By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com
The Patriots could start just about anyone at quarterback in 2021 and get better results than Cam Newton.
Despite Bill Belichick’s unwavering praise and support for Newton, the Patriots head coach has to know that he needs to build a better depth chart at the most important position on the field. It’s quite likely that he ends up needing more than one new QB on the 2021 Patriots, assuming Newton and Brian Hoyer won’t be back.
Finding a franchise quarterback is not easy and should have never been taken for granted in New England, just because Tom Brady fell into Belichick’s lap in 2000. But Belichick has had a solid track record picking quarterbacks who outperform their draft status. He most notably identified Jimmy Garoppolo as Brady’s successor, before No. 12 said “nah” and took his game to another level. Hoyer was obviously a disaster in 2020, but Belichick helped turn him from undrafted no-name to a QB with 39 career starts. He won 11 games with seventh-round pick Matt Cassel, who went on to make 81 starts in his career.
It doesn’t look or feel like Belichick hit on another QB with 2019 fourth-rounder Jarrett Stidham. But there’s reason to be confident that, next time he takes the plunge on a signal-caller in the first two rounds, he will have identified a future starter for the Patriots. All-Pro or Hall of Famer? Who knows. But a starter? Sure.
That’s still only one step. Assuming the Patriots use a first or second-round pick on a quarterback, he also needs to upgrade at the “veteran stopgap” spot. The fact that he got the Patriots to seven wins, with such abysmal quarterback play and a deeply flawed roster, shows that with a merely competent QB the Patriots may have contended for a playoff spot.
At the very least, the Patriots need a QB who takes care of the football and can make basic throws, which Newton could not do on nearly a regular basis. It might be too much to ask for them to land a QB who can do those things and make big plays in clutch situations, another area where Newton struggled. But it’s not impossible. It would just take a big-balls kind of move.
Anyway, enough with the rambling. Here’s a quick cheat sheet of names for you to keep in mind as the Patriots’ quest for a quarterback(s) begins in earnest.
Old Flame: Jimmy Garoppolo
There’s a possibility that the 49ers decide to part ways with Garoppolo, now that they’re in year 4 of his big five-year deal. They could save over $24 million in real cash and $23 million against the cap by releasing Garoppolo before June 1. One of the top QB prospects in the draft could be in the Niners’ range at the No. 12 pick, or Kyle Shanahan may simply choose to go in a different direction with a different kind of passer.
For the Patriots? Garoppolo already knows the system and flashed excellence in his brief time starting in place of Tom Brady in 2016. Availability has been an issue for Garoppolo even going back to his time with the Patriots, so it’s certainly debatable whether he could be a long-term franchise guy for any team. But for Belichick and the Patriots in particular, they could use a guy who is physically capable of throwing the football and making simple plays and not being confused by the system.
Garoppolo may not be the long-term answer Belichick wanted him to be for the Pats after drafting him, but as a short-term stopgap, he may be the ideal option.
Old Stopgaps: Philip Rivers, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Andy Dalton, Tyrod Taylor
It’s incredible that you’d be justified in saying “Imagine how much better the Patriots would’ve been with Ryan Fitzpatrick instead of Cam Newton?” Any of these guys would bring back nightmares of Newton throwing the ball at receivers’ feet or forcing a ball into triple coverage for an interception. But they’re all better at physically throwing the football (Rivers, Dalton) and/or protecting the ball (Taylor) than Newton ever was. If they’re not the guaranteed starter and simply a steady veteran fallback option, Belichick could do worse.
Young Stopgaps: Mitchell Trubisky, Jacoby Brissett, A.J. McCarron, Jameis Winston, Blake Bortles
These stopgaps fall more into the “reclamation project” category due to their relatively young ages. But even if Belichick can turn Trubisky into a competent, dependable passer, get Winston to cut back on the interceptions, or unlock an aggressive new gear with Bortles, it’s unlikely any of them will ever be the kind of QB where you win as a result of their performance. Belichick could probably win some games with Brissett or Bortles, but would he ever win because of them? That question is why they’d be solid additions as backups, but certainly not as surefire starters.
Trade Options: Matthew Stafford, Matt Ryan, Kirk Cousins, Sam Darnold, Marcus Mariota
This is where it gets fun. The injuries may be piling up for Stafford, but he plays through them as much as he can. He’s as tough as any QB in the league and is among the league leaders in game-winning drives over the course of his career. He’s spent more time lifting the stinky Lions out of obscurity than hurting them. It would be fun to see what he could do in a real program with a real head coach.
Matt Ryan or Kirk Cousins would certainly return the Patriots’ passing game to a level of competence that we rarely saw with Newton, but would they come through often enough in crunch time to be worth the price? Darnold and Mariota would be intriguing reclamation projects and wouldn’t cost much money, but the price would likely be a lot higher in terms of draft capital.
Big Money: Dak Prescott
Prescott’s ugly ankle injury could set him back greatly as far as getting a top-of-the-market contract. But even if it’s just a one or two-year deal with his next team, Prescott won’t come cheaply. He looked like an MVP candidate before his injury and has taken his game to another level in the past two seasons. His skill set and decision-making would make him a great fit in New England, but it’s unlikely the Patriots are willing to spend as much as they’d need.
Draft Prospects: Justin Fields, Trey Lance, Zach Wilson, Mac Jones, Kyle Trask
Speaking of the draft … oh, great, now they screwed themselves out of Trey Lance!!! These pre-draft takes make me chuckle. How do you know any of these guys are any good? Chasing a franchise QB at the top of the first round every year just because you need a QB is how you suck for decades. That’s not to say the Patriots shouldn’t draft a quarterback in the first two rounds this year – if they’re not trading for someone like Darnold, they should. History shows that you have to if you want a real difference-maker. So it’s time to start taking real shots at The Next Guy™.
But Belichick is smart enough to know he shouldn’t take one just to take one. He needs to do what he did with Garoppolo and specifically target a player he’s truly confident in to eventually be the starter. Perhaps someone like Wilson or Jones turns out to be that guy. Maybe Trask is still kicking around in the second round.
Just know that Belichick isn’t going to take the QB you want just because you want him. It’s not about who Mel Kiper likes, or who the armchair quarterbacks like, it’s who Bill likes. We’ll see if any of the above names pique his interest, because that’s the likely group for him in the first two rounds.
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Matt Dolloff is a digital producer for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Matt? Yell at him on Twitter @mattdolloff or send him a nasty email at email@example.com.