrown ball bounce off the hands of Jonnu Smith, while the third appeared to be the product of a miscommunication with Nelson Agholor, the throw behind the receiver with the game well out of hand.

Only the first interception could potentially be ascribed to Jones and poor decision-making in the pocket, but the numbers offer an insight into when his turnover-worthy plays are coming and provide some cause for concern.

Jones has thrown a pickable pass, per Stats Perform data, on 2.56 per cent of his attempts, putting him the right side of the league-wide average of 3.13 per cent. The modern-day Brady, a seemingly ageless behemoth content to see how close to 50 he can continue playing, has thrown an interceptable pass 1.49 per cent of the time.

The statistics indicate that Jones has been unperturbed by pressure. He has thrown three pickable passes in total this season, but none have come when under duress. Instead, they have all been thrown from a clean pocket.

Only two other quarterbacks, Dak Prescott (4) and Zach Wilson (6) have thrown more interceptable passes from a clean pocket. Brady has thrown one, with his other pickable pass coming under pressure.

The split speaks to Jones' composure under pressure but raises doubts about his overall decision-making when he has the chance to properly scan the field, and further potential issues become apparent when looking at the Patriots' quarterback under pressure versus when he has time.

A lack of aggression

Criticism of Jones to this point in his NFL career has surrounded an apparent inability to push the ball downfield. However, his air yards per attempt average of 8.24 is actually slightly superior to that of Brady (8.13).

But when he has the opportunity to assess his options, Jones eschews the more aggressive throws. His air yards per attempt average from a clean pocket is 7.38, only just above the average of 7.28 and below Brady's 8.13.

It is when he is pressured that Jones appears more comfortable going deep. With the time to think taken away, Jones' air yards average is 10.03, again above the average (9.97) but on the lower end of the scale.

Delivering a well-thrown ball 81.6 per cent of the time under pressure, Jones stands above Brady (78.8) as the joint-third most accurate quarterback under duress.

It is his overall accuracy that gives the Patriots their primary cause for optimism with Jones. His well-thrown percentage of 80.3 is above the 78.9 per cent average, though below Brady's 82.1, and Smith's drop that turned into an interception was illustrative of the lack of help he has received from his pass-catchers despite heavy investment from New England this offseason.

Receivers Agholor (66.7), Kendrick Bourne (57.1) and Jakobi Meyers (72.4) are all below the average for open percentage on plays where they are targeted among wideouts with at least five targets, speaking to a lack of separation from New England's receiving weapons.

Jones might not be getting the best of assistance, but a blend of questionable decision-making and lack of aggressiveness from a clean pocket is not a winning strategy in today's NFL. It is also not a combination Brady could be accused of ever possessing during his career, even if he did average fewer than seven yards per attempt across his first three seasons as a starter.

Stepping into Brady's shoes after Cam Newton's failed bid to become the successor was always going to be a tall ask for a rookie, so it is important not to make definitive judgements on a player whose NFL career is still firmly in its infancy.

But the early signs for Jones are mixed and if he is to snatch some of the limelight in primetime, he will need to do a better job of taking advantage of protection and making the right reads and, in the process, keep the man who has built the NFL's greatest resume off the field for as long as possible.

Tom Brady is rarely not front and centre in the NFL, but it is particularly difficult to get away from football's GOAT this week.

Thursday marked the 20th anniversary of the quarterback's first NFL start. On Sunday, he needs only 68 yards to pass Drew Brees for the most passing yards in league history.

"It's definitely a special record because it speaks to the longevity that he's been able to experience and the level that he's been able to play at," Brees said at the start of the week.

Of course, that record will fall as Brady takes the Tampa Bay Buccaneers back to Foxborough to play the New England Patriots for the first time.

The seven-time Super Bowl champion made history time and again in 19 years with the Pats and does not look like stopping now in the pick of the Week 4 Sunday matchups, broken down by Stats Perform.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers @ New England Patriots

A win for the 2-1 Bucs would make Brady only the fourth starting quarterback to defeat all 32 NFL teams across their careers, joining Brees, Brett Favre and Peyton Manning.

The QB comes into this game in form, having thrown for at least 1,000 yards and 10 touchdowns through his team's first three games of the year for the second time, having also done so with New England in 2011. No other QB has achieved that feat twice.

The Pats will hope they have found a long-term successor in Mac Jones, whose 81 completions are the third-most by any QB in the Super Bowl era through three career games – after Joe Burrow (91) and Kyler Murray (84).

Tampa Bay have a poor record against New England, too. The Pats are 7-2 in this matchup all-time and have held the Bucs to 11.9 points per game – the fewest any current franchise has averaged against another.

Seattle Seahawks @ San Francisco 49ers

The Seahawks are in a spot of bother in the NFC West with a 1-2 record, but they are 14-3 over their past 17 games against the 49ers, making them the first team to beat San Francisco 14 times over a 17-game span since the Los Angeles Rams between 1973 and 1981.

Russell Wilson will hope his team-mates can catch up this week, having become the first QB in the Super Bowl era to complete at least 70 per cent of his passes for 250 yards and no interceptions in each of his first three games of a season. In fact, Seattle's back-to-back defeats marked the second time in franchise history they have lost consecutive games with no turnovers in either (also November 2008).

If nothing else, expect this game to be tight, with the 49ers' past seven games all decided by eight points or fewer – tying a franchise record – although San Francisco certainly have the talent to hurt the Seahawks.

The Niners have had touchdowns from 11 different players this year, tied for the most in NFL history through three games (also the 1964 Houston Oilers, 1987 Chicago Bears and 2002 Patriots). Deebo Samuel is the chief threat right now, though, with his 334 receiving yards the most by a 49er through three team games since Jerry Rice's 341 in 1995.

