FOXBORO, Mass. — Heading into the NFL Draft Thursday night, the New England Patriots have a list of needs to help better the team for the upcoming season and years beyond: more depth at wide receiver, defensive backs that can eventually take over for Stephon Gilmore and aging stars like Devon McCourty, young linebackers to further replenish a front seven that was soft against the run a year ago, and more.
But the Pats’ biggest need in both the short term and the long term is simple: a reliable quarterback. More than a year removed from the departure of Tom Brady, New England still has not found an answer at the position for the long term.
Their short-term solution of Cam Newton went south a season ago after a bout with COVID-19. Their young quarterback of the future, Jarrett Stidham, was so ineffective that the team opted to stick with Newton late in the season when Stidham could have picked up some vital in-game experience after New England was eliminated from playoff contention.
As currently constituted, the Patriots are slated to open training camp with the same quarterback duo that turned in a lackluster season a year ago. And while Bill Belichick updated the roster by signing a flurry of free agents in March, the most valuable position in all of sports is still a question mark for the six-time Super Bowl champions heading into the 2021 season.
So what are the Patriots’ options at quarterback as the NFL Draft looms on Thursday night?
Option 1: Draft Justin Fields, Mac Jones or Trey Lance
The Patriots own the 15th pick in this year’s draft. And with five quarterbacks expected to go high in the first round, New England is in a position to trade up and take one of them if the chips fall correctly. Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence and BYU’s Zach Wilson will both be gone in the first two selections Thursday night, leaving a trio of options left.
Those options are Ohio State’s Justin Fields, Alabama’s Mac Jones, or North Dakota State’s Trey Lance. The problem for New England is the number of teams in front of them in the draft order. San Francisco traded up to No. 3 weeks ago and have been linked to all three of the aforementioned signal-callers -- though latest reports have the 49ers between Jones and Lance.
Assuming San Fran takes a quarterback as expected, New England will likely have to trade up to select their QB of the future. Ahead of them on the board lie a slew of teams who could be interested in drafting a quarterback, including Atlanta, Detroit, Carolina, Denver and Philadelphia.
Are high-end talents like Fields, Jones or Lance possible for New England tonight? Maybe, but they’ll have to spend assets moving up to draft them, something that, while not out of the question for the most important position on the field, would go against the mold Belichick has shaped in his time as general manager.
Option 2: Draft a QB in later rounds
The five quarterbacks that everyone has been talking about leading into draft night are not the only passers available in the draft. In total there are nine more signal-callers with the potential to have their names called this weekend.
If the Patriots do opt to either use the 15th pick to select a non-QB or trade back altogether, they still have notable options at the position available for selection later in the draft.
Stanford’s Davis Mills, Texas A&M’s Kellen Mond and Florida’s Kyle Trask have all been projected to go in the second or third rounds and have been the most talked-about QB options outside of the first round. Notre Dame’s Ian Book and Texas’ Sam Ehlinger are used to high expectations, having played with the microscope on them at big-name college programs.
And don’t forget that Wake Forest’s Jamie Newman was highly-touted in college football before sitting out last season. The 23-year-old was slated to play for the Georgia Bulldogs of the SEC as a graduate transfer before opting out to prepare for the NFL Draft.
Plus, wouldn’t it be the most Bill Belichick thing to hold onto his draft assets instead of trading up for a big name QB, address a different position of need in the first round altogether, and then draft a quarterback with less hype around him in the later rounds?
Option 3: Trade for a veteran like Jimmy Garoppolo
The return of Jimmy Garoppolo has been something discussed by fans and talk radio heads alike since the offseason began. And while it seemed like a pipe dream at the start, San Francisco trading up to take a quarterback opens the door for Jimmy G to be moved.
And what better place for him than the organization where he was drafted, played for three and a half years, and that still employs the head coach and offensive coordinator whose system he first learned when coming into the NFL.
Garoppolo worked great as a backup to Tom Brady in New England for nearly four seasons and was considered the heir apparent until Brady’s unprecedented longevity led to the Eastern Illinois product being shipped out for a second-round pick. Since that time, he’s had a bit of a bumpy ride with the 49ers.
Injuries have limited him to 25 games over the last three seasons - two of those seasons he played just three and six games respectively. In the one full season he’s played with San Francisco, Garoppolo and company played their way to the Super Bowl, losing to the Kansas City Chiefs.
Has his stock fallen? Yes. Is he the Steve Young that everyone thought he’d be to Brady’s Joe Montana? Likely no. Could he be a serviceable fill-in for a time while New England identifies their QB of the future in the coming years’ drafts? 100%.
If the price is right -- both in the cost to acquire him from the 49ers and the seemingly inevitable contract restructuring he’d require with New England -- what better place is there than Foxboro that could help Jimmy G return to a higher level of play.
Option 4: Hope the Cam Newton of 2020 was an aberration
You’ve heard all of the excuses made for Newton’s poor play a season ago: he had no weapons on offense, he was never the same after returning from COVID, their offensive line was weak. On and on the list goes. “Remember how good he looked in Seattle?”
If the Patriots aren’t going to draft a quarterback and they aren’t going to trade for one, then you have to hope those excuses are real. The Patriots have improved their wide receiving corps, their offensive line looks to be a point of strength this year, and maybe the return following COVID was just that in 2020. Cam likely will improve in 2021, especially with a better team around him.
But will he be good enough to keep the Patriots in the hunt for the division or even a wild card spot? I’m not so sure. His passing deficiencies coupled with the Pats’ incessant use of him in the run game made their offense one-dimensional. And can COVID recovery really explain his inability to throw the ball deep most of last season?
Now Cam can and will help the 2021 New England Patriots. He’s a leader in the locker room and has definitely bought into the program Bill Belichick is running down at Gillette Stadium. Did his presence on the team really help attract free agents like Hunter Henry to the squad in free agency? Maybe, who am I to say no.
But can he play at a high enough level to help lead the Patriots back to the postseason and actually have them contend this year? I don’t think so, but what matters is if Bill Belichick does.
Most teams try and fail repeatedly searching for their franchise quarterback. The Buffalo Bills roamed the desert for two decades after Jim Kelly before they got Josh Allen, the Miami Dolphins are still trying to find the right guy to follow in Dan Marino’s footsteps, and how many times have Patriots fans mocked the Jets for their strikeouts at the QB position?
In New England, it’s been more than a year since the greatest quarterback of all time packed his things. It likely won’t be easy finding the next franchise QB to replace him here, but the Patriots have options.
If they think one of the high-end signal-callers in the draft can do it, they should spend the capital to go get him. If they don’t, they should trade for a quarterback who can bridge the gap until they find the right person or take a lesser risk with a later-round rookie. If they do none of the above? Well, let’s just wait and see how draft night goes.