Bill Belichick has some difficult choices to make.
What will he end up deciding on Tom Brady? If he ends up making a play to keep Brady, how will he surround the 42-year-old to best accentuate Brady's skill set?
If Belichick and Brady opt to move on, what then? Do the Patriots dip into the free agent pool of quarterbacks, which is as deep as it's been in years? Do they spend real dollars and a significant portion of their salary cap at that position in order to better withstand Brady's departure? Or do they roll with the second-year passer out of Auburn, Jarrett Stidham?
Stidham, if you had to handicap it, might be the odds-on favorite to be New England's starter if Brady leaves.
He's on the roster. He understands the offense to a certain extent after being in the system for about a year. While players like Marcus Mariota or Andy Dalton might be more ready to start at the moment, they would require a free-agent contract (in Mariota's case) or a trade (in Dalton's) just to make their way to Foxboro. Stidham is under contract for the next three years at an average annual salary of less than $1 million per year.
When I asked about Stidham at a press conference back in December, Belichick sounded encouraged by the rookie's progress.
"You know, it’s hard to practice three quarterbacks, and there have been a couple of examples where Tom hasn’t been able to do a lot this year," Belichick said. "So, that’s given Stid an opportunity to go with the first group, and run our plays and run our offense, and that’s been good for him. That’s given Cody [Kessler] an opportunity to run more of the scout-team plays because Jarrett’s not taking those. So, again, quarterbacks are always looking for more work. So, they’ve taken advantage of it and I think it’s helped."
Back in October, about midway through Stidham's first season, Belichick explained that he liked what he'd seen from Brady's backup.
"Jarrett is a smart kid," Belichick said at the time. "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. In practice, he does a good job. He gets a lot of passes on our defense and when he has the opportunity to get the offensive snaps, he’s prepared and does a good job of those."
Belichick, his assistants and Stidham's teammates have a much fuller perspective on where Stidham's game sits at the moment than we do. They've watched behind the scenes in meetings and working on his own time. They've watched him make eye-opening throws in practice.
All we have, really, are 115 dropbacks. And the vast majority of those, 110, came in preseason. The speed of the game in those spots was not what it will be when the 2020 season kicks off. The defenses called were more vanilla than they will be in September.
But in anticipation of the possibility that Stidham becomes Brady's successor, we re-watched all of his snaps in a Patriots uniform to get a better sense of what he might offer if he's The Next Guy.
Stidham left Auburn having come up short of the expectations set for him prior to the 2018 season. In 2017, he was the SEC's Newcomer of the Year and a second-team all-conference player. The next season, his completion percentage dropped, his team compiled a disappointing 8-5 record, and he went from being a potential first or second-round pick to a Day 3 selection.
One thing Stidham had going into last year's draft, though, was unquestionable arm talent.
"I thought he was the most mechanically sound quarterback in the draft," former Patriots scout and Senior Bowl director Jim Nagy told me last year. "He throws an absolutely beautiful football. When the people in New England can go to training camp this year and see this kid throw the ball, it comes off his hand so clean and it's such a pretty ball. He's fun to watch throw."
"Stidham is one of the true wild cards because he spins it as well or better than anybody in this entire draft class," former NFL scout and NFL Media analyst Daniel Jeremiah said at the time. "In shorts, he'd be a top-five pick. Unfortunately, it hasn't clicked on the field like you'd want to see at Auburn. Some of that is the lack of protection. Some of it is an offensive system that's not great for him. But just throwing the football, he's a great athlete."
Taking a look at Jarrett Stidham here, and sharing some @PFF numbers that give you a sense for how his 2019 preseason went.— Phil Perry (@PhilAPerry) March 9, 2020
Deep passes (20+ yards) made up just 12.2 percent of Stidham’s attempts. But his 63.6 accuracy percentage, per @PFF, was sixth best. Clean pockets helped. pic.twitter.com/XkeWosy9WZ
The Patriots didn't necessarily open up the breadth of their vertical passing game for Stidham last preseason. Only 12.2 percent of his throws traveled 20 yards or more down the field, according to Pro Football Focus. But when he went long, he was accurate, putting 63.6 percent of those throws on target, helping him to finish the preseason with a 67.8 completion percentage and an 8.1 yards per attempt number.
Stidham had three deep passes dropped, more than anyone last preseason, and even a few of the attempts that might not qualify as drops -- a potential touchdown to tight end Eric Saubert, for instance, which glanced off his hand in the back of the end zone against the Giants -- were inches from being awe-inducing.
"You see [his talent] every day," Patriots receiver Phillip Dorsett said last season. "When he's doing scout team, he has a cannon. He's got a rocket for an arm. I'd say that's his biggest strength."
