Mike Lombardi, it's safe to say, is plugged in on all things Patriots.
He worked at One Patriot Place as an assistant to Bill Belichick from 2014-16, a period which served as a continuation of a professional relationship that began back in Cleveland when Belichick became head coach there in the mid-1990s.
And the two remain close. Belichick wrote the foreword to Lombardi's book published in 2018, "Gridiron Genius: A Master Class in Winning Championships and Building Dynasties in the NFL." Lombardi's son, Mick, is the assistant quarterbacks coach for the Patriots.
That's why when Lombardi speaks on the Patriots quarterbacks situation, as he did on his podcast "GM Shuffle" this week, it's worth paying attention. In the latest episode, Lombardi hinted at what will come next for New England at the team's most important position.
"I think that the Patriots realized that," he said, "it's time for them to get on with their future, which is Jarrett Stidham. I think it's time for them to change what they do offensively around a younger, mobile, multi-dimensional player in terms of footwork, and stay away from the intellectual type that they've had."
That's strong commentary on a player who was selected in the fourth round — not typically where faces of franchises are plucked — of last year's draft out of Auburn. But the Patriots have yet to make a move in free agency for a veteran passer, and unless they swing a deal for a starting-caliber player, their inaction would serve as a tacit acknowledgement that Stidham is believed to be a real option to start in 2020.
They aren't tanking. Belichick said back in 2014, after drafting Jimmy Garoppolo, that he didn't want to be the Colts when they lost Peyton Manning.
He's in line to pay win-now players like Devin McCourty, Stephon Gilmore, Joe Thuney and Dont'a Hightower significant money. Belichick wouldn't leave Stidham atop the depth chart if he didn't believe he was a good choice for that role.
Lombardi's list of reasons why Stidham could be "their future" included mobility and "footwork." No surprise there. That's simply where the position has gone in recent years.
There are better athletes available at quarterback, and teams are making the most of their legs. Patrick Mahomes (an off-platform wunderkind) and Lamar Jackson (an Olympic-caliber athlete aligned behind center) are the league's two latest MVPs. Russell Wilson is the highest-paid player at the position. Deshaun Watson and Dak Prescott are in line for massive paydays soon.
Stidham isn't in that same category athletically, but there's no doubt he has the ability to move inside and outside of the pocket to be able to give himself time and space to find receivers — or scramble to pick up yardage on his own.
Jarrett Stidham used his legs to avoid pressure and buy himself time occasionally. He scrambled for 5.2 yards per carry and made some accurate throws on the run.— Phil Perry (@PhilAPerry) March 9, 2020
Some evaluators will tell you this is just a reality of playing the position now: Have to make plays on the move. pic.twitter.com/iZ9IdTIFVE
"I think what you're seeing now is mobility being just so paramount in acquiring a quarterback," Chiefs general manager Brett Veach told me back in January. "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."
Brady's certainly not in that mold. He remains a surgical, pocket-passing maestro. Pro Football Focus data showed that he was still one of the most accurate quarterbacks in the league in 2019, despite falling completion percentage and yards per attempt numbers.
Yet when Brady was at his statistical best, between 2014 and 2017, mobility was part of what he brought to the table. Not in the same way as Wilson or Jackson. But it was there. And he was very open discussing it.
"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 told me earlier this offseason. "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."
Palazzolo added: "His outside the pocket stuff was bad [in 2019] . . . 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.' "
The Patriots — if they remain quiet in free agency and on the trade market — could dip into the draft for another athletic passer. Though outside of LSU's Joe Burrow, NFL evaluators will tell you, anyone drafted in this class is going to need a year or more to develop before they're considered competitive starting options. Circumstances this offseason — with COVID-19 potentially limiting team meetings for weeks or months — could make it even tougher for a rookie quarterback to get caught up to speed and expected to start.
That doesn't mean the Patriots won't (or shouldn't) invest at the quarterback spot in the draft.
As strong an impression as Stidham has made on the team in a year, it's hard to know how a player will respond to extended duty in a starting role until he's in it. And there are certainly plenty of athletes at the position this year, whether it's first-round options like Justin Herbert from Oregon or Jordan Love from Utah State, or a late-round choice like Cole McDonald from Hawaii.
"I would say there's certainly a lot more mobile and athletic quarterbacks coming out of the high school and college ranks," Chiefs defensive line coach Brendan Daly told me during Super Bowl week. "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 definitely an athleticism element at that position."
"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 told me. "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."
What will be fascinating to see will be just how willing Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels will be to change their attack — developed over the last two decades with Brady running the controls — to fit the skill set of their next passer.
And if that next passer, “their future,” is in fact the guy they drafted in the fourth round last spring.