Patriots 2021 NFL Draft Preview: Quarterbacks
That time of year is upon us once again. A part of the year that requires as much time, effort and focus as anything I do. A Barstool tradition that dates back almost as far as any other. It is the time of … The Belichick Whisperer [tm].
Which means it's my annual reminder that I don't pretend to know what other franchises are going to do. I don't Mock. Except when I'm mocking Mock Drafts themselves. Which I will stop doing only when just one draft guru produces one that isn't completely blown to smithereens by the fifth pick. And that's never happened. I don't claim to be an expert on other team's draft rooms, personnel needs or system fits.
What I will claim is that no one in the business of Patriots draft punditry has a record that can match mine. I've lost count by now, but I can count among my successful predictions Joejuan Williams, Duke Dawson, Dominique Easley, Dont'a Hightower, Brandon Spikes, Pat Chung, Darius Butler, and a tight end from Florida whose name escapes me. Not all turned out to be home runs, obviously. But my area of expertise isn't predicting who'll work out. It's knowing GM Bill's thoughts, based on his past drafts and his specific scheme needs. And also feeling his feelings, in an Elliot-ET kind of way.
So let's begin the 2021 previews in the flashiest, sexiest way possible. Quarterback.
Current roster: Cam Newton, Jarrett Stidham, Jake Dolegala
Positional overview: This one has traditionally been an afterthought. If I've even gotten to it at all. But no case needs to be made for why it's the leadoff hitter in this particular lineup. The stakes haven't been higher at this spot since the debate was Drew Bledsoe or Rick Mirer. They either find the one true heir to the Iron Throne of Brady, for either this year or the years after, or hope Cam Newton can somehow quadruple his production from last year. It's find The Guy, or risk wandering in the NFL wilderness for years.
The problem is assessing the quarterback draft priorities on this team is that we have such a small sample size to go by. As you'd assume from a franchise that had the same starter for 20 years. In his 21 New England drafts, Belichick has selected a total of 11 QBs. So it's hard to discern from that what his "type" is. He's swiped right on late and early picks, big school and small school guys, mobile quarterbacks and more traditional pocket passers. The only common factor has been that they're all 6'2" or taller. Based on the old memo that was released from his days with the Browns, we know the trait he looks for most is good decision making. Then arm accuracy (as opposed to having a cannon), size and toughness. Most of the rest are impossible to measure. You just have to know them when you see them. Leadership. A guy players will look up to. Confidence. Field awareness. And so on.
So good luck figuring those out in a year with no Combine interviews and a limited chance to get to know this year's class when the future of the franchise hangs in the balance. And on that note, without a Combine, any measurements will come from the NFL's official site whenever possible
The Mortal Lock No. 1 Pick:
Trevor Lawrence, Clemson. 6-foot-6, 221 pounds, 4.60 40-time
Once in a generation, a mythic figure is born into this world. Prophesied by the ancient elders to come to pro football and bring balance to the universe. John Elway. Peyton Manning. Andrew Luck. And Trevor Lawrence. He is the Anointed One. Gifted by the gods with the perfect blend of physical tools, talent and temperament to be the next great franchise QB. He has size, strength, a precise arm who can layer throws with touch to all levels of a defense. He can also move out of the pocket to make the second reaction throws that have become so much a part of the current NFL offense. If you want to really put him under a microscope looking for shortcomings, you can nitpick that he can tend to appear locked in to a particular receiver pre-snap and is a product of a highly structured offense at Clemson. He also tends to throw with his whole body rather than just make snap throws. And maybe could use a few pounds of mass on a lanky frame. Still, he can take a hit, like the shot he took in the Fiesta Bowl against Ohio State after the Tigers were down 16-0. All he did in that one was throw a game-winner with under 2:00 to go. He delivers the ball with velocity into throwing windows that are open just a crack, from all arm angles and release points. If Jacksonville doesn't take him with the first pick, we saw Florida off the map and push it into the Atlantic, Bugs Bunny-style.
Compares to the other leading brand: Elway.
Consensus Top 10 Picks:
Zach Wilson, BYU. 6-3, 210 lb, 4.67
Wilson is a native Utahan? … Utaher? … Utah Guy who had options but decided to stay in-state. Good choice. He got the starter's job in his freshman season, and while the results weren't Mitt Romney-level pretty early on, as time went on he thrived in the Cougars' structured, well-schemed attack. He's a good ball distributor. Efficient in the pocket but also able to move and make the "off-platform" plays. He's got just about the ideal frame for an NFL quarterback, but he doesn't have the elite arm strength of say, an Aaron Rodgers. But he does have that innate ability to extend plays while keeping his eyes upfield and the awareness to know when leaving the pocket is the prudent thing to do. He's had surgeries on his throwing thumb and shoulder. And could've gone back for another year. But made the wise choice since he threw for 33 touchdowns to just three interceptions and ran for 10 more. While the pundits differ as to who the second best prospect is after Lawrence, the majority seem to have Wilson No. 2 and going to the Jets. So, a mixed blessing for him. But still. It's not every day you get your hands on the co-winner of the Polynesian Player of the Year Award and a former Famous Idaho Potato Bowl MVP.
Compares to the other leading brand: Baker Mayfield
Justin Fields, Ohio State. 6-2, 228 lb, 4.60
If there are differing opinions on Fields, you can blame it on the fact that, like pretty much all of us, 2020 was a big step backwards for him. The difference is, not many of us were coming off the kind of 2019 he had. Like Wilson last year, in 2019 Fields had just three INTs and rushed for 10 TDs. But he threw for an unbelievable 41. Unfortunately he followed that up with 22 TDs and six INTs in his eight games last year. Still, you can take a slight step back from that and still be way out ahead of most of the competition. He's demonstrated better traits than Wilson as a thrower, with more power in his arm but also the ability to throw with touch and pace. Skills that I guess you'd associate with being the former shortstop that he is. The Buckeyes system was predicated on quick timing throws to the shorts, flats and intermediate areas, where Fields excelled with incredible accuracy, with a career best 70.2% completions and 9.3 yards per attempt. Plus he mostly played in a pro style scheme with a lot of lining up under center, but with some RPO experience mixed in. If he's got drawbacks, they seem to be decision making, recognizing coverages before the snap and handling pressure. Indiana got him off his game with blitzes. And he didn't do himself many favors in the blowout loss to Alabama in the National Title game. But still. He's got all the physical traits. He's got elite toughness. He's a dual-threat QB with as much upside as anyone in his class. He could come off the board as high as second. But there's no chance he drops past five.
Compares to the other leading brand: Dak Prescott
Trey Lance, North Dakota State. 6-4, 226 lb, 4.64
To give you an idea of what kind of athleticism Lance has, he got a lot of interest from BCS teams in 2018, but as a safety. He was determined to stick to quarterbacking, so he settled for the FCS to keep that dream alive. Smart move. After redshirting a year, he earned the Bisons' QB1 job, led them to a 16-0 record and threw zero interceptions to go along with his 28 touchdowns and 1,000 yards on the ground. Most of those rushing yards came on designed runs, but he's shown the maturity when it comes to keeping designed passing plays alive when the protection breaks down rather than just tuck and run. Which is a lot to ask for a guy with just 17 career starts. As is a draft spot high in the 1st round. But that's what he's earned with his poise, explosive athletic traits, ability to run through contact as well as make tacklers whiff, and live arm. He's also got one of the hardest things to teach, which is play action ball skills. A lot of times guys are either born with that innate ability to sell the fake handoff magic trick or they never get it. Lance consistently got second- and third-level defenders to bite on the fake and then took a flamethrower to them. The obvious question is how soon you can trust a guy who played DII, went from redshirt freshman year to the NFL draft, and who didn't play last year because his program moved all their games to the Spring. He's the prototype of where the pro QB position seems to be heading. What's going to decide where Lance goes is which teams can afford to let him get there and which think he's there already.
Compares to the other leading brand: Young Cam Newton
Potential 1st and 2nd Rounders:
Mac Jones, Alabama. 6-3, 217 lb, 4.79
Jones is the first true eye-of-the-beholder QB in this draft class. He was the standout QB at the Senior Bowl. What he did in college speaks for itself. Though when it speaks a lot of people hear it say "He was only good because he was surrounded by talent." But to be fair, the Bama team Tua Tagovailoa was on produced three 1st rounders besides himself, including an OT and two of his wideouts. And carrying that heavy burden caused him to drop all the way to fifth overall. And players who were at Alabama with both of them have said Jones is the better quarterback. Yet the draftniks are all over the map about him. Some have him going in the Top 10, and I've seen some who don't have him in their Top 50 overall prospects. The reason being, that unlike the other four I've mentioned, he's not the elusive, throw-on-the-run type. How you see him is a referendum on where you think the position is heading at the pro level. Is it going to exclusively be Patrick Mahomes/Russell Wilson types? Is the traditional dropback passer with some pocket awareness and movement going extinct? Or does he still have a place in the NFL, like the reigning Super Bowl MVP? Because if he does, Jones checks that box. He's got a dad bod to be sure. But he's got the most technically refined throwing mechanics in the Class of '21. He's supernaturally accurate, with an NCAA best 77.4% completions last year after beating out Bryce Young for the starter's job. He doesn't have a howitzer for an arm, but he can throw the fastball, as his 41 touchdowns, 11.2 YPA and school record 4,500 yards would attest. Despite his seeming lack of athleticism, that 40-time was at his Pro Day this week, and it was better than Mahomes, Mayfield and Sam Darnold. As was his 32-inch vertical. More to the point, he's got functional skills for moving in the pocket while still going through progressions when the pocket gets muddy. It's weird that the nation's Davey O'Brien Award winner who posted a stat line of 36 for 45, 80.0%, 464 yards, five TDs in the National Title game would be such a divisive prospect. But then, the draft is weird.