Arizona Cardinals @ Los Angeles Rams

The four NFC West teams are playing among themselves for the coming two weeks, meaning another mammoth matchup as the division's two 3-0 starters meet at SoFi Stadium in a series the Rams have dominated with eight straight wins against the Cardinals. That is their longest winning streak against a single opponent since a run of nine against the 49ers from 1976 to 1980.

A 4-0 start brings back contrasting memories for these two teams. The Rams made the Super Bowl after winning their first four in both 2018 and 2001, but the last time Arizona jumped out to such a start in 2015 they lost 11 of their remaining 12 games to finish 5-11.

Cardinals QB Murray makes for an entertaining watch, with at least one interception and one rushing TD in each of his first three games in 2021. It is only the third time a player has done that since 1960, with Murray accounting for one of the other two examples in 2020 (also Charlie Frye in 2006).

Crucially, Murray has more options through the air this year. Arizona have a league-leading six players with 10 or more receptions, having only had eight players reach that mark in the entirety of the 2020 campaign – tied for the fifth-fewest in the NFL.

Elsewhere...

The Kansas City Chiefs visit the Philadelphia Eagles looking to avoid losing three in a row for the first time since Patrick Mahomes became a starter. Back-to-back defeats to the Baltimore Ravens and the Los Angeles Chargers already represent the Chiefs' worst run since a pair of losses in Weeks 5 and 6 in 2019.

Dak Prescott is in top form as the Dallas Cowboys prepare to host the Carolina Panthers, but that game may be decided on defense. The Panthers have allowed a league-low 3.8 yards per play this season, while the Cowboys' 6.7 yards allowed per play is fewer only than the Chiefs (7.0) and the Minnesota Vikings (6.8).

The Denver Broncos have made the most of a kind schedule to join the Panthers at 3-0 but now face a first real test against the Ravens. Teddy Bridgewater will aim to maintain his high standards, having become the fourth player in the past 60 years to complete at least 75 per cent of his passes in the first three games of a season, along with Brady (2007), Brees (2018) and Philip Rivers (2020). Brady did so in four straight.

The Pittsburgh Steelers have won five consecutive regular season games against the Green Bay Packers going back to 1998, but veteran QB Ben Roethlisberger has made an unconvincing start to the campaign. He is one TD shy of 400 in the NFL – Aaron Rodgers was the seventh and most recent man to that mark.

New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick backed Tampa Bay Buccaneers superstar Tom Brady to play in the NFL until he is 50 ahead of the pair's reunion.

Brady will lead Super Bowl champions the Buccaneers (2-1) against former team the Patriots (1-2) on the road in Foxborough on Sunday.

The 44-year-old Brady won six Super Bowls with Belichick at the Patriots before leaving for the Buccaneers via free agency ahead of the 2020 season.

With Brady showing no signs of slowing down, long-serving Patriots coach Belichick hailed the five-time Super Bowl MVP.

"Nothing Tom does surprises me," Belichick told reporters on Wednesday.

"He's a great player, works hard, takes care of himself. He's talked about playing until 50. If anybody can do it, he probably can.

"Tom's had an unbelievable career. There's not enough superlatives and adjectives to compliment him on everything that he's achieved and continues to achieve.

"It's unbelievably impressive."

Brady has thrown for at least 1,000 yards and 10 touchdowns through his team's first three games for the second time in his career (also 2011). He is the only quarterback in NFL history to do that twice.

Tampa Bay's Brady will be looking to join Drew Brees, Brett Favre and Peyton Manning as the only starting quarterbacks to defeat all 32 teams in their careers.

Brady is also on the cusp of history, with the QB requiring just 68 yards to surpass Brees' NFL career passing yardage record of 80,358 yards.

"He's as tough as any quarterback there is or ever has been. Enough said. His numbers are incredible," Belichick added.

"He's about to pass the all-time passing record. He's done more than any other player at that position in whatever measurement you want to take – whether it's yards, completions, touchdowns, championships, you name it. Put anything out there that you want; it doesn't get any tougher than that."

Future Hall of Famer Drew Brees welcomed the possibility of Tampa Bay Buccaneers superstar Tom Brady breaking his NFL record on Sunday.

Brady is on the cusp of history, with the 44-year-old Buccaneers quarterback requiring just 68 yards to surpass Brees' NFL career passing yardage record of 80,358 yards.

Brees retired at the end of last season following 14 years with the New Orleans Saints and 20 years in the NFL, and the 42-year-old is all for Brady eclipsing his feat.

"I'm a firm believer that records are meant to be broken," Brees said, with seven-time Super Bowl champion Brady due to face former team the New England Patriots in Week 4.

Brees set the record in 2018 with a 62-yard touchdown and he added: "I'd be all for Brady just launching the first play of the game, just go ahead and get it out of the way.

"You said he needs, what? Sixty-eight yards? Let's have New England kick it in the end zone, start at the 25 and have him launch one to Mike Evans and let's just be done with it.

"There's no doubt I think that's gonna get knocked down pretty quick. I can't think of a guy who has invested more into his career and his preparation and kind of what he's meant for the game. It's definitely a special record because it speaks to the longevity that he's been able to experience and the level that he's been able to play at."

Brady leads the NFL this season in attempts (141), completions (97), passing touchdowns (10) and completions per game (32.3) for the Buccaneers (2-1).

"You're so locked into the game. You really can't allow yourself to go there too much," Brees said of Brady being able to enjoy the record. "It's really something that you try to get out of the way emotionally prior to the game.

"I'll be honest with you. ... I know the way I felt, leading up to games like this, whether it was playing an old team or chasing a record, I would visualise being in that moment, I would visualise breaking the record, I would visualise everything that was gonna happen.

"I would always get the tears and the emotions out of the way on a Monday or a Tuesday. Like literally cry it out on a Monday or a Tuesday, so that by the time it got to Sunday, it was all about business, it was all about the game, it was all about getting the job done."

