Patriots

Patriots or Chargers: Digging into the matchups that will decide who moves on

Patriots or Chargers: Digging into the matchups that will decide who moves on

Now that we know who the Patriots are playing next weekend, let's dig into some of the matchups that will help determine whether or not the Chargers can prevent Bill Belichick's club from going to its eighth consecutive AFC title game.

TOM BRADY vs. CHARGERS COVER 3

The Patriots have seen opposing defenses mix and match their coverages all season. They've seen man, zone, post-safety, split-safety . . . and certain coordinators have successfully disguised what it was they were doing until late in the play-clock to confuse Tom Brady and his teammates. With the Chargers, the Patriots should know what they're getting. First of all, the Chargers are typically not going to rush more than four. They had the third-lowest blitz (five or more rushers) percentage this season, according to ESPN. They can afford to do that with edge rushers like Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram. When it comes to Chargers coverage, there's no secret in terms of what they like scheme-wise. Defensive coordinator Gus Bradley was one of the architects of the Seattle Cover 3 that has now filtered throughout the league, and the Patriots saw a ton of Cover 3 in last year's Week 8 meeting with the Chargers. Bradley also showed some Cover 1 that day, and he occasionally disguised with two high safeties only to get back into some post-safety coverage. How will Brady handle it? In that meeting against Bradley and the Chargers last year, Brady hit 68.1 percent of his passes for 333 yards and a touchdown. Against the Jags (Bradley's last stop, which still leans on the same principles) in the AFC title game, Brady threw for 290 and two scores. Against the Eagles in the Super Bowl, Brady lit up their post-safety looks to the tune of 505 yards and three scores using some classic single-high coverage beaters we highlighted in our Signature Play series. (The Patriots also saw this scheme in the last two Super Bowls they won, you'll remember.) Against the Jaguars in Week 2 of this season, Brady completed 68.6 percent of his passes for 234 yards and two touchdowns. 

PHILIP RIVERS vs. PATRIOTS PRESSURE PACKAGES

Rivers is, without a doubt, having one of the best seasons of his career, though he's had some clunkers of late. He hasn't had a quarterback rating exceeding 100.0 in any of his last five games, but for the season (including Sunday's Wild Card game) his rating is 104.0, which would be the second-highest of his career (106.3 in 2013), per Pro Football Focus. He's sixth in in the NFL in adjusted completion percentage this year, which accounts for throw-aways, spikes, batted passes and passes made while being hit to determine true accuracy. He's sixth in quarterback rating while under pressure (83.8) and sixth in rating when kept clean (115.1). He's rated the second-best passer in the league when outside the pocket this year (119.3 rating, per ESPN) and fifth in the league when inside the pocket (104.0). So what should the Patriots do to rattle him? They could follow the Ravens' lead and blitz him to high heaven. Baltimore sent unexpected rushers at Rivers 17 times Sunday, limiting him to 9-for-14 passing and 78 yards for a 78.9 rating. They sacked him once. Rivers was 8-for-12 with a touchdown and a pick against a dozen Denver blitzes in Week 17. The Ravens sacked Rivers three times on 18 blitzes in Week 16. In Week 15, the Chiefs only allowed two Rivers completions on six blitzes, picking him off once, sacking him once, and allowing a touchdown. Since their Week 11 bye, the Patriots have sent unexpected rushers on 14.7 snaps per game, according to PFF. Utilizing a variety of pressure packages -- including a hard-to-decipher "Amoeba" look -- the Patriots vaulted to the top of the league in terms of pressure percentage on third down, per ESPN (44.9 percent). If the Belichick and Brian Flores can make Rivers uneasy early, expect them to continue to come at him until the Chargers show they can either A) solve it up front, or B) get open quickly enough so they don't have to.

