Tom Brady will not be a Patriot anymore. For the first time since Brady officially took the reins from Drew Bledsoe in 2002, New England has a quarterback dilemma to solve.
Brady’s decision to sign with the Buccaneers casts a fog of uncertainty over the Patriots’ future. In the aftermath, it reduced the team’s QB room to one player with four career NFL passes to his name (Jarrett Stidham) and another who was discarded by the passing-needy Browns and Jaguars over the last three years (Cody Kessler).
New England decided not to roll the dice with a Stidham/Kessler one-two punch and hope the influence of head coach Bill Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels worked miracles once more. Their big moves behind center so far, however, probably won’t make a major impact. Belichick signed familiar face Brian Hoyer following his release from the Colts. Later, the team released Kessler.
That doesn’t mean the Patriots will sign another veteran passer. It doesn’t mean they won’t, either. There are three categories from which New England’s 2020 starter could arrive. We’ll begin with the two guys who are already there.
The in-house options
New England currently has two quarterbacks under contract. Stidham was a fourth-round pick in the 2019 NFL Draft. Hoyer was a backup for the club from 2009-11, then again from 2017-18.
Stidham, unsurprisingly, has the greater upside of the two — even if no one’s quite sure what his ceiling is. The former Baylor and Auburn QB took a step back between his sophomore and junior seasons, dulling his shine enough for the Pats to pick him up on Day 3. While he earned high marks for his solid preseason play, the brief glimpses we saw of him in the regular season painted him to be every bit an overwhelmed rookie. He threw four passes for 14 yards and one pick-six.
Elevating him to a starting role would be quite a swing. Stidham was very good in exhibition play, completing more than 67 percent of his passes, averaging more than eight yards per attempt, and compiling a passer rating of 102.3. Those performances came against backup defenses loaded with players bound for practice squads and the XFL. He’s still an unknown commodity, even if he’s made some nice throws in the past.
Hoyer is a replacement-level player whose claim to fame will forever be coaxing the Browns to a 10-6 record in 16 starts between 2013 and 2014. He was thrown into the Colts’ starting lineup last fall when Jacoby Brissett was injured and failed to impress, which ultimately led to his release after Indianapolis signed Philip Rivers. He’s roughly as stopgap a solution as there is — though he’s a good one.
The available veterans
The good news for the Patriots is there’s a rich seam of veteran QB talent waiting to be mined this offseason. The bad news is the team may have missed the chance to jump at some free agents who reached agreements during the league’s legal tampering period.
Marcus Mariota is off the market after signing with the Raiders. Ryan Tannehill returned to the Titans on a $121 million deal. Case Keenum probably wasn’t high on New England’s wish list, but he just took $18 million over three years to reunite with Kevin Stefanski in Cleveland. Teddy Bridgewater is headed for Carolina. Rivers is a Colt. Nick Foles was traded to the Bears. Drew Brees and Dak Prescott were never leaving New Orleans and Dallas, respectively.
Waiting isn’t necessarily a bad thing for the Pats, however. There are several viable starting options whose price will decrease as the offseason wears on. The money saved could go into reinforcing the team’s other weaknesses, which includes upgrading the list of targets for whomever is slinging passes in New England next season.
Which quarterbacks fit the bill? Coincidentally, the news of Brady’s departure gave way to the Panthers’ declaration they’d allow Cam Newton to seek a trade roughly two hours later. Whether because of timing or just general fit, those two parties will be linked together throughout this process, especially after Newton was later released and is a free agent.
Andy Dalton’s name has come up in trade rumors, too. He probably wouldn’t cost much to acquire after losing his starting job with the Bengals, but his $17+ million cap hit would be a tough for New England. If Dalton renegotiates or is released, Belichick could hope his inherent Andy Dalton-ness was more a function of the Bengals’ dysfunction than any fatal quarterbacking flaw.
Jameis Winston is effectively the opposite of the risk-averse, accurate passing for which the Pats are looking. Still, if Brady heads to Tampa, Winston would be a man without a country.
Joe Flacco is a free agent after being cut by the Broncos, but he may not offer more than Hoyer from an on-field standpoint this late in his career. Josh Rosen, stuck in hopeless situations in Arizona and Miami to kick off his NFL career, could be an interesting developmental piece as well.
The 2020 NFL Draft candidates
Belichick proved he has an eye for developing young quarterbacks. Since 2005, he’s either drafted or signed as an undrafted free agent four different QBs who have gone on to be full-season starters in the NFL: Matt Cassel, Brian Hoyer, Jimmy Garoppolo, and Jacoby Brissett. There have been misses in that crop as well — neither Ryan Mallett nor Kevin O’Connell lived up to their third-round billing — but the Patriots’ success rate for finding starting passers has been impressive.
The Patriots don’t make a selection until the 23rd pick of the first round. While that’s a lower starting point than most years, it won’t get them close to the upper crust of quarterback talent in this year’s draft. The Bengals, Dolphins, Chargers, Jaguars, and Buccaneers are all in the market for QB help, and those are only the teams slated to pick in the top 15.
That means New England is likely looking at a cast of talent from this year’s “flawed, but intriguing” second tier. If the team decides to take a first-round quarterback for the first time since Drew Bledsoe was 1993’s top overall pick, that could mean someone like Utah State’s Jordan Love or Washington’s Jacob Eason.
Though SB Nation draft expert Dan Kadar sees both as second-round talent, New England may have to act early to grab one of them, especially after dealing their second-round pick to the Falcons for Mohamed Sanu. The Patriots could also use their cache of compensatory picks to move up on Day 2 to target someone like Georgia’s Jake Fromm or Oklahoma star Jalen Hurts.
Since this year’s pre-draft process will rely on hours and hours of college film breakdown rather than in-person workouts, it’s tough to tell exactly what form the draft route of this year’s QBs will take. The odds seem good the Patriots would invest at least one selection in a quarterback, however.
The Patriots are entering unfamiliar waters following Brady’s exit. The six-time Super Bowl winner had missed only 19 starts over the past 18 years, and the consistency he brought behind center helped Belichick build a dynasty.
That era is over, and the first step toward building New England’s future is finding his successor. That might mean someone who’s already on the roster. It might mean a veteran passer who fell out of favor elsewhere. It could be a rookie who caught the team’s eye.
All we know now is it won’t be Brady.