Patriots Mailbag: What's the realistic 2021 plan at quarterback?

Phil Perry
·11 min read

Perry's Mailbag: What's the 2021 plan at quarterback? originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

* Every Friday during Patriots season, Phil Perry tackles all your questions in his Patriots mailbag. Among the topics this week: Cam Newton's future, adding a big-name WR in free agency, and potential targets in the 2021 NFL Draft.

I wouldn't peg them as likely. There's still time for the picture to change, no doubt. But, in my opinion, it's going to be tricky for Cam Newton and the Patriots to thread the needle in such a way that it makes a lot of sense for the marriage to continue.

If he plays the way he has the last six quarters -- a sizable "if" given the quality of the defenses those six quarters have featured -- then I think he'll be worth a lot of money to a quarterback-needy team in free agency. Washington, with former Panthers coach Ron Rivera, for instance, would make a lot of sense. Should the Patriots be willing to spend $20 million or more on Newton to keep him around?

On the other hand, if Newton doesn't play well enough to garner consideration for a lucrative new contract, is it worth spending another year with him as the starter? To me, he'll either play well enough to price himself out of New England . . . or he won't, and it won't make much sense to keep him in-house.

Maybe he'll be willing to take less to play in New England. Maybe there won't be a robust market for him in free agency with a fairly deep-looking quarterback class in next year's draft. There's certainly a path to Newton sticking around, as our Tom E. Curran laid out this week. I'm just not sure it'll end up that way. 

As for the taking-the-quarterback-high-in-the-draft thing, we haven't seen Bill Belichick's hand forced this way in New England. The closest he got was working with a Hall-of-Fame quarterback in his late-30s and trying to play for the future by drafting someone in the second round. The quarterback situation is now more . . . let's just say pressing.

The Patriots understand the importance of the quarterback position in today's NFL. They understand the advantages associated with having a quarterback on a rookie contract. I thought the Patriots would take a passer high in the draft in each of the last three drafts so it's hard to pin down what exactly their plan will be. But I think this has to be the year they take the plunge and start taking top-of-the-draft shots on quarterbacks. 

I think it's pretty clear he has liked throwing to big targets in the past. If and when his throws are a little off the mark, it can help to have pass-catchers with wider catch radii. But whether Newton is here or not, spending some money on one of the bigger-bodied wideouts in free agency would make some sense.

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Chris Godwin and Allen Robinson are all 6-foot-1 or taller and any of them would immediately become the team's best skill-position player. I'd like the idea of Kenny Golladay (6-foot-4) as well. He might be the most cost-effective option of the bunch because he's dealt with injury this year and has been limited to five games.

Patriots Talk Podcast: Lamar Jackson is the one that got away, so don’t lose Cam Newton | Listen & subscribe | Watch on YouTube

A second-rounder would probably be a little rich for me if I was Bill Belichick or Nick Caserio. Josh Rosen fetched that second and fifth after just one year in the league. A case could be made that he was salvageable, that he still had upside headed into his first full offseason as a pro.

Perry: Is Jackson -- not Garoppolo -- the one who got away from Pats?

Sam Darnold, meanwhile, will have had three full seasons under his belt going into this offseason when the Jets should have a crack at Trevor Lawrence. The results haven't been pretty. I think there's a case to be made that Darnold is a harder-to-fix prospect than Rosen was when he was dealt because there's just so much bad tape out there on Darnold right now. That's why, to me, a third-rounder makes more sense and I'd be comfortable with that

My thoughts? The Patriots might've just landed themselves the third-best quarterback in a draft class loaded with talent at that position. Trevor Lawrence is No. 1. Justin Fields, who would be No. 1 most other years, will be No. 2.

