Patriots

Patriots 2020 NFL free agency primer: Mariota, Bridgewater make sense as Tom Brady successors?

Patriots 2020 NFL free agency primer: Mariota, Bridgewater make sense as Tom Brady successors?

Editor's Note: Phil Perry will be taking an in-depth look at each of the Patriots' position groups between now and when the NFL's 2020 free agency period begins, spotlighting the current roster and what names might be available on the market.

How much time ya got?

The Patriots currently have two quarterbacks on the 2020 roster: Jarrett Stidham and Cody Kessler. Combined, those two players count about $1.5 million against next year's salary cap.

Exactly how much cap space will be devoted to the position next season is still very hazy, though, because Tom Brady's future whereabouts are, well, hazy. Should he re-sign with the Patriots ahead of the start of free-agency on Mar. 18, he'll carry with him a $6.75 million cap hit in addition to whatever cap ramifications come with a new contract. If he signs with the Patriots after that date -- or if he leaves for another team -- then the Patriots will absorb a $13.5 million hit. That's the cap situation.

More important is the overall state of the Patriots passing game. Brady can still play. He was very accurate for long stretches of the season, but he was also let down at times by poor offensive line play and a lack of pass-catching help. He had blips of inefficient play himself. But, overall, he's not the issue.

Still, the Patriots may decide it's time to move on. And Brady may decide it's time to move on if the situation surrounding the quarterback position in New England doesn't improve. There are countless moving parts here as we try to peg who will be behind center for the Patriots in 2020. For the first time in about two decades, we can't say for sure that it'll be Brady.

PLAYER-BY-PLAYER LOWDOWN

Tom Brady: What do the numbers say about Brady?

He finished 23rd in yards per attempt in 2019, 6.6, which was his lowest figure since 2002. He was 16th in quarterback rating, while his Pro Football Focus rating (which takes into account drops, throwaways, spikes and yards in the air passes traveled) was 14th, just behind Philip Rivers and just ahead of Ryan Fitzpatrick. He had the 10th-best deep accuracy percentage (on passes that traveled 20 yards or more), but he was 26th in terms of quarterback rating under pressure and no quarterback had more throwaways.

Another indication of the help — or lack thereof — he received from teammates in 2019: Only two quarterbacks were dropped by defenses more quickly when sacked. Brady had an average of 3.1 seconds with the ball in his hands prior to being sacked, per PFF. According to one defensive coach who schemed against Brady this season, Brady is still seeing the game "in slow motion."

Do the Patriots see things the same way? Or will they be prepared to move on if Brady opts not to sign before free agency?

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Jarrett Stidham: Stidham had as impressive a rookie preseason as any Patriots rookie during the Bill Belichick Era. He was accurate to all levels of the field. He picked up yards with his legs. He made strong throws on the run. He finished the preseason with the fourth-best Pro Football Focus quarterback rating (factoring in air yards, drops and throwaways) of all passers with at least 25 percent of their team's snaps. He was behind only Daniel Jones, Ryan Tannehill and Matt Barkley.

Stidham impressed both coaches and teammates alike with his work during the season.

"Jarrett is a smart kid," Belichick said midway through the year. "He picks things up very quickly. He has a good grasp of the offense given where he is in his career. He’s handled everything we’ve thrown at him."

It looks as though the Patriots have something to work with in Stidham, but is he viewed as an option to start his second year? That's unclear.

Cody Kessler: Kessler worked to get up to speed quickly in the Patriots offense after spending the spring and summer with the Eagles. He was not counted on to dress in 2019, but he could be in the mix to be the No. 2 or 3 in New England next season. He's under contract for another year. 

POTENTIAL FREE-AGENT FIXES

Teddy Bridgewater: Drew Brees is either going to be in New Orleans or retired, it appears. Philip Rivers and Jameis Winston could hold out for $25 million or more per year in new contracts. Ryan Tannehill and Dak Prescott look destined to remain with their current clubs after tremendous seasons.

Bridgewater, though, you could envision landing in New England. He was more than effective in his five games as a starter in 2019, completing 67.9 percent of his passes, and throwing nine touchdowns against two picks. Belichick has long said that what he looks for in a quarterback is accuracy and good decision-making. Bridgewater appears to check both boxes.

It might cost the Patriots $20 million per year to sign him, but if they feel he has an opportunity to be an effective starter for years to come, that'd be worth the cost. The Patriots would have to be comfortable committing significant cap dollars to the position if they handed him a deal like that. A Brady departure would mean $13.5 million counting against their cap for 2020.

Marcus Mariota: Mariota makes sense for a variety of reasons.

He'd be cheap, one would think. He might even be willing to take a low-money one-year deal to revive his NFL life. Would the one-year, $2 million deal Tannehill signed with Mariota's Titans be enticing enough for Mariota — in need of a Tannehillian renaissance — to come to New England? He played under Belichick pal Chip Kelly at Oregon, and Mariota has played well against the Patriots.

