The New England Patriots will have to ask themselves a question they never had to answer in the last two decades: Who will be our starting quarterback on opening week? Since 2002, coming straight off the organization’s first Super Bowl win, the answer to that question was Tom Brady every single year. With him announcing his departure from the organization on Tuesday, however, the search for an heir has begun.
New England will have numerous options, but not all of them are realistic. Let’s therefore break them down in four categories — the in-house options, the free agency options, the trade options, and the draft options — to get a clearer picture on who is available, and who might actually have a chance of succeeding the greatest quarterback of all time.
The in-house options
With Brady not returning for a 21st season, the Patriots are currently on their way to entering the new league year with two quarterbacks on their roster — both likely getting a shot at earning the starting role in place of the future Hall of Famer:
At the time being, Stidham appears to be the favorite to not just beat out Kessler to end up higher than him on the quarterback depth chart in 2020 but also to win Brady’s old job. A fourth-round draft pick last spring, he showed a lot of promise over the course of his first training camp but eventually had to settle for limited in-season playing time as the Patriots’ primary backup quarterback. Nevertheless, his upside looked good and combined with his age — Stidham turns 24 in August — and a manageable salary cap of just around $830,000 makes for an intriguing option to build around.
The same could be said about Kessler as well, but he is more of a wild card. The former third-round draft pick is on his fourth team and failed to establish a role on the Cleveland Browns, Jacksonville Jaguars and Philadelphia Eagles. The 26-year-old has the experience over Stidham, but it seems as if his upside within the system is comparatively limited after he served as the third option for most of the 2020 season. That being said, Kessler is valuable as a depth player and potential challenger to push the second-year man ahead of him on the depth chart.
The free agency options
If New England wants to look to the open market, there are some starting-caliber players still available to be brought in. Their potential price tags in combination with the Patriots’ limited salary cap space makes for a difficult situation, though. Nevertheless, here are options that might be on New England’s radar if they become available on Wednesday:
With Teddy Bridgewater headed to the Carolina Panthers and the Las Vegas Raiders bringing Marcus Mariota on board, the free agency market at quarterback is down to two big-name options and a bunch of experienced but low-upside backups.
The former group consists of Philip Rivers and Jameis Winston, who have proven themselves capable of playing successful football in the NFL but are still no safe bets heading into 2020: Rivers is 38 and will have to adapt to a new system, while Winston is as up-and-down a player as any in football. Both could work in New England, but will likely be comparatively expensive for what they have to offer in the long term and/or the risk associated with them.
The second group, meanwhile, does include some former starters but they have not shown that they are capable of successfully leading an offense on a week-to-week (or even play-to-play) basis in the past. Experience is on their side, which makes them potential options as low-cost veterans to be brought in to compete against Stidham and Kessler. Expecting more out of them would be unrealistic, however.
The trade options
New England may have limited salary cap space available, but the club has 12 draft picks at its disposal as well as a roster that is deep at some positions like running back and cornerback. Moving one of those assets to another team to get a quarterback on board might therefore be an option Realistically, the following passers could be on the Patriots’ target if they want to explore the trade market:
Jacoby Brissett, Indianapolis Colts
Derek Carr, Las Vegas Raiders
Andy Dalton, Cincinnati Bengals
Nick Foles, Jacksonville Jaguars
Nick Mullens, San Francisco 49ers
Cam Newton, Carolina Panthers
The trade market appears to be much more attractive than what is available via free agency at the moment. Cam Newton and Nick Foles are former league and Super Bowl MVPs, respectively, while Derek Carr and Andy Dalton were multi-year starters with their teams. All four of them are certainly capable of playing successful football in this league, and have proven themselves throughout the years. They also might benefit from a change of scenery.
If the Patriots do not want to go after big names, however, they could opt to target Jacoby Brissett and Nick Mullens. While the former is an ex-Patriot, who was with the team during the 2016 season and started two games for the team in place of Jimmy Garoppolo (who himself started in place of Tom Brady), the latter has been a depth player in San Francisco since arriving via undrafted free agency in 2017. Despite their youth, however, they also have starting experience on their side.
Could the Patriots go after the two to fill Brady’s shoes, or explore other trade options? It certainly seems possible if only to add veteran depth alongside Stidham and Kessler.
The draft options
The Patriots are currently scheduled to draft 23rd overall in late April, which realistically puts the consensus top quarterbacks — Joe Burrow, Tua Tagovailoa, Justin Herbert — out of their reach. A trade-up might be an option, but New England might rather use their first-round selection to trade down and take advantage of the overall depth in this year’s draft. Non-first-round quarterbacks, meanwhile, are a bit of a gamble and not guaranteed to find success in the Patriots’ challenging system.
The odds of the team going after a quarterback in the draft to insert him into the starting lineup right away therefore seem rather low at this point in time.