When the NFL Draft comes along, it’s like Christmas for NFL fans. Each team will select amateur players out of college in order to add some youth and talent to positions that solely need it. The time between free agency and the draft can be quite agonizing, especially for teams that don’t have a solid plan for the quarterback position.
The New England Patriots are one of those teams and picking 15th overall in the draft will have a tough time getting any of the top tier players at the position.
The only QB on the Patriots’ current roster who is guaranteed a job is Cam Newton, whose cap hit is $5.4 million with $3.5 million guaranteed. Newton is pretty much getting paid backup money while Jarrett Stidham’s in Year 3 of a fourth-round rookie contract. His cap hit is only $1 million and he is a dime-a-dozen QB with some preseason success against bottom-half-of-the-roster players.
For the Patriots to pick a quarterback this year, they are going to take someone who at the minimum can unseat Stidham from the backup role if not outright take the starting job away from Cam Newton.
The biggest adjustments these QBs will have to face at the next level is that they will be dealing with faster and more skilled players. Defenses are more complex and opponents are even more motivated to take the ball away from you since their lives depend on it. Adjusting to a different style and speed of the game is a tough adjustment for young players and isn’t always seamless.
With that said, let’s take a closer look at this year’s class.
Year 1 starters
This group of players will be guys who will push for starts even as rookies. It very much depends on where these quarterbacks end up, although the top tier probably already knows where it is going by now.
Trevor Lawrence, Clemson (ACC), Scrambler
Lawrence has been the presumptive No. 1 overall pick of this year’s draft since crushing Alabama in the 2019 College Football National Championship Game. His platform season was marred a bit by minor injuries and a positive Covid-19 test, but really didn’t do much to change his status this year. He is likely heading to the Jacksonville Jaguars when the draft starts.
Zach Wilson, BYU (Independent), Scrambler
I would feel good for Zach Wilson’s NFL career if he weren’t a lock to go to the New York Jets with the second overall pick. The Jets pretty much locked onto him right around February and a Sam Darnold trade etched this pick in stone.
Justin Fields, Ohio State (Big Ten), Dual Threat
Wherever Fields goes could end up shaping how the QB class starts off. If he goes at the third overall pick to the San Francisco 49ers, I could see him as a backup until the team gets tired of Jimmy Garoppolo. He has the arm strength and mobility to make impact plays as a passer, although he will need a little bit of time to adjust. He’s capable of putting up a huge impact in the NFL in an offense that accentuates his strengths. San Francisco is probably the best fit for him.
If he doesn’t go third overall, the draft will be a mad scramble to see who can land him. There are some teams like Washington or Chicago who might put all their eggs in the Justin Fields basket and hope for the best.
Starters in the right system
This group of QBs consists of guys who are capable of starting for a contender if playing in the right system. They are either inexperienced, have competition level concerns, or some significant flaw in their game that needs work. These quarterbacks should sit for at least one season and maybe a second preseason as well before being elevated to the starting QB role.
Trey Lance, North Dakota State (Missouri Valley/FCS), Scrambler
Lance is a very intriguing player that has somewhat divided the Patriots fanbase. He is this year’s Josh Allen prospect — a small school guy with quality physical tools and intangibles but major red flags that include accuracy, talent, and lack of big game competition or results. At the same time, he comes out of the Alabama for the FCS and a program that has produced Carson Wentz, who was playing on an MVP Level in the 2017 season and a quality starter outside of a dreadful 2020 season where he was set up to fail.
In the right system Lance will be an All Pro; in the wrong system he will be an all-time draft bust.
Mac Jones, Alabama (SEC), Pocket Passer
Jones would have been a top-10 pick in the era of great pocket passers (1980-2010), but could potentially slide right into New England’s lap due to having a dad bod and not possessing a cannon of an arm. He is capable of running an NFL offense efficiently, though, by identifying the pre-snap adjustments to find the right matchup to throw to. His deep ball accuracy is somewhat troubling as he has issues putting touch on downfield passes to receivers who are half a step open. A system where the ball comes out quickly and the receivers are asked to pick up yards after the catch will be where he best succeeds.
