The Mailbag schedule was a little thrown off late last week. Very much appreciate your patience.
But here it is, back again, in all its glory, ready to help you along your march down the path toward whatever comes next for the Patriots and their fans.
Let's start -- where else? -- at the quarterback position, where the Patriots are putting into practice one of their longest-standing commandments: Before you can win, you have to learn how not to lose.
By keeping Cam Newton at quarterback and not starting Jarrett Stidham, it seems pretty clear which quarterback the Patriots believe has the better chance of helping the Patriots not lose.
I understand the sentiment, Wally. Having your eye toward the future -- especially at that position -- is critical to building a team that'll be competitive for the long haul.
But the Patriots have a formula for winning these days. That's what they've been referencing when you've heard them say they understand who they are at the moment. And offensively that formula includes running the football, maintaining possession and not turning it over.
The Patriots feel Cam Newton gives them the best shot to win with that kind of attack, and I don't think you can blame them for that. He's the clear-cut better option for the team's running game, and we've seen him take care of the ball for a relatively length stretch this year. He's been far from perfect when it comes to ball security, but his replacement Jarrett Stidham hasn't shown much as far as that aspect of the position goes.
Maybe we'll see more Stidham once the team is mathematically eliminated from the postseason, but until then, they've bought into their 2020 formula . . . which features Newton at the center of it all.
Have spoken to people in Carolina and around the league, particularly before the season started, and he's had an issue taking sacks for a while now. For someone who is a tremendous athlete, he's at times gotten a little boxed in behind center by collapsing pockets. We've seen it in New England, but there are times when what looks like an issue with his "awareness" is more an issue with his protection.
He didn't sense pressure bearing down on him when Jermaine Eluemunor searched unsuccessfully for someone to block. He didn't sense pressure when a blitzing linebacker against the Cardinals got through the line untouched. But those are players Newton assumes are accounted for. He's trying to go through his progressions believing that his teammates will do their jobs. There is more he can do to help himself, no doubt, but the people around him have let him down at times in recent weeks.
This is tough, Chris, because it's really hard to know what's "realistic" in the draft at this point. It's just so early.
Outside of Trevor Lawrence going No. 1 ... anything is possible. Right now, I think Justin Fields and Zach Wilson could very well be top-five players. I think Mac Jones will end up in the first round. I think Kyle Trask might.
The one player who is riding this 2020 wave a little bit helplessly has been Trey Lance. He played one game this year as a kind of "showcase" before North Dakota State's season was shut down. Wasn't a great representation of what he (or his teammates) can do. Now he's watching the stocks of Wilson, Jones, Trask and others rise while he hangs out and waits for spring.
His skill set would work for the Patriots. It'd work for everyone. Plenty of size. Toughness. Good mobility and experience as a key piece in his team's designed run game. He showed a ridiculous ability to take care of the football last year. He has plenty of arm. His mechanics look clean. He's worked under center. He's worked with "pro style" concepts. He just hasn't seen much in the way of high-level opposing defenses.
I'd say he's the most realistic and the most intriguing at the moment. After him, I'd go with Jones. Wilson's skill set is a lot of fun, but I think he'll be gone before the Patriots pick -- and I'm not sure how much Bill Belichick will be willing to give up in terms of future draft capital to get a passer.
He's been given opportunities. Just hadn't made good on them frequently enough to earn more consistent chances to make plays. And the Patriots -- you can put Josh McDaniels, Bill Belichick and Cam Newton in this bucket, I think -- aren't in the business of just giving someone opportunities because they need opportunities. Those targets have to be earned to a certain extent.
Harry climbed the ladder for a nice completion against the Rams, and he made a contested grab for a touchdown against the Chargers. Those should buy him more looks.
Wouldn't shock me if Josh McDaniels was open to taking a head coaching job elsewhere. In that scenario, I'd assume Jedd Fisch would step up and become the offensive coordinator as well as the quarterbacks coach. He has a background in the Shanahan scheme that has been incredibly friendly to young quarterbacks in recent seasons, which might make him a good fit in New England if and when they add a young developing passer.
