Barring a sweep of their final eight regular season games and a march to Super Bowl LV, the Patriots need to draft a quarterback in 2021.
Even if they did pull off what would be their most improbable championship, New England needs to be in the market for a college quarterback next spring. The majority of the reason the team is far outside the playoff picture at the moment is due to negligence at the quarterback depth chart dating back to the trade deadline in 2017.
To recap: the Patriots traded Jimmy Garoppolo, drafted Danny Etling in the seventh round of the 2018 draft and Jarrett Stidham in the fourth round in 2019, then drafted no one at the position in 2020, when it was clear they needed to find Tom Brady’s successor. Cam Newton, signed at the end of June, has bailed New England out…sort of.
The Patriots are 3-5 now. Instead of asking what their record would be if Brady were still here (let’s call it 5-3), how bad would things be if it were Stidham and/or Brian Hoyer under center this whole time? We got a taste of that in Kansas City in Week 4, when Newton was unavailable due to a positive COVID-19 test, and it wasn’t pretty.
It’s not unreasonable to think the Patriots would be 1-7 or even 0-8 with Stidham or Hoyer as the fulltime starter.
Such a record, of course, would mean New England would potentially plummet all the way to the top of the draft order. Naturally, that would mean the team would take a quarterback first overall, start a brand new dynasty and we’d all live happily ever after, right?
Except that picking first overall guarantees you absolutely nothing, even when it comes to quarterbacks. Heck, especially when it comes to quarterbacks.
Since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970, 25 signal callers have gone first overall, including 19 times since 1990. Let's take out Joe Burrow, who hasn’t even played a full season yet, as well as Kyler Murray and Baker Mayfield, the top picks in the 2019 and 2018 drafts, respectively, since it’s way too short of a sample size on them. You’re left with 22 quarterbacks. Of those 22, just nine have played in a Super Bowl and only six have won it: Terry Bradshaw, Jim Plunkett, John Elway, Troy Aikman and the brothers Manning.
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New England fans need no reminder that picking first or 199th is a crapshoot. Plunkett was a Patriots’ draft pick in 1971, but he didn’t win Super Bowls until relocating to the west coast with the Raiders. Drew Bledsoe and Newton are among the three quarterbacks taken first overall to play in a Super Bowl, but not win it. (Jared Goff, whom the Patriots defeated in Super Bowl LIII, is the third.)
There are alternate universes where, if things broke differently, top picks such as Mike Vick, Carson Palmer, Matthew Stafford and perhaps even Newton wound up as Super Bowl champions. No such reality exists for Jeff George, Tim Couch, David Carr, JaMarcus Russell or any other top picks who were simply doomed for mediocrity.
It is, at best, a 50-50 proposition that drafting first overall will net a legitimate franchise quarterback.
But seemingly just as often, a franchise passer can be found later on in the first round. Ben Roethlisberger landed in Pittsburgh with the 11th pick in 2004, Aaron Rodgers went to Green Bay 24th overall in 2005 and Patrick Mahomes somehow went to Kansas City 10th in 2017. Drew Brees was taken 32nd overall – then the first pick of the second round – by San Diego in 2001. Say what you want about Joe Flacco, but he won a Super Bowl after being drafted 18th overall in 2008 by Baltimore.
Super Bowl winners Russell Wilson and Nick Foles were both drafted in the third round in 2012 – the same round in which the Patriots wasted picks on Kevin O’Connell, in 2008, and Ryan Mallett, in 2011.
Both 2011 and 2012 are excellent case studies in finding quarterbacks through the draft. While Newton has, for the most part, lived up to the billing of being a No. 1 overall pick, the next three quarterbacks drafted in the first round in 2011 were Jake Locker (8th, to Tennessee), Blaine Gabbert (10th, to Jacksonville) and Christian Ponder (12th, to Minnesota).
Bust, bust and bust.
On the one hand, teams thinking they’d be okay taking the second, third or fourth quarterback to come off the board couldn’t have been more wrong. Reaching for a quarterback is often the result of years of mismanagement at the position, where if you take the wrong guy, you’re only setting yourself back further.
On the other hand, three serviceable quarterbacks went off the board in later rounds in 2011, including Andy Dalton and Colin Kaepernick with back-to-back picks in the second round, as well as Tyrod Taylor in the sixth.
The 2012 draft is even more wild. First round picks included Andrew Luck (1st, to Indianapolis), Robert Griffin III (2nd, to Washington), Ryan Tannehill (8th, to Minnesota) and Brandon Weeden (22nd, to Cleveland). Meanwhile, later rounds included Wilson and Foles, but also Kirk Cousins and Brock Osweiler.
To state the obvious, the odds of a quarterback succeeding skyrocket when there’s an established program in place.
For the Patriots, one unexpected wild card is that Bill Belichick’s recent draft record, no matter how you slice it, is underwhelming.
“I’m not going to apologize for our record over the last 20 years,” Belichick said Friday morning when pressed on the topic. “I’ve seen a lot worse.”
The three times in New England he’s had a first-round pick in the single digits or teens, Belichick came away with Richard Seymour, Jerod Mayo and Nate Solder. No quarterbacks, but one fringe Hall of Famer in Seymour and two other very good players.
It is exceedingly likely that 2021 will be the fourth time Belichick has had such a high draft position with the Patriots, but it will be the first time where quarterback has been a need.
Familiarize yourself with Trevor Lawrence (Clemson), Justin Fields (Ohio State), Trey Lance (North Dakota State), Zach Wilson (BYU), Kyle Trask (Florida), Mac Jones (Alabama) and a handful of others over the coming months. Lawrence is pretty much a lock to go No. 1 overall (Jets?), but the rest remain fluid.
Another avenue for the Patriots to pursue could be rolling the dice on a young discarded quarterback like Sam Darnold from the Jets, Daniel Jones from the Giants or Dwayne Haskins from the Washington Football Team, should they move in different directions. But at this juncture, that move would have to be accompanied with a first- or second-round pick on a quarterback in 2021. Riding with just one young quarterback in 2020, Stidham, has blown up in the team’s face.
Threading the needle between caution and aggression is tricky, but the Patriots did this to themselves by mismanaging the end of the Brady era. It’s a fine line, but it’s one the team is going to have to walk if it has any hopes of regaining its status as a contender anytime soon.