What does Mac Jones' injury mean for Patriots this season?

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – New England Patriots quarterback Mac Jones has what doctors diagnosed as a severe left high ankle sprain that would cause many to have surgery, sources told ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter. While Jones is pushing to play as soon as possible, he is likely to miss multiple games.

Here are some of the key factors surrounding Jones' injury:

Timeline to return: Jones’ preference is to not have surgery, according to those familiar with his thinking. He hasn’t given up hope of returning quickly, as he took part in meetings this week as if there were a chance he could play Sunday against the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field (4:25 p.m. ET, CBS). That is not expected based on the standard timeline for severe high ankle sprains.

Even a moderate sprain that wouldn’t require surgery, referred to as Grade 2, is still “a multi-week injury”, according to ESPN injury analyst Stephania Bell.

“It depends on the individual. The key to coming back is not just ‘What does he look like when he steps into a throw?’ It’s ‘Can he protect himself? Can he move well enough to escape the pass rush?’” Bell explained.

“Stepping into a throw is what would stress those ligaments; stepping up and over, where your weight is coming up over the top of the foot. Things like that start to matter, and it’s why I don’t get too hung up on the question of when a player might be cleared to return. Because he might be cleared to return and still not be fully efficient.”

Jones the prospect: Whatever time Jones would miss shouldn’t have a major impact on how the Patriots (1-2) view him as the quarterback they plan to build around.

As owner Robert Kraft said in March, “Without a good coach and a good quarterback, no matter how good the other players are, I don’t think you can win consistently. Hopefully, I believe we have both – an outstanding coach and a good young prospect at quarterback.”

Arguably of greater concern than the injury itself was how Jones performed the first three games when healthy. His five interceptions over that stretch tied Matthew Stafford and Jameis Winston for an NFL high. While Jones is accountable for some of his poor decision-making, the external factors around him -- a new offense with new top offensive coaches -- also seem to have affected his overall comfort level.

Getting Jones to a better place, similar to where he was during an impressive 2021 rookie campaign, should be the team’s top priority. One line of thinking is that the injury could be a silver lining for him in the sense that he can step back, watch from the sideline, and perhaps return with an improved perspective on some of his early-season struggles.

Fill-in plans: Coach Bill Belichick confirmed that 14-year veteran Brian Hoyer will start for however long Jones is sidelined. The Patriots naturally hope Hoyer experiences success -- similar to Cooper Rush with the Dallas Cowboys the past two weeks -- until Jones returns.

“Brian has a lot of experience, been in a lot of different systems, seen a lot of football, taken a lot of snaps for us in various capacities,” Belichick said. “I thought he played well in the preseason. If we need him to go, he’ll be ready to go.”

Hoyer has lost his past 11 starts, dating to 2016, and if that streak continues, it could spark another question: Would the Patriots consider starting rookie Bailey Zappe (the fourth-round pick from Western Kentucky) until Jones returns?

That seems like a long shot at this point.

“Like any rookie quarterback, he has a lot to learn,” Belichick said. “He’s learned a ton. He’s a smart kid, processes information well. Every snap helps him. But he’s got a long way to go.”

Road ahead: After the Patriots visit the Packers on Sunday, they return home to welcome the Detroit Lions. Then it’s on the road against the Cleveland Browns, home vs. the Chicago Bears, on the road against the New York Jets, then back home against the Indianapolis Colts.

For perspective, the Patriots are 23rd in ESPN’s most recent power rankings, and only the Jets (31st) are ranked lower than them among upcoming opponents; Packers (7th), Browns (11th), Bears (22nd), Colts (20th).

That is one way to illustrate how this is a make-or-break stretch, which players have noted.

“I do believe we’ll respond the right way,” captain Matthew Slater said, when asked how players might react to playing without Jones. “We’re very early in our season, and if we don’t handle it the right way, this thing could spiral away from us.”

A clearer picture should come into focus by the end of October, with some players adamant that playing without Jones wouldn’t sink their season.

“Too many good players on this team to call it a waste,” receiver Jakobi Meyers said.