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Chief Thoughts: How can the Patriots become a contender again?

Related: Drafting an offseason plan to reload the Patriots for the 2021 season

Super Bowl XLIX - New England Patriots v Seattle Seahawks Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

The New England Patriots are moving on from their worst season in 20 years. The big question looming: How do they get back to being a consistent contender?

I pointedly did not say “revive the dynasty.” Let’s be very clear, folks. The dynasty is dead. And it is bound to remain dead for the foreseeable future. The Patriots’ dynasty was the unique output of the GOAT quarterback and the GOAT head coach intersecting for two decades in Foxborough.

Is it possible that Bill Belichick finds his own version of Steve Young? Of course it is. But even with that incredible stroke of luck, the San Francisco 49ers did not replicate the success they had with Joe Montana. The Patriots’ brass can wax poetic all they want about their “system” to sports writers to help sell books. What happened the two times their system did not have Tom Brady? The system didn’t work.

That’s not to claim that Tom Brady deserves all the credit for the Patriots’ success since taking over as starter in 2001. Football is still a team sport, as Brady’s most recent Super Bowl victory attests. If he had been pressured on 51 percent of his snaps the way Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes was, it is very unlikely he would have lifted the Vince Lombardi trophy.

But even if Brady is not deserving of all of the credit for the Patriots’ dynasty, he still proved himself an integral component of it.

No franchise has approached New England’s status as a dynasty, nor even managed to establish a dynasty period. That’s in large part because the Patriots have made it their mandate to end any would-be usurpers. The Chiefs, Seattle Seahawks, Los Angeles Rams and Indianapolis Colts have all run into the titan that was the dynasty-era Patriots, devoured like the Sons of Cronus, before they could pose a threat.

Could that change in the future without the dynasty-slaying Patriots lurking in the shallows like an alligator on the hunt? Perhaps. But it is worth noting even teams like the New Orleans Saints and Green Bay Packers, despite benefiting from all the ingredients necessary for a dynasty, have failed to capitalize. And that was without the specter of the Foxborough Goliath looming over their conference.

The point is not to decry other franchises — one of which may very well one day replicate New England's success — but to throw into sharp contrasts just how incredible the New England dynasty really was. The idea that it can be replicated without the legendary Brady-Belichick combination is whimsical at best and delusional at worst. The AFC is going to be awash in young quarterback studs like Joe Burrow, Trevor Lawrence and Patrick Mahomes for the foreseeable future. The Patriots are going to have their work cut out for them.

But just because the Patriots cannot replicate the gargantuan success of their past does not mean they can’t be successful. They still possess one of the best coaching staffs in the league and that is one major reason to hope they will not be mired in mediocrity in the post-Brady era. Let’s get started.

Find a top-eight quarterback

A franchise quarterback doesn't guarantee success but the lack of one almost guarantees failure.

In the last decade only a single franchise has made it to a Super Bowl with mediocre quarterback play. That achievement belongs to the 2015 Denver Broncos helmed by, ironically, Peyton Manning. The future Hall of Famer was a shell of his former self and retired immediately after winning his second championship.

Having a franchise quarterback doesn’t mean you are automatically Super Bowl-bound; it doesn’t even mean you will have a winning record (just look at the Houston Texans). What it does create is a realistic margin for error in the pursuit of a ring. In the last ten years, 95 percent of teams have featured above average quarterback plays on their way to a Super Bowl berth. Do you really want to bank on the remaining 5 percent?

“But Chief!”, I can already hear you objecting, furiously typing on your keyboard as you catapult to the comment sections without reading the rest of the article. “Surely, you are wrong and the Patriots know that better than anyone. Just look at Eli Manning. At Cam Newton! At Nick F--king Foles! Not to mention the likes of Joe Flacco, Jimmy Garppolo and Jared Goff! The margin of error can’t be nearly as severe as you are making it out to be!”

Okay, let’s narrow down the criteria.

You need a quarterback who is playing at a top-eight level that season. And if you want to be a consistent contender, which should be the goal, then you need one who consistently plays in that range.

The best season of Eli Manning’s career came when he won his second Super Bowl against the Patriots in 2011. Joe Flacco had arguably one of the greatest postseason runs by a quarterback in NFL history when he won a title in 2012. Colin Kaepernick was Lamar Jackson before it was cool, and, frankly, was a better passer every year the 49ers made the playoffs with him at the helm. Nick Foles had one of the best Super Bowl performances in history. Jared Goff and Jimmy Garoppolo were not particularly impressive during the playoffs but both were Pro Bowl candidates the year they made the big game. Cam Newton won MVP the year he led the Carolina Panthers to the Super Bowl, a feat made all the more impressive when one takes into consideration the support, or lack there of, surrounding him on offense.