JAMES WHITE vs. CHARGERS LINEBACKERS

Patriots running backs saw 15 targets against the Chargers in last year's meeting, and they should factor in heavily into the Patriots game plan in the Divisional Round as well. That means James White and Rex Burkhead, catching underneath stuff, working the screen game, potentially working a wheel route or two to stress Chargers linebackers. According to Sharp Football Stats, the Chargers are ranked No. 28 in defending backs in the passing game, allowing a success rate of 52 percent. (A "successful" play for Sharp gains 40 percent of yards-to-go on first down, 60 percent on second down and 100 percent on third or fourth down.) How the Chargers choose to check Patriots backs will depend on the situations, but they're in a tight spot at the second level of their defense. They went with a "quarter" package (seven defensive backs) on all but one snap Sunday against the Ravens. That was likely because they knew they'd have to chase around an elite athlete at quarterback for most of the day, and so they eschewed heavy linebackers and defensive linemen for corners and safeties. They probably won't do that against the Patriots, but they'll still have to figure out how to replace linebacker Jatavis Brown. The top snap-getter among Chargers linebackers this season suffered a season-ending ankle injury in Week 17. If Hayes Pullard is the one to replace him, that could be a good thing for White and Burkhead. Pullard graded out as the seventh-worst linebacker in coverage among players with at least 25 percent playing time in 2017, according to Pro Football Focus. If the Chargers want to go lighter, they could play their first-round Swiss Army knife rookie Derwin James more consistently at the linebacker level. He's successfully checked running backs in the passing game this season and would provide enough punch to play the run if the Patriots go that route. White's usage as a running back this season -- and Burkhead's ability to align wide or run between the tackles -- could put the Chargers in a bind as to how they deploy their front seven. We went over (in detail!) how the Patriots became a little more unpredictable offensively on Saturday.

ROB GRONKOWSKI vs. DERWIN JAMES

This matchup has the potential to be one of the most fascinating in the game. It also feels like it's coming a year too late for the Patriots tight end. Even if it's not Gronkowski at the height of his powers versus one of the best up-and-coming defenders in the game, it's Gronkowski making a playoff push against one of the best up-and-coming defenders in the game. James, in his first year, has already garnered enough respect to be named a First Team All-Pro at safety and Second Team All-Pro at defensive back. The 6-foot-2, 215-pounder is athletic enough to play the deep middle portion of the field as a Cover 3 free safety. He's strong and explosive enough to rush off the edge. And he's fluid enough to track both running backs (as we mentioned above) and tight ends in the passing game. It's actually on backs where he's seemingly done most of his damage lately. He allowed just 13 yards on four targets to Royce Freeman and Devontae Booker in Week 17. But tight ends have to see him occasionally as well. He held Travis Kelce to two yards on two catches in Week 15, and Jared Cook was targeted three times without a catch with James on him in Week 10. The Chargers had no problem using linebackers, safeties, and even corners at times on Gronkowski last year. They'll probably be OK with it this year if James ends up on Gronk consistently.

JULIAN EDELMAN vs. DESMOND KING

Edelman is more than a slot receiver. And King is more than a slot corner. But when these two meet up on the inside, don't miss it. This may be the best matchup of the day. They have to be among the pound-for-pound toughest players on their respective teams. Neither fears contact. Both are water bug quick -- with Edelman looking healthier in Week 17 and coming off of a bye. Both play like they enjoy being pains in asses. And both are having tremendous seasons. Though Edelman has been banged up and plagued by drops at times, he's having a typically strong season with four fewer games under his belt due to suspension. He's averaging 6.2 catches per game (6.1 in 2016) and 70.8 yards per game (the only other time he cracked 70.0 was in 2015). In the slot? He's still among the league's best, averaging 1.88 yards per route run from the inside (fifth in the NFL, per PFF). King, meanwhile, was named First Team All-Pro as a defensive back and Second Team All-Pro as a punt returner. He's just the Patriots' type, as a matter of fact. (We pegged the Iowa product as a fit to be New England's "star" corner and return man of the future in our Prototypical Patriots series.) In the slot, King is a menace, with three picks and a 78.9 quarterback rating allowed, which is fourth in the NFL, per PFF. He had a 72-yard kick return and a 33-yard punt return, making his matchup with Joe Judge and the Patriots special teams units equally important to Sunday's outcome.

