The Patriots spent $175 million guaranteed on 23 players in free agency, but they didn’t come up with any long-term answers at quarterback.
Their only moves so far were to bring back the same quarterback depth chart that produced last year’s 7-9 record: Cam Newton and Jarrett Stidham.
“One way or another we have to get that position solidified,” owner Robert Kraft said last week. “We still have the draft.”
The Patriots hold the 15th pick in the first round of the NFL Draft, and are squarely in the conversation for a quarterback. While the Jaguars, Jets, and 49ers will each be drafting a QB, there will still be two first-round-caliber prospects available (at this point, it’s looking like Trey Lance or Justin Fields). And as I wrote earlier this week, the Falcons, Panthers, and Eagles don’t look like they will join in on the bidding for the final two QBs. The Patriots’ competition is dwindling.
If ever there were a year for the Patriots to be bold, this is it. They haven’t drafted this high in more than a decade. They don’t have a long-term answer at quarterback after letting Tom Brady leave. And they were very aggressive in free agency, meaning they don’t have many immediate needs to fill in the draft — and meaning it wouldn’t be the worst idea to package a few picks and trade up for their quarterback of the future.
“It feels like they have the opportunity to package some picks and move up in the first round,” ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay said earlier this week.
It makes perfect sense.
Of course, this is Bill Belichick we’re talking about.
“But I’ve learned with Bill Belichick to kind of expect the unexpected,” McShay added.
With many in the NFL world wondering what Belichick and the Patriots will do at quarterback, wouldn’t it be just like Belichick to use that 15th pick instead on another area?
There’s actually a decent argument to be made for skipping on a quarterback in the first round. With quarterbacks almost certain to be drafted 1-2-3, the Patriots are looking, at best, at the fourth- or fifth-best QB in the draft class.
There may not be a huge gap in talent between taking one of the QBs at No. 15 and waiting until the second or third round for someone such as Texas A&M’s Kellen Mond or Stanford’s Davis Mills. But there is a sizable gap in expectations and salary for a quarterback drafted No. 15 compared with the middle rounds. Former Patriots employee Michael Lombardi said recently on his podcast that he doesn’t think Belichick will have Fields or Lance graded high enough to justify a trade-up. Belichick found Jimmy Garoppolo at the end of the second round, and there’s no reason he can’t find a good developmental player in that neighborhood again.
Plus, while the Patriots filled most of their holes in free agency, they still need depth, and they need youth. And in a draft where quarterbacks and pass catchers will dominate the top 12 or so picks, the Patriots have a chance for an excellent player to fall to them.
“It kind of pushes back everyone in terms of the defensive side of the ball,” McShay said. “If you can get a Jaelan Phillips or a [Greg] Rousseau in the second half of the first round, you’re getting lucky. Because this year is so loaded with quarterbacks and pass catchers early, these guys are going to fall a little bit.”
The defensive side is where the Patriots could still use more depth, and edge rusher is one spot where you can never have enough. Phillips and Rousseau are products of the University of Miami and are likely to have their names called during the first round. Michigan’s Kwity Paye, Georgia’s Azeez Ojulari, and Penn State’s Jayson Oweh also could be selected in the range of the Patriots’ 15th pick.
The Patriots could probably use another body in the middle of the defensive line, even after signing Lawrence Guy, Davon Godchaux, and Henry Anderson. This isn’t a great draft for defensive tackles, but Alabama’s Christian Barmore should be a first-round pick, and Belichick has a strong connection to the Crimson Tide program via friend Nick Saban.
The Patriots could certainly use another linebacker to develop behind Dont’a Hightower, Kyle Van Noy, and Ja’Whaun Bentley. Penn State’s Micah Parsons is a big, fast, three-down linebacker who would be a terrific fit in Foxborough, especially if he gets to sit and learn behind Hightower for a year. Tulsa’s Zaven Collins, Notre Dame’s Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, and Kentucky’s Jamin Davis all should be drafted in the mid-first to early-second-round range, as well.
Cornerback is another position where the Patriots can never have enough talent. The Patriots have good depth at the position, but also uncertainty. Stephon Gilmore will be 31 this fall, and current free agent Jason McCourty will be 34. Restricted free agent J.C. Jackson is unsigned, and if he does return to the Patriots in 2021, he may be gone in 2022. Joejuan Williams, the 2019 second-round pick, also hasn’t done much in two years.
This year isn’t a great draft for cornerbacks, but there are a handful of quality prospects that fall in the range of the Patriots’ 15th pick — Alabama’s Patrick Surtain II, South Carolina’s Jaycee Horn, Northwestern’s Greg Newton, and Virginia Tech’s Caleb Farley.
On the offensive side, the Patriots aren’t going to use the 15th pick on a tight end. They don’t need a top-flight receiver after signing Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne. And it would be terrible value to draft a running back that high.
But an offensive tackle could be in play at 15, as Trent Brown is only playing on a one-year deal, and Isaiah Wynn may be a free agent after this season.
The top two prospects, Oregon’s Penei Sewell and Northwestern’s Rashawn Slater, will probably be off the board well before the Patriots pick. But Virginia Tech’s Christian Darrisaw and Oklahoma State’s Teven Jenkins are two other first-round prospects who could be a long-term answer at left tackle.
There is no question that a quarterback is in play for the Patriots in the first round. Just don’t be surprised if Belichick zags when everyone else expects him to zig.
“I have to imagine that if New England has the opportunity to get a quarterback they like, they will do that,” former Eagles and Browns executive Joe Banner wrote on Thursday. “But they so often do what is not expected.”