Is a 5 percent margin for error perhaps a tad hyperbolic given these generally mediocre quarterbacks who have managed to put together impressive one-year, or less, sample sizes? Sure, but the fact remains that all these teams faltered as soon as their quarterbacks failed to sustain that level of play.

On a broader spectrum the game has also gotten significantly more offense-friendly in the last decade. It’s basically impossible to argue the Patriots can resume their status as a consistent contender without a major upgrade at the quarterback position. The Patriots had the lowest-scoring Super Bowl win in modern history, sure, but in order to get there, Tom Brady had to win a shootout against Patrick Mahomes at Arrowhead Stadium.

The need for upgrading at quarterback is not exactly news for Patriots fans, but I think the sheer importance of finding that range of quarterback deserves to be highlighted.

This all begs the question: How do the Patriots find said quarterback?

The first place to look is on the roster, and, unfortunately, there are zero answers to be found there.

Cam Newton is not the answer. I freely admit that he is probably a better quarterback than what we saw in 2020. But, make no mistake, Newton did plenty to neuter the Patriots’ offense. While Brady was able to maintain middling production with a sub-par supporting cast in 2019, Newton was by most metrics the worst quarterback in the entire NFL — a league where Mitchell Trubisky is a starting QB.

Would Newton look better with better weapons? Absolutely. There is even a world where you put enough around him that you could squint and take him for the answer. But any team would be foolish to build around a player that has such obvious deficiencies. Even if you managed to make it work for one year, Newton would never be a long-term solution and it is very improbable he could get you over the hump to win a championship even if he did have a decent season or two.

This is the point where I should probably mention Jarrett Stidham. There are only two possible reasons Stidham would have sat behind Newton. The first is that Bill Belichick was simply offering up Cam Newton like a sacrificial lamb to protect Stidham. The second is that for as bad as Cam Newton was, Stidham was even worse.

It would be nice to buy into some sort of conspiracy where the former was true but there is strong evidence to suggest that it is not. The quarterbacks were pretty obviously competing at camp, and Cam Newton won the starting gig outright. Stidham has failed to flash much of anything those times when he has been called in to play relief pitcher. You could make an argument that sometimes he looked slightly better than Newton, but we saw nothing to really suggest he’s a meaningful upgrade — keeping in mind that even a meaningful upgrade would still only be average.

We also know that Belichick was playing to win during the 2020 season. He simply doesn’t understand the word “tank”. He was the guy who sat in on all the practices and meetings. If Belichick concluded Cam Newton, as bad as he was, was the best option for the team than Jarrett Stidham, there is no realistic reason to think the youngster is the answer.

I say these things with the same degree of confidence that I predicted the Patriots weren’t a real contender in 2019 and with the same confidence that I predicted Brady going to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers was an extremely realistic scenario. Sports is a crapshoot, and I am as wrong as often as anyone else, but I do have a pretty good track record when I feel a certain degree of confidence. Improvements all across the roster are necessary, and we will get into which are more important than others, but none of those personnel decisions compare to the necessity, and difficulty, of finding a better quarterback. That person simply was not on the 2020 roster.

If there isn’t an in-house solution then what should the plan be?

Franchise quarterbacks are almost never traded and free agent opportunities are incredible rare. Tom Brady and Peyton Manning are probably the only two elite QB prospects to ever hit free agency. The Matt Stafford trade is the closest the NFL has really seen to a franchise quarterback being moved in his prime, and even then, it was trading an up-and-down 33-year-old with serious back concerns. Trading or signing a quarterback also requires the quarterback to want to come to New England, and right now, no quarterback worth his salt would do that with the receivers New England possesses.

Is it possible the Patriots could “bring the mountain to Mohamed” by building a roster that could attract the likes of an aging Aaron Rodgers or Matt Ryan in a couple of years? The Buccaneers proved it’s not impossible, but it’s only a short-term solution at best.

