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Nine months ago, as the NFL scouting combine was grinding through college prospects, a member of the Los Angeles Chargers’ contingent was tucked into a booth at a suburban Indianapolis eatery, sipping coffee and asking what the Miami Dolphins were up to with the 2020 NFL draft’s fifth overall pick. At the time, the Chargers were immersed in their quarterback evaluations and trying to shape up who would be on the board at the sixth pick.
“You think the Dolphins like [Justin] Herbert?” he asked.
The belief at the time was that Miami was locked onto Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa. Members of the Chargers personnel department wondered whether the Dolphins were telegraphing interest in Tagovailoa to keep a team from trading to the third or fourth pick to steal Herbert. This was important to the Chargers, since they entered the combine enamored with Herbert and hopeful that he would fall to them.
“What is the plan if Herbert isn’t there at six?” a visitor asked.
“If he’s not going to be there at six, I think we’d do something to make sure we got him,” the Chargers source said. “We’re drafting a quarterback in the first, one way or the other — unless the owner wants [Tom] Brady. But I think everyone else on staff would rather have Herbert right now.”
This is the moment that I think about when I watch the New England Patriots. Not because it was a discussion about Tagovailoa — who helped Miami rally to beat the Patriots 22-12 on Sunday — but because the essence of the conversation thoroughly ended up changing the Chargers’ future.
The entire meeting could be summed up like this: Nine months ago, coming off of one of the most moribund franchise relocations in NFL history, the Chargers had a very clear idea about what had to be done to change the future of the franchise. Or more appropriately, who was going to be the person to point the team’s compass in the right direction. That player was going to be a quarterback, and if the personnel department got what it was gunning for, that QB was going to be Herbert.
Nine months later, the Chargers have that foundational player. And if everything goes as planned, they will build the organization around him for the next decade and beyond. That is what makes it a Patriots conversation — because the time has arrived for Belichick to dramatically alter his approach to the quarterback position.
Bill Belichick’s lack of first-round quarterbacks
For his first 26 years as an NFL head coach — five with the Cleveland Browns and 21 with the Patriots — Belichick has never taken a quarterback in the first round. It’s a wild rarity largely fueled by the long, unprecedented success of Brady, but it’s still completely unparalleled in the NFL record books.
In fact, no other head coach in league history has ever participated in 26 drafts and failed to take a quarterback in the first round. That includes the four other coaching legends who are the only ones to log more seasons leading a team than Belichick: Curly Lambeau, Tom Landry, George Halas and Don Shula.
But Belichick? Never. When it comes to expending a first-round pick on the most important position in the game, his abstinence is unmatched.
And now, that has to change.
This is coming from someone who watched Cam Newton through the first two weeks of the season and thought everything was about to change — not only for Newton, but also for the Patriots. For a brief glimpse, he looked healthy, confident and closer to his MVP form than in any other season since 2015. Not only had offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels seemed to have figured out how to fashion a scheme around him, Belichick appeared to be having fun coaching Newton, too.
Eventually, the regression to the mean crept into the picture. The questionable throws into coverage and balls coming up short and inaccurate. There have been some happy feet in the pocket, some turnovers and one mechanically awkward pass attempt after another. It has progressed from the Patriots not trusting Newton to throw the ball to Newton himself not seeming sure about that part of his game. All of which is taking this one-year relationship to a logical conclusion.
Now we know that even if Newton were to remain with the Patriots, it would be as little more than a bridge starter who is destined to hand the team over to someone who is younger, better and represents the future of the franchise. If you need to know what that looks like, check in on Tyrod Taylor, who gave way to Herbert earlier this season with the Chargers.
Belichick needs to identify the quarterbacks in the first round of the upcoming draft who are capable of being franchise players, and then he needs to design a plan to get one of them.
If that means trading valuable picks or other building blocks to move into the necessary position, then that’s what has to be done. Because the fact is, Belichick’s long draft history of middle-round quarterbacks doesn’t represent the ability to change the face of this coming rebuild. Don’t kid yourself about that, either. This is going to be a rebuild. Parts of the defense are too slow or too old for some kind of micro-pivot, even including some of the players who opted out for COVID-19 reasons before the season.
Unless Belichick changes his considerably deep stripes and suddenly decides to blow it out during free agency, this is going to be a team that needs to be built from within. And it’s going to take a few years.
Patriots should follow Chargers’ path with Justin Herbert
The best way to start that process is going to be like the Chargers did with Herbert. Begin by identifying the right player. Figure out where he will be available to you. And then have the fortitude to commit to the process that it’s going to take to develop him and rebuild the franchise the right way: From the quarterback out.
That means no hoping for another late-round lottery ticket score like Brady. It also means saying no to another pretty-good second-rounder like Jimmy Garoppolo. Ditto for another Jacoby Brissett in the third or a Jarrett Stidham in the fourth. The Ryan Malletts and Rohan Daveys and even Matt Cassels need not apply. Belichick has to take a special player at the beginning of his road. An elite and coveted player who isn’t being cast off by another team.
This won’t be easy, of course. Not with the Patriots already having won six games and staring at a pick that will be somewhere deeper into the belly of the first round than most quarterbacks fall. Indeed, it’s likely New England will have to move up for this guy — whether it’s Zach Wilson from BYU or Trey Lance at North Dakota State. Alabama’s Mac Jones might be the guy, too, given that Nick Saban will give Belichick the absolute brass tacks evaluation that he’ll be looking for. Hell, even Ohio State’s Justin Fields can’t be ruled out, if, say, whoever ends up with the No. 2 overall pick isn’t certain that he’s the cornerstone that so many believe he is.
Somewhere in that group, there has to be a player Belichick believes in. Someone who can become the centerpiece that the Patriots need. Someone worth the effort, assets and guile it will require to secure the next decade of success. Because that player isn’t on the Patriots’ roster right now. If it was Stidham, he’d be playing. If it was Newton, he wouldn’t be playing like he is right now.
It’s time. Twenty-six years is a long, impressive and blessed run of never needing to splurge on a first-round quarterback. But that time is over. And even Belichick has to be able to see that.
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