The path back to prominence for the Patriots includes picking up a quarterback in the first round. Is that what you think? Is that what we think? It’s all we talk about on TV when our ungrateful mouths aren’t busy taking bites out of the legend of Bill Belichick.
Gotta trade up! Mac Jones is Brady 2.0! Trey Lance is Steve McNair! Justin Fields is Deshaun Watson!
We do this despite all of us having seen the quarterback hype train derail with astonishing regularity.
Consider these numbers.
Thirty-six quarterbacks have been drafted in the first round since 2009. Twenty-two were drafted between 2009 and 2016.
Last month, a milestone was reached when the Lions and Rams swapped Matt Stafford and Jared Goff. That deal meant that every one of the 23 drafted in that seven-season span -- from your Andrew Lucks and Cam Newtons down to your Jake Lockers and Tim Tebows -- was either with a new team or out of the league completely.
Of the 14 quarterbacks drafted in the first round since 2017, five are either with a new team or on their way to one (Josh Rosen, Dwayne Haskins, Deshaun Watson, Mitch Trubisky and Sam Darnold).
Those 36 quarterbacks have one Super Bowl win between them (Patrick Mahomes in 2019). They’ve played in a grand total of four Super Bowls (Mahomes with two; Newton and Goff with the others). They have combined to go 23-35 in the 58 playoff games they’ve started.
Just 13 of the 36 know what it’s like to win a playoff game: Mahomes (6), Luck (4), Newton (3), Goff (2), Mark Sanchez (2), Blake Bortles (2), Ryan Tannehill (2), Josh Allen (2), Tebow (1), Watson (1), Baker Mayfield (1) and Lamar Jackson (1).
Next month, five quarterbacks -- Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson, Justin Fields, Trey Lance and Mac Jones -- may go in the first round. Lawrence is the only layup in the group. The other four? Dicey. But the siren song of talent and the urgency to get the most important position on the roster filled will be too strong for teams to pass on potential.
“Who we pick at that quarterback spot, that’s going to be one of the most important decisions I’ve made in my lifetime,” Jaguars coach Urban Meyer said in January. And Meyer is the lucky one. He’ll get Lawrence and nobody will second guess that.
Meanwhile the Patriots, who’ve spent close to three decades looking at quarterback-needy teams and thinking, “There but for the grace of God go I ...” are now feeling the same urgency.
Just before the 2020 NFL playoffs began, a Patriots team source said to me, “Look at every team in the playoffs. All of them have either a first-rounder or a Hall of Famer as their starting quarterback.”
The point? New England needs to get in the game at that spot. Their plan to have Jimmy Garoppolo succeed Tom Brady was blown up by Brady’s excellence. But since Garoppolo was traded on Halloween of 2017, the Patriots have drafted two quarterbacks: seventh-rounder Danny Etling and fourth-rounder Jarrett Stidham. They can’t keep waiting for the game to come to them.
Still, the low return on investment among first round quarterbacks is daunting.
“Go back and look at first-round quarterbacks drafted over the last 10 years,” Colts GM Chris Ballard said in January. “It is not an exact science. Everybody just thinks you just take one, and you’re going to fix the problem.
“Look, taking one will get y’all off my ass for a little bit, but the second that guy doesn’t play well, I’m gonna be the first one run out of the building. I promise you we get the importance of the quarterback position. But the difference between just taking one and taking the right one is the key in our minds. We’ll explore it. We’ll examine it. We’ll go A to Z on it, I promise you. That position never leaves my mind, and it’s something we want to get fixed. But also there’s got to be a little bit of timing and luck that comes into play when you get it.”
The Colts just swung a deal for Carson Wentz. The No. 2 overall pick in 2016 flamed out in Philly after signing a massive extension. Indy spent 2020 with likely Hall of Famer Philip Rivers at quarterback. He was the fourth overall pick in 2004 and played for $25 million in 2020. Before Rivers, it was former Patriot Jacoby Brissett under center. He was thrust into the starting job by the retirement of the 2012 No. 1 pick Andrew Luck, a “generational prospect” who lasted six seasons.
Consider that cast of Colts quarterbacks. Bill Belichick undressed Rivers and Luck in AFC Championship Games in 2007 and 2014. In 2019 the Patriots had no issue bottling up Wentz during a regular-season game. The Colts Patron Saint of Quarterbacks, No. 1 overall pick Peyton Manning, spent most of his career with the Patriots as his Kryptonite.
Belichick has the heads of so many first-round quarterbacks mounted on his wall it’s natural to wonder if he looks at that first-round ROI and shudders. Especially when he found Brady in the sixth round and used him to replace No. 1 overall pick Drew Bledsoe. Which was similar to what he did when he replaced Bernie Kosar in Cleveland with former No. 1 overall pick Vinny Testaverde, who washed out of Tampa Bay.
Toss in the fact Belichick drafted Garoppolo in the second round and developed him into a player who was minutes away from winning a Super Bowl in 2019 and that the Patriots won 11 games in 2008 with seventh-rounder Matt Cassel under center and the case against a first-round quarterback is bolstered even more.
Never mind the cap strain first-round quarterbacks put a team in. If they even signal competency in their first three seasons, the pressure to hand them $150M is now through the roof.
Armed with all this information arguing against Belichick believing a first-round quarterback was a franchise panacea, I asked two people with intimate knowledge of the Patriots decision-making process if they thought Belichick would spend a first-round pick on a quarterback. Especially when later-round prospects or the free agent market could provide more bang for the buck.
Both sources answered quickly. If it’s the right fit, he’ll be aggressive.
The presence of Brady, it was pointed out, meant that for 20 years the team didn’t have to worry about the spot. But they still did. A second-rounder on Garoppolo (2014). Third-rounders on Brissett (2016), Ryan Mallett (2011) and Kevin O’Connell (2009). Those picks were all made with Brady in-house and playing well.
That the team spent second and third-round picks on Garoppolo and Brissett in a three-year span is evidence of a willingness to be aggressive with draft picks, even if they haven’t been the past three drafts.
So what does that all mean for this draft? Will Belichick look at Alabama’s Mac Jones, who happens to currently be the flavor of the week, as a Brady-in-waiting and jump on him if he’s there at No. 15? Or is he Colt McCoy?
Is Trey Lance the next Steve McNair and worth moving into the top 10 to secure? Or is he just a raw 20-year-old with a great arm that stampeded lesser competition for a handful of games?
Is Justin Fields closer to the quarterback that shredded Clemson? Or the one that struggled against Northwestern?
Is the cheaper answer -- and the one with less long-term risk -- a player who some other team already burned a first-rounder on? A Mitch Trubisky or a Marcus Mariota, both of whom were second overall picks?
Tom Brady was a 20-year solution to the biggest problem in pro sports. The franchise quarterback. He’s gone and winning Super Bowls elsewhere. The Patriots have dragged their feet in dealing with post-Brady life for four years.
But they are very much on the clock right now.