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How far away are the Patriots from competing for a Super Bowl again?

Related: ‘Next-step mentality’ has Jakob Johnson looking to build on successful 2020 season

New England Patriots Return Home From Super Bowl LIII Photo by Jessica Rinaldi/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Former New York Jets head coach Herm Edwards said its best: “You play to win the game.”

Edwards’ division rivals during his five seasons with the Jets have done just that quite a bit during the last 20 years. No team in the NFL was as successful as the New England Patriots since the dawn of the new millennium, with the organization winning six Super Bowls and establishing itself as the first and so far only dynasty of the league’s salary cap era.

The times they are a-changin’, however, and the Patriots are also not immune. Last offseason’s exodus that saw the departures of multiple franchise cornerstones — above all quarterback Tom Brady — left the team understaffed in some crucial areas. The result of this in combination with the difficult environment created by the Coronavirus pandemic led to New England going just 7-9 in 2020 and missing the playoffs for the first time in 12 years.

Along the way, some critical flaws were exposed. The quarterback succession plan appears to be non-existent; the offensive skill position talent is among the worst in the NFL; the defense is lacking starting-caliber talent in the front seven; the recent draft classes have not produced as many difference-makers as one would like to see.

Add it all up and you get a team that seems to be in full-on rebuild mode. The question becomes when that process will be over and the team ready to compete for a championship again.

Patriots beat writer Mike Reiss thinks the Patriots are still some years away. He participated in a recent survey conducted by ESPN, and categorized New England in the fifth lowest of six tiers — “On the upswing” — and still as three years out. His rationale was as follows:

Strategy for becoming a Super Bowl contender: After taking a one-year hit on the salary cap in 2020 to pay past bills, the Patriots are well positioned with around $60 million in projected cap space this year. They can potentially capitalize in a rare year when a significant number of teams might have to shed quality players due to a cap crunch. Using that strong financial standing to improve a roster with notable holes is where their strategy begins.

Biggest X factor: Finding the next quarterback, and then giving him the best chance for success by improving the talent at receiver and tight end. The Patriots still have Bill Belichick, one of the game’s all-time great coaches. How Belichick stocks the roster at those key areas — among others — will shine a spotlight on his personnel prowess as he attempts to return the franchise to prominence in the post-Brady years.

As usual, Mike hits the nail right on its head. On the one hand, the Patriots are in a solid financial position — their projected salary cap space of around $59 million is among the top-four in the NFL for this offseason — and thus capable of filling some holes on their roster through free agency. On the other hand, however, they need to find a new quarterback to build around and hit on their investments at that and other positions.

Ultimately, all of this plus some other factors such as health and potential coaching/front office changes will determine just how quickly the team can return to contention again. The three-year estimate is therefore not an implausible one, especially considering the team’s quarterback situation.

And that is where the biggest question lies: How quickly will improved performance at the quarterback position help turn things around, ideally on a team that has taken advantage of its financial potency to upgrade the supporting cast around said QB?

For the sake of the argument, let’s say the Patriots invest one of their early draft picks in a passer like Alabama’s Mac Jones. While he could come in as the new starter right away and immediately play at the appropriate level, there is a realistic chance that he will not even be New England’s QB1 come the regular season: the combination of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic and the Patriots’ notoriously challenging offense would put any player, let alone a rookie, in a tough spot.

Just take last year’s highly-drafted quarterbacks as a reference. Five were picked within the first two rounds, but only one was named the starter ahead of the season: number one overall selection Joe Burrow, who led the Cincinnati Bengals onto the field and posted some impressive numbers in a difficult spot.

Burrow completed 65.3 percent of his throws for 2,688 yards as well as a 13-to-5 touchdown-to-interception rate before an ACL injury ended his rookie year just 10 games in. He was quite good, but actually not the best quarterback from the 2020 rookie class — a title that belongs to the Los Angeles Chargers’ Justin Herbert as the table below shows:

2020 rookie quarterbacks

Quarterback Draft pick Game started Snaps Attempts Completions Yards Touchdowns Interceptions Rating
Quarterback Draft pick Game started Snaps Attempts Completions Yards Touchdowns Interceptions Rating
Joe Burrow 1-1 10 709 404 264 2,688 13 5 89.8
Tua Tagovailoa 1-5 9 571 290 186 1,814 11 5 87.1
Justin Herbert 1-6 15 1,097 595 396 4,336 31 10 98.3
Jordan Love 1-26 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 N/A
Jalen Hurts 2-53 4 334 148 77 1,061 6 4 77.6

While it is not impossible the Patriots get similar production to Burrow or Herbert out of a rookie quarterback in 2021, it does seem somewhat unlikely.

Not only are the reasons stated above — Covid-19 plus New England’s complex offense — working against a rookie quarterback, there is also the uncertainty surrounding the supporting cast. Add the fact that Burrow and Herbert were seen as superior prospects than those likely available in the Patriots’ range this year, and you get why similar production might be a pipe dream from the team’s perspective.

As a result of all of this, it is not unreasonable to think that New England might bring in a bridge quarterback to help with the transition to said rookie. It could be Cam Newton, who already has a year of starting experience in the system, or his backup, Jarrett Stidham, or another veteran passer brought aboard during the offseason. Either way, they would not be considered long-term solutions.

With that in mind, the three-year span outlined by Mike Reiss does seem like a realistic projection. That said, the NFL is anything but predictable and the Patriots were still tied for the 17th best record last season despite all their issues. That is obviously not good enough to compete for a championship (unless you are going for the NFC East title), but it also shows that they are not in need to start from scratch.

Building a long-term plan quarterback and spending the free agency resources wisely are the first steps to build a foundation. The Chargers and Justin Herbert, who were categorized as in the second of six categories formulated by ESPN and “on the cusp of contending,” are a good example for that.

And if that foundation is a firm one, the Patriots could very well return to contention quicker than the three-year frame given above. If not, however, the glory days of January football at Gillette Stadium will be nothing but a fond memory for years to come.

But before we get to that second point, New England and head coach Bill Belichick will do what they have always done: try to follow Herm Edwards’ mantra and “win the game.”