Phil Perry

The Stidham Plan: Patriots can aid young QB by getting creative with athletic fullback options

The Stidham Plan: Patriots can aid young QB by getting creative with athletic fullback options

Bill Belichick readily admitted that his offense would have to change with Tom Brady out of the picture.

"Over the last two decades," Belichick said back in April, "everything we did, every single decision we made in terms of major planning, was made with the idea of how to make things best for Tom Brady . . . Whoever the quarterback is, we'll try to make things work smoothly and efficiently for that player and take advantage of his strengths and skills." 

For now, let's assume the quarterback in 2020 will be Jarrett Stidham. How can Belichick and Josh McDaniels make him comfortable? How can they accentuate his strengths and hide his weaknesses?

We won't know for sure until the Patriots take the field. But emphasizing looks that have taken the league by storm of late, looks that have simplified things for good-but-not-great quarterbacks, looks that Belichick's pal Mike Shanahan is credited with popularizing... That might make things interesting.

The first installment of our "Stidham Plan" series takes a look at how a couple of newly-added athletic fullback options might help make the second-year quarterback's life a little easier.

* * *

Kyle Juszczyk is a unicorn at the fullback position in today's NFL. 

The Swiss Army knife in Kyle Shanahan's offense played over 100 snaps more than any other fullback in 2019. He caught more passes (20) for more yards (239) and picked up more yards after contact (155) for the Niners than anyone else at that spot. The $5.25 million average annual value of his contract, signed in 2017, isn't gaudy but it's more than $2 million more per year than the next fullback contract. His $7 million guaranteed at signing was almost double that of the next best fullback deal.

Juszczyk is an outlier, a high-IQ hybrid whose multi-faceted impact on San Francisco's offense would be difficult for anyone to replicate.

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But that won't keep new Patriots fullback Danny Vitale from trying.

"He’s kind of the prime example of what a lot of teams are moving towards," Vitale said last week. "Obviously, every offense is different, but he’s been able to do a lot of great things since his career in Baltimore and now obviously all the way into San Fran. 

"He’s kind of the player that I like to model my game after in terms of the versatility aspect. Different teams have different schemes and need their fullbacks to fill different roles, so obviously that’s what your scouting departments are looking for is guys who can fill that role that they need. But, yeah, I think he’s a good guy to look up to."

Versatile as he hopes to be, can Vitale provide the same kind of return to the Patriots that Juszczyk has provided the Niners? Can he help prop up a passing game led by Jarrett Stidham in the same way Juszczyk has helped to boost Jimmy Garoppolo's effectiveness?

Vitale's one-year contract with New England includes $100,000 in guarantees, indicating he's not a lock to make the 2020 roster. But the Patriots also added a hybrid player with one of its two tight end additions in this year's draft when they selected Dalton Keene out of Virginia Tech at the end of the third round. At least one them — and maybe both — figures to add an athletic wrinkle to a position the Patriots have long valued. 

NEW ERA IN NEW ENGLAND

When James Develin aligned in the I-formation, neck roll jutting up from the back of his collar, he was power personified for the Patriots. The 6-foot-3, 255-pound bruiser helped the team rack up over 2,000 yards rushing and 18 touchdowns in the 2018 regular season. Then in the playoffs that year he was on the field for each of New England's nine rushing touchdowns en route to a Lombardi Trophy.

After eight years with the Patriots, limited to two games in 2019 because of a neck injury, Develin retired this offseason.

"It’s definitely some pretty dang big shoes to fill," Vitale said of Develin. "James is a hell of a player. I’ve enjoyed watching him, really since I got into the league now. He was really a role model at the position, which as a fullback, a lot of people don’t typically notice how important that role can be. 

"I think it was pretty clear how important James was to this Patriot team over the last however many years. Definitely have some really big shoes to fill, but I’m really looking forward to that opportunity, as well as working with a lot of the other guys. It'll be fun."

Vitale, though, is a different type of fullback than what the Patriots have been accustomed to. He's about 15 pounds lighter than Develin, and tested similarly to Juszczyk as an athlete coming out of college.

