The Patriots are embarking on the Great Unknown in 2020. Kinda.
They’ve had to roll without Tom Brady before, of course. There was 2008. But no one knew ahead of time Brady’s knee would be wrecked before Week 2.
There was 2016. But everyone knew Brady would be back after four weeks.
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This time around, Brady will not be suddenly ripped from Bill Belichick’s plans. This time around, Brady won’t be swooping in to save the day after a month away. This time around will be different.
Maybe it’ll be Jarrett Stidham’s show from start to finish. Maybe Brian Hoyer will see some early work.
Patriots Roster Reset: Offensive Line | Running Back | Wide Receiver | Tight end | Defensive Line | Linebacker | Cornerback | Safety
However it plays out, the people occupying the Patriots quarterback room will have a gargantuan task at hand: make it their own.
LOCK ‘EM IN
Here’s what we know about Stidham: His head coach was encouraged by his development throughout his rookie season; his head coach opted not to draft a quarterback or sign one (other than Hoyer) in free agency; Stidham’s teammates respect his approach, his demeanor, and the physical talent he showed last season; he had the best rookie preseason of any Patriots quarterback in the Bill Belichick era.
We also know he’ll be on the roster. How he’ll perform if and when he’s asked to be the player to replace Brady? That’s less certain.
ON THE BUBBLE
Brian Hoyer looks like a lock. He probably should be a lock. Is he a lock?
I believe he will be on the Patriots roster in 2020. I believe his value as a veteran to help shepherd Stidham along will be significant. I believe New England’s lack of investment at the position on draft weekend all but assured Hoyer of a roster spot. But we know he’s on a low-money deal that includes no guarantees. We know his upside is what it is. We know Cam Newton remains a free agent. And we know the Patriots have long kept just two quarterbacks on the active roster in order to max out their depth at other spots.
If we had to put someone on the bubble — and we’re identifying bubble players at each position group in this series — Hoyer is basically the only choice...
...Because as talented as J’Mar Smith appears to be, the undrafted rookie still has to land here. Smith, out of Louisiana Tech, is a fascinating study.
Drafted by the Padres as a catcher in 2015, with a quick release and a strong arm, Smith is built more like a catcher than a prototypical NFL passer. He’s 6-foot-1, 218 pounds and has a knack for extending plays. Not necessarily a scrambler or a designed-run quarterback, he’s someone who has plenty of experience throwing off-platform.
The results weren’t always great — those inconsistent results along with a two-game suspension last season likely led to him going undrafted — but his skill set might make him a good option to function as a scout team quarterback for the Patriots.
The Patriots took a second undrafted rookie quarterback in Michigan State’s Brian Lewkerke. He’s a better runner than Smith, but his arm isn’t as live when asked to go off script. These two will likely be competing for one practice-squad spot by the end of the summer, unless one or both shows out in preseason games. If they do, perhaps they push for a roster spot. Whether that’s in New England or elsewhere is to be determined.
NEWCOMER TO WATCH
The newcomer to watch here is Smith. The reason? Same reason he looks like a good scout-team quarterback option for the Patriots this year: his off-platform work. In 2020, Belichick will have to come up with plans for creative, off-platform throwers including Sam Darnold, Russell Wilson, Kyler Murray, Patrick Mahomes, Deshaun Watson, possibly Tyrod Taylor and possibly Tua Tagovailoa.
Last season it was Stidham who took on that scout-team role, at times wowing his teammates with his arm talent. But if Stidham is getting starter snaps in practice, the Patriots might want someone with a little electricity in his arm to run the scout team when prepping for teams like Kansas City or Seattle. Hoyer could do it. Smith might be better.
New Patriots offensive assistant Jedd Fisch has not had his job title officially announced. But he’s a member of the Mike Shanahan tree, having coached in Denver as Shanahan’s receivers coach in the late 1990s. In 2013, he was named Jaguars offensive coordinator and used some distinctly Shanahanian concepts: two-back sets, wide zone runs, boot-action passes. Since then Fisch has worked under Jim Harbaugh at Michigan and Chip Kelly at UCLA.
For the last two seasons, he worked with the Rams under Sean McVay (another member of the Shanahan tree). All that is to say, Fisch has enough experience to be a real find for the Patriots. And if they lean on his background as a Shanahan guy, it could make a sizable impact on theIr quarterback room.
That style of offense is considered very quarterback friendly and has helped turn good passers (Jimmy Garoppolo under Kyle Shanahan in San Francisco, Matt Ryan under Kyle Shanahan in Atlanta, Kirk Cousins under Mike and Kyle Shanahan in Washington and Gary Kubiak in Minnesota, Jared Goff under McVay in Los Angeles) into prolific ones for stretches.