In his one year as a starter at Alabama, Jones was able to carry the most talented roster in college football to an undefeated season. That accomplishment is definitely a feather in his cap, regardless of any physical shortcomings. Jones isn’t exciting because he’s strictly a pocket passer, which does limit the number of ways you can beat your opponent on offense. However, I think a QB’s ability to succeed depends more on him being able to identify the right play to use against the defense he sees.
For Jones to have a successful career, he’ll need to follow a similar path as the last great Patriots QB: Tom Brady.
He doesn’t have to match Brady in terms of overarching success — no one will ever do that — but tap into the same intangibles that turned Brady from a player that did not look like a professional athlete into the greatest football player to ever grace the gridiron. What made Brady great from the start was an insatiable competitive desire to be the best football player he can be, which allowed him to shatter any perceived limitations or impossibilities. If Jones is half as competitive as Brady was in his Patriots career, I think they will walk out with the best QB in the 2021 draft.
Kyle Trask, Florida (SEC), Pocket Passer
For better or worse, Trask isn’t that much different from Mac Jones as a prospect. While Jones is being hyped up as a top-10 pick or the next QB for the Patriots by the media, Trask seems to be lurking not that far behind. The biggest difference between the two players is ultimately where their teams ended up finishing: Alabama won the National Championship with a 13-0 record while Florida ended up losing its final two games, a heartbreaker to the Crimson Tide in the SEC Championship and getting throttled by Oklahoma in the bowl game where Trask was throwing to guys that had no business playing that game.
Trask can run an offense efficiently, but his mechanics and deep ball accuracy need a bit of refinement before becoming a capable starter. I would have considered putting him in the third tier below if he wasn’t a perfect system fit for New England. As is the case with Jones, the Patriots will utilize a similar system to the one they ran under Tom Brady. Trask is less mobile than Jones, but in an offense that focuses on quick and rhythmic passing, he is capable of being a quality starter.
This group of QBs features players who are most likely to end up as long-term backups, but in the right situation could be useful fill-in starters. You are not building your roster around these players, but they will make your incumbent backup have to compete for a spot on the team.
Kellen Mond, Texas A&M (SEC), Scrambler
I’m not sure of Mond’s ceiling as a starter, so I put him in the third tier. He does have the longest résumé of all the draft-eligible QBs, with plenty of starting experience. However, despite having Jimbo Fisher as his head coach for three out of four seasons, the Aggies never finished better than 9-4 and Mond’s numbers aren’t that special either.
He is a game manager type who can pick up chunks as a scrambler and can throw with good touch at times, but can make some really head-scratching decisions. I think he is a better prospect than Jarrett Stidham entering the draft, though, so he might be worth taking a gamble on with a second-round pick.
Davis Mills, Stanford (Pac-12), Pocket Passer
Speaking of Stidham, Davis Mills is the 2021 draft’s version of the Patriots’ current backup. He has one year of starting experience at the position — albeit in a very short season due to Covid-19 — and needs a lot of work before being ready to be thrown to the wolves. In his first year, the team that drafts him will probably need to have a more ready backup as the number two while Mills is redshirted. He does throw the ball well with a solid release and mechanics, but he will have the longest adjustment to the speed of an NFL game due to the lack of college experience.
For New England, they should wait to take him until the third round if they haven’t already taken someone else. He will likely long gone by No. 96, though, so the Patriots would have to maneuver the draft board in order to land him.
Jamie Newman, Wake Forest/Georgia (ACC/SEC), Dual Threat
Newman was going to be the starting quarterback for Georgia for the 2020 season as a graduate transfer, but opted not to play due to the Coronavirus pandemic. That was a big misstep as it prevented him from getting the platform season he needed to get drafted higher. Even if he had an average season at Georgia, he would have been a third-round pick at worst. He is probably the only Day 3 quarterback I see giving Jarrett Stidham a run for his money only solely due to the scrambling and rushing abilities that he has.
The other opportunity for Newman to improve his stock came at the Senior Bowl, where QBs like Jones and Mond (who was voted the game’s MVP) raised their stocks. Mond went from a potential fourth- to a second-round guy and Jones went from low first to a top-15 pick. Newman was inconsistent in the game and that kept his stock right around the end of the third to the early fourth. As with any quarterback likely to be selected there, he has some flaws.
