With the NFL free agency and draft both in the rear-view mirror, and the second phase of voluntary offseason workouts underway, the New England Patriots are officially “on to 2023.”
At the moment, the Patriots have a full 90-man roster. Only 53 of those players will be able to survive roster cutdowns and ultimately make the active team, with others competing for practice squad spots. Over the course of spring and summer, just like we have in years past, we will take an in-depth look at the men fighting for those spots to find out who has the best chances of helping New England rebound from a disappointing 2022 season.
Today, the series continues with second-year quarterback Bailey Zappe.
Name: Bailey Zappe
Opening day age: 24 (4/26/1999)
Size: 6’1”, 220 lbs
Jersey number: 4
Contract status: Under contract through 2025 (2026 UFA)
Before joining the Patriots as a fourth-round selection in the 2022 draft, Zappe played a lot of highly productive football at both the high school and college levels. Coming off a senior high school season that saw him throw for 52 touchdowns, he joined Houston Baptist and started 36 games in four years. Along the way, he completed 60.9 percent of his pass attempts for 10,004 passing yards, 78 TDs and 39 interceptions. Zappe later transferred to Western Kentucky, where re-wrote the NCAA record books in 2021.
In his lone season with the Hilltoppers, he went 475-of-686 (69.2%) and finished the year with 5,967 passing yards, 62 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. His yardage and touchdown totals both set new marks in FBS history, and earned him MVP honors in the Conference USA. Zappe still entered the NFL projected no higher than a mid-round draft selection — which is precisely what happened, with New England selecting him 137th overall. Despite his draft status, though, Zappe had a surprisingly active first season in the NFL.
Stats: 4 games (2 starts) | 207 offensive snaps (19.7%) | 92 attempts, 65 completions (70.7%), 781 yards, 5 TDs, 3 INTs | 6 sacks, 4 fumbles
Season recap: As noted above, Zappe arrived in New England as a fourth-round pick in the 2022 draft. While that essentially guaranteed him a spot on the roster, he was not projected to see any extended action in his first season as a pro. Not only was he a rookie quarterback in a notoriously challenging environment, he also entered a team with a clear 1-2 at the position: Mac Jones was unquestioned as a starter after his own successful rookie year in 2021, with veteran Brian Hoyer as his backup.
That constellation remained intact until the final offensive snap of Week 3, when Jones suffered a high ankle sprain that would keep him out for the next three games. With the starter unavailable, Hoyer and Zappe moved up the depth chart: the former would start in Jones’ place, with the latter serving as a game-day backup that would only take the field if push came to shove.
Push came to shove indeed, and just like that it was “Zappe Hour.”
In the first quarter of the Patriots’ Week 4 game against the Green Bay Packers, Hoyer suffered a concussion that knocked him out of the game and, eventually, the rest of the season as well. Zappe’s first game action outside of preseason — when he went 45-of 71 (63.4%) for 462 yards, one touchdown and three interceptions in three games — was what had to be expected: some good and some bad.
All in all, however, Zappe’s play in the 27-24 overtime loss was encouraging and showed that he would be capable of leading the Patriots offense during Jones’ absence. His next two weeks were concrete proof of that: with the rookie at the helm, the team celebrated back-to-back wins against the Detroit Lions and Cleveland Browns.
Zappe played some solid football in those two games and completed 74.6 percent of his pass attempts for 497 yards, three touchdowns and one interception.
Float like a butterfly, sting like Zappe.— NFL (@NFL) October 9, 2022
: #DETvsNE on FOX
: Stream on NFL+ https://t.co/MoX9PRk3fw pic.twitter.com/s8Kc1PHxAP
With Jones returning to practice and being deemed capable of returning to game action, however, Zappe was sent back to the bench. He opened a Week 7 Monday night game against the Chicago Bears as the backup, but entered the game with the Patriots down 10-0 and Jones not looking fully comfortable in his first game action in a month.
What followed was the absolute peak of Zappe fever in New England. He engineered two straight touchdown drives to turn the deficit into a 14-10 lead, completing all four of his pass attempts for 97 yards and one touchdown.
Bailey Zappe to Jakobi Meyers for a TD! #ForeverNE— NFL (@NFL) October 25, 2022
: #CHIvsNE on ESPN
: Stream on NFL+ https://t.co/2HQeNdaFPc pic.twitter.com/sQSRQLKdEo
The rest of that game was not quite as friendly to Zappe, though, and New England ended up losing 33-14. The young passer returned to backup duty for the remainder of the season, and did not see any more game action with Jones fully entrenched into the Patriots’ starting quarterback role again.
Regardless of that second half against Chicago and the final 10 games of the season, Zappe’s rookie year can be seen as a success. The numbers — 92-of-65 (70.7 %) for 781 yards with five touchdowns and three interceptions — tell only part of the story. More importantly, the Western Kentucky product showed that he can play successful football at the pro level despite some obvious limitations in terms of size and arm talent.
What will be his role? Even though the Patriots’ coaching staff preaches “competition” at all times, Zappe seriously challenging Mac Jones for the starting quarterback position should not be counted on. It appears more likely that he will serve as a backup quarterback in 2023 — one that has shown he can step in, and up, in case his number is called upon. Zappe might become a starter at one point in the future, but for now he projects as New England’s QB2.
What is his growth potential? Despite being thrown in at the deep end last season, Zappe accounted well for himself. Nonetheless, he was learning on the fly and some added experience as a No. 2 in both practice and preseason should be able to help him become a better player. Will he ever be an All-Pro at the position? Probably not, but as noted above: he has already shown he can work well and overcome some of his deficiencies.
Does he have positional versatility? Zappe’s Relative Athletic Score — a grade given to each draft prospect based on his measurements — was a rather pedestrian 5.97 out of 10 last spring. His positional versatility at the next level being rather limited is therefore no surprise. He might see the occasional opportunity to carry the ball on scramble drills or sneaks, but he was used as a classic pocket passer in New England’s system in 2022.
What is his salary cap situation? Zappe is entering the second year of his rookie deal with a salary cap hit of $1.03 million: he is set to earn a non-guaranteed $870,000 salary plus a fully-guaranteed $161,768 signing bonus proration. In the unlikely event that he would get cut or traded at one point after June 1, that bonus would turn into a dead money charge.
How safe is his roster spot? As far as former fourth-round draft picks projecting as backup players are concerned, Zappe’s spot on the team appears to be relatively safe. After all, he is the only non-Mac Jones quarterback on New England’s current roster with experience in the system (even though parts of it will obviously look differently under new offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien): fellow depth QBs Trace McSorley and Malik Cunningham only arrived this offseason and have yet to put on a Patriots uniform in a game.
One-sentence projection: Bailey Zappe played some surprisingly solid football in 2022, but him seeing extended action again in 2023 would probably be bad news for the Patriots.