As opposed to the last two years, there are no questions about the New England Patriots’ quarterback situation this time around. Mac Jones is the undisputed starter, with Brian Hoyer and rookie Bailey Zappe the next men down the depth chart.
Of course, that does not mean the position itself is not one to keep a close eye on during preseason. For one, it is the most important on the field. Also, Bailey projects as a potential long-term option behind Jones; his performance during the exhibition portion of the Patriots’ schedule might give us a clue about where he currently stands and is ultimately headed both this year and beyond.
Thursday’s game against the New York Giants was his first chance to prove himself. Entering the game in early second quarter after Brian Hoyer was pulled, Zappe ended up playing 48 offensive snaps. He ended up completing 19 of 32 pass attempts for 205 yards as well as one touchdown and interception each. He also was sacked once and had a 2-yard carry.
Zappe had his ups and downs during the game, but he’s not the first rookie to show inconsistency in their first ever game. Let’s therefore compare how Zappe performed relative to other Patriots rookie quarterbacks during the Bill Belichick era.
2021 vs. Washington Football Team | 13-for-19, 87 yards; 1 sack; 1 carry, 1 yard
Jones may not have been perfect in his first ever NFL game, or encountered the same challenges he would later face during that year, but he still looked pretty good in the 2021 preseason opener. Being on the field for six drives during the Patriots’ game against Washington, he showed why the team had invested a first-round draft pick in him earlier that offseason.
Playing primarily, but not exclusively, with the team’s depth options along the offensive line and at the skill positions, Jones completed 13 of 19 passing attempts for 87 yards. He also was sacked once in his 33 snaps, and saw one successful throw to Jakobi Meyers erroneously ruled incomplete.
That performance alone did not decide the Patriots’ quarterback competition in Jones’ favor but it was an important step on the way to beating out incumbent starter Cam Newton. When preseason was over, Newton was released and Jones named New England’s starter.
2019 at Detroit Lions | 14-for-24, 179 yards, 1 TD, 0 INT; 1 sack; 4 carries, 16 yards
While Brian Hoyer started the game against the Lions, Stidham entered it midway through the second quarter with the team already up 14-0. With the fourth-round rookie at the helm, the Patriots were able to add 17 more points to their total. The young quarterback had a solid statistical performance: he completed 14 of 24 throws for 179 yards as well as a touchdown and one successful two-point pass.
Stidham’s NFL debut was a sign of things to come, at least as far as preseason success is concerned. He ended up going 61-for-90 during his first exhibition slate, gaining 731 yards and throwing 4 touchdowns versus 1 interception. His performance gave the Patriots’ coaching staff confidence to release Hoyer and move forward with Stidham as New England’s QB2 behind Tom Brady.
However, he never failed to prove himself a long-term solution for the team. Stidham had a rough training camp after Brady left in 2020, and spent his sophomore campaign as a backup behind Cam Newton. He served as QB3 in 2021 and was eventually traded to the Las Vegas Raiders earlier this offseason.
2018 vs. Washington Football Team | 2-for-5, 21 yards, 0 TD, 0 INT; 1 carry, 0 yards; 1 lost fumble
While Danny Etling would later have one of the best preseason plays in recent memory — an 86-yard rushing touchdown versus the New York Giants — his debut was pretty unremarkable. The LSU product, who entered the league as a seventh-round draft pick, entered the game against Washington midway through the fourth quarter. He played three drives and 12 total snaps. He completed only 2 of 5 pass attempts and lost a fumble on an aborted snap.
Etling was eventually released on roster cutdown day and added to the Patriots’ practice squad. He did earn a Super Bowl ring on the developmental roster, but failed to earn a permanent spot with the organization: after being moved to wide receiver the following preseason, he was let go for good. Since then, he has been a journeyman who spent time with seven different clubs, including the CFL’s BC Lions. Going into his fifth year as a pro, Etling is currently a backup for the Green Bay Packers.
2016 vs. New Orleans Saints | 7-for-13, 63 yards, 0 TD, 0 INT; 2 carries, 19 yards
The Patriots’ third-round pick in 2016, Brissett entered the preseason opener against New Orleans at the half and ended up playing 28 snaps. He did not necessarily stand out and very much looked like the rookie he was at times, but he still had a solid overall performance despite leading the offense to “only” 10 points on six possessions.
Brissett looked good enough during the preseason that the Patriots decided to keep him as their number two behind Jimmy Garoppolo during Tom Brady’s four-game suspension to open the season. He eventually ended up starting two games, though, before being traded to the Indianapolis Colts just one year later. At the moment, he is in line to become the Cleveland Browns’ starting quarterback for as long as Deshaun Watson is suspended.
