As the world waits for what's next for Matthew Stafford, it's worth pointing out -- as we have here and here -- that the Patriots aren't in a terrible position to make a real play for the face of the Lions franchise over the last dozen years.
It's a loaded quarterback class in this year's draft, meaning the teams with a top-10 pick looking at the position might pass up the opportunity to land the 33-year-old Stafford in order to start fresh with a rookie.
And of the quarterback needy-teams without a top-10 pick, only New England, Indy and Washington currently have the projected cap space to absorb Stafford's cap hit for 2021. The Patriots have about $57 million to play with, while the Colts have about $65 million and Washington has $35 million.
The Patriots, with pick No. 15, have a better spot in the first round than either the Football Team (No. 19) and the Colts (No. 21). San Francisco could open up a boatload of space if it moved on from Jimmy Garoppolo and was willing to part with No. 12 overall for Stafford.
Stafford may not love the idea of coming to New England before Bill Belichick has been able to add weapons to his offense. And while it's been reported Stafford and his reps will be looped in during trade discussions, this piece from Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press suggests Stafford "won't have a ton of say in where he goes."
So is it as simple as that? Best compensation package wins? Maybe. And if the Patriots are willing to part with their first-rounder, that may put them at the front of the line.
Let's for argument's sake say the Patriots would be willing to make such a move. Say it costs them a first and a future third-rounder -- slightly less than what the Raiders gave up to get Carson Palmer back in 2011 (a first and a second), when Palmer was slightly younger (31) than Stafford is now.
How would the Patriots go about rebuilding around Stafford?
Stafford's cap hit, if he remains on his current deal, would be about $20 million, leaving the Patriots with about $37 million in cap space. (The Patriots could of course re-do his deal and lower that cap hit, but for the sake of this exercise, let's keep the cap hit where it is. That would've been a middle-of-the-road cap hit for quarterbacks in 2020.) Where to go from there?
Well, they'll need at least one veteran pass-catcher, one would think. Maybe two. And this year's class is loaded with capable weapons. But so too is the draft. So there's a decision to make here: Pay one pass-catcher big money and draft another one or two? Or pay two and use a pick elsewhere?
Paying one is not a bad idea in theory. Not bad at all. There are high-priced talents available like Chris Godwin, Will Fuller, Kenny Golladay and Allen Robinson. But those players might cost twice as much as adding two capable but less-explosive vets. The two-for-the-price-of-one route feels a bit more Belichickian, doesn't it?
Let's go with Tennessee's Corey Davis to start. He should be less expensive than the names listed above. And he's a big body to play outside the numbers, providing a more-than-capable option for the Patriots out there. If that were to happen, N'Keal Harry would suddenly become less a key to the team's overall success or failure (as he's been the last two years) and more a luxury should he become a productive player.
Next, add veteran tight end Jonnu Smith as the second pass-catching piece in free agency in order to buttress the tight end room. Then bring back David Andrews at center.
Suddenly about $24 million of that $37 million in cap space is wiped away. With $13 million left, the Patriots could figure out a way to keep Lawrence Guy and James White, and still have room left over for their draft picks and rookie signings.
|WR||Corey Davis||Rondale Moore||Julian Edelman||Jakobi Meyers|
|RB||Damien Harris||Sony Michel||James White||J.J. Taylor|
|TE||Jonnu Smith||Devin Asiasi||Dalton Keene|
|OL||Isaiah Wynn||Michael Onwenu||David Andrews||Shaq Mason||Liam Eichenberg|
In the draft, the Patriots will have to get tricky with how they go about adding capable pieces without the first-rounder they gave away for Stafford. Luckily for them, they have a tradable asset who could land them a valuable pick.
Let's spitball here for a moment.
Any way someone in the NFC East would be willing to give up a second-round pick for Stephon Gilmore? The reigning Defensive Player of the Year will likely want a new contract, so he'll cost his new team. But a new deal could spread out cap hits and so a team like the cap-strapped Giants -- with former Patriots assistant Joe Judge running the show -- could figure out the dollars and cents. Dallas has to figure out how it's going to keep Dak Prescott, but they're in desperate need of corner help and will need to add a capable piece at corner if they're going to compete. Jerry Jones has never been afraid to make a splash, and this would be splashy.
Gilmore, currently set to make $7 million in base salary next season, might make sense as an answer for either corner-needy club. At this stage of his career, he's not worth the two first-rounders the Rams gave up to get Jalen Ramsey, but one second? Maybe. (A trade involving Gilmore would mean about $7 million more in cap space for the Patriots so if they were to do a deal relatively early in free agency, that could help them buy another key piece.)
If a team gave up a second for Gilmore -- and they might be willing since it's a weak free-agent class at the position -- with two seconds, the Patriots would then have the ability to trade back into the first round, perhaps. Or they could sit and pick to try to make the most of their investment in Stafford.
With pick No. 42 (the Dallas second-rounder), the Patriots could bolster their receiving corps with some speed -- maybe Purdue's Rondale Moore or UNC's Dyami Brown. Moore is talented but not considered a lock for the first round so let's go with him for the sake of this exercise. Then kicking Mike Onwenu inside to guard would open up a spot for someone like Notre Dame's Liam Eichenberg to play right tackle if he were available when the Patriots make their own pick at No. 47.
That could end up giving Stafford an offensive line that looks like this: Isaiah Wynn at left tackle, Onwenu at left guard, Andrews at center, Shaq Mason at right guard and Eichenberg at right tackle.
Stafford's weapons? Davis, Moore, Julian Edelman and Jakobi Meyers at receiver with Harry trying to earn a ole. Then Smith, Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene at tight end. Damien Harris, Sony Michel, White and JJ Taylor should be plenty for the running back group.
Is that offense going to go blow-for-blow with the Chiefs in 2021? Nope. But with Stafford and Josh McDaniels steering the ship, that could be an offense that contends for a playoff berth.
Defensively there would be questions. Getting Dont'a Hightower back would help, but the Patriots would still have a pretty clear need at corner opposite JC Jackson. And young players in the front-seven like Josh Uche, Anfernee Jennings and Chase Winovich would have to make big contributions.
Still, in a league where the game's best offenses seem to last longest, giving Stafford two new receivers, a strong offensive line and an athletic talent at tight end might be enough to help the Patriots leap into postseason contention in 2021.