Compared to other fullbacks invited to the combine over the years, Vitale was an elite performer in Indy in 2016. At 6-foot-1, 239 pounds he recorded a 4.60 40-yard dash (91st percentile), a 38.5-inch vertical (96th), a 123-inch broad (95th) and a 4.12-second short shuttle (91st). Juszczyk was listed at 6-foot-1, 235 coming out of college and recorded a 4.71 40, a 37-inch vertical, a 121-inch broad jump and a 4.19-second short shuttle at his pro day.

Keene, meanwhile, has the size to better replicate Develin's skill set. He measured in at 6-foot-4, 253 pounds before the draft and was often used as a lead blocker out of the backfield in Virginia Tech's offense. 

While Keene could be the team's next Develin, he looks like a more dynamic passing-game option. A determined and elusive runner with the ball in his hands for the Hokies, he averaged 9.7 yards after the catch per reception in his career. Keene also possesses impressive movement skills, having recorded a 125-inch broad jump (94th percentile for tight ends) and a 4.19 short shuttle (85th) at this year's combine, indicating he has some real receiving chops.

Neither Keene nor Vitale has yet had the opportunity to show what they can do to replace the toughness quotient Develin provided the Patriots. But if either earns a role, he'll add something Josh McDaniels hasn't really had at the fullback spot of late: explosive athleticism to handle more in the passing game.

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TASTE OF SAN FRANCISCO?

Juszczyk's raw receiving numbers aren't all that impressive. But part of the reason he allowed the Niners to be as efficient as they were in 2019 was because of his ability to help keep opponents guessing.

He could play the traditional lead fullback role. He could leak out of the backfield on play-action throws. He could align as an in-line tight end, in the slot, or as an H-back on the wing. He gave Garoppolo a matchup weapon when covered by linebackers. His mere presence in the huddle helped provide the Niners with more favorable looks against which to throw by encouraging opposing defensive coordinators, fearing smash-mouth run plays, to send bigger (and typically slower) defenders onto the field. 

Opponents had to make a choice when they saw Juszczyk on the field as part of Shanahan's attack: Match the fullback's 30 or so snaps per game by keeping a linebacker on the field and risk getting exposed in coverage, or respond with an extra defensive back to protect against the pass and get run over.

Not ideal. 

That lose-lose proposition and the defensive uncertainty that came with it allowed the Niners to be extremely effective in using play-action last season. They were second in the NFL with 10.8 yards per play-action attempt, which in turn helped make Garoppolo a top-10 passer according to certain statistical categories like yards per attempt (third), completion percentage (fourth) and quarterback rating (eighth). 

As a member of the Packers last season, Vitale had some of the same responsibilities Juszczyk did. In Green Bay, where Shanahan disciple Matt LaFleur runs the show offensively, Vitale aligned as a lead blocker in traditional I-formation packages. He led the way for running backs on wide-zone runs. He motioned into the slot to run routes, as he did at Northwestern. He motioned from the backfield into a wing position to get a better angle as a blocker.

He lined up as a wide receiver — as Develin often did — to serve as a man-zone indicator for quarterback Aaron Rodgers. (If a linebacker went with Vitale to the boundary, the defense was likely playing man-to-man. If a corner stood across from Vitale, it was likely zone.) He served as the lone back next to Rodgers in shotgun situations, able to take a hand-off, run a route or pass-protect. Vitale also leaked out of the backfield on play-action passes, and his speed occasionally provided chunk-play opportunities.

Though Vitale (11 snaps per game) typically played much less than Juszczyk (33 snaps per game) last season, he had games where he might carry out half a dozen different roles in his limited playing time. Does that make an athletic fullback like Vitale (or Keene) the kind of piece who can help the Patriots shift toward an offensive attack like the one featured in San Francisco? 

Couldn't hurt. And given the results produced by Shanahan-influenced schemes in other places, it might be worth a shot.

NUMBERS DON'T LIE

The Niners style of offense and others born from it love their fullbacks.

Gary Kubiak worked under Kyle's dad Mike Shanahan in Denver in the 1990s and helped sow the seeds for the wide-zone run, bootleg play-action attacks now strewn across the league. His fingerprints are all over the offense in Minnesota, which used fullback C.J. Ham (354 snaps) almost as often as the Niners used Juszczyk (388) in the 2019 regular season.

After letting Vitale walk in free agency, the Packers used a third-round pick to draft an athletic hybrid fullback-tight end option in Cincinnati's Josiah Deguara.