CHARGERS PASS-RUSHERS vs. PATRIOTS TACKLES

The matchup we get here will be vastly different than the one we saw a year ago, even though Ingram and Bosa are back. Last season, it was Nate Solder and LaAdrian Waddle who saw the majority of the time against the dominant Chargers pass-rushing duo. Now it'll be Trent Brown on the left side and Marcus Cannon (who suffered an injury early in last year's meeting) protecting the edges of the pocket for Brady. Bosa and Ingram combined for a whopping 17 pressures that day, but only two resulted in punishment for Brady -- a Bosa sack and an Ingram hit. Both Bosa and Ingram have exceptional athleticism and use their speed off the edge to their advantage. The Patriots have had their ups and downs with those type. For instance, Cannon held his own against Dee Ford back in Week 6 but had his hands full with T.J. Watt in Week 10. Brown was solid against Bud Dupree in that Steelers game, but looked lost at times against Jerry Hughes the following week. The key for this offensive line as a unit will be allowing Brady an opportunity to step up and into his throws even if pressure is coming from the edges. That means handling guys like Isaac Rochell, Justin Jones and Darius Philon inside. Ingram and Bosa can also be used as interior rushers, as they were against the Ravens, so Joe Thuney (who was beaten by an Ingram spin move last year to allow a hit on Brady), Shaq Mason and David Andrews will all have to have their heads on swivels in pass protection.

STEPHON GILMORE vs. KEENAN ALLEN

Gilmore wasn't available to the Patriots in Week 8 of last season as he dealt with a concussion, so this is sort of an educated guess as to what the matchup will be Sunday. Should there be any question at all that a First Team All-Pro corner shadows a receiver who sees a whopping 26.4 percent of throws sent his way? Well . . . two things: 1) Allen plays a fair amount in the slot and almost half of his targets (47 percent) have come when he's aligned inside; 2) Mike Williams is the Chargers' big-play threat, and has looked the part over the course of the last few weeks. Allen rushed back from injury in Week 16 and since then has caught 13 passes on 18 targets for 159 yards (12.2 yards per catch). Williams, meanwhile, has eight catches on 14 targets for 114 yards (14.3 yards per catch) in that same span. Allen caught four passes for 37 yards Sunday while Williams had two catches for 42 yards. If the Patriots want to handle the duo the same way they handled Minnesota's, then maybe Gilmore will live outside the numbers with Williams (as he did with Stefon Diggs) while the Patriots double Allen inside. One difference between now and Week 13 when the Patriots played the Vikings? J.C. Jackson has continued to improve from that night when he got his first pro start. If the Patriots feel good about Jackson on Williams one-on-one -- and there's reason to believe they should -- then they could have Gilmore follow Allen. Though Allen is one of the best and craftiest receivers in football when healthy, Gilmore has consistently proven to be up to the task against some of the best in the league. 

CHARGERS RUNNING BACKS vs. PATRIOTS LINEBACKERS

You thought the Patriots liked going to their backs in the passing game? The Chargers are just about right there with them. According to Sharp Football Stats, 28 percent of their targets this season have gone to backs, which is the third-highest percentage in football. (Patriots are at 31 percent.) And they're not all last-ditch check-downs for a handful of yards. Chargers passes to backs have a 51 percent success rate, according to Sharp, which is seventh-best in the league and one spot ahead of the Patriots. Anthony Lynn's team is third in football when it comes to yards per attempt on passes to backs (7.4). What's interesting to see is when the Chargers go to their backs. In the red zone? Yep. Twenty-eight percent of the time (seventh in football). On third down? Somewhat. Nineteen percent of the time (12th in football). Middle of the field? Oh yeah. No team sends a higher percentage of their throws between the 40s to running backs than the Chargers (34 percent). The Patriots will have to keep a close eye on Melvin Gordon and Austin Ekeler at all levels and tackle when they're close. Both Gordon and Ekeler rank in the top-10 among backs when it comes to average yards gained after first contact. 