Tom Brady does not anticipate getting caught up in nostalgia when he returns to New England to face the Patriots on Sunday. 

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback spent 20 years with the Patriots, leading them to six Super Bowl titles. 

Gillette Stadium holds countless memories for Brady, but he will do his best to push them aside as the Bucs enter the game on the heels of their first loss since November 29, 2020. 

"I'm not going to necessarily reminisce. I don't think this is the moment for that," Brady said on his SiriusXM podcast Monday. "I'll have plenty opportunities to reminisce about my football career – none of it, none of which I really care to do right now because I'm so much in the moment.

"I'm not going to be thinking about 20 years of history. I'm going to be thinking about one night of football, a Sunday night game coming off a really tough loss."

The reigning Super Bowl champions had won 10 in a row before being derailed in a 34-24 defeat to the Los Angeles Rams. 

Brady undoubtedly will receive a warm welcome from the fans in New England, but he knows that support will not last. 

"I wouldn't expect that -- a homecoming," said Brady. "I mean, I think they're there to root for their team, and their team is the Patriots.

"I think they're gonna cheer for their team as I would expect them to, and I think if they know anything about me, they're gonna know that I'm going out there to try to win the football game, so I think they'll respect that about me."

That mindset will come as no surprise to the home fans, who watched Brady work his magic for two decades. 

Sunday, he will go head-to-head with his heir apparent, rookie Mac Jones, who beat out Cam Newton for the starting job in the pre-season. 

The 23-year-old had a dose of NFL reality in Sunday's 28-13 home loss to the New Orleans Saints, as he completed only 30 of 51 passes (58.8 per cent) and threw three interceptions on the heels of a pair of solid starts to open his career. 

Brady, meanwhile, keeps chugging along. He threw for 432 yards but just one touchdown in the loss to the Rams after combining for nine TDs in wins over the Dallas Cowboys and Atlanta Falcons as he eases into his 22nd NFL season. 

Zach Wilson endured an awful home debut with the New York Jets, throwing four interceptions, but he will work to make sure the performance does not dent his confidence moving forward. 

Quarterback Wilson was the second overall pick in the NFL Draft but is coming into a poor Jets team seemingly set to struggle in the AFC East. 

A first divisional matchup on Sunday did little to boost hopes as the Jets were beaten 25-6 by the New England Patriots – an 11th straight defeat to Bill Belichick and his team. 

Wilson had a miserable outing, with the Jets booed by their home fans in their first game at MetLife Stadium this year. 

The former BYU QB had thrown two touchdown passes in a 19-14 Week 1 defeat to the Carolina Panthers, becoming only the second rookie for the Jets to do so on their first start, along with Sam Darnold in 2018. In that group, only Mark Sanchez (272) threw for more than his 258 yards. 

It was a different story against a strong Patriots defense, however, as four picks – including two on his first two passing attempts – ruined Wilson's day. 

"When your first two passes are interceptions, it's tough to find that rhythm," he said. "You're not on the field much. 

"Also, the first quarter's over and we've only had a couple of plays out there on the field. We've got to start better; I've got to start better. 

"Really we've just got to execute across the board. I'm going to take that this week – it's on my shoulders, so I've got to do better." 

Wilson said his performance could be summed up by "a lack of execution", but he is ready to overcome this early adversity in his pro career. 

"This is what we signed up for, right? There's going to be games like this, with the ups and downs," he said. "We saw it last week in the first half as well. 

"We just keep getting reminded how long the season is and how we can get back and keep getting better. 

"I just have to remember the situation that I'm in – I'm an important piece in this whole thing, so how can I keep learning and getting better? 

"You've got to keep that swag and that mojo every single week. 

"[Moving on] is what I feel like you have to be able to be good at. It's tough. Obviously you're frustrated about things that have happened, but there's that switch inside where you've just got to hit the reset button. Every single play is a new play." 

Wilson's opposite number Mac Jones was also a first-round selection this year and came into the game having thrown for 281 yards (plus a TD) in Week 1 against the Miami Dolphins – a record for a Patriots rookie quarterback on their debut. 

With 186 yards and no TD passes this week, Jones also took a step back, but New England still won. Afterwards, he had sympathy for Wilson. 

"I think Zach's a really good player," Jones said. "As rookie quarterbacks – as I told him after the game – we've just got to continue to get better. It's just part of the game. 

"Our defense is really good. It's a tough defense to go against – I've gone against them in practice and probably thrown a lot of picks too. 

"It sucks, but Zach's going to be a great player. He's a really hard worker, he kept his head up and we just had some words there. 

"I don't know him that well personally, but he's definitely going to continue to grow, just like I will too." 

Week 1 can be strange. Not everything goes to plan and, for NFL coaches and fantasy owners alike, it's best not to overreact to the weekend just gone.

However, avoiding falling 0-2 is just as important as keeping your cool. In the high-pressure world of the NFL and amid the considerably lower stakes of fantasy football, nobody wants to fall into a hole early in the season.

And, in both cases, identifying the players who can be relied on to produce a big performance is the key to victory.

In this week's edition of Fantasy Picks, Stats Perform looks at the players who should be considered sure things to deliver the goods.

QB: Russell Wilson, Seattle Seahawks vs. Tennessee Titans

Wilson could hardly have been more impressive as the Seahawks swept aside the Indianapolis Colts on the road in Week 1.

Continuing his remarkable rapport with Tyler Lockett, who had two receiving scores, Wilson threw for 254 yards and four touchdowns as his marriage with new offensive coordinator Shane Waldron got off to a spectacular start.

Second in air yards per attempt (10.43) among quarterbacks with at least 10 attempts, Wilson carries substantial upside as one of the best deep-ball throwers in the NFL and should receive ample opportunity to demonstrate that prowess against an extremely vulnerable Titans defense shredded by the Arizona Cardinals for 280 net yards passing and four touchdowns through the air in their opener.