The Rams almost never abandon their 11-personnel package (one back, one tight end, three wideouts) but under former Mike Shanahan pupil Sean McVay they had one of only 14 fullbacks to play at least 100 snaps last season: Derek Watt. 

Why the affinity for fullbacks? 

They help the running game, of course. They change the math for defenders wondering which gaps to play against the run. Their power, momentum and (usually) low center of gravity helps them clear space. And the fact that fullbacks are relatively scarce — the spread-happy college game isn't producing them — means there aren't many offenses that use them, which means there aren't many defenses that devote much in the way of time to defending them. 

But perhaps more importantly, for offenses that so heavily rely on successful running games and passing games that thrive off the deception that play-action creates, having someone who can make pass plays look like runs — someone who then can become a legitimate receiving threat himself — can open up a world of possibilities.

"Across the league, in general, teams average more yards per pass attempt and have a higher success rate when you're using heavier personnel out on the field," Warren Sharp of Sharp Football Stats told us earlier this offseason. "You're controlling the personnel that the defense has to play. Then you can take advantage of these guys when you have tight ends that are as good at catching the ball as they are now. When you have fullbacks that can catch the ball as well as they can now. It's a massive X-factor . . . 

"Far too often teams will use a fullback because it's a run play and he's a run-blocker. As long as you're using that fullback to sometimes catch the ball, to block in pass protection, to do a variety of things, it's very effective to have that guy out on the field. I think that more teams do need to incorporate them, as long as it's a dynamic enough player."

It might come as little surprise that some of the Shanahan-style teams have already figured that out. The two clubs that ran the highest percentage of two-back sets in the NFL last season? San Francisco and Minnesota. 

A whopping 39 percent of the Niners offense came with two backs on the field last year. Out of 21 personnel, they were deemed successful on 55 percent of their plays. Out of 22 personnel, they were successful on 52 percent of their plays. Compared to their 43 percent success rate out of 11 and 12 personnel packages, they experienced a significant up-tick in efficiency with two backs on the field. 

The Vikings, meanwhile, had two backs on the field for 32 percent of their plays. From those sets, their yards per pass attempt figure (8.7) was about a full yard higher than it was when they were in 11 personnel (7.6) or 12 personnel (7.8). In essence, when they replaced a pass-catcher at receiver or tight end in their huddle with a fullback . . . they became a better passing offense. Counter-intuitive maybe. But because of how it gets defenses to react, it works. 

It's no coincidence, either, that the play-action figures for fullback-friendly offenses in San Francisco and Minnesota were among the best in football. 

Garoppolo (second) and Kirk Cousins (fourth) were among the league leaders in yards per attempt out of play-action last season. No one threw more touchdown passes off play-action than Cousins (14), while Garoppolo was fifth in that category (9). Only Jared Goff (1,703), playing in a similar offense under McVay, threw for more play-action yards than Garoppolo (1,667), while Cousins was fourth in that category (1,373). Cousins (fifth) and Garoppolo (ninth) were both among the best in football when it came to completion percentage off play-action.

When you amass all of Cousins' and Garoppolo's attempts — play-action or no play-action — they racked up elite statistics. They were No. 4 (Cousins) and No. 8 (Garoppolo), respectively, in quarterback rating. They were No. 3 (Garoppolo) and No. 7 (Cousins) in yards per attempt. They were tied at No. 4 in completion percentage. But is either an elite quarterback? 

The numbers tell the story: That style of offense — the under-center, play-action-heavy, wide-zone-running, fullback-infused, bootleg attack — is widely considered to be extremely quarterback friendly. It simplifies reads. It buys quarterbacks time to find open windows. It buys receivers time to create open windows. For a young quarterback with some mobility, a quarterback like Stidham, it can do wonders.

Does that mean the Patriots should be all-in? Not necessarily. Later in this series, we'll dive into the challenges involved in a full-on commitment of that nature.

But if Belichick and McDaniels wanted to emphasize those types of looks as they find an offensive identity following Brady's departure, having athletic options at fullback to deploy all over formations and sell play-action could help them achieve that end.