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Life after Tom Brady: Will the Patriots go mobile at quarterback?

Life after Tom Brady: Will the Patriots go mobile at quarterback?

It'll flash across the screen at some point this week, you'd have to think: Tom Brady in a baggy white t-shirt tucked into baggy gray shorts, pushing his lanky body as hard as he possibly can to clock a glacial 5.28-second 40-yard dash time.

The video will be a little dark, a little grainy. It was taken 20 years ago, after all. And it'll serve as a sign of just how much has changed at the NFL Scouting Combine since Brady entered the league. 

What happens this week in Indianapolis is now reality TV. It's a show that'll play out on screens in real time across the country. National networks will be camped in Indy for the duration. Football sites great and small will be credentialed to provide every last hundredth of every hand measurement and three-cone time. The on-the-field drills will be shown in prime time, starting Thursday. It will be an event that Brady at 22 years old wouldn't recognize.

Beyond the enormity of the production, there are other differences between the combine then and now that might rattle pre-pliability Brady. The quarterback position itself has a new look. 

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Athletes abound. Several of the top passers in this year's class are in the conversation to be first-round picks because of what they can do on the move: Alabama's Tua Tagovailoa has the ability to excel outside of structure; Oregon's Justin Herbert is 6-foot-6 but the argument could be made that his biggest moments last season came as a runner; Utah State's Jordan Love has drawn some comparisons to Super Bowl MVP Patrick Mahomes for his ability to make strong throws on the move. Even the projected No. 1 overall pick this spring, LSU's Joe Burrow, has shown an ability to scramble with 12 rushing touchdowns over the last two years.

It should come as no surprise that there will be a continued influx of athletes at quarterback in 2020. It's nothing new.

Consider some of the best in the game and their traits: Mahomes, Seattle's Russell Wilson, Baltimore's Lamar Jackson, Houston's Deshaun Watson, Dallas' Dak Prescott and Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers all have the athleticism to buy themselves time behind the line of scrimmage. Though not in the same class athletically as those mentioned above, two more of the game's top-rated quarterbacks in 2019 — Kirk Cousins and Jimmy Garoppolo — play in offensive schemes that ask them to roll outside the pocket and make throws on the move. 

It's worth wondering, then, what's in store for The Pocket Passer? Are those types of quarterbacks — the ones teams coveted back when Brady was working out in Indy — headed for extinction in today's NFL? 

And what about the Patriots, specifically? If they don't have Brady taking snaps behind center in 2020, will they opt for a more mobile option as his replacement? If they do, what will that mean for an offense that has been shaped by Brady and catered to his skills over the last two decades?

"I think what you're seeing now is mobility being just so paramount in acquiring a quarterback," Chiefs general manager Brett Veach told me last month. "Some things like velocity or accuracy, whereas before — depending on how you weighted things — certainly being a lot higher. I think the athletes nowadays and the speed from sideline to sideline is so great that you have to have a quarterback who can create plays. 

"And the defensive lines — the defensive line talent that comes out every year is just ridiculous with the athletes up front so you just have to have a quarterback who can create plays on his own and throw from different platforms. Then if you have one who can create on his own, throw from different platforms and be accurate, good luck. It's hard."

Not every team is going to be lucky enough to land a Mahomes type in the draft. But finding a historically-accurate passer like Brady through the draft is likely just as (if not more) difficult. A quarterback's ability to create with his legs simply allows for a greater margin of error. Executives are starting to realize that at scale and investing accordingly. 

"That's happened," Niners GM John Lynch told me. "Just look at the plays that are being run. That's happened. There are some issues. I was just at the all-star games, and you have a lot of guys who've never taken a snap under center. You have to do that. There are adjustments. But can a guy play or can he not? I think that's what it's become."

And part of the equation of can you play or not now involves another question: Can you move?