He might've. The salary for starting quarterbacks these days is about $20 million. Any team planning to make Cam Newton "their guy" from the jump of free agency would have to be willing to pony up that kind of cash. Hard to see any general manager or owner being willing to make that leap.
To me, it looks more like he could be a backup for a system that uses a mobile quarterback. The going rate for a reclamation backup-with-starter-upside has been about $7 million these last few seasons. I'd see his 2021 salary hitting closer to that number than three times that.
This is kind of tough, but I'd go with Matthew Stafford from that group.
Matt Ryan really can't be dealt. The Falcons can't afford it. And I think Garoppolo is probably closer to a backup than an upper-tier starter. I'm not sure Stafford is an upper-tier starter, either, but in my opinion he's a little closer to that. The argument for Garoppolo would be that he knows the system, and that maybe you could coax him to take his salary down a bit in order to better build around him. But even if those factors are in play, I think Stafford has a better skill set and he has a history of being more durable.
Reality is, for me, I wouldn't trade for any of those three. I'd be comfortable taking someone in the draft and rolling the dice on more of a clear-cut veteran backup like Ryan Fitzpatrick. Younger quarterbacks can play in today's NFL. I'd be OK seeing what I had in the drafted player as soon as possible, leaning on the vet if needed, and going from there.
Quarterback. Receiver. Tight end. I'd probably put them in that order, too. The draft seems like a good spot to land a quarterback this year. The class of free agents at receiver this year is stacked. Tight end is a harder spot to address, though the Patriots may just hope they can get good second-year leaps from both Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene after trading up for both in this year's draft.
I think he's going to be a star. If they don't go with a quarterback, I think they could do much worse.
Darnold. But only because of his salary. I don't see it as likely. Hard to imagine the Jets would send him to New England. But that would be my choice. Upside at a nice price point.
I think it's safe to say there isn't much confidence in the passing game overall right now.
Part of that is on Newton. Part of it is on the people he's throwing to. Part of their red-zone approach, though, has been their red-zone approach for a while. They love to run down by the goal line. They've long been confident in their offensive line and backs to get them the necessary yardage needed to succeed in those moments. In 2019, only five teams had a higher run rate from the five-yard line and in than the Patriots did. In 2018, only three teams did.
So it doesn't surprise, after adding the most efficient red-zone runner of his generation in the offseason, that they're still very run-heavy at the goal line. The difference is that with Tom Brady, obviously, they had all kinds of options to throw -- call it in the huddle, change the play at the line to a second play called in the huddle, change the play at the line to something entirely different altogether -- which hasn't seemed to be the case this year.
Think they've tried those, I think, Vince.
The screen game has been attempted a bunch in recent weeks. They just haven't been able to make much of those opportunities. Not with any kind of consistency, at least. Newton's touch in the short area looks like it can be an issue at times. He's such a big person, and his throwing motion has always been unique to him; it just looks like those things don't add up to short-area accuracy as much as the team would like.
Plus, the throws you mention, which are good to try on early downs to stay ahead of the chains, would be taking the place of early-down runs which the Patriots favor because they're so much better suited to attack in the running game as opposed to the passing game right now.
This gets back to Wally's question at the top, but I do want to point out that I think there was a play changed at the line of scrimmage on third down before the Patriots failed on fourth down by the Rams goal line. Newton pointed to his helmet and shouted "ALERT!" which usually means that the team is going with whatever was the second play called in the huddle.
It doesn't necessarily indicate a change from a pass to a run or vice versa. It can mean a change from one run to another, or one pass to another. But Newton saw something he didn't like in that moment and changed the play. McDaniels is the one sending both plays in, so if someone wants to blame him for both, that's their prerogative. But there is some leeway that Newton has to change the play when he spots something at the line of scrimmage. In that moment -- a draw up the gut for nothing -- the change didn't work.