Coming next week: Patriots rookie tight ends could make for endless opportunities

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NFL Draft spotlight: Michael Onwenu's rare size makes him an intriguing option for Patriots

NFL Draft spotlight: Michael Onwenu's rare size makes him an intriguing option for Patriots

Their faces tell the story.

Pain. Discomfort. Whatever is the range of feelings human beings might experience with 400 pounds pinning them to the ground, they are captured in the images that reside inside Michigan's offensive line room.

Michael Onwenu's size — he measured in at 6-foot-3, 370 pounds last season — is such that the numbers alone would indicate he can dole out bodily harm on a football field, where he carries about an additional 20 pounds in pads.

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But the pictures of the biggest Wolverines guard resting comfortably on top of unfortunate defenders illustrate how he can drain both an opponent's lungs and his will with just a little help from the planet's gravitational pull. 

"We kind of have a name for it in our room," Michigan offensive line coach Ed Warriner told the Next Pats Podcast. "We call it 'burping' a guy. Because when you fall on them and you're that big, the air comes out of their lungs and sounds like they just burped. We'd be like, 'Mike, did you burp him?'"

Onwenu once was the type of player to help up opponents after knocking them down. But as his team tracked offensive line knockdowns, as he embraced "burping" others as part of his job, he blossomed into an NFL-caliber prospect.

That it was the Patriots who selected him in the sixth round, No. 182 overall, came as a bit of a surprise.

'ATHLETIC ENOUGH' 

Long-time Patriots offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia consistently laid out the requirements for his players thusly: "Smart, tough and athletic enough."

There was often an emphasis on that last word to explain that he wasn't necessarily looking for track athletes. But a baseline of athleticism was required for Patriots linemen to execute their jobs. 

Over the years, the Patriots have become more and more athletic on the interior at center and guard. Shaq Mason is, Bill Belichick has said, among the most athletic linemen he's coached. Joe Thuney is athletic enough to play any position on the line in a pinch. David Andrews is a quick-footed center whose movement skills open up a portion of the Patriots playbook that wouldn't be available to them with a slower player. 

All of them can scoot. All of them weigh between 300 and 310 pounds. How, then, does a player who weighed 350 pounds at this year's combine, nicknamed "Big Mike," fit in? 

"He's much better at footwork and change of direction than you think ... His body fat is not high," Warriner said. "He's just massive. His bone, his muscle mass is just tremendous. It was all closely checked by our strength coach, our nutritionist. They did all kinds of body scans to see if he could really lose. 

Some people would say, 'Eh, lose 50 pounds and we'll talk to you.' Mike can't lose 50 pounds. He doesn't have 50 pounds to lose. He could lose 20 pounds and he did for the combine. That was where he's at. But he'll play at about 360, I would imagine — 355, 360.

Onwenu was athletic enough coming out of high school to be rated the No. 4 guard in the country and the No. 1 overall recruit in the state of Michigan.

Offers from Michigan, Alabama and Ohio State, where Warriner coached from 2012-16, don't roll in based on size alone. Onwenu's tape flashes moments of good agility for someone of his size. He can get out of his stance quickly to get to linebackers at the second level or pull and clear space like a human wrecking ball. 

There's no doubt that fluidity of movement isn't Onwenu's top trait as a player. And if he sees time on the Patriots offensive line, they may have adjust by dialing back calls that would get him in space. 

But is he athletic enough? Seems to be.

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'THOSE GUYS ARE ALWAYS HARD TO FIND'

Consider this, from Belichick back in 2018, when I asked about the challenge of handling the size of a 330-pound defensive tackle the Patriots would be facing that week. Belichick got into a broader discussion about rare size — regardless of position — and its value. 

"Well, first of all Phil, let’s start with how many 330 guys are there out there? Now if you’re looking for 190-pound receivers, I mean, there’s eight bazillion of them," Belichick said. "How many 330-pound guys are there? There’s just not that many of them. So, they’re always hard to find. Those guys are always hard to find. I don’t care if they’re tackles, offensive tackles, defensive tackles. For every guy that’s 330, there’s 20 that are 290. 

"If you can find the 330 guys, or whatever the number is, that are as athletic and have the skill of guys that weigh 40 pounds less that play the same position, generally speaking, those guys are probably going to outperform the guys that are lesser. Now if there’s some balance, then that’s a different story. And again, there’s only so many 330-pound guys out there, or 370-pound guys, however big Trent Brown is or Marcus Cannon. There’s not an unlimited supply of those guys, so if they have that kind of size and are athletic and have the skills, then chances are they’re going to be playing for somebody. 