Newman’s 2019 was a microcosm for him as a prospect. He started out well by showing accuracy, posting a 20-to-5 touchdown-to-interception ratio, and leading Wake Forest to a 6-1 record. However, as the team struggled with injuries at the receiver position, he went from an early Day 2 guy to an undrafted-level QB in his final five games. Being a dual threat QB a la Cam Newton with strong physical gifts, someone will take a flyer on Newton in the Top 100, though.
Whether or not the Patriots elect to select a quarterback draft will come down to how the position unfolds in the draft. While Lawrence, Wilson, Fields, and Lance are long-shots at best. Mac Jones, Davis Mills, and Kyle Trask make sense if you are willing to style your offense to utilize their accuracy, decision making, and quick releases. The Patriots are only two years removed from the best QB of that style being the lynchpin to their offense, so they know what pieces they will need to make it work.
The other quarterbacks provide some scramble ability where they can extend the play or move the sticks with their legs as opposed to their arms and brains. Mond, Newman, Fields, and Lance are guys who are athletic enough to escape the pocket completely and gain chunk yardage when it’s there for them.
I have confidence that no matter who the QB is that the Patriots will be able to design the offensive scheme around what the player does well — whether it’s a quick-tempo passing attack for the pocket passer types or designing the offense to play off the mobility of some of the scrambling quarterbacks in the draft. The team has solid pieces in its offense with the recent signings of Hunter Henry, Jonnu Smith, Nelson Agholor, James White, and Kendrick Bourne. Personally, I think this team is better built towards a pocket passer who can identify and exploit matchups.
From a fit standpoint, here’s where I would rank them from best to worst fit. This list doesn’t include Lawrence, Wilson, and Fields because they are unrealistic options. Lance barely qualifies because draft day slides do happen and I can’t discount a trade up from No. 15 if it happens:
- Mac Jones: Jones’ intelligence, competitiveness, and accuracy makes him the perfect fit for this Patriots offense. His ceiling is Matt Ryan, a productive QB and borderline Hall of Famer who nearly won a Super Bowl when the pieces came together for one season. The biggest issue will be seeing how he handles adversity, since there wasn’t much of that when he steamrolled his way to a title in 2020. Jones’ chances of making it close enough for the Patriots to execute a trade will depend on what San Francisco does at number three. If Lance or Fields go third overall, then I would handicap Jones’ odds of making it to New England at 50 percent at worst.
- Trey Lance: Lance is the best athlete in this class with prototypical size, athleticism, and arm strength, but he will be taking a serious bump up in competition from the FCS level to the NFL. He has decent intangibles, which makes me think he could have a Josh Allen-type career arc although I don’t think he should be forced in a starting role early on. If media reports are true, Lance may be the third quarterback taken off the board at San Francisco’s pick.
- Kyle Trask: Trask is a watered-down version of Mac Jones. His similar style and traits could make him a mid-tier starter in an offense that features his accuracy and quick passing skills, but he does struggle to push the ball downfield. He will need to work on his mechanics to fix that flaw in his game and probably needs at least two preseasons before being handed any starting role.
- Kellen Mond: Mond is the first quarterback with a shot on Day 2. He has the physical tools, but his decision making is questionable at times and his ceiling is somewhere around Alex Smith in Kansas City: someone who can keep the offense on schedule but not necessarily allow it to run better than designed. If Bill Belichick prefers a QB in the scrambler to dual threat categories, the best one they can probably get is Mond with their second-round pick.
- Jamie Newman: Newman missed an opportunity to improve his draft stock by opting out of the 2020 season, but is the perfect quarterback to back up and eventually replace Cam Newton due to their similar skill sets. Newman would be a solid third-round flyer to take a look at and eventually push Jarrett Stidham out of a job. However, if New England opts for a pocket-style passer Stidham could stick after all.
- Davis Mills: Mills should have stayed in school one more year since an abbreviated season is not going to get him a lot of good evaluations. Mills is this year’s Jarrett Stidham, someone who can throw the ball well in shorts and practice but is fairly inconsistent on game tape.
In the modern NFL we have pretty much had three different types of QBs: your traditional pocket passer, your scrambling quarterbacks, and the true dual-threat. College football has seen a lot more of the latter two categories see opportunities over pocket passers, due to having more options on the offense, although this year’s draft could see a small resurgence in the Tom Brady-style quarterback.
Whether or not the Patriots are the team to lead that possible trend remains to be seen.