'HE WAS NOT QUITE THE SAME'

It wasn't all that long ago that Brady's praises were sung for reasons beyond his ability to make accurate throws all over the field and make them in critical situations. He was praised for his ability to move, of all things. 

Pro Football Focus tracks every play, and the context of every play, as well as entity with work available for public consumption. Their college data will be referenced on NFL Network throughout the week of the combine, but their NFL quarterbacking work might be the most detailed assessments they offer. Back in 2014, they pegged one significant improvement Brady made to ramp up his game to its height. 

"He specifically made a point: 'I'm not Aaron Rodgers, I'm not Russell Wilson, but I have to make more of those plays outside the pocket.' When he flipped the script in 2014, that was a big part of it," PFF senior analyst Steve Palazzolo said. "He made one or two plays a game, a handful per season that he hadn't made in previous years. Late in the down, extending plays. I really think that was a big part of why that middle part of 2014 through 2017 was the best stretch of his career. I think he added that to his game. 

"If there's a decline in Brady, it's a little bit of the off-platform stuff, feet aren't set, he's on the run outside the pocket. It's not this cliff-worthy [thing where] he goes from throwing 60 mph to 40 mph. It's just not enough on the ball, it's a little off when he's off-platform or a little bit uncomfortable. That, I think, is where we've seen the decline from Brady in 2018 and especially in 2019. I think the rest of the NFL has more athletic guys that are able to do stuff like that. Brady even did it for a few years, but that's where I think he might be a little bit behind some of those other guys."

Though still among the game's most accurate throwers when given protection, something Brady made clear even in a down statistical season, the ability to avoid the first wave of rushers to buy himself time and strike was more hit-or-miss than previous seasons. Was that because of his age? Something he was dealing with physically? Or because he had backups at two of the most important offensive line positions — left tackle and center — for most of the season? 

Whatever the reason, it showed up to NFL Films and ESPN all-22 guru Greg Cosell, too. 

"I think two things in particular with his skill set have slightly diminished, two things that have made him Brady," Cosell said. "One, I don't think he's quite the same pocket-mover that he used to be. One of the things about Brady, despite the fact that he's not a fast guy or a second-reaction quarterback, there's few quarterbacks in the history of the game who've navigated in the pocket as well as Tom Brady. I think that that has diminished just a little bit. To me he was not quite the same. 

"The other thing is he wasn't quite as precisely accurate as he's been in his career. I think those two traits were two of the traits that made him so special, traits that people probably don't think about a lot. I always believe, particularly for quarterbacks that are not great athletes, that pocket movement is an absolutely essential trait. Because you are going to get pressure. And how do you respond to that? Some guys don't respond at all. Brady was a master of being able to move in an area, not as big as a boxing ring, but a confined space, without losing his mechanics. A lot of guys can move, but they lose their mechanics and their vision. Brady was a master at being able to move within a small space, not lose his mechanics, and keep his vision. Maybe one of the best ever. I think that trait has diminished maybe just a little."

A few of Brady's roll-out passes in the red zone — an end-zone interception against Buffalo, a pass that should've been picked in the end zone by Cleveland — would help to serve illustrate that point.

"His outside the pocket stuff," Palazzolo said, "was bad . . . There was just a handful of plays where outside of structure, things weren't great. There was a point in his career in '14, '15, '16, '17 where it was like, 'Wow. He's made it a point to make these plays and take a Hall of Fame career and make it better for about three-and-a-half years.' "

Will the Patriots look at those types of plays and say to themselves they want more efficiency in those moments? Or will they roll with pocket precision as their next quarterback's defining trait?

Neither is necessarily easy to come by. But if it's the former they're after, perhaps the draft will be the way for them to go. If it's the latter, perhaps they'll be inclined to figure out a new deal with the most successful pocket passer in the history of the sport. 

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'WE'RE GOING TO TAKE WHAT COMES UP'

There's a sense that the proliferation of upper-tier athletes at the quarterback position in the NFL is because those are the types of players coaches want. Of course, there's a desire for those types of players at that spot — especially after other teams have success with them. But that's only part of it.