Per PFF, only one player, Houston's Joe Webb, saw more snaps under pressure last preseason than Stidham (44). As you might expect -- as the league-wide numbers would bear out -- the results were mixed.
Under pressure, Stidham had an opportunity to show off his athleticism -- he rushed for almost 1,000 yards as a high school senior -- running for 5.2 yards per carry on 17 attempts. But he also showed an ability to sit in the pocket and make a throw, knowing he was about to be walloped.
Jarrett Stidham had his moments under pressure last summer.— Phil Perry (@PhilAPerry) March 9, 2020
He was accurate on more than 60 percent of his throws under pressure, per @PFF, and he showed a real willingness to sit in the pocket in order to make a play. Even if it meant taking a shot. pic.twitter.com/4YVESoh36m
Stidham's most impressive throws came from a clean pocket down the field. (In preseason, at least.) He had a 78.5 completion percentage, a whopping 90.6 accuracy percentage (best in the NFL) and a 124.9 rating from a clean pocket in the preseason, according to PFF. But when under pressure, he made some throws that had a high degree of difficulty while on the move.
"You see a guy who has really tight coverage on somebody, and he finds a place to put it where the DB can't get it," Patriots safety Terrence Brooks said during the season. "Those are the types of throws that you classify as 'NFL throws.' Those are the ones that you just can't really do anything about as a defender. If it's in the right place where you just cannot get it where the receiver can, it's a little discouraging at times. But to see his growth, he's done very well, and you can tell he's getting better."
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
"It's just natural. He's just a natural thrower," Nagy said last spring. "Some of these guys have to get drilled and go to camps. I've made the comment a couple times over the years down here in Alabama about him, 'Jarrett came out of the womb throwing a football.' It's so natural to him. It doesn't matter if his feet aren't right, if he's off-balance, if he's gotta adjust his arm angle. The ball just comes off his hand so clean. That's why it's so important ...
"You see him make a lot of throws under duress. You see him make a lot of tight window throws. There were a couple quarterbacks in this draft that really sat back in a clean pocket and played pitch-and-catch all the time. That's not the NFL. When I evaluate quarterbacks, I want to see people in their face, throwing into tight windows."
Stidham finished the preseason having completed 40 percent of his passes under pressure, according to PFF, but with 61 percent of his throws qualifying as accurate. He completed 10 of 25 attempts under pressure, with two passes batted at the line, five thrown away and one dropped. His abysmal rating under pressure (42.4) came thanks in part to the one interception he threw last summer coming on an attempt he made while being hit from behind.
One of the things Stidham acknowledged in his first conversation with Patriots reporters after getting drafted was that he didn't react well to pressure consistently in his last season with the Tigers. He explained that was something that came up in his pre-draft discussions with Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels.
"I told coach McDaniels and coach Belichick, there were definitely times last year where for whatever reason, I just decided to get out of the pocket when I shouldn’t have or just didn’t trust my eyes at a certain point or my feet," Stidham said at the time. "That’s something I’ve obviously been working on this spring up to the draft and it’s something I’m going to have to continue to work at in order to get better at the quarterback position. I’m really looking forward to doing that, and there’s no one better to learn from than coach McDaniels and coach Belichick and those guys in the quarterback room."
It's not that Stidham didn't appear to trust his eyes or his feet last summer. His mistakes came when he seemed to trust his arm and his speed a little too much. He threw near-picks when his feet weren't set — backing away from the pocket, stepping up, rolling out — and he fumbled once when he started to scramble and couldn't get away from defenders before tucking the football tight.
There were plenty of times, though, when Jarrett Stidham erred under duress. Per @PFF, his accuracy percentage under pressure was 37th among QBs who took 25 percent of their team’s preseason snaps. His completion percentage was 46th. His rating was 48th. pic.twitter.com/WHaN6U3WqN— Phil Perry (@PhilAPerry) March 9, 2020
The guts of the Patriots passing game has been built around Brady's ability to diagnose and get rid of the football quickly. It's not realistic to expect Stidham to approach Brady's level of pre-snap competency at this point in his career, but Stidham took to Patriots concepts well enough that he excelled when getting the ball out in rhythm.
According to PFF, he had the sixth-best completion percentage of any preseason quarterback when throwing in 2.5 seconds or less (81.4). He also had a 115.5 rating on those throws, which was good enough for the eighth-best mark in the league. Of his 110 preseason dropbacks, 46 were over before 2.5 seconds had elapsed. He had a 2-to-0 touchdown-to-interception ratio in those situations.