RB: Aaron Jones, Green Bay Packers vs. Detroit Lions

Nothing went right for the Packers in their 38-3 loss to the New Orleans Saints, with Jones held to nine yards on five carries on a miserable day for the entire offense.

Yet a Week 2 clash with the Detroit Lions should prove the perfect tonic. Detroit gave up 131 yards on the ground to the San Francisco 49ers in the opener, with sixth-round rookie Elijah Mitchell gashing the Lions for 104 yards and a touchdown at a rate of 5.5 yards per carry.

The Packers operate a zone running game akin to that of the Niners, so Jones should be confident of finding room to rack up similar numbers. Jones has topped 100 yards in two of his past three games against the Lions, including a 168-yard, two-touchdown effort at Lambeau Field last year.

WR: Keenan Allen, Los Angeles Chargers vs. Dallas Cowboys

Justin Herbert's rapport with a receiver who has a case for being the premier route runner in the NFL continues to blossom, with the reigning Offensive Rookie of the Year going to Allen time and again as the Chargers edged out the Washington Football Team in their opener.

Allen was targeted 13 times and caught nine passes for 100 yards in a 20-16 victory. He registered a burn, which is when a player wins his matchup with a defender on plays where he is targeted, on 12 of those 13 targets.

He did that against a Washington defense that allowed the second-fewest yards per pass play (5.33) in the NFL last season. Now he gets to face a Cowboys defense that ranked 21st in that same metric with 6.69 yards and gave up 7.58 per play in their opening loss to the Buccaneers. Book in Allen for another big day.

TE: George Kittle, San Francisco 49ers @ Philadelphia Eagles

Deebo Samuel overshadowed Kittle in the Niners' win in Detroit, but the top all-round tight end in football still produced with four catches for 78 yards and should be salivating at the prospect of facing the Eagles.

Last season, in a home loss to the Eagles, Kittle hauled in all 15 of his targets from Nick Mullens for 183 yards and a touchdown.

He might not see the same level of targets at Lincoln Financial Field this year but, with a healthy Jimmy Garoppolo under center, he should see enough of the ball to excel in a matchup with an Eagles defense that has consistently struggled to defend tight ends.

Defense: New England Patriots @ New York Jets

The Patriots may have come up short against the Miami Dolphins, but there was much to admire about their performance on defense.

With the likes of Matthew Judon and Josh Uche excelling at getting pressure on Tua Tagovailoa, New England's front is likely to have great success against the Jets' offensive line, which will be without left tackle Mekhi Becton.

Jets rookie quarterback Zach Wilson was sacked six times in their loss to the Carolina Panthers, which saw him throw an interceptable pass on 5.56 per cent of his attempts, according to Stats Perform data.

Expect New England's defense to create more interception opportunities and make it another long afternoon for Wilson and the Jets.

Just when the Cleveland Browns thought they were in position to open the NFL season with a statement win, Patrick Mahomes did what Patrick Mahomes does. 

The Kansas City Chiefs star threw for a pair of touchdowns in the fourth quarter as the reigning AFC champions edged the Browns 33-29 on Sunday.

Mahomes completed 27 of his 36 passes for 337 yards and three interceptions as the former MVP made more NFL history.

The 25-year-old broke the record for most passing yards in NFL history through first 50 games, while he also boasts the most passing touchdowns ever through the same amount of appearances.

Cleveland had built a 22-10 half-time lead, with Baker Mayfield directing three scoring drives that led to Nick Chubb finding the end zone twice and Jarvis Landry running in another touchdown before the break. 

Mayfield finished 21 of 28 passing for 321 yards, but had one critical mistake late. With the Browns near midfield and just over a minute to play, the Chicago quarterback scrambled to avoid pressure before throwing a pass up for grabs to the left sideline. Mike Hughes leaped to intercept the ball and the Chiefs ran out the clock from there. 

Mahomes, meanwhile, was poised as ever as he led the Chiefs to their ninth win in the last 11 games in which they trailed by double digits. 

It started with a 14-play drive to open the second half, capped by an 11-yard TD pass to his favourite target Travis Kelce. 

The signature moment, though, was a stunning 75-yard deep strike to Tyreek Hill that brought the Chiefs within two early in the fourth quarter. 

The Browns botched a punt deep in their own territory on the ensuing drive and Mahomes hit Kelce for the go-ahead touchdown three plays later. 

It was the kind of turnaround Cleveland fans have grown all too accustomed to over the years, particularly in season openers. 

The Browns have not won in Week 1 since 2004 and are now 0-16-1 since. 

Winston, Saints crush Packers

Aaron Rodgers dominated the headlines throughout the NFL offseason but he was upstaged in a big way as the season began. 

Jameis Winston threw for five touchdowns as Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers were kept from the end zone altogether in a 38-3 New Orleans Saints rout. 

Rodgers completed just 15 of 28 passes for 133 yards and threw two interceptions. He had only five interceptions all of last season on the way to being named NFL MVP for the third time.

Winston took over the starting role in New Orleans from another future Hall of Famer, the retired Drew Brees, and was brilliant at the Superdome. He completed 14 of 20 passes for 148 yards without an interception or a sack. 

In a matchup of two young quarterbacks, Tua Tagovailoa got the better of his former Alabama team-mate Mac Jones as the Miami Dolphins edged the New England Patriots 17-16 on the road.

While the rookie Jones had the better numbers of the two with 29 of 39 passing, 281 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions, the Patriots repeatedly had to settle for field goals. 

Tagovailoa, meanwhile, ran one touchdown in himself and threw for another in the third quarter that provided the eventual winning margin.

On Sunday, four of the five quarterbacks selected in the first round of this year's NFL Draft will take the field for their debuts.