In the two games against New England when he had a starter's workload, he completed 38 of his 61 attempts for 482 yards (7.9 yards per attempt), with four touchdowns and no picks. That's a rating of 108.7. Might those performances lead Belichick to believe there's still some promise there even though he lost his job in 2019? 

If the Patriots are looking for a bridge guy, someone who won't cost much, someone who won't rock the boat with a big ego or a big mouth, Mariota feels like a potential fit. In 2018, Mariota was 9th in adjusted completion percentage (Brady was 14th that year) and 13th in PFF's quarterback rating (Brady was 11th). 

Jason McCourty explains how Patriots' Joejuan Williams 'got better' as a rookie

Jason McCourty explains how Patriots' Joejuan Williams 'got better' as a rookie

Joejuan Williams didn't play much as a rookie in the 2019 NFL season, but one of his teammates is confident he'll be ready when the opportunity arrives.

The New England Patriots selected Williams out of Vanderbilt in the second round of the 2019 NFL Draft. The 22-year-old cornerback played in nine regular season games for the Patriots in his rookie campaign, and he played more snaps on special teams (84) than he did on defense (80).

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Patriots cornerback Jason McCourty liked what he saw from Williams last season despite his limited playing time. In a video conference call with reporters Wednesday, McCourty explained how Williams' compete level was a huge factor in his improvement during the 2019 campaign.

"He loves to compete," McCourty said. "I think that’s something that you need. Obviously, at our position, when you’re in the back end, any mistake can be a 70-yard touchdown or a game-changing play, so I think you’ve got to have guys that are willing to go out there every single day and compete your butts off and get better. That’s what he did last year. As a rookie, he came in, he was willing to learn, he was willing to listen, and I felt like every day when we went out there on the practice field, he got better.

"I think not only for him being a rookie, but for all of us as a team, that’s what the process is about. Whether you’re in year one or you’re in year 12, every day you’ve got to show up with a willingness to compete and to prove that you belong there and a willingness to get better and listen to coaching. I think whether it’s Joejuan, whether it was D’Angelo (Ross) before he got here, Malik (Gant), all of those young guys came in and they were willing to listen to the older guys, listen to the coaches and really do everything that was asked of them on a daily basis to make sure they were making the necessary movements forward to get better as a football player."

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Did Williams prove he belonged? McCourty said he did, but not before getting in a friendly jab at Vanderbilt.

"I mean, he went to Vanderbilt, so that’s a little bit of a knock on him. In the SEC, they’re one of the weaker schools, but other than that, yeah, he definitely did."

One way for Williams to play more snaps in 2020 is by learning to play safety. The ability to fill in at cornerback and safety would provide the Patriots defense with valuable versatility, and we know Patriots head coach Bill Belichick very much values players who excel at multiple positions.

The Patriots have tons of depth and loads of talent in their secondary -- highlighted by reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year award winner Stephon Gilmore -- but that doesn't mean Williams won't fill a key role for that group next season, especially if he's able to play both cornerback and safety.

Why Jason McCourty doesn't like proposed NFL onside kick alternative

Why Jason McCourty doesn't like proposed NFL onside kick alternative

Consider the following scenario: The New England Patriots lead the Jets by 14 points late in the fourth quarter when New York scores a touchdown to cut the lead to seven.

But rather than sending out their "hands team" to field the Jets' onside kick attempt, the Patriots must send their defense back onto the field to stop New York in a fourth-and-15 scenario from the 25-yard line.

That's the bold rule proposal the NFL's competition committee will vote on at the league's virtual meetings.

If Jason McCourty had a vote, it'd be a hard "no."

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"From the competitive side, especially as a defensive back, you don't mind that pressure going out there on fourth-and-15 and saying, 'All right, we've got to show up to win the game,' " the Patriots cornerback said Wednesday during a video conference with reporters.

"But conversely, if I'm a team and we've earned the right to be up, we’ve made the plays necessary to be winning in the fourth quarter ... I have a chance to seal the game by just going to catch an onside kick versus being out there for a fourth-and-15.

"From that standpoint, I don't really understand it. We're now basically rewarding you for being behind."

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It's not easy to convert a fourth-and-15; only two teams successfully converted that scenario in 2019 on seven total attempts. But that success rate was still higher than for onside kicks: Only eight of 63 (12.7 percent) onside kicks were recovered last season, per NFL Research.

Based solely on the numbers, this rule change would make it easier for teams to come back. So, it stands to reason that McCourty -- a defensive player on a team that's usually on the winning side -- isn't a fan.

The 32-year-old veteran is well aware of why the league would be motivated to pass such a rule, though -- and knows head coach Bill Belichick will be prepared for whatever the NFL decides.

"We're in the entertainment business, and an onside kick versus a 4th-and-15 is a lot more intriguing," McCourty said. "So, we have no control over it.

"If they vote yes, then we'll be out there preparing situationally how to stop fourth-and-15s with the game on the line."