With one month to go until the NFL’s 2021 draft, madness. A series of trades shook up the draft order on Friday afternoon and saw the Miami Dolphins, San Francisco 49ers and Philadelphia Eagles move all over the board.
It started with the Dolphins sending the third overall selection that they had obtained via trade in the first place to the 49ers. San Francisco paid a premium, sending its own first-rounder as well as additional picks in 2022 (first plus third) and 2023 (first) to Miami. Then, the Dolphins moved up the board again to get from No. 12 to No. 6 in a trade with the Eagles — one that saw Philadelphia acquire a 2022 first rounder in the process as well.
When the dust had settled, the first round of this year’s draft was shaken up quite a bit. The same has to be said about the New England Patriots’ chances of drafting a top-tier quarterback this year: the odds of them landing one of the top four or five passers look significantly worse because of how the draft board is currently set.
With that said, let’s take a closer look at how Friday’s trade bonanza impacts the Patriots.
Trading up will be quite expensive
Coming off the most aggressive free agency period in recent memory, New England is left with only one big hole on its roster. Despite Cam Newton being re-signed to a one-year contract two weeks ago, the Patriots still have no long-term solution at the quarterback position under contract.
We know this, and they do as well.
The question is what the Patriots will do about this. We know they are actively scouting the projected top five — Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence, BYU’s Zach Wilson, Ohio State’s Justin Fields, North Dakota State’s Trey Lance, and, a notch below them, Alabama’s Mac Jones — but they may not be in a position to pick one of them unless they move up the board like the 49ers just did.
Newton is a solid fall-back option, especially in an offense with a much-improved supporting cast, but the plan still has to be to try and grab a passer this year. The stars just have aligned perfectly to do that: New England is drafting as high as it has in more than a decade, and has also created a friendly environment for any developmental QB.
There are some intriguing later round options, but the top-five clearly stand above the rest this year. And if the Patriots want one of them, they might have to trade up.
What would such a trade cost? Today’s moves give us a clearer picture of the market.
The 49ers just gave up three firsts and a third-round pick to climb nine spots from No. 12 to No. 3. Coming from No. 15, New England would likely have to give up a similar haul to leapfrog the other teams that are realistically in the quarterback market: the Detroit Lions at No. 7, the Carolina Panthers at No. 8 and the Denver Broncos at No. 9.
Given the possible competition to move ahead of those teams, investing this year’s first-rounder, Day One picks in 2022 and 2023, and additional resources may not even be enough. The market will be a hot one, especially if their will be a run for the next pick in line after San Francisco’s (i.e. the fourth overall selection).
Obviously, using at least three first-round picks to get one player even at the most important position on the field is a gamble. If the Patriots do identify their guy and are convinced in his upside within their system, however, it could very well be worth it. It is a quarterback’s league, and New England does currently not have one under contract that inspires much long-term confidence.
Atlanta is the team to watch now
Considering that Trevor Lawrence is projected to go first overall to the Jacksonville Jaguars, and that the New York Jets are the favorite to land Zach Wilson at No. 2, this means that only two of Justin Fields, Trey Lance and Mac Jones will make it past San Francisco.
And that is where the fun really begins for the Patriots — and for the Atlanta Falcons.
After bringing in a new head coach and a new general manager earlier this offseason, the Falcons now have every option available to them. They can either go after their top-rated non-quarterback, bring in a potential successor for long-time franchise QB Matt Ryan, or swing a trade. It is not unreasonable to believe that they will have plenty of suitors for that third option.
Out of the four teams seemingly competing for Atlanta’s pick, the Panthers appear to be in the worst position. Why would the Falcons make a trade with their division rivals to help them get a franchise quarterback?
That leaves the Lions, Broncos and Patriots.
Detroit just acquired former first overall pick Jared Goff via trade, but the team does not appear to be married to him if a better option with more long-term upside comes along. Assuming one of Fields, Lance and Jones gets drafted by the 49ers, the Lions might try to move up as well. The same is true for the Broncos, who should try to find an upgrade over Drew Lock.
New England might have the most urgency, though. The team built a pretty deep roster in free agency, and is only missing one piece. If one of Fields, Lance or Jones fits the mold from the Patriots’ perspective, moving up to get them in a trade with the Falcons makes plenty of sense.
But even if the price to climb to No. 4 is too steep for Bill Belichick’s liking, there is another option as well: the rebuilding Cincinnati Bengals at No. 5 might be willing to move down as well in order to acquire additional capital to keep building around Joe Burrow. Or maybe even the Lions at No. 7 as well, if a good offer comes along.
One thing seems certain, though. Four quarterbacks being selected with the first four picks is a real possibility. And if the Patriots want one of them, or even the fifth-rated Mac Jones, they might have to be aggressive — something they have been all offseason.
Jimmy Garoppolo’s future is up in the air
Even though he has started just two games as a Patriot, Jimmy Garoppolo has always been a popular player in New England. He did look good in his few performances between 2014 and 2017, after all, and there were unsubstantiated rumblings that Bill Belichick saw him as the future and only parted ways with him because owner Robert Kraft intervened at the behest of Tom Brady (which never happened).
With San Francisco now set to draft a quarterback, Garoppolo’s future is very much in question. That is especially true given that he still has two seasons on his contract and is scheduled to play — or sit — at salary cap hits of $26.4 million and $27 million.
While the club has repeatedly said that it will not trade Garoppolo at this point in time, and could see him as a bridge option this season, it is difficult to see him return in 2022 if the 49ers indeed go in another direction at quarterback. And make no mistake, they will do that. Why else would they have traded up?
This, of course, rekindles the fire that is Patriots-Garoppolo speculation. There are plenty of questions left to be answered, though.
Would the 49ers be willing to part ways with Garoppolo if New England offered something like a high Day Three pick? Or would they rather keep Garoppolo as a high-premium bridge quarterback just two years after he led the club to the Super Bowl?
What would the Patriots be willing to give up in the first place? Do they even see him as an upgrade over Cam Newton? And, if so, would Garoppolo follow the Trent Brown example and restructure his present deal to return to his old stomping grounds?
There are plenty of loose ends, but New England will keep a close eye on the situation. Garoppolo may not be Plan A, but if the price to trade up turns out to be too high or no top-five quarterback makes it into a realistic range he could turn out to be a solid Plan B.
Of course, the aforementioned Cam Newton variable cannot be ignored. If the Patriots are more confident in Newton to lead their current offense than they are in Garoppolo, they might stay put even if a trade opportunity presented itself. In tun, they would probably try their quarterback luck again next draft.
All in all, the Patriots’ chances of getting a top-tier quarterback just took a hit
It is not only the 49ers trading up, but also the cost associated with the move that might take New England out of the quarterback competition unless one of them falls into its lap at No. 15 (Mac Jones is the most realistic candidate for that to happen). Accordingly, the Patriots now appear to be far less likely to get a top-tier quarterback than they were just a few hours ago.
The Patriots have been aggressive this offseason, and will likely try to continue to do the same in the draft. However, they will not change their approach entirely just because the quarterback position is the one in question.
New England has always been known for being patient. The team therefore won’t overspend too much (some overspending will be necessary to trade up anyway) even if it means passing up a chance to get a long-term franchise quarterback. That has never been Bill Belichick’s way, and it seems there is only so much flexibility built into it.