Not many players are drafted and placed into situations where they can learn and succeed early on in their career. Jarrett Stidham — a fourth-round selection in the 2019 NFL draft — was different.
He got to spend his first two seasons being a sponge learning under two former MVPs that are natural leaders in their own unique way in Tom Brady and Cam Newton. He has also learned from journeyman backup Brian Hoyer. Yet, just a year-and-a-half into his NFL career, Stidham’s tenure with the New England Patriots has surely been a whirlwind.
Dating back to March, when Patriots legend Tom Brady announced he was taking his talents elsewhere, everyone’s attention and focus turned to the second-year quarterback out of Auburn and whether or not he would be the one under center come September. This wasn’t because he was the only quarterback on the depth chart at the time, it was due to the maturity and ability to adapt to the Patriots’ complex system in just his lone year in Foxboro.
Everything we’ve heard since he arrived was positive, and indication of how much he had grown inside the building despite being a rookie.
Stidham’s development in year one certainly appeared to have caught the eye of Bill Belichick and his staff early: he completed 61 out of his 90 passes during his first preseason for 731 yards and four touchdown passes — the best preseason out of any rookie quarterback drafted by Belichick, a group that also includes Brady and current San Francisco 49ers starter Jimmy Garoppolo. This outing gave the Patriots confidence in Stidham being 42-year-old Tom Brady’s back up, and in moving on from long-time back up Brian Hoyer.
For most of the 2020 offseason, therefore, all signs pointed towards Stidham taking over the reigns in Foxboro. Immediately after Brady’s departure, the Patriots didn’t panic and jump to find a quarterback through free agency. Instead, brought back Hoyer for his third stint with the team and as someone who knows the way around here like the back of his hand — a veteran leader who Stidham developed a strong relationship with during their brief time together prior to the 2019 season.
New England also didn’t select a quarterback in April’s draft despite many opportunities to do so. While they did add two undrafted rookies in free agency, all signs pointed toward the Stidham experience coming into fruition.
That was until No. 1 came along. With Cam Newton agreeing to play for arguably the biggest bargain the league has ever seen from a former MVP the outlook at the quarterback position for the 2020 Patriots was altered.
Heading into training camp, whether it was a true competition or not, Stidham failed to seize the opportunity in front of him. He repeatedly turned the ball over before sidelining himself with a groin injury, officially closing the book on being the guy in 2020.
Of course, we can’t go into more detail without discussing Stidham’s brief relief appearances both this year and in 2019. He completed just 48.1 percent of his 23 pass attempts over five games for 138 yards and also threw just one touchdown compared to four interceptions. That isn’t doing yourself any favors when it comes to trying to be a competent starter in the NFL.
However, it’s not necessarily fair to judge a quarterback who has repeatedly come in during garbage time in obvious throwing situations and with the defense pinnings its ears back to get after him.
That begs one question, though: Despite not winning the starting job during this obstacle of a year, is it unrealistic to think that he still is in the Patriots’ plans for the future?
Let’s look at Cam Newton, for example. The impact of Covid-19 and the circumstances that caused the lack of an offseason, and him missing time following a positive diagnosis, are brought up repeatedly in defense of the Patriots’ starting quarterback and his at times up-and-down performance in 2020. And while all of this certainly has to be considered when judging Newton, why can’t it be argued that the pandemic affected Stidham and his growth too?
Coming into this year, it was important for the young quarterback to showcase himself, build trust and confidence in his teammates, and show the coaching staff through minicamp, OTAs and a normal training camp that it could trust him to run the show — things we typically see during a normal offseason in the NFL.
Adding to that is the fact that the Patriots were handcuffed by their salary cap situation before a series of Coronavirus opt-outs and thus lacking the ability to strengthen their personnel around whoever was going to play quarterback in 2020. Go ahead and call me crazy, but is it wild to believe Belichick and his staff looked at this situation and said there’s just no way a second-year quarterback, who has performed an entire offseason virtually, could really succeed?
We see it all the time, after all: teams rush their young QBs into playing when they aren’t ready and completely ruin them and their team for years to come.
If we know one thing, that wasn’t going to be the case with Bill Belichick and his staff whenever Tom Brady either retired or took his talents elsewhere. With rushing Stidham to be the guy for 2020 and beyond, it could and probably would have been a disaster given the craziness involved in this year, the strength of the Patriots’ schedule and limited on-field time before the season. We’ve seen Belichick redshirt his players for years now, so why would this be any different even if basically extending beyond Stidham’s rookie season?
However you may feel about Newton’s play this season, his leadership and accountability were something to admire and look up to as a fan, analyst and even player in the locker room. The Patriots had a leadership void to fill when Brady left during the offseason and Newton was able to step in and do just that. What he’s done here was and is not an easy thing to do, though, and he performed admirably given the less-than-ideal circumstances.
Nevertheless, the Patriots may feel that it is time to move on from him following this season just because of the price quarterbacks are paid on the open market. Newton is a free agent this year, and possibly setting himself up for another nice pay day.
There is also the draft to consider. If the season ended today, New England would be picking somewhere in the middle of the first round, likely ensuring that the team would miss out on the top three to four quarterbacks coming out. With other areas on the team needing youth and improvement as well, it wouldn’t shock me to see the Patriots elect to not take a quarterback again in 2021 to bolster their roster elsewhere instead.
While everybody may want to talk about the “bridge guy” that will serve as your quarterback for the time being until you find your guy for the future, is it completely ruled out that Newton isn’t serving that role right now?
At the very least, this year is giving Stidham another opportunity to learn under these wild circumstances while the Patriots are trying to rejuvenate Newton — a process that will either result in him getting another contract in New England or elsewhere. Which may be why the Patriots haven’t turned the page with Newton to Stidham just yet. They are still in playoff contention, technically, and the plan for 2020 has always been to roll with the former Panther this season, win or lose.
But is that also the case in 2021?
Of course, the numbers don’t necessarily strike in Stidham’s favor. History shows that fourth-round quarterbacks don’t typically pan out to be starters in the NFL. However, the Patriots’ recent track record holds out hope for their plans if he indeed is in them. Jimmy Garroppolo was a second-round pick, Jacoby Brissett was a third-rounder and Matt Cassell was a seventh-rounder. They all went out and signed big contracts elsewhere, having started a combined 130 games along the way.
As stated above, when this season is all said and done, Stidham will have spent two full years learning and developing under three different but unique quarterbacks in Tom Brady, Cam Newton and Brian Hoyer.
Oftentimes lost in the argument whether Newton, Stidham, Jimmy Garroppolo or a rookie should be the starting quarterback for the Patriots in 2021 are the circumstances that hurt Stidham’s chances going back all the way to March. Everything coming out of Foxboro was praise and positivity surrounding the young quarterback, and even though they have yet to turn to him in 2020, he is not automatically done.
I’m not making excuses for why Stidham hasn’t been apart of the plan for this year. All I’m trying to say is don’t close the book on an opportunity presenting itself again for him in 2021 — back when the world is hopefully normal again.