I think BYU's Zach Wilson could make the same kind of meteoric rise that others at his position -- look at Joe Burrow last year -- have made with a dominant final collegiate season. Wilson might not have been considered a first-rounder three months ago. But not only is he now in that conversation, but he's steadily improving his résumé with each passing game and could be considered a better prospect than North Dakota's Trey Lance by the end of it. (If that happens it wouldn't be because of anything Lance could control. His season was wiped out -- save for one game -- because of COVID, and Wilson is posting video-game numbers against better competition.)

Zach Wilson's thoughts about potentially joining Pats in '21

Wilson carved up a solid Boise State team just last week, posting 51 points as he showed off a quick release, arm strength, accuracy on the move and good athleticism. If the Patriots can land either Lance or Wilson, I think they should sprint to the podium to turn in the card, if that's how it'll be done next spring. Or hit "send" as quickly as possible if things are still digital.

Whatever. You get the idea. He'd be worth the dart-throw in the first round. 

I really like Jaylen Waddle, too. Not only does he have great speed, but he looks like their type of guy in that he could play inside or out. He can return kicks. He might be the No. 1 guy on our list of Prototypical Patriots at his position this spring. Unfortunately for him, he'll be working back from a pretty serious ankle injury.

But if he makes a full recovery, and if the Patriots aren't willing to pull the trigger on a quarterback for whatever reason, he'd be near the top of the list for me when it comes to non-passers worthy of Bill Belichick's attention early in the draft.

There will be. Though everyone I've spoken to has said that it won't necessarily be the big-name types who'll end up cap casualties. It'll be the mid-tier vets who are considered relatively replaceable by younger players on cheaper rookie contracts.

If that's the case, the Patriots may be licking their chops more than most because they've loaded up on those middle-tier vets more so than any team in the league in recent years. We've gone into that trend in detail over the last few years. Giving good players, known commodities, second contracts or new deals in free agency rather than going with younger players was beneficial for the Patriots as they tried to max out Tom Brady's championship window. Those players were ready to go.

Belichick bristles at question about Patriots' track record in NFL Draft

Of course, if the Patriots had drafted more consistently, then the argument could've been made that they wouldn't have had to lean on those middle-tier veterans so heavily. We'll see if they want to continue to buy, buy, buy on those types of veterans this offseason or if they go with a more top-heavy approach with fewer more highly-paid vets and more players on rookie deals.

I'd still make the case that 2018 was his best job. That offense was not particularly good. They changed their identity mid-season. They won a Super Bowl with, I would argue, less talent than they've ever had.

I think 2001 should be in the conversation, but I'd go with 2018. A .500 season in the middle of a pandemic would be pretty impressive with this roster, but I don't think we'll be considering it one of his two or three best seasons.

This, to me, would be a good week to throw bodies at the problem. Yes, Brett. If the Patriots can stop the Ravens on the ground on first down and force Lamar Jackson into longer down-and-distance situations where he has to throw . . . they can give themselves a fighting chance.

Perry: The key to an unlikely victory vs. the Ravens

This isn't the same offense the Patriots saw last year from a physical toughness standpoint. Those multi-tight end sets aren't used quite as extensively (33 percent of snaps) as they were last year (41 percent of snaps), and they've lost both Marshall Yanda (retired) and Ronnie Stanley (injured). That means if the Patriots devote enough resources to stopping the run, they might be able to do it occasionally. Then you make Jackson a passer, which isn't necessarily what offensive coordinator Greg Roman wants to do.

Like that call. We'll see, right? But a division with Trevor Lawrence (if he goes to the Jets), Tua Tagovailoa, Josh Allen and Bill Belichick seems like it has the potential to be one of the best divisions in football. How the Jets solve their coaching situation and how the Patriots solve their quarterback situation will determine whether or not the division can make that leap.

Think they'd be able to stick and still end up with a promising quarterback. Trading up for the guy they love would be worth it, though. Look at how the Chiefs identified Patrick Mahomes and paid to rocket up the board. Worth it.

I don't believe that's an option.

Week 4 of 2023. Mark it down.

Thanks, as always, for all the questions, friends. Let's do it again next week.