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ben volin | on football

The time has come: Patriots must draft a quarterback in the first round

North Dakota State's Trey Lance, shown at the school's pro day, could be the franchise quarterback the Patriots need.
North Dakota State's Trey Lance, shown at the school's pro day, could be the franchise quarterback the Patriots need.Andy Clayton-King/Associated Press

Bill Belichick has never used a first-round draft pick on a quarterback with the Patriots, because he never had to.

He inherited capable starter Drew Bledsoe in 2000, then happened upon Tom Brady in 2001 and had his position set for the next 19 seasons. Bledsoe in 1993 marked the last time the Patriots used a first-rounder on a quarterback. The highest pick Belichick has used on one was No. 62 for Jimmy Garoppolo in 2014.

Belichick never used a first-rounder on a QB in five years in Cleveland, either. In fact, in 46 years as an NFL coach, Belichick was part of just one team that used a first-round pick on a quarterback: The Giants took Phil Simms at No. 7 in 1979, when Belichick was a first-year special teams coach.

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Now, the time has come.

It’s time for Belichick to finally draft a quarterback in the first round — two years post-Brady, and coming off last year’s disappointing 7-9 season.

Oh, there are plenty of valid reasons not to do it. With the No. 15 pick, the Patriots may have to trade up to get a quarterback, and they might not have any of the prospects rated that highly. They certainly have other needs, and there’s a good chance that they could land a top defensive player at that pick. They could use a young cornerback in case Stephon Gilmore and J.C. Jackson aren’t around for the long term, and they could use depth and athleticism at linebacker and defensive end.

All good points. And all beside the point.

You can’t get anywhere in the NFL without good quarterback play. And quarterback is the one major question mark on the Patriots. Cam Newton and Jarrett Stidham are back, but neither is the long-term answer. They may not even be the short-term answer.

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What does the future hold for Cam Newton and Jarrett Stidham?
What does the future hold for Cam Newton and Jarrett Stidham?Jim Davis/Globe Staff

The Patriots spent $175 million guaranteed in free agency, revamping the offense with two excellent tight ends and better wide receivers. But it is all rendered moot if they don’t get good quarterback play.

For the first time in more than a decade, the Patriots are picking high enough where they have a shot at one of the top prospects. And after splurging in free agency, they don’t have many roster holes. The missing piece is a franchise quarterback.

We know Trevor Lawrence is going to Jacksonville at No. 1, and Zach Wilson is likely going to the Jets at No. 2. Reports over the weekend had the 49ers deciding between Mac Jones and Trey Lance at No. 3, and most of the predraft buzz has been with Jones in that spot.

That leaves two quarterbacks: Lance and Justin Fields. The Patriots need to come away with one of them.

Belichick can’t keep pushing off the quarterback decision, hoping that Newton somehow regains his MVP form or the perfect prospect eventually falls into the Patriots’ lap. They can’t keep waiting for Garoppolo to shake free from the 49ers next year.

I don’t think Belichick will need to trade all the way up to No. 4 with Atlanta. In fact, most of the other teams picking in front of the Patriots seem to have taken themselves out of the quarterback derby — the Falcons (No. 4), Lions (No. 7), Panthers (No. 8), and Eagles (No. 12).

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The only other team that looks like it will draft a quarterback is the Broncos, picking at No. 9. If the Patriots want to ensure they get their guy, a trade up with the Panthers to No. 8 should be in play.

The Patriots do have to worry, though, about teams from behind leapfrogging them — Washington (No. 19), Chicago (No. 20), Pittsburgh (No. 24), and New Orleans (No. 28). If the Patriots want to box out the competition, a trade-up with the Giants (No. 11) or Eagles (No. 12) seems reasonable.

So who is the pick? Lance or Fields would be an exciting addition, but for the Globe’s official mock draft, I went with Lance from North Dakota State, with Fields going to the Broncos.

Lance is one of the toughest projections in the draft, coming from a lower level of college football and playing just one game in the last year. But he played in a pro-style offense that required him to do a lot at the line of scrimmage, reportedly has off-the-charts character and intangibles, has the cold-weather toughness to play in Foxborough, and is a terrific athlete.

Lance, 20, wouldn’t have the pressure to start right away, but could develop a role in the offense and eventually take the torch from Newton, maybe even during the 2021 season.

“If Pats trade up for Trey Lance we could be looking at another run for [Belichick],” former Eagles and Browns executive Joe Banner tweeted last week. “That coach, with that QB, on a rookie contract for five years, would be scary for everyone who isn’t a Pats fan.”

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In 2019, Trey Lance threw for 28 touchdowns and no interceptions.
In 2019, Trey Lance threw for 28 touchdowns and no interceptions.Sam Hodde/Associated Press

There is a scenario in which the Patriots skip a quarterback and it isn’t a total disaster. It would still be considered a “win” if the Patriots take a defensive player at No. 15, then find a way to trade into the back end of the first round or the early part of the second round for a quarterback on the next level — Kellen Mond, Kyle Trask, or Davis Mills.

But while plenty of first-round quarterbacks end up becoming busts, history has shown that the lower you get in the draft, the worse chance you have of finding a starting QB.

The Patriots were aggressive in free agency, so why not be aggressive in getting a potential franchise quarterback?

Go get Lance, and don’t look back.


Ben Volin can be reached at ben.volin@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin.