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Patriots 2021 offseason preview: Quarterback remains New England’s biggest question

Related: Exploring every potential quarterback option for the 2021 Patriots

San Francisco 49ers v New England Patriots Photo by Kathryn Riley/Getty Images

While the NFL playoffs are still underway with eight teams left standing, the New England Patriots are already in the process of turning their attention towards what lies ahead: after not qualifying for the postseason for the first time since 2008, the offseason has arrived at Gillette Stadium — and it will be one of major intrigue considering that the 7-9 squad has a long list of players scheduled to enter free agency once the new league year begins.

With that in mind, let’s break down where the Patriots stand at this point in time one position after the other. Today, we kick things off at quarterback.

Jake Dolegala

Age: 24

Experience: 2

Contract status: Under contract through the 2021 season after signing a futures contract with the Patriots.

2020 review: Despite showing some promise as a rookie in 2019, the Cleveland Browns decided to part ways with the former undrafted free agent during final roster cutdowns in September. Just 10 days later, Dolegala arrived in New England via the team’s practice squad. With the exception of four days in November, he spent the remainder of the season on the Patriots’ developmental roster. He has yet to appear in a game for the club.

2021 preview: After signing a futures pact with the Patriots earlier this month, Dolegala could get an opportunity to compete for a roster spot on the team over the offseason and in training camp. That said, anything more than him earning a backup role should not be expected as his fate appears to be directly tied to what New England opts to do at the quarterback position in free agency and the draft.

Brian Hoyer

Age: 35

Experience: 12

Contract status: Set to enter unrestricted free agency on March 17.

2020 review: After a one-year stint with the Indianapolis Colts, Hoyer returned to New England on a one-year free agency pact last March. The deal coupled allowed him to compete for the starting spot in Year One after Tom Brady, and even though he did not earn it the veteran did enter the season as the backup behind Cam Newton.

As such, Hoyer appeared in one game: he started the Patriots’ Week 4 contest in Kansas City following Newton’s Covid-19 diagnosis, but after a disastrous outing was relegated to the third spot on the depth chart moving forward. Hoyer ended the 2020 season as a healthy scratch for 12 consecutive weeks. His final stat-line had him with 15 completions on 24 pass attempts for 130 yards and an interception.

2021 preview: While his comparatively advanced age and final spot on the quarterback depth chart would speak against re-signing Hoyer in free agency, the Patriots might have a vested interest in doing so nevertheless. After all, he is a respected leader in the locker room and has spent considerable time in New England’s system throughout the years. While this did not translate into much on-field success in 2020, it could help the team possibly transition to a new starting QB next season in case Cam Newton is not retained.

Cam Newton

Age: 31

Experience: 10

Contract status: Set to enter unrestricted free agency on March 17.

2020 review: After his release by the Carolina Panthers in March, the former league MVP had to wait more than three months before finding a new home. He did eventually find one, however, when the Patriots signed him to an incentive-laden one-year pact. The deal did not pay Newton on the same level as other NFL quarterbacks of his résumé, but it did give him an opportunity to compete for a starting spot and set himself up nicely for the 2021 free agency period.

Newton did in fact earn the QB1 role and looked solid early on in the season. His positive Coronavirus test and the subsequently missed practice time, however, contributed to him and the offense as a whole stagnating for most of the remaining season. Newton still had some impressive moments, but his inconsistency in combination with a weak skill position supporting cast all contributed to him failing to elevate the unit around him.

All in all, Newton finished the 2020 season with 15 in-game appearances. He completed 65.8 percent of his passes (242 of 368) for 2,657 yards as well as 8 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. He also carried the football 137 times for 592 yards and 12 additional scores. He also was voted a team captain.

2021 preview: Even though there was some speculation about Newton’s future heading into the season finale against the New York Jets, the 31-year-old should still very much be on the Patriots’ radar in free agency — even if only as a bridge option until another quarterback is ready to take over. A full offseason with the Patriots and improved supporting cast, after all, should help him get more consistent and improve after a disappointing 2020 season.

That said, the market and the Patriots’ overall plan at the position will determine Newton’s outlook heading into free agency. How does New England value his contributions on and off the field in 2020? What role would he play on a hypothetical quarterback depth chart in 2021? Do the Patriots project any room for growth, or do they feel Newton has hit his ceiling within the system? Questions like these will decide whether or not he will be back.

At this point in time, Newton returning to New England therefore appears to be on the table just like him taking his talents elsewhere.

Jarrett Stidham

Age: 24

Experience: 2

Contract status: Under contract through the 2022 season. Stidham has a salary cap hit of $1.01 million in 2021.

2020 review: Following Tom Brady’s departure and no immediate follow-up moves in free agency and the draft, Stidham was projected to serve as the Patriots’ starting quarterback in 2021. However, things went downhill fast for the second-year man: some shaky ball security and a hip injury both contributed to him losing the starting job to Cam Newton, and eventually dropping all the way down to the third spot on the depth chart.

After three straight inactivities to open the season, Stidham did get a chance to show his talents during the Newton-less game in Kansas City: replacing a struggling Brian Hoyer, he entered the game in the second half but went only 5-of-13 for 60 yards with one touchdown and two picks. Nonetheless, his performance was enough to elevate him to the number two position behind Newton after the Patriots’ Week 5 bye.

In turn, Stidham appeared in four more games — entering the contests late each time with the games already out of reach one way or the other. All in all, he finished his sophomore campaign with a 50-percent completion rate (22 of 44) as well as 256 passing yards, 2 touchdowns and 3 interceptions.

2021 preview: Evaluating Stidham based off five relief appearances is tricky considering the circumstances, but it is hard not to call his 2020 season a disappointment. He had a chance to win the starting spot but couldn’t, failed to impress during his in-game opportunities, and also failed to challenge Newton even when it became clear that the veteran would not be the answer to New England’s offensive questions.

All that being said, the 24-year-old appears to be in the mix for the starting spot yet again heading into the new season. He is still young and an improved supporting cast could give the Patriots’ coaching staff more confidence throwing him into the fire. Is it therefore possible he makes a leap in 2021? Sure, but whether or not it is likely based on all that we have so far seen from him is a different question — one with not as positive an answer.