Sleeper Cell: Bailey Zappe
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We've been spoiled the last few weeks. George Pickens. Ken Walker. The rookie talent and the opportunity met in a way that deciding who to write about was very obvious. Welcome to Week 7, where Josh Allen, Jalen Hurts, Matthew Stafford, and Kirk Cousins are on bye. The bar for entry at the quarterback position hasn't been this low in a decade. The Patriots are playing a Bears team that has been picked apart by competent offenses like Green Bay and Minnesota. And the stars are aligned for ... Bailey Zappe?
Yeah, 23 years after Tom Brady, the Patriots have another quarterback who ... okay, no, I can't finish that sentence. I wanted to see how it felt. Zappe does not have the kind of arm strength Brady had as a rookie. But he has shown more than expected in his first two starts, and depending on Mac Jones' status for Week 7, I think Zappe could be an interesting fill-in starter based on how he's played so far. Let's discuss.
The dumb elephant in the room
We don't really know if the Patriots prefer Bailey Zappe to Mac Jones, and we don't really know if that matters or not yet.
It's not altogether unsurprising that Bill Belichick wasn't helpful when asked about the idea of a brewing quarterback controversy. That's kind of what he does. But if you wanted to read it from his mouth, here you go:
The real issue here is the status of Jones' health. Jones has been out for weeks with a high-ankle sprain. The Patriots, taking a page from days of yore, have created an injury report that has no real basis in reality this year. On Thursday they had 12 different players listed with a limited practice, including Jones, who has been limited for about two weeks at this point and feels only a little closer to playing. Damien Harris was limited and listed as questionable -- he also had no chance of playing. New England wound up listing eight different players as questionable. While these listings have some basis in reality for normal teams, the Patriots haven't operated with the idea that they need to tell us what's happening this year.
So Jones could come back healthy, be declared the starter, and all that we discuss has no short-term meaning. I'm okay with that. I am reading into the smoke around this situation a bit, where many of the nation's pre-eminent Patriots reporters are floating the idea that this could be an actual quarterback competition or that Jones deserves to be benched. I don't know that I'd reach that conclusion based on a few games this year, but I did like enough of what I saw from Zappe to figure it was worth talking about.
What Zappe has brought to the Patriots is a quick trigger
Coming in to end Week 4 as a backup for Brian Hoyer, the Patriots ran a screen-heavy, hide-the-quarterback offense to finish out a loss to the Packers. Zappe attempted just one ball over 30 yards all game, and it showed the obvious limitations he'd be working with downfield:
Hose? No. Great throw? Not really, the receiver had to stop on it. But he understood how to get over the underneath defender, and while it wasn't pretty, it worked. That kinda simplifies exactly what it is the Patriots are working with here. But as an actual starter, Zappe has shown more processing speed. In fact, he plays a lot faster than some of the other young quarterbacks out there because he has to.
Armed with a full week of reps in practice for Week 5, Zappe showed up and didn't have a lot to accomplish. He completed 17-of-21 passes for 188 yards and a touchdown, sure. But the Patriots also ran the ball for 176 yards and never really put Zappe in any game script danger. I could write that one off as a game manager start.
But what we saw against Cleveland was much more varied. Zappe hit 8-of-9 passes for 205 yards on throws 10 or more yards past the line of scrimmage. He had to show some playmaking ability, and he had to squeeze some tight throws in, like this one to Tyquan Thornton:
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One of my personal favorite plays from watching this was actually called back because his receiver wound up being out of bounds, but watch Zappe buy enough time in the red zone to get to Hunter Henry in the end zone on the game's first drive:
That is not the kind of move you expect a quarterback of Zappe's physical structure to be able to pull off. He gets himself in trouble on the move, but he settles down, almost pushes the defensive lineman away from him, then zips a tight throw in before the other rushers can actually get to him. It's gorgeous, even though it didn't count.
Zappe currently has the highest completion percentage in the NFL outside of Geno Smith. His 3.4% completion rate over expected per NFL Next Gen Stats is third-highest in the NFL, behind Smith and Jameis Winston. To be sure, he's played some bad defenses and the raw numbers may tell a story that is more impressive than what is actually happening here.
But I was impressed, I know waiting on a Belichick decision to Monday Night is something that you probably won't do this week, but what I saw wasn't someone who played as limited as the tools said he should. I think Zappe can deliver some fill-in QB2 games as long as you're able to spot him away from good defenses. The ball is flying out of his hands as he's blitzed -- the Browns blitzed the heck out of him on Sunday. And he's accurate enough to pick you apart underneath if you don't blitz. I would be stunned if he became a fantasy superstar, but there are like four quarterbacks who actually are that in 2022.
Don't be scared to stream Zappe if you need quarterback help.