“Huh?” was the collective reaction from Patriots fans. “Don’t they already have three quarterbacks?”
The other sound came from the quarterbacks room at Gillette Stadium.
Hoyer’s return makes the quarterback room awfully crowded. The Patriots haven’t kept four quarterbacks since 2000, and that fourth QB was some guy named Brady.
We know Mac Jones isn’t going anywhere. That means Cam Newton and Jarrett Stidham are potentially on the hot seat. Stidham, especially, can’t be feeling very comfortable right now.
Here’s the way it looks right now in Foxborough: Newton is the starter; Bill Belichick made sure to announce that right away on the night Jones was drafted. Jones is the QB-in-waiting, whom Belichick would prefer to sit for all of 2021. Hoyer is Jones’s mentor, allowing Newton to just compete and do what he needs to do. And Stidham, the 2019 fourth-round pick, looks like the odd man out.
Plenty can change between now and September, of course. Stidham could have a great camp and make himself too valuable to discard. Hoyer could be released at the end of training camp. Jones or Stidham could outplay Newton in training camp and make Newton expendable. Or perhaps Hoyer could be placed on the expanded practice squad, though that would depend on the NFL and the Players Association agreeing to continue last year’s COVID-19 roster rules.
But all signs point to Stidham being the one left without a seat at the table.
First, consider that Belichick stuck by Newton as his starter throughout a disappointing 7-9 season in which the Patriots finished 27th in points and Newton struggled badly in December. Belichick had every reason to give Stidham a few starts at the end of the season, and, tellingly, didn’t. Stidham has thrown four interceptions and taken five sacks in just 48 career pass attempts.
Then look at the contracts. Newton has only $3.5 million guaranteed, but the Patriots already paid $2 million of it, his signing bonus (plus he’s currently earning a $100,000 offseason workout bonus). The Patriots usually don’t like to pay people to not play for them.
It would cost the Patriots only $3.5 million in dead salary-cap money to release Newton, and $2 million if they trade him, so it can’t be ruled out. But as a starting quarterback, Newton is cheap; his salary-cap number of $5.4 million ranks 11th on the Patriots and 28th among NFL quarterbacks. Belichick genuinely likes coaching Newton, and it is not unreasonable to expect better production out of Newton in 2021 with a second year in the system and upgraded teammates around him.
We don’t know Hoyer’s contract yet, but last year he played for a minimum salary with nothing guaranteed. Assuming it’s similar this year, Hoyer certainly could get released if Stidham has a great camp, or placed on the practice squad.
But Belichick signs Hoyer knowing exactly what he is — a quarterback whose value is in the film room, in the locker room, and on the practice field. Belichick probably doesn’t want to see Hoyer in a game, but he’ll be great for showing Jones the ropes.
“He just has Brady written all over him,” a former Patriots player told me recently. “He spent so much time around Tom in his career, that I think he just tries to bring some of the same things to the table.”
It also doesn’t seem as though Belichick wants Jones to play much, if at all, this season. Jones has a lot to learn about NFL defenses and a Patriots offense that demands the quarterback be an expert at pre- and post-snap recognition. Even if Jones makes great throws in the preseason, Belichick has no need to rush him into the starting lineup.
“The thing is, it is not that hard for a rookie quarterback to learn the basics of his team’s offense pretty quickly,” former Eagles and Browns executive Joe Banner wrote for The 33rdTeam. ”The real challenge is learning other teams’ defenses and learning all the things they may do and how to read that before the ball is snapped.”
Hoyer, a 35-year-old journeyman who is happy to still be drawing an NFL paycheck, is much better suited for the mentor role than Newton, who is battling to reestablish his reputation after a poor season. Don’t take that as a knock on Newton. He has no responsibility to do anything but make himself and the 2021 Patriots the best they can be. Brady didn’t exactly embrace Jimmy Garoppolo, much as Joe Montana was frosty toward Steve Young, and Brett Favre to Aaron Rodgers, and Rodgers now to Jordan Love.
Finally, there’s Stidham. His contract is a Catch-22: It’s cheap to keep him, or cheap to move on from him. Stidham is making the third-year minimum of $850,000 this year. His cap number of $1.009 million ranks 49thon the Patriots. So if the coaches love his performance in training camp, it will be no sweat to keep him. One would think that Hoyer would be jettisoned before Newton in this situation, but anything is possible.
On the other hand, it costs next to nothing for the Patriots to release or trade Stidham. His contract has no guaranteed money and has just $318,000 in dead salary-cap money, which would be split over the next two years.
While Stidham still has a chance to prove himself this training camp, there’s a reason the Patriots brought back Newton and Hoyer and drafted Jones. Stidham didn’t rise to the challenge last year, and, if we’re being fair, the expectations placed on him by some media and fans were completely unfair. Fourth-round quarterbacks are much likelier to flame out after a couple years than develop into competent players.
Stidham is down right now, but he’s not out. He could have a great camp and make Hoyer or Newton expendable. The Patriots are paying so little to their quarterbacks (Newton, Jones, and Stidham combine for about $9.3 million in cap dollars) that maybe they keep all four, or put Hoyer on the practice squad.
But there usually aren’t enough footballs for four quarterbacks, especially when you’re trying to develop a first-round pick.
Someone is probably going to be left without a seat, and Stidham can’t be feeling great about his prospects right now.
Ben Volin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.