Patriots’ QB focus is on Mac Jones, Bailey Zappe — not Lamar Jackson

NFL

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — With one off-the-cuff response at the annual NFL league meeting earlier this week, New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft unintentionally fanned the quarterback flames despite the team’s current plan being focused on Mac Jones, Bailey Zappe and filling the No. 3 spot behind that pair.

Could disgruntled Baltimore Ravens star quarterback Lamar Jackson join the Patriots?

Kraft created the perception Monday it could be a possibility when he relayed to a small group of reporters that his close friend rapper Meek Mill had texted him to relay that Jackson wanted to play for New England.

The owner added it would be coach Bill Belichick’s decision, even though in reality it would be equally (if not more) an ownership call based on the guaranteed money it would require to make Jackson a Patriot.

It’s a hot-button hypothetical, as Jackson tweeted Monday that he had requested the Ravens trade him, but Patriots team sources confirmed what the Boston Sports Journal first reported Tuesday: Barring an unexpected change in plans, Jackson is not a 2023 consideration for the Patriots.

Kraft’s comment was seemingly meant to be a lighter moment under the blazing sun, among the cacti, at the posh Arizona Biltmore — the type of exchange in the pre-social-media era that might never have become a major headline.

But these days, in Kraft’s zeal to share his connection to Meek Mill — how many 81-year-olds are communicating regularly with 35-year-old rappers? — it was like offering up a free buffet to a hungry media looking to feed the real-time 24/7 content pipeline.

Closer to reality, according to team sources, is this QB mindset: The Patriots are committed to seeing if Jones — who Belichick recently said has the skills to play in the NFL — can get back on track and realize the potential they identified in making him the 15th overall pick of the 2021 draft.

While they aim to put more support around Jones than they did in 2022, Belichick & Co. also want to see him step up as a leader. And they like the idea of Zappe — who was seeing an increase in practice reps by the end of last season — pushing him.

In 14 starts in a revamped offense in 2022, Jones finished 288-of-442 for 2,997 yards, with 14 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. That was a dip from his promising rookie campaign under former coordinator Josh McDaniels, when he started all 17 games and was 352-of-521 for 3,801 yards, with 22 touchdowns and 13 picks.

Meanwhile, Zappe started two games last season and played extensively in two others, finishing 65-of-92 for 781 yards, with five touchdowns and three interceptions.

At Monday’s AFC coaches breakfast, where Belichick’s reference to “the last 25 years” of success generated headlines and later a clarification, the coach stopped short of declaring Jones the clear-cut starter. He stuck to his modus operandi for much of his 24-year coaching tenure by not declaring who is No. 1 on the depth chart in March.

“Everybody will get a chance to play. We’ll play the best players,” Belichick said, adding that’s how he views “every position” on the roster.

Kraft, meanwhile, was more publicly supportive of Jones.

“I’m a big fan of Mac. He quarterbacked his rookie season and did a very fine job, I thought. We made the playoffs. I think we experimented with some things last year [coaching wise] that frankly didn’t work when it came to him, in my opinion. I think we made changes [this year] that I think put him in a good position to excel,” he said.

“Look, in the end, Bill is in charge of my football team and makes the decisions of who should start and who should play. And he’s done a pretty darn good job of it for the last — when you think about it — 24 years. I think bringing in [new offensive coordinator] Bill O’Brien will work to his advantage. I’m very positive and hopeful about this upcoming year, and I personally am a big fan of Mac.”

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