A quintet of franchises capitalised on what many considered to be an historic class at the position to select the prospects they hope will prove to be the long-term future of their respective teams.

However, so much of a quarterback's success is dependent on situation and it is likely the quarterback from this crop of rookies that initially stands out will be the one with the best supporting cast around them.

The consensus is that Trey Lance, the third overall pick of the San Francisco 49ers, is in the best spot. For now, he will have to play second fiddle to Jimmy Garoppolo and settle for only sporadic action as the Niners look to make use of his running threat.

When Lance does take over full-time, he will be playing the most important position on a roster that was seven minutes from Super Bowl glory two seasons ago.

While he may have landed in the most favourable scenario, 11th overall pick Justin Fields appears to have been dealt the worst hand, with the Chicago Bears unwilling to risk putting him out there in Week 1 with a talent-poor offense against the Los Angeles Rams despite a strong preseason.

Do the numbers back up the statements that Lance is in the best situation with Fields in the worst? And where do Trevor Lawrence, first overall pick of the Jacksonville Jaguars, New York Jets rookie Zach Wilson and New England Patriots starter Mac Jones stack up in terms of supporting cast?

Stats Perform analysed its advanced metrics to find out.

RUNNING GAME

1. Patriots 2. 49ers 3. Jaguars 4. Jets 5. Bears

The running game can be an excellent safety net that takes the pressure off a quarterback's shoulders.

Rushing the ball effectively is contingent on an offensive line that can open the holes and a back that can not only take advantage of those lanes but also create for himself.

In terms of run blocking, the Patriots are the standouts among the teams to select a signal-caller. Second in Stats Perform's projected offensive line rankings, put together using combined run blocking and pass protection data over the past three seasons, only two offensive lines league begin the season better prepared to provide the foundation for a successful ground game than that of New England.

Led by center David Andrews - whose run disruption rate allowed of 5.3 per cent was the best in the NFL at his position - and right guard Shaq Mason (6.3%), the Patriots' O-Line is one that should continue to excel at creating running lanes.

Damien Harris showed his ability to take advantage of those lanes last season when he averaged 3.11 yards before contact from a defender, 10th in the NFL, while making things happen for himself with 3.15 yards per carry on attempts where there was a run disruption from a defender.

When Jones makes his first start against the Miami Dolphins on Sunday, he should have full confidence in being able to lean on Harris and the line to make his life easier.

The 49ers, whose starting running back Raheem Mostert averaged 3.28 yards before contact last season, might have a strong case for having the top running game should Lance's dual-threat ability take their ground attack to the next level.

Third-round pick Trey Sermon (4.85 yards before contact, 2.77 yards after contact for Ohio State in 2020) could prove an astute selection, though an offensive line 18th in run blocking in Stats Perform's rankings will need to take a step forward.

Still, their position is significantly more favourable than that of the Bears, who rank last in run blocking, making David Montgomery's 1,000-yard 2020 season all the more surprising.

Yet Montgomery was below the league average in yards before contact (2.54 per attempt) and after contact (1.84), hardly inspiring confidence that he can lighten the load on Fields when the Bears finally commit to him as the starter.

PASS CATCHERS

1. 49ers 2. Patriots 3. Jets 4. Bears 5. Jaguars

There isn't much use investing in a potential franchise quarterback if you cannot put weapons around him upon whom he can rely.

In terms of players he can target and trust, Lance has the edge over his fellow rookies, though no team to take a quarterback in the first round landed in the top half of Stats Perform's rankings by collective open percentage.

The Niners landed 18th on that list but conventional wisdom says they will be much higher should tight end George Kittle and top wide receivers Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk stay healthy.

All three endured injury-hindered 2020 seasons, though Kittle still led all tight ends in adjusted open percentage (45.03%). He was first among tight ends with 3.9 burn yards per route (a burn is a target where the receiver wins his matchup with a defender).

Samuel's burn yards per route rate of 3.0 was particularly eye-catching because his average depth of target of 2.3 was the lowest in the NFL, the former second-round pick showing his skills with ball in hand with 12.1 yards after the catch per reception, best in the NFL.

Aiyuk, meanwhile, produced a big play on 33.1 per cent of his targets, third among rookie receivers with at least 50 targets, a breakout year appears on the horizon for the second-year wideout.

With an elite tight end and two promising wideouts, the Niners' situation is substantially better than Jacksonville's. The Jaguars' pass-catchers ranked last by collective open percentage.

Late free-agent addition Tyron Johnson is the sole wide receiver on the Jaguars' roster to have posted a burn percentage above the average of 62.5 per cent last year.

Johnson did so on 69.2 per cent of his targets and was first in burn yards per target (19.89) and second in burn yards per route (3.6) with an average depth of target of 20 yards.

This evidently skilled deep separator will be tasked with stretching opposing defenses while D.J. Chark (30.33% adjusted open) and Laviska Shenault (27.44%) must do a better job of beating coverage and taking advantage of the stress Johnson can put on opponents to lift this group from the cellar and give Lawrence more to work with.

PASS BLOCKING

1. Patriots 2. Jets 3. Jaguars 4. 49ers 5. Bears

Though most accept Fields is the most exciting quarterback on the Bears' roster, Matt Nagy's decision to not start him and protect him from an offensive line that can hardly protect anyone may be an astute one with Chicago facing Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald and the Rams Week 1.

Eventually, Fields will have to take his lumps. There are good defensive players across the NFL by which he will one day be confronted, but a reticence to put him out there behind a line ranked 30th in pass protection by Stats Perform is understandable.

Starting left tackle Jason Peters is 39 and allowed a pressure rate of 12.4 per cent last term, the 10th-worst in the league. The interior of the line is also a substantial concern.

Right guard James Daniels is coming off a year where he gave up a pressure on 11.3 per cent of pass protection snaps. Cody Whitehair is at left guard having played center in 2020, when only three players at his former position allowed a higher adjusted sack rate than his 1.9 per cent. One of those players was this year's starting center Sam Mustipher (2.3%).

While Fields would have the NFL equivalent of a turnstile in front of him. Jones will head on the Gillette Stadium field with an O-Line that is the definition of solidity.

Though not quite the brick wall he had the benefit of at Alabama, the Patriots' line should provide Jones with excellent protection, ranking fifth in pass blocking.

Mike Onwenu ranked as the best pass-protecting left guard in the NFL and in Trent Brown, credited with one adjusted sack allowed on 162 pass-block snaps in his final season with the Las Vegas Raiders, and Isaiah Wynn, the Patriots have a solid pair of tackles to give Jones the time to prove his pre-draft doubters wrong.

The left side of the Jets' line could rival that of the Patriots. Mekhi Becton's pressure rate allowed of 5.5 per cent was ninth among left tackles in 2020. On his inside shoulder, rookie left guard Alijah Vera-Tucker conceded only five pressures on 387 pass protection snaps the last time he played that spot for USC in 2019. Wilson can afford to have great faith in that duo.

DEFENSE

1. 49ers 2. Bears 3. Patriots 4. Jets 5. Jaguars

Defense is often neglected when it comes to talking about a quarterback's supporting cast but, if a team has one that can stifle opposing attacks, it leaves more wiggle room for a young quarterback to endure the 'rookie mistakes' and not sink his team's chances of competing.

Lance's performances during the preseason, while exciting, indicated he is a quarterback who could be a little turnover-prone as he adapts to reading defenses at the NFL level.

San Francisco's is a defense that is strong up front and better than given credit for in the secondary. The 49ers ranked eighth in pass coverage grade, which was produced by multiplying each player's coverage baseline by a projected target share for 2021 with the results then aggregated at the team level.

On the front, Stats Perform projected the average Niners defender to produce a pressure on 11.5 per cent of pass rush attempts, putting them fourth in the NFL.

Though there is great depth on the defensive line, much of that projection is built on Nick Bosa, getting back to his Defensive Rookie of the Year levels of 2019, when he had a pressure rate of 28.3 per cent, after suffering a torn ACL in Week 2 last year. With Bosa healthy and Fred Warner the premier all-round linebacker in the NFL, the Niners have a defense that could help them contend amid bumps in the road for Lance.

The Bears don't have many areas where they can be considered to be the best in the NFL, yet their front seven has a strong claim. The average Chicago pass rusher is projected to produce a pressure on 11.4% of pass rush attempts and the average run defender is forecast to cause a run disruption 10.2% of the time.

While Chicago's front may be well-rounded, their secondary looks extremely shaky, as illustrated by the Bears' ranking of 22nd in pass coverage grade. Jaylon Johnson enjoyed an encouraging rookie season at corner yet, with Kindle Vildor set to start across from him having only started one game in his brief career, there is clear a potential weakness for opponents to target.

The Patriots have no such problems on the back end, at least when the absent Stephon Gilmore is on the field. New England are seventh in coverage grade, and with linebacker D'Onta Hightower returning and the addition of edge rusher Matthew Judon, they will hope their front seven can dramatically outperform the projection of a pressure from a defender on just 9.51% of attempts.

New York's pass rush suffered a substantial blow when free agent signing Carl Lawson, who had a pressure rate of 22.3% that was seventh in the NFL last season, was lost for the year due to a ruptured Achilles. Without him, the average Jets defender is predicted to cause pressure 10.34% of the time, and there is an even greater onus on defensive tackle Quinnen Williams to carry his 2020 emergence into this year.

The Jets' hopes of the defense offering support to Wilson may be dashed should the front prove unable to lift a secondary bereft of talent beyond safety Marcus Maye, New York entering the season 23rd in pass coverage grade.

A lack of pass-rushing options beyond Josh Allen, who took a step back in an injury-affected 2020, contributed to the Jaguars' mediocre projected pressure rate of 10.18% and, with Jacksonville just above the Jets and Bears in 21st in coverage grade, they need cornerback Shaquill Griffin to live up to his lucrative free agency pricetag to elevate the play in the defensive backfield and ensure Lawrence is not tasked with coming through a shootout every week.

OVERALL

1. Patriots 2. 49ers 3. Jets 4. Bears 5. Jaguars

Aided by an offensive line that excels in both facets, a running back seemingly primed for a breakout year and a defense restocked with players returning from opt-outs and quality free agents, Jones will head into his NFL debut with the top supporting cast of any of the rookies.

The most important thing in Jones' favour, though, is his head coach, as he will benefit from playing for the greatest coach of all-time in Bill Belichick, whose incredible expertise on the defensive side of the ball should prove a significant help to the former Alabama star as he adapts to different looks from opponents.

Niners head coach Kyle Shanahan's play-calling acumen will give Lance an advantage most quarterbacks in the league do not enjoy when he hits the field, with the weapons they boast on both sides of the ball meaning he will likely take over a team headed for the playoffs when he eventually displaces Garoppolo.

Wilson has the luxury of playing for two Shanahan disciples in head coach Robert Saleh and offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur. The early signs have been promising in terms of him settling into LaFleur's offense but Saleh will need to do a particularly impressive coaching job on defense to turn them into a unit capable of making Wilson's life easier.

Fields may get help in that respect from the defensive front and will have one of the most underrated wide receivers in the NFL in Allen Robinson. He and Lawrence were deemed by many to be the best quarterbacks in the 2021 class, however, due to the holes on both sides of their respective rosters, it is they who have the most obstacles to immediate success in front of them.

The New England Patriots drafted Mac Jones to be their quarterback of the future, but the rookie is not surprised that future will start in Week 1 of the NFL season. 

Jones beat out incumbent starter Cam Newton, who was released last week, and will be under center in Sunday's season opener against the Miami Dolphins. 