There are simply more elite-level athletes than ever before playing quarterback into their high school and college careers, evaluators have noted.  

"We, the NFL, are going to take what comes up, OK? If a Lamar Jackson, if five of them come up in a year? Well they're going to scatter around the league and we're going to play a little more like that," NFL Network's Steve Mariucci said. "If some great drop-back guys come in — I don't think Joe Burrow is a zone read guy. He's an athletic guy and a mobile quarterback, but he's not a Lamar Jackson type. That's what we're going to take and develop it that way. 

"The reason more of these athletic quarterbacks are now in the league — the Kyler Murrays — is because that's what we're being fed. That's what's coming up through the ranks. So you take what's given you and you adjust your offense accordingly. That's what the high school kids are doing and the colleges are doing more and more now. The drop-back guy, the Tom Brady, the Philip Rivers, isn't the kind of offense colleges are playing much any more. Even Nick Saban has changed his pro style attack into all the other stuff."

It's not that The Pocket Passer is dead, necessarily. It's that The Mobile Quarterback is available. 

Chiefs defensive line coach Brendan Daly, who held the same position with the Patriots for three Super Bowl runs, has had his job fundamentally altered by the speed at quarterback week after week. His players don't only have to track down quarterbacks when they escape, they have to prevent those quarterbacks from escaping in the first place. 

"I would say there's certainly a lot more mobile and athletic quarterbacks coming out of the high school and college ranks," Daly said. "It seems like that years ago, you'd put your best athlete at quarterback, but that guy didn't necessarily continue to play quarterback all the way through his football career. More of those guys are continuing to play the quarterback position, and it's lending itself to the type of guys you're seeing at the quarterback position. 

"Listen, there's still some great drop-back passers coming out of the college game. Carson Wentz, the Drew Brees' of the world. Jared Goffs. Guys that aren't necessarily crazy athletic type of quarterbacks . . . [But] I do know in the NFL now we are dealing with more mobile quarterbacks, if you look at all 32 teams week in and week out, there's a definitely athleticism element at that position."

'YOU GOTTA MAKE THE LAYUPS'

Despite the athleticism that'll be found at the quarterback position at the top of this year's draft, despite some of the best young NFL talents at the position using their athleticism to confound coordinators on a weekly basis, there's a staunch cross section of football minds that believe reports of the Pocket Passer's demise have been greatly exaggerated. 

"I don't believe so," Hall of Fame quarterback Kurt Warner said when asked if his style of quarterback was headed for extinction. 

"I still believe you have to play in the pocket and win in the pocket the majority of the time. You gotta make the layups that you're supposed to make. Any time you have a greater margin of error, meaning there's more things you can do to be successful, yeah it's always better that way. We'd all love to have every skill set to do everything. But no, I don't think it's dying. If you know the game, see the game, can play the game inside the pocket, you can still win and guys will still win Super Bowls that way. 

What's nice is a Patrick Mahomes or a Lamar Jackson, they don't have to be finished products in Year 2. They can do these other things and win MVPs not even close to being finished products. That's the beauty of it. They can grow into the position while still having success.

"Guys that are one-dimensional or pocket passers, there's gotta be a lot of stuff going on around that's really good. Or you have to accelerate your game really fast to survive because it's the only way that you can do it. But I do not believe in any way shape or form that we will not see pocket passers thrive in this league for a long time and win in this league for a long time."

Though that may sound like an old-school tightly-held belief, the numbers back up Warner's side of the argument. Pro Football Focus data scientists conducted a study in 2017 that showed quarterback performance under pressure was relatively unstable when compared to performance from a clean pocket. Five Thirty Eight analyst Josh Hermsmeyer found just last season that even though teams that operated efficiently outside the pocket were near the top of the league in wins, outside-the-pocket performance was volatile. 