Drafting the heir apparent is by far the most preferable option, and arguably, also the most probable. So how do the Patriots get their man? Per some research conducted by Pats Pulpit commenter suwhited, we know that significantly more QBs from the first round have started in the Super Bowl than all the other rounds combined. When you remove Tom Brady, that meaningful margin grows considerably wider.

No one says you can’t find a franchise quarterback outside of the first round. The Patriots did it. The Seahawks have done it. But it is an exceptionally rare occurrence on top of an already challenging probability. It doesn’t make things easier that the NFL consensus has come to accept that we exist in a quarterback league. Guys like Aaron Rodgers would never slide down the draft board in the modern climate, and teams have become increasingly enthusiastic about adapting their system to fit a quarterback with the tools they like.

So, how can the Patriots draft their man? I think the most optimal and realistic option for the Patriots is to trade up in the draft for their quarterback for the future.

The odds are slim that trading up will work, but the odds are better than any other alternative. Picking at the dead middle of the first round simply does not allow the Patriots the luxury of someone sliding. Obviously, the Patriots cannot force a team to trade and they should not trade up to grab a QB they don’t believe in just to say they grabbed a player at the position. But I think these are obvious caveats.

The Patriots are, and probably will continue to be, a little too good to land the top quarterback prospects without moving. They can’t hope for the fraction of a fraction of a chance that someone falls to them à la Tom Brady in the later rounds. They have to be prepared to make an aggressive move up the board if they identify a talent they believe in. The alternative is really just to pray to Lady Luck someone falls into their lap.

Even if they can’t find a top-eight quarterback, moving up for a quarterback would still probably be the right move. Kyler Murray and Baker Mayfield aren’t exactly world beaters but they have done more to improve the quality of their respective franchises than any draft pick in the last decade. A slightly above-average quarterback on a rookie contract is still a bigger upgrade on a roster without a quarterback than any other given move. And if you miss? Kyler Murray in particular should be noted: the Cardinals took Josh Rosen ninth overall. A massive investment, but Arizona didn’t allow that sunk cost fallacy to deter them from taking Murray first overall the very next year. It was the smartest decision their franchise could have made.

Figuring out the quarterback position is the largest road block to what must be done, but unfortunately it is by far the most important.

Upgrade the receivers to a competitive baseline

As offensive rules have evolved to make things easier and easier for offenses, the value of wide receivers has expanded accordingly. I am not in the camp that believes elite armories are a necessity with the right quarterback and coordinator, but I still think you need a baseline repertoire and that the baseline is much higher than it was at the start of the last decade. The problem for the Patriots is that they aren’t anywhere close to that baseline on paper.

It’s not fair to write off the Patriots’ recently drafted tight end duo, but it would be foolish to bank on the development of two mid-round picks that flashed very little during their rookie seasons. The wide receiver cupboard is completely bare outside of Jakobi Meyers, a technically proficient but athletically limited receiver.

New England needs true dynamism at tight end or on the outside, someone — arguably several someones — who can reliably unfurl against man coverage. The Patriots have proven they don’t necessarily need an elite outside receiver to have success offensively, but that system has relied on a generational quarterback, and, against better defenses, one paired with a generational tight end.

Tom Brady went from producing like a middling-to-poor quarterback to scoring 40 touchdowns and the fewest interceptions by a first-year quarterback in Bruce Arians’ system in Tampa Bay; without a full offseason no less. It is fair to say the Patriots’ receiving corps is the worst in the NFL, meanwhile. Much like the quarterback position, there is no realistic world where the Patriots are legitimate contenders with receivers this bad.

So what can actually be done about it? Drafting a wide receiver in a draft class that might be as deep as last year’s would be a great place to start. Failing that? Drafting Kyle Pitts.

I do want to get the hard numbers regarding his measurables but I think he has the best potential of any tight end I have seen on paper of reproducing a Travis Kelce-caliber career. There are very few tight ends whose play have warranted a mid-first-round pick, but I think Pitts has shown enough juice that you at least need to seriously consider the selection if he were to fall to 15. I actually think he has a better floor than Heisman-winning wide receiver DeVonta Smith.

This draft is a great marriage of need and talent. The Patriots need offensive firepower and this draft’s best qualities are the offensive playmakers up to bat.