Those numbers were markedly better than when Stidham held onto the ball a little longer. He had 64 dropbacks that lasted more than 2.5 seconds, completing just 26 of 47 attempts (55.3 percent), including two touchdowns and one pick for a rating of 87.8.
Again, it was only preseason — speed of the game is different, defenses are vanilla — but when Jarrett Stidham delivered quickly, he was pretty efficient.— Phil Perry (@PhilAPerry) March 9, 2020
Only five quarterbacks had a better completion percentage when getting rid of the football in 2.5 seconds or less, per @PFF. pic.twitter.com/tTXwHBQggP
Kessler explained last season that he and Stidham tested each other on the offense on their own time, hoping to fine-tune their understanding of the system in order to be able to execute the calls quickly if they were ever called upon. Though Stidham showed some proficiency in that regard over the summer, he should be even further along after a season's worth of practices, occasionally filling in for Brady with the first team.
"A lot of guys, your rookie year, it can be too much for you," Kessler told me. "It really can. Sometimes you get overwhelmed. But [Stidham] always knows what's going on. He's always one step ahead of everything. It's been cool to see that."
Coming from an Auburn attack that relied heavily on the shotgun, Stidham entered the pros knowing he'd have to become more comfortable under center.
Though he showed he was athletic enough to be able to handle the under-center footwork at last year's Senior Bowl — where he was named practice player of the week at the quarterback position — thinking his way through the Patriots offense while also remembering to secure a snap and make a quick drop would be a lot.
It's one of the reasons why he was characterized as a developmental-type quarterback for New England last spring.
"I think it's going to take a little bit of time to develop him," Jeremiah said at the time, "but I could make a case he makes a lot of sense for the Patriots because they've got a little bit of time, no pun intended, with Tom there. He's not going anywhere right now. That would give you a chance to really develop a guy like this with a potential huge upside. Really as much upside as any quarterback in the draft class. Stidham is very talented. So that might be a risk worth taking."
Stidham's play-action work last summer wasn't perfect, but it didn't always look all that new to him, either.
Turning his back to the defense mid-play, executing a fake, whipping around to face the defense, and finding an open target was something the Patriots asked him to do 30 times. He had more play-action dropbacks than anyone in the preseason, completing 17 of 26 attempts (65.4 completion percentage) for 237 yards (9.1 yards per attempt), no touchdowns and a pick. Though his completion percentage without play-action (68.8) was better, his yards per attempt figure was not (7.7).
No surprise, both good and bad here in the play-action game from Jarrett Stidham. Didn’t have to worry about working under center or turning away from defenses in Auburn’s offense.— Phil Perry (@PhilAPerry) March 9, 2020
Stidham’s rating and completion percentage were better without play-action last summer, per @PFF. pic.twitter.com/G0IK8oShRG
Preseason play is only so helpful in trying to determine who a player is, but Stidham's preseason last summer was impressive to the point that it deserves to be remembered as Jimmy Garoppolo's preseason was. If not better.
Back in 2014, the summer during which Garoppolo dropped pinpoint deep throws to receiver Brian Tyms, he finished with a 58.2 completion percentage and a 7.8 yards per attempt figure to go along with his 5-to-1 quarterback-to-interception ratio and 99.0 quarterback rating. His deep-ball accuracy percentage was 44.4. His completion percentage in a clean pocket was 65.6 and his accuracy percentage on those was 69.5. He completed 33 percent of his passes under pressure and was accurate on 57.1 percent of those attempts.
Stidham's numbers trumped Garoppolo's across the board except for his touchdown-to-interception ration (4-to-1).
He's clearly talented. Evaluators acknowledged that well before anyone saw him in the Patriots offense. His strong arm and touch give him the ability to consistently throw accurately when he has time. He was efficient when throwing quickly, and he has the athleticism to buy himself time and pick up yards with his legs. Pressure still got to him, though, and he didn't always take care of the football.
One could argue that, given what he put on tape last summer, Stidham should be considered among the top-five passers available if lumped in with this year's draft class, depending on what you were looking for. One could argue he's more pro-ready and more accurate than Justin Herbert. One could argue that he's less reckless than Jordan Love. One could argue he's a better athlete than Jacob Eason.
Is Stidham ready to start if Brady moves on?
That's another question entirely. That's for Belichick to decide. But whether that's now or later, he appears to have the talent to deserve a crack at the gig eventually.
"No question," Nagy said following last year's draft. "No question ... Jarrett's got starter ability. No doubt in my mind. If they develop him right. Again, quarterback play is all about opportunity and situation. I think he's in a good spot to really maximize that. I think Jarrett could definitely be a starter in the NFL."