If they don’t have the skills then they pump gas. There’s something else. But guys that are big and athletic, there’s a sport and a position for most of those guys. It’s the little ones, like me, that were slow and make up for it with lack of quickness, that have trouble.

What the Patriots want to be offensively moving forward could determine the role into which Onwenu eventually grows. Because if they remain a more classic drop-back style, pocket-passing team, then he should get a crack at a significant gig up front.

Maybe he ends up the next Ted Karras, another power-over-quickness player who served as the primary interior backup for most of his four years with the team. Filling in for Andrews in 2019, in a scheme built for Tom Brady, Karras allowed just two sacks and ended up with the eighth-best pass-blocking efficiency figure (98.1) among starting NFL centers, per Pro Football Focus.

Onwenu has proven at a high level that he can do more than de-cleat people.

A three-year starter for the Wolverines, he anchored down to withstand pass-rushes from future pros. According to PFF, he allowed just 13 pressures and one sack over the last two seasons in Ann Arbor. Warriner remembers one rep against the second player taken in this year's draft, Ohio State edge defender Chase Young, where Onwenu snuffed out Young's interior rush before it got started.

"When Mike gets his hands on you and gets locked out, it's over," Warriner said. "I don't care who you are. I don't care how much money they're paying you. I don't care. When he gets locked out on a human being with a good base, it's over. You can watch that time and time again. It doesn't matter who he's going against."

'THAT TAKES A GROWN-ASS MAN'

While that power at the point of attack is valuable, it's worth wondering how it'll play in a Patriots scheme that could be set up to value athleticism up front more than ever before. 

Perhaps, with Brady gone, they'll make use of their new fullback, their two new rookie tight ends and a more mobile quarterback in Jarrett Stidham to devise plans that encourage pocket movement. If that means getting offensive linemen on the run — laterally on wide zone plays or out in space on screens — then that might not be best for Onwenu's skill set. 

If the Patriots are going to rely more heavily on a power running game that allows Onwenu to dominate an area of five square yards around the line of scrimmage, then that might end up a match made in heaven.

"Just because you're big doesn't mean you can move people," Warriner said. "He knows how to translate his power to the ground. He's very strong. He's powerful. He can move people one-on-one. 

"I have a saying in the o-line room: If you can move a man against his will, that's the toughest job in football. There are a lot of things people think are tough. Moving a man against his will, when he doesn't want to be moved, that takes a grown-ass man, and Mike can do that. That's No. 1. He can move people one-on-one."

There's a reason Onwenu lasted until the sixth round, of course. His weight will have to be monitored. There's a chance he's limited scheme-wise. His collegiate experience was limited almost exclusively to right guard, outside of one start on the left side in 2017.

But Onwenu is in possession of a rare trait. That could take him a long way, Warriner believes. And Warriner seen his share of NFL success stories, having coached Taylor Decker (2016 first round, Ohio State), Zack Martin (2014 first round, Notre Dame) and Nick Martin (2016 second round, Notre Dame) during his career.

"Mike used to excite me in practice," Warriner said. "Every day he would do something. I would go, 'Oh!' I've been around a while. I've had a lot of guys play in the NFL, and I've been around some great ones — I mean, some dudes. Mike's in the category with that kind of talent."

Onwenu doesn't have to play like any of those established pros in order to carve himself a role with his new team. He just might need to beat out the likes of Hjalte Froholdt — a third-rounder in 2019 who missed his rookie season injured — as well as fellow 2020 draftees Justin Herron and Dustin Woodard. 

Before Onwenu ever steps on the practice fields at Gillette Stadium, he'll have one thing they don't: rare size. If he can move that frame at a satisfactory level? Guys that are big and athletic, there's a position for most of 'em.

 

Patriots Roster Reset: Odds J'Mar Smith, Brian Lewerke make it in Patriots quarterback room?

Patriots Roster Reset: Odds J'Mar Smith, Brian Lewerke make it in Patriots quarterback room?

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.

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...

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LONG SHOTS

...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.

X-FACTOR

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.