FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — The Mac Jones era in New England begins.
The Patriots released former Auburn quarterback Cam Newton on Tuesday, clearing the way for the rookie to open the season as New England's quarterback, according to a person with knowledge of the move.
The person spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because the decision has not been announced.
His release came hours before NFL teams reduce rosters to 53 players and brings an abrupt end to Newton's stay in New England. Newton went 7-8 as the starter in his first season since Tom Brady headed to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. New England finished 7-9 for the year.
Newton started each of New England’s three preseason games, but he also missed five days of practice leading into Sunday’s exhibition finale against the New York Giants after a “misunderstanding” of NFL COVID-19 protocols. It required him to sit out a mandatory five-day waiting period for unvaccinated players after he attended an out-of-town doctor’s appointment.
Meanwhile, Jones was impressive throughout training camp, displaying an ability to lead the offense down the field and bounce back from mistakes. He’s also earned the respect of the coaching staff and incumbent veterans alike.
Fellow Alabama alum and linebacker Dont'a Hightower said last week that Jones' work ethic has stood out in the locker room. He also noted how he recently heard the rookie had been looking at the Patriots' defensive plays to help him conceptualize how opposing defenses might attack.
“I give him credit for that because not a lot of young guys would see that as an opportunity and he did that on his own," Hightower said. "You can take that for what it’s worth. The kid works hard. I’ll leave it at that.”
Coach Bill Belichick acknowledged at the time that Newton's recent COVID-19 protocols absence provided an opportunity for Jones. The rookie seized it, performing well during the first of two joint practices with the Giants.
“I’m going to be ready whenever my time comes up,” Jones said after Sunday's 22-20 win over New York. “We got work to do and we’ll get the things fixed and then we’ll just keep rolling.”
Though he didn't start any exhibition games, Jones took 107 snaps to just 38 for Newton. He completed 69% (36 of 52) for 389 yards, a touchdown and no interceptions.
“I’ve learned at a young age to just prepare like the starter,” Jones said Sunday. “You don’t have to be the starter, but you have to prepare and get into your routine.”
When he was drafted in April, Jones became the first quarterback selected in the first round during Belichick's time in New England.
This move by the Patriots means this could mark just the second time in the NFL since the merger that more than two rookie quarterbacks started opening games.
Trevor Lawrence already has been named the starter in Jacksonville; Zach Wilson is projected to start for the Jets; and Jones is set for New England’s opener against Miami on Sept. 12.
Five rookie quarterbacks started openers in 2012.