FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — The New England Patriots‘ approach in filling their quarterback void can be described in two words: Strategically patient. They are exploring all options — free agency, the 2021 NFL draft and trades.
But their patience will soon be put to the test.
Time is running out, as evidenced by Los Angeles Chargers tight end Hunter Henry‘s recent remarks. Henry will be a top free-agent target if the Chargers don’t assign him the franchise tag, and he told Sirius XM NFL Radio the two most important factors to him will be money and a “good quarterback.” Henry said the quarterback is “huge for our position; it makes things a lot easier.”
Not having a clear picture at quarterback by the start of free agency in mid-March will undoubtedly make things a lot more challenging for the Patriots as they potentially court top tight ends (Henry, Jonnu Smith) and wide receivers (Allen Robinson II, Chris Godwin, Kenny Golladay) to address glaring needs.
And even if coach Bill Belichick decides the draft is the best path forward at quarterback, he’ll still need to do something before then, with only third-year player Jarrett Stidham and practice-squad option Jake Dolegala on the roster.
The Patriots’ M.O. has been to account for as many needs as possible entering the draft, thus giving them the flexibility to select what they deem the best value regardless of position. There’s also the realization at pick No. 15, and with lower odds of making a bold trade into the top five by dealing away a future first-round pick, there’s no guarantee the Patriots will be in the mix for a top quarterback.
One veteran option who could at least temporarily fill the void is Cam Newton, who stumped for his return to New England in an entertaining appearance on the “I Am Athlete” podcast. Longtime captain and safety Devin McCourty is among those who would endorse Newton’s return, noting how the QB was put in a tough spot after missing the 2020 offseason with the team.
But Newton, who threw eight TD passes and 10 interceptions last season, will be a tough sell to a vocal part of the Patriots’ fan base that understandably didn’t like what it saw in 2020. It was always going to be a drop-off from Tom Brady, but the depths to which the passing game struggled– albeit with a lack of top pass-catchers around Newton — was dramatic.
The Raiders face a salary-cap crunch, they need to improve their defense, and Mariota ($10.625 million base salary) might be a backup-QB luxury Las Vegas cannot afford. Thus, if they can land a mid-to-late-round draft pick for Mariota, they might be motivated sellers for a player who could also be in jeopardy of being released.
ESPN NFL analyst Tim Hasselbeck, a backup quarterback in the NFL from 2001 to 2007, could envision Mariota in New England.
“The Patriots love to be value shoppers, Marcus Mariota played really well last year in relief, he’s due just $10.5 million, which means he could easily be paired with a young quarterback,” Hasselbeck said on ESPN’s Get Up this week. “His ability as a runner, but also as a passer, I think it would actually be a great fit in New England and makes a lot of sense.”
Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo might make the most sense for the Patriots, given their background together (2014-17). But the San Francisco 49ers have no urgency to trade him unless they know they have an upgrade in place.
Deshaun Watson would be an option, but the Houston Texans are reportedly telling teams he isn’t available. Meanwhile, the New York Jets might trade Sam Darnold, but that potential QB domino falling doesn’t seem imminent.
Which all comes back to the Patriots and timing.
It’s one thing to be strategically patient — kicking the tires on Matthew Stafford, staying out of the Carson Wentz fray, and studying free-agent possibilities such as Jameis Winston (New Orleans Saints), Ryan Fitzpatrick (Miami Dolphins) and Mitchell Trubisky (Chicago Bears) — at this point of the NFL calendar.
But with free agency approaching March 17, the clock is ticking and could soon force the Patriots’ hand.