Is Bill Belichick primed to trade up for a quarterback in the 2021 draft?

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Doug Farrar
·7 min read
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Friday marked Bill Belichick’s 69th birthday, and the third-winningest regular-season NFL coach and the winningest postseason coach in league history is in an interesting spot with his Patriots team. Belichick had to sit back and watch Tom Brady win yet another Super Bowl, and this time, without him. Belichick’s own offense with Cam Newton at quarterback was far from spectacular, New England’s defense regressed precipitously, and the Patriots had a losing record (7-9) for the first time since 2000 — Belichick’s first season in New England. Owner Robert Kraft made recent comments about Belichick’s draft strategy, and though the Patriots re-signed Newton to a one-year contract that has $5 million in base value and $9 million more in incentives, Newton is not the obvious long-term solution.

This leaves the Patriots in an interesting position with the 15th overall pick in the draft, as Belichick said Thursday.

“Each draft is a little bit different, so each year’s a little different,” Belichick said, when asked whether he looks at who he believes might be available at 15, as opposed to anticipating other teams trading up. “But all that being said, I think at 15 we can eliminate a few players that won’t be at 15. And then you could look at couple scenarios and say, ‘Well, if these three players are there, which one would we take? If these other three different players are there, which one would you take?’ You go through that exercise and talk about that but I’d say normally, something, there’s less options at 15 than there are at 28, 30, 31, some other spots we’ve drafted from, but I’d say normally something would happen and there could very well be a player there that either you don’t expect to be there or maybe he is a couple spots, maybe at 12, 13, he’s still on the board and you really thought that he’d be gone in the top six, seven picks.

“Then the question comes, do you move up and try to get that player that’s fallen a little bit? Those are kind of the scenarios you got through. Which players would you move up for to get? Which players would you not move up for that you would wait and decide whether you want to pick them at the spot you’re at and what players, if certain players weren’t there and you felt the value of that pick might be the same whether you’re at 15 or a lower position… again, it’s the same thing in every round but you’re talking about the first round.

“I think the best thing we can do is do our homework, know the players, know the board and when we walk into the room for the final exam and see the questions on the test when it comes our turn to pick or maybe spots in front of our pick, then we have to potentially start making some decisions. Sometimes people will come to you with opportunities that you may not have anticipated and you have to make those decisions then, as to whether or not you would want to move your selection pick up or down, depending on what the offer is and so forth. So, a lot of its fluid but there are certainly those scenarios that are worth going through as exercises to think about and to kind of prepare, I’d say, more often than not, the ones that you go through don’t happen. It’s usually something a little bit different. But, you never know. Again, it’s a good exercise.”

It could be more than an exercise if Belichick has a long-term quarterback in mind who he believes could define his final years with the Patriots in a positive sense — however many years those final years may be. Belichick hasn’t had two straight losing seasons as a head coach since the Browns went 20-28 in his first three seasons there (1991-1993). The Patriots added tight ends Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith, as well as receiver Nelson Agholor, to make their offense more explosive, which would make it a good time to get the quarterback of the future installed and invested.

Belichick isn’t concerned about recent trends indicating the need for a more mobile quarterback — at least, that’s what he said Thursday — which might have people thinking that Alabama’s Mac Jones could be his guy. Jones has nearly every attribute but second-reaction ability and general mobility, but his pocket movement skills bring Tom Brady to mind, in an embryonic sense.

“I think every team has their own style of play, their own type of offense,” Belichick said about the trends toward more mobile guys. “So, you’re looking for a player that will fit your style or maybe you want to adapt your style to that player. I think that’s really the way it is when you draft almost any player. If you have a player that has a certain skill set that’s an impact player no matter what position he plays, you probably want to try to accommodate and play to his strengths, utilize his skills the best you can, no matter what position it is. Honestly, I’m not that concerned what the general trends and all that are. Just trying to help our team and find the best methods we can to make our team as competitive as we can, whatever that entails, and there’s certainly a lot of chapters in that book, a lot of different ways to do it. Yeah, ultimately I think you want to enhance the skills of your players no matter what position they play.”

And that’s the primary question. What is the Patriots’ preferred quarterback style going forward? Is it Brady, or is it Newton? It’s possible that even with all the success he had with Brady, Belichick spent 20 years wondering what he could do with someone of Newton’s specific physical gifts, and it’s just as possible that due to a truncated off-season, a receiver group in transition, and Newton’s own unfortunate COVID issues, that offense just never had a chance to get off the ground. Belichick, whose history with such quarterbacks goes all the way back to the early 1990s when he was the Giants’ defensive coordinator and he had to deal with Randall Cunningham twice a season, probably has scads of ideas he still hasn’t been able to implement.

“Whatever the players are at whatever position you’re talking about, that if you want to enhance their skills, then you want to adapt a little bit of what your scheme is to do that,” Belichick concluded. “That’s really the decision you have to make. We’ve had a couple different styles of player at that position, and we try to do that in those examples.”

In my most recent mock draft, I had the Patriots moving up to the fourth overall pick, trading with the Falcons, and selecting Ohio State’s Justin Fields. That’s one way to go. Belichick has traded up before — twice in 2012 to get linebacker Dont’a Hightower and edge-rusher Chandler Jones, in 2003 to get defensive tackle Ty Warren in 2003, and in 2002 to acquire tight end Daniel Graham. So the common canard that he only trades down is just that.

The combination of a coach well into his career, a team with a clear need at the game’s most important position, and a free agency period designed to set up the Patriots’ next quarterback up for success might create the perfect storm for the big move. Belichick isn’t revealing anything, obviously, but don’t be surprised at all if it happens.