The NFL landscape has changed quite a bit over the last 30 years, and teams were forced to do the same along the way. Be it the salary cap and free agency, or a rule book increasingly favoring passing offenses, the organizations that were able to adapt the quickest and stay ahead of the curve were also the ones with the most success.
No team has been better at that than the New England Patriots under head coach Bill Belichick. His ability to recognize trends and properly react to them has allowed him and his team to win six Super Bowls since he came aboard in 2000.
However, this would also not have been possible had Belichick not also held onto his core beliefs — beliefs that were established when he took his first head coaching gig with the Cleveland Browns in 1991. Back then, the future Hall of Famer built the foundation upon which his later success in New England would be erected. This is also the same that he will follow while trying to bring the Patriots back into contention after their 7-9 season last year.
So, how do they look like? NFL Network draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah offered a glimpse into Belichick’s mind last offseason when he shared a handout on social media that he had originally received while working as a member of the Baltimore Ravens’ scouting department in the early 2000s (the Ravens, of course, were born out of the original Browns team that Belichick coached until their relocation to Baltimore).
The entire handout is worth taking a close look at, but for our purposes let’s focus on the one position of need the Patriots might have to address early in this year’s draft: quarterback.
The paragraph about the quarterback position looks as follows:
For 20 years, the Patriots had a quarterback who perfectly fit that description. Tom Brady never possessed the strongest arm nor the most impressive athletic skillset. However, he was as cerebral a passer as any the league has ever seen: his decision making and leadership, in combination with pin-point accuracy, propelled him from a sixth-round draft pick to the greatest quarterback to ever play the game.
With Brady taking his talents to Tampa Bay last offseason, the Patriots are now tasked with finding the next player to fit Belichick’s description. That search proved to be a difficult one last year.
Cam Newton had some promising moments as New England’s starter during a challenging 2020 season — he completed 65.8 percent of his throws and was well-respected throughout the organization — but also did not prove himself to be a long-term solution. Jarrett Stidham, meanwhile, has not “ever really gotten a fair shot” during his second year in the league, as Patriots owner Robert Kraft pointed out earlier this week.
Considering that they are picking comparatively high in the draft and have addressed their major needs at other positions through free agency, the time might be now for the Patriots to go after a quarterback early in the draft. There are plenty of questions, though.
The obvious one is this: Who would fit Belichick’s description?
Leaving presumptive number one overall pick Trevor Lawrence out of the equation, four passers remain as potential first-round targets if New England wants to go that route. BYU’s Zach Wilson, Ohio State’s Justin Fields, North Dakota State’s Trey Lance, and Alabama’s Mac Jones. There are differences between them in terms of stylistics and ceilings, but the main points mentioned in the excerpt above can be evaluated.
When it comes to decision making and accuracy — the two most important aspects named by Belichick — there are highs and lows with every one of those four prospects. Let’s quickly go over them.
Zach Wilson, BYU: Wilson had a tendency to play “hero ball” in college at times while also simply making questionable reads to pass up easier throws. His upside and ability to make every throw in the book cannot be denied, and will likely make him a top-5 selection, but if there is a weak point to his otherwise impressive skillset that would be it. As for accuracy, Ian Wharton has charted him with an overall accuracy of 78.6 percent on catchable throws.
Justin Fields, Ohio State: Fields falls into the same basic category as Wilson, in that you accept some inconsistencies in other areas for his immense upside and outstanding dual-threat skillset. He did show improvement as a decision maker during his 2020 season, but still had some indecisiveness and head-scratching plays from time to time. Given his youth and high ceiling, the team drafting him will hope that those will improve at the next level and with the right coaching. His adjusted accuracy of 81.6 percent was impressive.
Trey Lance, North Dakota State: Lance’s decision making was very good at times but he was also going against lower-level competition than the other three QBs mentioned here. Then again, the coaches at North Dakota State were comfortable enough in him to let him make calls at the line of scrimmage and full-field reads. His accuracy in 2020 was 69.3 percent and lower than other prospects’ particularly in the intermediate and deep range; this doesn’t change his sky-high potential.
Mac Jones, Alabama: Jones might be the best out of this group when it comes to making consistent decisions at the college level. He better continue this development, though, because his athletic skillset and physical upside are substantially below those of the other three men in the Patriots’ realistic first-round targets group. He has to win with his mind, and his accurate arm: Jones hit on 84.2 percent of his catchable throws in 2020. The question is, was this a result of Alabama’s scheme and otherworldly supporting cast?
When applying Belichick’s rules for quarterbacks, Jones appears to be the one best fitting what the Patriots are looking for. Of course, scouting QBs is all a give and take to a certain degree.
Do you invest in Justin Fields’ potential and hope that he gets more well-rounded as a player when sitting behind Cam Newton for a year? Do you trade some accuracy issues college for the developmental upside Trey Lance has? Do you think Wilson can settle down a bit and become less of a gunslinger while still keeping his big-play abilities? Do you believe Jones’ rather traditional game translates to the NFL of 2021?
All of those questions will be determining factors as to how religiously the Patriots might follow Belichick’s basic quarterback descriptions. As mentioned above, however, are other questions as well.
For example, will New England even be in a position to pick one of them? The Jacksonville Jaguars (No. 1) and San Francisco 49ers (No. 3) are safe bets to draft quarterbacks, and with the New York Jets (No. 2) projected to go QB as well, three of the top five might be off the board by the time the Atlanta Falcons are on the clock fourth overall.
With them, the Carolina Panthers and the Denver Broncos also candidates to target quarterbacks high, the Patriots might have to make an aggressive and expensive move up the board to position themselves to go after one of their targets — if they are even that. Considering what the 49ers paid to move up from No. 12 to No. 13, jumping from No. 15 ahead of especially the Panthers will not come cheap either.
Finally, there is one more question New England might have to answer when it comes to Belichick’s notes: Are they outdated?
Belichick formulated those rules 30 years ago, which is an eternity in the NFL. Even since he arrived in New England, the times have changed. Pocket passers like Tom Brady and Mac Jones are going out of style, with mobile passers such as Patrick Mahomes, Lamar Jackson and Kyler Murray taking the league by storm.
Even the Patriots made a drastic shift after Brady’s departure, by bringing in a true dual-threat in Cam Newton. The results were disappointing at times, but Newton was still re-signed for another year — possibly to serve as the starter again, and a mentor for his eventual successor — while the team explored different concepts than those they had run the previous two decades.
That said, given how New England’s offense operates the core elements of Belichick’s QB rules still apply. A Patriots quarterback has to make sound decisions and be accurate, while also rallying the troops around him. Everything else is, to a degree, a secondary concern.
Does this mean Mac Jones is the guy for the team if it targets a quarterback in Round One? Not necessarily, but it shows that even those passers who may be ranked below others due to their somewhat mediocre athletic skillsets or upside can have value for Bill Belichick and the Patriots — even if they have to get them with the 199th overall selection.