In an interview Tuesday with Boston radio station WEEI, Jones said he was "not really" caught off-guard when he learned in a team meeting that he had won the job. 

"I mean, like I always say, I prepare to be the starter and every day you come in and I got the chance to get a lot of reps, so nothing really changes," Jones said. "Just trying to be a good teammate.

"Trying to learn the plays every day and fix what I messed up on, listen to [offensive coordinator] Josh [McDaniels] and all the guys in the quarterbacks room, you just take their advice like I always have since I have been here.

"Like I said, nothing really changes. It’s exciting.”

Jones, who turned 23 on Sunday, led Alabama to the College Football Playoff national championship last season. He completed a record 77.4 per cent of his passes while throwing for 4,500 yards with 41 touchdowns and just four interceptions. 

While his resume was as impressive as any rookie's, the jump to the NFL can be daunting. Jones said Newton was a mentor to him throughout the off-season and training camp and was helpful throughout even though they were competing for a job. 

"Obviously Cam is a great guy, a great player, and hopefully he lands somewhere," Jones said. "I definitely learned a lot from him and I'm excited to keep learning from Brian [Hoyer] and everyone in the quarterback room."

Jones has been impressive throughout the pre-season, completing 36 of 52 passes (69.2 per cent) for 389 yards and a touchdown with no interceptions as the Patriots won all three of their games. 

Beginning Sunday, the stakes will be much higher, and Jones knows he will have to perform to maintain his role. That would be true anywhere in the NFL, but the pressure figures to be turned up given New England's championship pedigree. 

"It is a great opportunity and it’s something I have always wanted to do - be a NFL starting quarterback," Jones said. "But like I said, it doesn’t really mean much. The label is the label, but you’ve got to go out and produce and that’s just what it comes down to." 

With every NFL season, new stars emerge, thrusting themselves to the forefront of the consciousness with breakout campaigns that put them firmly in the conversation as one of the best players at their position.

Often such years come as a significant surprise, as was the case in 2020 when Justin Jefferson broke the record for receiving yards by a rookie, topping 1,400 having only posted 70 through his opening two games.

But frequently it is possible to project breakout seasons before they happen by looking at the numbers from previous years and the situation a player finds himself in heading into the campaign.

Using its advanced metrics, Stats Perform looks at five players poised to emerge with stellar performances in the 2021 season.

Joe Burrow – Cincinnati Bengals

The fate of the Bengals' season, and perhaps that of head coach Zac Taylor, rests predominantly on how Burrow fares on his return to regular-season action after a serious knee ligament injury curtailed his rookie year.

Burrow, the first overall pick in 2020, being back at his best is far from a guarantee. However, the former LSU star has seemingly grown in confidence in the preseason after some initial struggles in training camp and demonstrated enough in his 10 games last campaign to suggest he can justify his draft status and lift the Bengals from the AFC North cellar.

The primary issue facing Burrow is the lack of talent on the offensive line protecting him, which is a lowly 28th in the NFL per Stats Perform's rankings, with Cincinnati bemusing many by selecting wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase instead of tackle Penei Sewell with the fifth pick in this year's draft.

Yet Burrow does an excellent job of moving in the pocket and finding lanes out of it to escape pressure. He reads the field well and delivers his throws with consistently accurate placement. Burrow ranked sixth in the NFL among quarterbacks with at least 100 pass attempts with a well-thrown percentage of 80.6.

That number dipped to 69.8 when under pressure, but still gave him the best mark of any quarterback in the AFC North, reflecting his poise when the pocket breaks down.

With Chase joining Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd in an impressive wide receiver room, Burrow has the weapons to make a huge leap in year two providing he stays healthy and the offensive line can produce even a slight improvement.

Damien Harris – New England Patriots

While the New England offense disappointed for the most part last year, their running game was efficient, and Harris played a significant role.

He averaged five yards a carry in recording 691 rushing yards and two touchdowns in 10 games. Those latter two numbers may be slightly underwhelming, yet Harris was one of the premier backs in the league when it came to getting to the second level of the defense in a hurry.

A patient back who reads his blocks intelligently, Harris' decisiveness and burst when he identified the running lane to hit allowed him to average 3.11 yards before contact by a defender per attempt, putting him 10th in the NFL.

His rate of 2.05 yards after contact was less impressive but still above the average of 1.91, while Harris was 11th in the NFL with 3.15 yards per carry on rush attempts where there was a run disruption by a defender.

The Patriots possess the third-best run-blocking line in the NFL, according to Stats Perform's rankings, and – though Cam Newton's exit may make their ground game less diverse – Harris could reap the benefits of facing lighter boxes if Mac Jones' impressive preseason translates into the regular season and gives New England's passing attack a much-needed jump.

Brandon Aiyuk – San Francisco 49ers

The 49ers' second first-round pick of 2020 was in a difficult situation as he dealt with sub-par quarterback play between the struggles of the oft-injured Jimmy Garoppolo and backup Nick Mullens before they finished the season with C.J. Beathard.

However, the former Arizona State receiver still excelled in defeating coverage with his route-running ability and showed his potential with the ball in his hands after the catch.

Aiyuk caught 60 passes for 748 yards and five touchdowns in 12 games as a rookie. He added a further two scores on the ground.

His big-play percentage of 33.1 was third among rookies with at least 50 targets behind Gabriel Davis and Tee Higgins. Davis has Stefon Diggs, Cole Beasley and Emmanuel Sanders as competition for targets with the Buffalo Bills while Higgins will have to share the receiving workload with Chase and Boyd.

George Kittle and Deebo Samuel will command a significant number of targets for San Francisco but Aiyuk holds an undisputed position at the top of the wide receiver depth chart, meaning he will likely see enough passes thrown his way in 2021 for him to outperform both Davis and Higgins.