In other words, performance outside the pocket matters. It's just unpredictable. It's performance from inside the pocket that is the best gauge for future success.

Players like Mahomes and Wilson, of course, have the ability to make game-changing plays under duress. But the reason they rank among the best players in the world right now is not simply because of what they can do on the move. It's because of their effectiveness in those repeatable moments when they are supposed to be effective. 

So if performance from a clean pocket is truly what matters, and if the majority of snaps across the NFL do not occur under pressure, then how critical is it for quarterbacks to have the ability to buy themselves time with their legs? 

"It's a fascinating question because defenses are getting faster, better, there's more pressure packages," Cosell said. "There's more six defensive backs [packages] and more speed that pressures your quarterback. You start getting into third-down situations, and many people would argue then that defenses have a tactical and speed advantage so quarterbacks have to be able to make plays that are not structured. You could make that argument. 

"But then you could make the argument that quarterbacks who are tremendous like Brady or [Drew] Brees, that they can still be perfectly great. There's not a lot of guys like that, now you're getting into the greats. I think there'll be a few quarterbacks, one quarterback in particular in this year's draft that could test that theory, that's Jacob Eason from the University of Washington. Big-armed kid. Big kid. Not a statue, but he's not going to make his living by moving around. So we'll see. We'll see how the league looks at that."

We'll see how the Patriots look at it, too, considering the transition they face if Brady isn't back. They drafted an athletic quarterback in the fourth round last year in Jarrett Stidham. He's not anywhere near Jackson or Wilson's plane when it comes to movement skills, but the Auburn product proved last preseason that he could scramble to pick up yards. He also had plays where he made throws on the run that showed off his coordination and arm strength. 

Is he due to be the heir apparent? Or will it be worth going after someone with even greater physical traits?

Drafting Herbert would require the Patriots to make a Chiefs-like trade — Kansas City moved from No. 27 to No. 10 to draft Mahomes in 2017 — up the board. Love's tantalizing traits could be available at No. 23, but he comes with plenty of questions about his decision-making after an interception-happy final collegiate season.

Or will the Patriots be perfectly happy with the predictability of The Pocket Passer in their system? Eason would fall into that category. Georgia's Jake Fromm would as well. Free agent Teddy Bridgewater would represent a continuation of The Pocket Passer's reign in New England, whereas fellow free-agent Marcus Mariota would provide a new measure of mobility behind center. 

In due time we'll find out what the Patriots value at the most important position on their roster.

Accuracy and decision-making figure to remain atop the list. But based on what's available, and based on the intriguing possibilities made apparent by offenses with athletic passers lately, what's valued across the league is a tad different than 20 years ago when baggy t-shirts and five-second 40 times weren't the turn-offs they might be today.

Report: Dante Scarnecchia to help Patriots at NFL Combine despite retiring

Report: Dante Scarnecchia to help Patriots at NFL Combine despite retiring

Will Dante Scarnecchia ever truly "retire?"

The 72-year-old offensive line coach stepped away from the New England Patriots earlier this offseason, his second retirement since leaving the club in 2013 only to return in 2016.

But Scarnecchia still will be present at the 2020 NFL Scouting Combine on behalf of the Patriots, NFL Media's Michael Giardi reported Monday.

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Scarnecchia joined several Patriots assistant coaches and staffers on a flight to Indianapolis on Monday, per Giardi.

As Giardi noted, Scarnecchia also did some scouting when he first retired from the Patriots in 2013. New England coaxed him back in 2016, and he helped the team win two Super Bowl titles over the next four years.

It's possible Scarnecchia really is retired this time. But considering he's worked with the Patriots for 34 years -- he joined the team as a special teams and tight ends coach in 1982 -- and has been coaching nearly ever year of his life since 1970, he may have a hard time going cold turkey.

New England still hasn't found a replacement for Scarnecchia, so Bill Belichick likely appreciates the legendary offensive line coach doing some pro bono work.

On-field workouts at Lucas Oil Stadium begin Thursday and continue through Sunday.