The Patriots were one draft pick away from selecting Justin Jefferson, and they missed out on Laviska Shenault, Chase Claypool, Brandon Ayuik and Tee Higgins in favor of a physically freaky Division-II safety. In a vacuum, I am fine with the Kyle Dugger selection in the second round last year, but when you consider the Patriots essentially passed on five first-round-caliber wide receivers — all players who outperformed Dugger and came at a position of crying need — the pick looks like an ugly opportunity cost. It’s the sort of decision making that in a vacuum isn’t terrible, but in context helps explain better than anything why the dynasty died. You just can’t miss at the rate the Patriots have missed in recent years and remain at the top of contention, at least not when you pick near the bottom of the draft and your margin for error is as small as it is.

Imagine if the Patriots had Justin Jefferson and DK Metcalf? Is Brady still on the team in that case? Is the New England dynasty alive and well? These sort of thoughts are partially the advantage of 20/20 vision but what is frustrating is how realistic that scenario truly is. These were players that were highly regarded entering the draft and were well within the Patriots’ range to strike during the draft itself. To an extent it’s hindsight, but to a painful extent it truly is not.

As I mentioned, this draft looks almost as promising as last year’s in terms of offensive talent. It would be borderline unforgivable for the Patriots to make the same mistakes they made the last two years.

The Patriots could easily lose James White and Rex Burkhead in free agency, weakening an already atrocious receiving corps. In my opinion, the draft alone is not a sufficient solution, at least not if the Patriots want to be a playoff competitor in 2021. If they want to pursue a competitive receiving group they will also need to pursue options in free agency as well as the draft. The good news is that unlike the quarterback position, I think there is a very clear and actionable road map to at least start fixing the receiver position.

Build for the future

NFL turnarounds can occur at the drop of the hat. The Jacksonville Jaguars are a good recent example. They went from picking fourth overall to ending the 2017 season as a top-four team.

The fact that teams can affect swift turnarounds does not mean they will, though. There is a context to those sort of reversals. The key formula is almost always blue chip rookie talent that ascends in conjunctions with key free agency acquisitions. To continue using the Jaguars as an example, they had a young core of playmakers headlined by Jalen Ramsey and Myles Jack who turned in career years in 2017. They also added players like A.J. Bouye and Calais Campbell in free agency, who earned All-Pro nods that season.

The Buccaneers are another example. Though they lacked the star power of the Jaguars, they had a young talented team that was beginning to ascend. They compounded that young core with another superb draft. Antoine Winfield Jr. was a plus-starter at a position of need and Tristan Wirfs graded better than any offensive tackle in the Pro Football Focus era in the Super Bowl. They also struck gold in free agency. Tom Brady had a top-five season at the most important position on the field, which by itself was enough to catapult almost any team into the postseason. All three of their other significant offseason acquisitions scored at least one touchdown in the Super Bowl.

Neither case was exactly the same, but both involved a superb free agency that reinforced a quality core in the process of being molded.

What does that have to do with the Patriots acquiring a major wide receiver with their existing cap in free agency?

It comes down to where the Patriots perceive they are at. On paper, signing the likes of Allen Robinson to pair with a guy like Kyle Pitts makes a world of sense. But who is going to be throwing them the football? Will Robinson, turning 28 this offseason, be worth a big contract if it takes two years for the Patriots to find a quarterback worthy of throwing at him? And how much less likely are they to get that quarterback if they splurge in free agency now to buoy their prospects?

To be sure, New England could still be well served by splurging today even if the team does not have all the pieces. A front-loaded contract for a talented wide receiver like Chris Godwin would make a world of sense. He would likely still be playing at a high level in a couple of years, and by front-loading his contract, you could bring his cap down to a reasonable level when you are in a position to chase a ring further down the line.

I’m not saying the Patriots should resign themselves to mediocrity, but a decade of football tells us that a team without a quarterback just isn’t a realistic contender.

Do the Patriots really want to bet all their chips without a realistic option at QB? I think in retrospect they would have been well-served to trade the likes of Joe Thuney and Stephon Gilmore. I will give them a little credit for Thuney, who would still be a need on the team if they hadn’t struck gold on Day Three in the form of Michael Onwenu, something the Patriots could not have known at the time. But even then, one wonders at the intelligence of paying two guards market based contracts.

It seems bizarre that Bill Belichick wasn’t willing to move past Thuney and Gilmore for value when he could, but was preparing for life after Tom Brady when he was coming off the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history. Once again, Belichick the GM seems to have lost his edge to some degree.

Maybe this is a little unfair to him, however. We heard whispers New England was trying to trade Gilmore so perhaps a deal never materialized? The Patriots are notoriously tight-lipped. Perhaps they also attempted to move Thuney but couldn’t find a buyer. Regardless, they will likely lose Thuney in free agency this year. Should they decide to try and move Gilmore again they will be selling him low as he is coming off a down-year that came to a premature end due to injury. That low also is compounded by him being more expensive than he has ever been. If teams would not give up a first-round pick for Gilmore last year, after one of the best seasons by a defensive back in recent memory, they definitely are not going to do it now.

The truth is that I don’t really see the Patriots being that far away from being a playoff contender. Get Dont’a Hightower back from the Coronavirus opt-out list, draft a weapon, sign a weapon, and bring on a quarterback like Ryan Fitzpatrick (one capable of some great games but also capable of some terrible ones who would not be the future of the New England Patriots). Suddenly the Patriots are legitimately back in the playoff hunt. But would they really be a Super Bowl contender? Or would they just be another one of those countless teams they have mowed over in the playoffs the last 20 years? A team that was by no means bad but had no realistic shot at the title?

I think the Patriots need to be very careful about which sort of players they sign in free agency, though. I’m not against spending big on a player who deserves it, but they should make sure it is somebody who is going to be relevant years down the line, because unfortunately, it may be that long before they are a true contender again. That essentially encapsulates my final point.

Stephon Gilmore, Dont’a Hightower, Devin McCourty and Marcus Cannon are good football players. I’m not saying they should all be traded. Teams need veterans to instill certain values and work ethic in their rookies, especially on a ship run as tightly as the one run by Bill Belichick. But at the same time, I don’t think anyone on this roster over the age of 30 should be safe.

I have said for a couple of years now that I respect the so-called organic tank. I think the Miami Dolphins are a good model for how that can work. Brian Flores coached his men hard and you can argue won games when the team probably should not have. But on the personnel side, Miami made moves with a clear eye toward the future by trading older and expensive players while they still had value and signing and extending players who would be relevant for a title push down the line.

Remember, while Miami was being accused of hopping “in the fish tank” they still inked a monster deal with Xavien Howard. They did that because they knew he was a premium talent that would probably remain so during their resurgence. This links directly to what I discussed above and how the Patriots trading Thuney and Gilmore could have positioned the team to be more competitive moving forward when it was obvious that this team didn’t have the horses heading into 2020.

I understand no one wants to watch a bad Patriots team in 2021, but I would contend that two below-average seasons is a price worth paying for a team that could be in contention for five or more years with the right roster and quarterback. The Patriots would be materially worse off without Gilmore, Hightower, McCourty and Cannon in 2021, but can their presence change the outcome of this team’s destiny? I find that doubtful.

Could the draft capital they would bring, even if it would not be as much as Patriots fans would like, be capable of changing the outcome of New England’s season in 2022 and beyond? There are zero guarantees, but there is a real chance it could.

The team functionally bottomed out in 2019, and to Bill Belichick’s credit it is still well-positioned in terms of the salary cap this year. But for a rebuild to succeed a team needs more than cap space, it needs premium rookie talent. It needs an infusion of youth far more than it needs the beloved veterans of wars gone past. The Patriots must commit to building a new team with new legends in the making.

What the Patriots must do

The Patriots are too good of a team to consider a full-blown rebuild in the traditional sense. Unfortunately, sans a quarterback or an impressive young core, they are clearly in rebuild mode in terms of becoming a Super Bowl contender.

There is no easy or painless way to rebuild. It will take time, and a bit of a luck, no matter how deft a team behaves. The Patriots need a quarterback first and foremost, they need offensive weapons that achieve a basic baseline for NFL success, and they desperately need an injection of youthful talent upon whose shoulders long-term success can rest.

Maximizing as much value as he can from the older players on the roster who won’t be around in a couple of seasons and exercising the keen judgement that allowed him to draft the core of the second dynasty between 2010-2014, will be a key for Bill Belichick. Personnel mismanagement may have played a role in this team bottoming out but Belichick is still the same general manager who help keep this team in contention for an historically unprecedented length of time. Name another acting GM who has drafted two quarterbacks who have started in a SB?

I think Belichick is a part of the problem, but it would be absurd to suggest there isn’t a decent chance he can be a big part of the solution as well. And those solutions are fairly obvious for the Patriots even though they are not easy to achieve. One of the best things New England can do is accept the reality of the current roster. They are not building the contender of today. They must build the contender of tomorrow.