With Garoppolo healthy and Trey Lance lurking as a high-upside successor, Aiyuk is in a much better spot in 2021 to surpass 1,000 yards and establish himself as one of the league's brightest young stars at the receiver position.

Marcus Davenport – New Orleans Saints

Davenport has yet to justify the trade up the Saints struck to draft him in 2018 despite flashes of the brilliance that convinced New Orleans to make such a dramatic move up the board.

His influence was limited by a series of injury issues in 2020 but Davenport still registered a pressure rate of 21.3 per cent that was 11th among edge rushers. His run disruption rate of 15.7 per cent was 12th.

The Saints did spend a first-round pick on an edge rusher in Payton Turner, whose stock rose dramatically late in the process. However, with Trey Hendrickson, who had 13.5 sacks last year, having departed for a lucrative payday with the Bengals, Davenport is in line for a clear uptick on the 374 defensive snaps he played in 2020.

At his best, Davenport is an explosive pass rusher blessed with tremendous power who can drive blockers back with the bull rush but also bend around the edge and flatten to the quarterback with excellent closing speed.

The Saints have not seen his best often enough, yet if he can stay healthy, Davenport can play a crucial role for the New Orleans defense as part of a front that has enough talent to ensure he will regularly have the benefit of one-on-one matchups to help him significantly pad his career total of 12 sacks.

Darious Williams – Los Angeles Rams

There is a strong argument that Williams has already enjoyed his breakout campaign, having racked up 14 passes deflected and four interceptions for the Rams last year.

Despite his superb 2020, Williams is not a player talked about as one of the premier cornerbacks in the NFL. Should he back up last season's efforts with a similarly productive 2021 for a Rams team many expect to contend for the Super Bowl following Matthew Stafford's arrival, that may change.

Williams excels at reading the eyes of the quarterback to break on the football and make plays at the catch point, with his ball skills reflected by his gaudy press breakup and interception numbers.

Only K'Waun Williams of the San Francisco 49ers allowed a burn, which is when a receiver wins his matchup with a defender on plays where he is targeted regardless of whether the ball is catchable, at a lower rate than Williams, who did so on 30.3 per cent of balls thrown in his direction.

Williams' big-play percentage allowed of 16 was the 12th-best among all cornerbacks and, though his on-ball production may be a product of playing across from Jalen Ramsey, the fact he so frequently stood up to the test when challenged by opposing passing games indicates he is a player who can continue his ascent in his fourth year.

David Patten, a three-time Super Bowl champion with the New England Patriots, has died at the age of 47, his agent has confirmed.

Patten played for the Patriots between 2001 and 2004 and won three Championship rings with the franchise.

He had previously played for the Cleveland Browns and the New York Giants and went on to have spells in Washington and New Orleans before returning to Ohio and then New England to round off his career as an offseason and practice squad member.

The former wide receiver, who had been the assistant coach of the Western Carolina Catamounts since 2013, cemented his place in Pats history when he caught Tom Brady's first postseason touchdown pass to put New England 14-3 ahead against the St. Louis Rams in 2002. 

New England went on to win 20-17, with the catch the only one Patten made in the game. It was Brady's first Super Bowl success, and the quarterback went on to become an all-time great, winning the Championship game on seven occasions, most recently with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers earlier this year.

Patten tallied up 4,715 regular-season receiving yards over a 12-year career in the NFL, and 106 for rushing.

On Friday, news of his passing was confirmed by Sam Gordon, who runs the G2 Management agency of which Patten was a client.

"Today, I woke up to the worst news you could hear," Gordon posted on Instagram, alongside a photo of himself and Patten.

"My close friend and childhood hero David Patten passed away suddenly last night.

"Very rarely do people get to call their childhood heroes/favorite players their friends. Or even have them take a chance on you. You blessed with me with that. You blessed me with your belief in me when I was getting my company off of the ground.

"But most important of all, you were there to talk when the stress was too great and I was unsure of myself in my field. Mr Patten. My friend, my hero, the first one to believe in me as a manager/agent. I will miss you every day.

"Thank you David Patten. Thank you so much for your friendship, your inspiration, believing in me and trusting me to be your manager."

Richard Seymour, who was Patten's team-mate during his stint with the Patriots, tweeted: "heartbroken... great man of God… lost for words – David Patten..."

Cam Newton has been cut by the New England Patriots, according to widespread reports, leaving Mac Jones as the new starting quarterback.

Newton and Jones had appeared in a battle for the starting spot ahead of the 2021 season.

On Sunday, after the Pats' final preseason game against the New York Giants, coach Bill Belichick refused to declare his starter, saying: "We still have decisions to make."

But Newton played just 39 snaps in preseason, also missing five days due to a "misunderstanding" relating to COVID-19 tests. He has now been released.

The decision clears a path for Jones, a first-round pick who led Alabama to the College Football Playoff National Championship this year.

Belichick will hope the 22-year-old can be a long-term replacement for Tom Brady, who left for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers before last season and went on to win the Super Bowl.

Newton was signed as a free agent to fill the void but completed just 65.8 per cent of his passes for 2,657 yards, eight touchdowns and 10 interceptions across 15 regular season games.

Although the 32-year-old did rush for 12 touchdowns – the most since 14 in his rookie year with Carolina Panthers in 2011 – even his underlying numbers through the air were poor.

Newton delivered a well-thrown, accurate ball on 76.1 per cent of his passes while averaging 7.07 air yards, below the 2020 league averages for quarterbacks with at least 100 attempts in both metrics (78.0 per cent and 8.16).

The departing three-time Pro Bowler was still handed a one-year contract ahead of Jones' arrival, but New England have clearly seen enough from the rookie in preseason.

At Alabama, Jones showed himself to be far more effective through the air than the man he will be replacing as starter. His 83.21 well-thrown percentage ranked third in the Power 5 in 2020.

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