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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP)It’s not exactly the 199th overall pick, but drafting Mac Jones in the middle of the first round is turning out to be quite a steal for New England.

The heir to Tom Brady in the Patriots (9-4) huddle has emerged as the top quarterback from his draft class – and so far the best rookie overall – despite being the No. 15 pick and the fifth QB selected in the NFL draft last spring.

Jones’ accelerated development has ended talk of an extended rebuilding period without Brady, returning the Patriots to the top of the AFC and sending them into their off week on a seven-game winning streak.

”The last part of the season is the most important part. Nothing that you did before that matters,” Jones said this week as he prepared for his first free weekend as a pro. ”The bye week’s important just as a self-evaluation for what you can do as a player, as an offense, and obviously taking coaching and figuring out ways to improve. That’s all you can ask for.”

Brady was the greatest pick in NFL history when he was selected in the sixth round – No. 199 overall – of the 2000 draft. With him as quarterback for two decades, the Patriots won six Super Bowls and reached the title game three other times.

Coach Bill Belichick has been working on a succession plan at least since 2014, when he drafted Jimmy Garoppolo; since then, Jacoby Brissett, Danny Etling and Jarrett Stidham had all been brought in for a try.

But when Brady signed with the Buccaneers as a free agent in 2020, things became more urgent. The Patriots signed 2015 MVP Cam Newton to run the offense, but that failure – a 7-9 record that left them out of the playoff for the first time since Brady was injured in 2008 – forced Belichick to do something he’d never done before: draft a quarterback in the first round.

While the rest of the league jockeyed for a chance to pick Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson or Trey Lance, who went Nos. 1-2-3, or even 11th overall pick Justin Fields, the Patriots stood pat and grabbed Jones at No. 15.

And he has outplayed all the others.

A 23-year-old who won a national championship at Alabama, Jones leads all rookies with 270 completions for 2,869 yards and 16 touchdowns, making him the overwhelming favorite to win the NFL’s offensive rookie of the year award. He is third among all quarterbacks with 70.3% passes completed and 10th in completions.

With two away games left, Jones has already tied the NFL record held by Dak Prescott and Ben Roethlisberger for most road wins by a rookie quarterback, with six. Most importantly, the Patriots have the No. 1 seed in the AFC after beating division rival Buffalo 14-10 on Monday night.

”It comes down to winning games. That’s what makes it fun, winning games,” Jones said. ”When you do that, it’s a lot more fun.”

Jones attempted only three passes in a gutsy and gusty win over Buffalo on Monday night, and if there is anything he has lacked so far it’s the ability to throw long. He was 24th in the league with a 10.6 average yard per completion.

But they said the same thing about Brady when he took over for injured gunslinger Drew Bledsoe as a second-year player in 2001.

”There have been ups and downs along the whole deal, and it’s very fast-paced and all,” Jones said. ”But I think it’s just being consistent is the most important part. Everyone’s going through it. It’s not just me.

”I’m just trying to do the same thing because I enjoy it and it is fun to come in everyday. Sometimes you have good days and bad days, but you’ve just got to keep pushing towards the final goal.”

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