2014 at Washington Football Team | 9-for-13, 157 yards, 1 TD, 0 INT; 1 carry, 9 yards
New England had invested a second-round draft selection in Garoppolo, and he very much looked like a viable starter during his preseason debut in Washington. Garoppolo was inserted into the game at the half, replacing fourth-year man Ryan Mallett. He ended up playing 27 snaps over four series, and led the Patriots to their only touchdown of the day (a 26-yard pass to wide receiver Brian Tyms).
Garoppolo had a tremendous preseason as a rookie, completing 46 of his 79 throws for 618 yards as well as 5 touchdowns and 1 interception. His performance was enough to push former third-round pick Mallett off the roster, and it possibly also helped inspire Tom Brady’s late-career surge: with Garoppolo on the Patriots’ roster between 2014 and 2017, Brady was the best quarterback in football and led the team to a pair of Super Bowls.
Garoppolo, meanwhile, was sent to San Francisco. With first-round pick Trey Lance added to the mix last year, however, his outlook became clear; Garoppolo is not expected back with the San Francisco 49ers this season.
2011 vs. Jacksonville Jaguars | 12-for-19, 164 yards, 1 TD, 0 INT; 2 carries, 5 yards
NFL Network’s Bucky Brooks called Ryan Mallett “the steal of the draft” after his preseason debut, and further wrote that “it seems the Patriots have picked up a franchise quarterback with their third-round pick.” With the benefit of hindsight we can say that neither of those proclamations turned out to be particularly accurate: Mallett started only eight games over the course of his NFL career, and none in New England.
His first game against Jacksonville, however, was an exciting one. Mallett entered the contest at the half and led the offense to four touchdowns — including a 16-yard throw to fellow rookie Stevan Ridley. He was unable to build on his momentum, obviously, but for one glorious night Mallett did indeed look like he could become a future franchise quarterback.
2010 vs. New Orleans Saints | 3-for-8, 48 yards, 0 TD, 0 INT; 1 sack
The Patriots picked up Zac Robinson in the seventh round of the 2010 draft, and he saw the field for the first time four months later. He went on to deliver a pretty pedestrian performance: Robinson completed 3 of 8 throws for 48 yards and took one 9-yard sack after entering the game midway through the third quarter. New England did score one field goal on his fourth and final drive.
Robinson’s performance was a sign of things to come. He was released on roster cutdown day, and later went on to spend time with the Seattle Seahawks, Detroit Lions and Cincinnati Bengals. His NFL career ended with zero in-game appearances in the regular season. He now is working as pass game coordinator and quarterbacks coach for the Los Angeles Rams.
2009 vs. Cincinnati Bengals* | 11-for-19, 112 yards, 0 TD, 0 INT; 2 sacks; 1 carry, 1 yard
The asterisk denotes that Hoyer did not play in the first preseason game in 2009, but rather had to wait a week before finally making his NFL debut. When it came, the Michigan State product was solid but not necessarily spectacular: the undrafted free agent played most of the second half against the Cincinnati Bengals and led the Patriots to exactly zero points.
Along the way, though, he completed 11 of his 19 passing attempts for 112 yards. He also was sacked twice, losing 16 yards in the process. Hoyer may not have stood out in his first ever NFL game, but he did enough to earn more opportunities. He eventually took advantage of them to earn the Patriots’ backup quarterback position over former third-round draft picks Kevin O’Connell and Andrew Walter.
Speaking of O’Connell...
2008 vs. Baltimore Ravens | 6-for-13, 57 yards, 0 TD, 1 INT; 2 sacks; 2 carries, 22 yards
Like his entire tenure with the Patriots, Kevin O’Connell’s preseason debut was also rather forgettable. Playing 27 snaps after entering the game late in the third quarter, the third-round draft choice completed 6 for his 13 throws — including a 6-yarder to Matthew Slater — for a total of 57 yards as well as an interception on fourth down. He also took two sacks on the two plays preceding the pick.
That was a bad three-play stretch for O’Connell, who did not look much better throughout his rookie preseason. He ended up playing only two games for the Patriots during the regular season, and was released one year later.
O’Connell did find more success in his second career: he took his first head coaching job earlier this year, and is leading the Minnesota Vikings into the new season.
2007 at Tampa Bay Buccaneers | 6-for-10, 66 yards, 0 TD, 0 INT; 1 sack; 1 carry, 5 yards
After Tom Brady and Matt Cassel split the first half, undrafted rookie Matt Gutierrez entered the Patriots’ 2007 preseason opener in the second. He ended up playing 21 snaps over three drives, including one that ended with a field goal.
Gutierrez final stat line against the Buccaneers may not have been impressive, but his preseason as a whole helped him make New England’s 53-man roster. Serving as the team’s QB3, the Idaho State product ended up appearing in five games during the regular season. His tenure eventually came to an end during 2009 training camp, however.
