Never has the need been clearer for the Patriots when it comes to their top priority in the upcoming draft. Then again, never in the Bill Belichick era has New England been aware so early in the process which position it needs to zero in on.
Following Sunday’s 22-12 loss to the Dolphins in Miami, which eliminated the Patriots from postseason contention before Week 17 for the first time since 2000, the team is full speed ahead in its search for a quarterback as early as possible in next April’s draft.
Who better than Belichick to find that next guy … right?
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Belichick’s track record in the draft while with New England has been defined by uncovering late-round gems at various positions, signing undrafted stars after the fact and zigging when the book says "zag."
Trading out of the first round in the first draft post-Tom Brady last April was incredibly surprising, unless you’ve paid attention the last two decades. Especially in recent years, Belichick’s drafts have been overshadowed by an inability to identify players at positions where speed is paramount, such as wide receiver and cornerback.
After hitting on virtually every first-round pick from 2001-12, the Patriots became mired in a slump at the top of the draft, one they're still in. The case can be made that oft-injured offensive lineman Isaiah Wynn has been the team’s most productive No. 1 choice from the last eight seasons.
Drafting at the skill positions has been especially challenging for the Patriots lately, namely in choosing Sony Michel over Nick Chubb – college teammates in the same backfield at Georgia – in 2018 and N’Keal Harry over about 10 other receivers in 2019.
But the Patriots have never taken a quarterback in the first round under Belichick.
Does all that suggest they'll misfire at quarterback?
Given the number of holes on New England’s offense at the moment, any young signal caller who comes in next season is bound to struggle no matter how much the unit gets overhauled between now and training camp.
Whomever the team selects in the first round this April shouldn't have a short leash, so we’re doing this same song and dance next winter. Instead, the Patriots need to draft a quarterback who can take advantage of an opportunity to be a starter in the NFL. In other words, something 2019 fourth-round pick Jarrett Stidham wasn't.
New England hasn’t exclusively drafted duds in the later rounds at quarterback since they won the lottery in 2000 with Brady. Here are the 10 they've drafted since Brady: Rohan Davey (fourth round, 2002), Kliff Kingsbury (sixth round, 2003), Matt Cassel (seventh round, 2005), Kevin O’Connell (third round, 2008), Zac Robinson (seventh round, 2010), Ryan Mallett (third round, 2011), Jimmy Garoppolo (second round, 2014), Jacoby Brissett (third round, 2016), Danny Etling (seventh round, 2018) and Stidham.
Cassel, Garoppolo and Brissett wound up being serviceable NFL quarterbacks. Throw in Brian Hoyer (undrafted, 2009) and there’s four.
Obviously, none of them were the first quarterbacks off the board -- Garoppolo was the fifth quarterback selected in 2014, at No. 62 overall. When the Patriots are on the clock in April, somewhere in the teens, it’s likely at least two, if not three quarterbacks will already be gone in Trevor Lawrence (Clemson), Justin Fields (Ohio State) and perhaps even Zach Wilson (BYU) or Trey Lance (North Dakota State).
Do you trust Belichick to single out the best of the rest at that point?
Garoppolo has emerged as the second-best quarterback from the 2014 draft class, ahead of Blake Bortles (third overall), Johnny Manziel (22nd overall) and Teddy Bridgewater (32nd overall). Really, the difference between Garoppolo, Bridgewater and Derek Carr (36th overall) from that year isn’t all that drastic. Garoppolo and Bridgewater have struggled with injuries, and while Carr has thrown nearly 100 more touchdown passes (167) than interceptions (69), he’s 46-62 as a starter.
The selection of Cassel 230th overall in 2005 was creative, given he never started a game at USC -- he sat behind Heisman Trophy winners Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart. Not only did Cassel go on to have a better career than Leinart, who was drafted in 2006, but he outperformed several quarterbacks drafted well before him in 2005, including Jason Campbell (25th overall), Charlie Frye (67th overall) and Andrew Walter (69th overall).
Brissett, who lasted just one season in New England before being swapped to Indianapolis for Phillip Dorsett, was selected 91st overall in 2016. He’s 11-19 as a starter, but at least he’s still in the NFL – the same can’t be said for Paxton Lynch, taken 26th overall, or Christian Hackenberg, the 51st overall pick who never even attempted a pass in the league.
Where buyer’s remorse comes into play with Brissett is that, 43 picks later, the Cowboys nabbed Dak Prescott, all while two more forgettable quarterbacks (Cody Kessler and Connor Cook) went off the board. Prescott has been even better than the top two picks from the 2016 draft in Jared Goff and Carson Wentz.
The Patriots found the brightest diamond in the rough of all-time in 2000, when Brady was sitting at No. 199 overall. This time, whomever the team selects will be hiding in plain sight in the middle of the first round.
It’ll have been 10 years since the Patriots had a first-round pick in the teens, but they nailed it in 2011, taking left tackle Nate Solder 17th overall. The other two times in the Belichick era they’ve drafted that high, they hit two more home runs in Richard Seymour (sixth overall, 2001) and Jerod Mayo (10th overall, 2008).
Despite all of his perceived shortcomings in the draft of late, there’s no one Patriots fans should want drafting the next franchise quarterback other than Bill Belichick. This means zigging instead of zagging, though, not trading out of the first round for a second year in a row.
If that's playing it safe, so be it. Reaching for help at other positions has backfired almost every time New England – or most teams, for that matter – tries it.
Both the safe move and the right move are zeroing in on a quarterback next April. Doing so won’t result in an immediate return to waking up in the AFC Championship Game every year, but as we’ve seen in 2020, neither does patchworking it at the most important position in professional sports.