Even with Cam Newton being brought back on a one-year contract, and with Jarrett Stidham proactively attacking the offseason by organizing a passing camp in California, the New England Patriots are in need of a long-term solution to their questions at the most important position on the field. They need a quarterback, plain and simple.
New England knows this as well, with the organization doing its due diligence on seemingly every passer available leading up to free agency. No moves came from this just yet, but that does not mean that none will follow in the future.
In fact, the Patriots set themselves up over the last week to aggressively pursue a quarterback in the upcoming NFL draft.
For starters, they re-signed a well-respected leader in the locker room with plenty of starter-level experience just before the market opened last Monday. Despite his issues during the 2020 season, Cam Newton gives the team a solid fall-back option at the quarterback spot — and be it only until a new passer added via the draft becomes ready.
Re-signing Newton is not an indication that the Patriots will go that route, but it certainly puts them in a good position to do that. After all, he is playing on a comparatively cheap contract: the former league MVP, who first arrived in New England last offseason and went on to start 15 of a possible 16 games, will hit the team’s salary cap with only $5.5 million — 12th highest number on the team, and just 30th among all quarterbacks in football.
Investing limited resources in the most pivotal of positions may not seem like sound business, but it actually makes sense in the Patriots’ case. Why pay big bucks for another outside hire when you can keep a proven commodity at a fraction of the cost?
Doing that, in turn, allowed New England to be aggressive in free agency. The tight end position was completely rebuilt with Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry arriving on four- and three-year contracts, respectively. At wide receiver, Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne will add some much-needed athleticism and playmaking ability — two things the Patriots’ passing game lacked during its difficult 2020 campaign.
Having a cheaper quarterback on the roster put the club in a position to use its available cap space on rebuilding an offensive skill position group devoid of established talent last year. It therefore created a setup favorable not just for Newton, should he retain the starting spot, but also a young passer being added to the equation.
Their spending spree might have looked like it was out of character for the Patriots, and was oftentimes misinterpreted as Bill Belichick operating under the pressure of ex-quarterback Tom Brady having won a Super Bowl in Year One after leaving New England, but it is actually nothing out of the ordinary. The team did tackle free agency like this before, and we may be able to learn from this experience.
The setup was a bit different in 2017, though.
Fresh off a second Super Bowl win in three years, the Patriots were among the league leaders in salary cap space. They spent their resources on outside additions such as cornerback Stephon Gilmore and defensive tackle Lawrence Guy — two players who would play pivotal roles on the defense the next four years and eventually be voted to New England’s Team of the 2010s — as well as running back Rex Burkhead. They also re-signed linebacker Dont’a Hightower and safety Duron Harmon.
With a roster well-stocked across the board, the Patriots went looking for what was seemingly a missing piece. They found it via trade: New England sent first- and third-round draft selections to the New Orleans Saints to acquire Brandin Cooks and a fourth-round pick.
Cooks was a good addition. He gained over 1,000 receiving yards, helped the Patriots reach the Super Bowl for a second year in a row, and eventually was traded again the following offseason for another first-round pick.
The wideout itself is not what this detour into the 2017 offseason is about, though, but rather what the trade to bring him aboard represents. After already using its cap space to shore up most holes on its roster, New England identified one that still needed to be addressed even if it meant sacrificing considerable draft capital.
The 2021 Patriots are far less proven a team than their 2017 version. However, they do have one prominent open spot that still needs to be tackled.
Free agency did not see New England do that, at least outside of the Newton re-signing. However, the club did fill multiple roles by using its available capital just like it did four years ago. The Stephon Gilmores and Lawrence Guys of today are named Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry and Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne.
The foundation has been built, now it appears to be time to make that final move. And the Patriots’ free agency spending plus a good draft position should allow them to do just that.
While currently “only” slated to pick 15th overall next month, they have the resources to move up the board if one of the four viable quarterbacks — BYU’s Zach Wilson, Ohio Sate’s Justin Field, North Dakota State’s Trey Lance, Alabama’s Mac Jones — should become available. It will be costly depending on the size of the trade-up, but New England has shown a willingness to use its draft picks to make bold moves before.
Back in 2017, this left the Patriots with only four selections and none before the third round. The following three years, the team selected 29 players, including 13 in the first three rounds. Combining this influx of young talent with an active free agency period this year created a roster with few clear possibilities for first-year players to crack into the lineup — just like in 2017.
The Patriots have positioned themselves to make an aggressive move on draft day, and this time the quarterback position should be the target.