2006 at New York Giants* | 0-for-1, 0 yards, 0 TD, 0 INT; 1 sack
Like fellow undrafted free agent Brian Hoyer, Corey Bramlet also did not see any action in the preseason opener as a rookie. He was used exclusively on kneel-downs one week later — gaining -3 yards on 3 such plays — before his first real in-game action against the Giants in the preseason finale that year.
The performance was not necessarily one for the ages. Bramlet played six snaps in the fourth quarter and dropped back to pass three times. He threw an incomplete pass, was sacked for a loss of 5 yards one play later, and later had an interception taken off the board due to defensive pass interference. The Wyoming product was released a few day later, effectively ending his NFL career.
2005 at Cincinnati Bengals | 13-for-21, 135 yards, 1 TD, 0 INT; 3 sacks; 5 carries, 46 yards; 1 lost fumble
Fresh off a college career that famously did not see him start even a single game, Cassel entered the Patriots’ preseason opener in Cincinnati midway through the second quarter and as the second QB behind Rohan Davey. While Davey had a rather disappointing performance, Cassel looked very good in his professional debut.
He did lose a fumble, yes, but he also led the Patriots to two touchdowns and two field goals. Along the way, he completed 13 of 21 throws for 135 yards and a 20-yard touchdown throw to Jason Anderson. The Associated Press later wrote that Cassel “outdid his entire college career in his first NFL game.” That statement might have been bold, but it was also partially true: Cassel never threw a touchdown while at USC.
His performance was a harbinger of things to come: Cassel beat out both Davey and Chris Redmond for the third quarterback position behind Tom Brady and Doug Flutie. He ended up spending four seasons in New England — including 2008 as the starter in place of an injured Brady — before getting traded to the Kansas City Chiefs.
2003 vs. New York Giants | 1-for-4, 11 yards, 0 TD, 0 INT; 1 sack
The Arizona Cardinals’ current head coach started his career in the NFL as a sixth-round draft pick by the Patriots in 2003. Kingsbury’s one season with the club was unspectacular — he spent all of it on injured reserve — as was his first game wearing the New England uniform: playing nine snaps after entering the contest in the fourth quarter, he went 1-for-4 and also was sacked once.
Kingsbury did not throw another pass all preseason, and he did also not convince the coaches to keep him around the following summer. He eventually was released on cutdown day in 2004, with his professional career coming to an end in 2007. However, he did turn to coaching a short time later and has had a pretty nice career since.
2002 at New York Giants | 5-for-9, 91 yards, 0 TD, 1 INT; 1 sack, 2 carries, 18 yards
Late in the third quarter of their preseason opener in New York, fourth-round rookie Rohan Davey made his debut for the Patriots. The LSU product ended up playing 16 snaps that day, posting a relatively unspectacular stat-line. While he gained 91 yards on a 5-for-9 passing performance, he also threw an interception one play after taking his first career sack. Davey also gained 18 yards on the ground.
Davey’s biggest play of the day was a 46-yard completion to Fred Coleman that set up an Adam Vinatieri field goal. He eventually ended up making the Patriots’ 53-man roster as a backup QB, and over the next three years appeared in seven games in mop-up duty. Nonetheless, he did earn two Super Bowl rings along the way — thanks in large part due to:
2000 vs. San Francisco 49ers | 3-for-4, 28 yards, 0 TD, 0 INT
On the same weekend that his idol was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Tom Brady made his NFL debut versus his hometown team. The 49ers, who had passed on him in the draft, did not know it at the time (neither did anybody else) but Brady would eventually surpass Joe Montana as the consensus greatest quarterback of all time — and he did so after going 3-for-4 for 28 yards in his preseason debut.
Brady’s career accomplishments and status as the most decorated player the NFL has ever seen is well known. What is not, however, is who caught those three passes that he threw against San Francisco in the 2000 Hall of Fame Game.
The first throw went to Sean Morey for eight yards, followed by a completion to Chris Floyd for eight more. After an incomplete throw intended for Shockmain Davis, Brady and Davis connected on a 12-yarder. Brady, who had entered the game midway through the fourth period, ended up playing 17 snaps that day. The final two of them saw him kneel down to secure his team’s victory — something he has gotten used to over the years.
So, what does all of this tell us about Bailey Zappe’s performance against New York? Not a whole lot considering that preseason has to be treated as such and is not necessarily indicative of any future success.
Tom Brady’s debut was pretty unspectacular, but he turned into the greatest quarterback of all time. On the other hand, Ryan Mallett looked like a sure-fire franchise QB but later flamed out. There simply are too many variables at play, and too big a difference between exhibition and regular season play.
Obviously, though, the Patriots would prefer Zappe to see as little regular season time as possible. He was not drafted to become the team’s starter, but rather to offer quality long-term depth behind Mac Jones.
Zappe still appears to be on that track.