After two decades of high-quality quarterback play, the New England Patriots struggled to consistently move the ball through the air following Tom Brady’s departure. With the future Hall of Famer gone and veteran Cam Newton struggling in a difficult environment — from his late arrival, to his Coronavirus diagnosis, to a sub-par supporting cast — the organization is back at square one at the most important position on the field.
How it will proceed at quarterback moving forward could very well determine the course of the team for years to come. That said, while other teams have actively addressed their issues at the position already — most recently the Indianapolis Colts, who acquired Carson Wentz via trade from the Philadelphia Eagles — the Patriots have been relatively quiet.
So, what is their plan? That remains to be seen, but one of the most connected people in the NFL believes that they might make a run at a veteran QB: Field Yates, a former Patriots intern and SB Nation alumnus, recently shared his 2021 starting quarterback predictions over at ESPN and decided to go with current Las Vegas Raiders backup Marcus Mariota.
Yates wrote the following about Mariota and the Patriots’ quarterback situation heading into what projects to be a pivotal offseason for the team:
The Patriots are among a group of teams that are too far from the top of the draft order to be a likely landing spot for the top-draft-prospect quarterbacks, meaning we’re examining other veteran options who could be logical fits. While a Cam Newton return isn’t totally ruled out, it’s an unlikely option. The 27-year-old Mariota is under contract for one more year with the Raiders but carries a cap charge of $10.725M, an unlikely tab for them to pay for a backup in a cap-tightened year.
Be it via a trade or cut, Mariota could find a new home this offseason ... and the Patriots are a logical fit.
Before taking a closer look at the overall premise of the prediction, let’s take a quick detour to what Yates has to say about reigning Patriots starting quarterback Cam Newton: a return is not ruled out, but an “unlikely option.”
Given Newton’s aforementioned struggles during the 2020 season, New England moving in another direction this year would not come as too big a surprise: he has not proven himself as a long-term solution at the position, despite being well-respected within the organization for his leadership during a challenging campaign. The NFL is a production-based league, however, and Newton simply failed to deliver as a passer last year.
While the circumstances cannot be disregarded either, the Patriots and the soon-to-be free agent parting ways therefore appears to be the most realistic outcome at this point in time. Of course, things change quickly in the NFL and there still is a theoretical chance that Newton is eventually re-signed after all to serve as a bridge option until a new quarterback — possibly a draft pick this year — is ready to take the reins.
If New England moves on from the former league MVP, however, bringing another experienced player in to hold down the fort at quarterback will be key: the Patriots would be smart not to place their entire trust in a quarterback group consisting of a possible rookie as well as third-year backup Jarrett Stidham and practice squad QB Jake Dolegala.
Marcus Mariota would therefore make sense if the Raiders decide to move on from him. Their apparent commitment to Derek Carr plus Mariota’s comparatively high salary cap number for a backup — $10.7 million in 2021 — makes him a candidate to be let go either via trade or straight-up release.
An argument can be made that the Patriots should wait for the second scenario to take place, but doing so could eventually lead to a free agency competition that might drive the price beyond what it currently is. Sending a low-level draft selection to Las Vegas to acquire a young player on a manageable contract can therefore be seen as a realistic move from New England’s perspective, probably to complement a young developmental option being added via the draft as well.
So, what kind of player would New England get? Pats Pulpit’s own Brian Hines wrote the following about Mariota earlier during the offseason, perfectly summing up what the 27-year-old would bring to the table:
In his one game of action this year, Mariota certainly impressed. He threw for 226 yards and a score while adding another 86 yards and a score on the ground. The former Oregon Duck looked like what many thought Cam Newton would look like this year — a dynamic runner on the ground who was able to buy time in the pocket and make some strong throws. It was a small sample size, but Mariota certainly flashed starter potential. After getting replaced by Tannehill in Tennessee, perhaps Mariota could have a resurgence like his successor. If New England enjoyed the dual-threat quarterback, Mariota could be at the top of their list.
Mariota himself brings plenty of experience to the table to take over the bridge role that might have been Newton’s in 2021 as well if not for his struggles last year. He was drafted in the first round back in 2015 by the Tennessee Titans and started 61 regular season games and two playoff contests for them before losing the starting job to Ryan Tannehill. Along the way, Mariota did post some solid albeit not necessarily overwhelming numbers.
All in all, he completed 62.8 percent of his throws before leaving Tennessee last year for a combined 13,670 yards as well as 80 touchdowns and 45 interceptions. Mariota also added 1,487 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns on 255 carries.
Like Newton before him, he might not become the long-term face of the Patriots franchise — although a Tannehill-like turnaround in a new environment is not out of the equation. However, Mariota could still prove himself an upgrade at the quarterback position while the team is trying to find the player to eventually succeed Tom Brady for more than just one or two seasons.