Compares to the other leading brand: Matt Ryan
Kyle Trask, Florida. 6-5, 239 lb, 4.80
Trask was brilliant at times in 2020, with convincing statements wins over Kentucky, Vanderbilt, Ole Miss, South Carolina, Tennessee and Arkansas. He lit up Georgia for almost 500 yards. In the SEC title game against Alabama, the threw for over 400 yards and three touchdowns while running for two more. Which is not the kind of thing you hear too often from a kid who couldn't start on his high school team. His only sub-par game was against Oklahoma in the Cotton Bowl, the Gators were missing their top three wideouts and the best TE in the draft, Kyle Pitts. He's another guy like Jones who makes you assess him based on where you think the QB position is heading in the NFL, only bigger than Jones and less fluid in the pocket. He's got the size and strength you look for. He's a good distributor of the ball with excellent location on tight throws. But he's not going to escape much when the protection breaks down and takes some unnecessary sacks. Nevertheless, he was doing something right then he finished his senior year with 4,000 yards and 43 touchdowns against that level of competition. Florida played a pro style offense and in the right situation with talent around him and patient coaching, he could develop into a solid NFL starter for the bargain price of a 2nd round pick or perhaps as low as a 4th.
Compares to the other leading brand: Ben Roethlisberger
The Next Tier of Mid-Round Prospects:
Kellen Mond, Texas A&M. 6-2, 205 lb, 4.77
There's an old standard for drafting QBs established by Bill Parcells. It set up seven benchmarks a prospect should have hit in order to be draft-worthy. Be a three-year starter. Be a senior. Be a graduate. Start 30 games. Win 23. Have a 2:1 TD:INT ratio. Complete 60% of your passes. There are top prospects in this class with two of the seven. Mond has six. The only one he doesn't have is the completion percentage, which is kind of a big deal. I mean, that diploma isn't going to be picking up 3rd & 15s. He's been in a Spread offense throughout his career and has never spent time lined up under center. He's a guy who's best making throws on the run and using his considerable arm strength to attack at all the levels. And as such, lacks the accuracy to make him more than a project.
Compares to the other leading brand: DeShone Kizer
Jamie Newman, Wake Forest/Georgia. 6-3, 225 lb, 4.74
He's my first ever prospect with dual citizenship, the two passports coming because he transferred from Wake Forest to Georgia just as the pandemic hit, and then opted out of the season. Prior to that, he took over for an injured Sam Hartman as a redshirt sophomore, became the starter, and was enough of an upgrade to graduate to a bigger program. He's generally considered to be a good leader with all the intangibles. Which is good, because of his huge lack of tangibles. If he can still demonstrate the NFL ready arm he appeared to have way back in The Before Times, someone's going to get a steal, maybe as late as Day 4 of the draft.
Compares to the other leading brand: Mitchell Trubisky
Ian Book, Notre Dame. 6-0, 210 lb, 4.72
You know that Parcells' Guide to QB Drafting I just referenced? Book goes 7-for-7 on that. I guess it's kind of outdated by now because despite all that experience and all those wins for the Irish, he's a borderline late rounds/UDFA projection. He's mobile enough and can evade pressure just on his athleticism alone. But he's got the kind of throwing motion that makes quarterback coaches consider going back to community college night school and change careers. They say you can always increase a guy's arm strength over time, but you can never teach accuracy. And he misses enough on short to intermediate stuff enough that he might be beyond help to all but the most optimistic staff with all the time in the world. That said, he only threw two interceptions last year and balled out enough to get a BCS bid. So he's project that might be worth the while.
Compares to the other leading brand: Colt McCoy
Davis Mills, Stanford. 6-4, 225 lb, 4.87
Mills was heavily recruited before choosing Stanford and landing on their bench. In 2019, he took over the starter's job for the Cardinal after KJ Costello went down, and made it his. Costello transferred to Mississippi State and both are now coming out and he's widely considered the better prospect. He's already got a fully-developed NFL build. He's accurate, with 66% completion rate. and is especially proficient on back shoulder throws and plays along the boundary. He doesn't have a big arm but averaged over 300 yards per game. He's been slowed by some knee injuries but has taken hits and played through pain. Most of all he seems to have good anticipation and timing, pocket presence and an overall sense for running an offense. He's just an intriguing late rounder worth keeping an eye on.
Compares to the other leading brand: Jared Goff
The Perfect Patriot: Mac Jones
I have to admit I've had Jones on the brain for months. Every since the losses piled up in New England and it became clear a middle 1st round pick was becoming a reality. While Jones just kept coming up with huge performances against the NFL's minor league, showed poise, command of the Tide's offense, maturity and - dare I say this without those good, moral folks at the NCAA having one of their episodes - professionalism. He's shown all the traits the Patriots seem to prioritize. And a guy looking bad with his shirt off didn't scare them off in 2000, why should it now?
Whom the Pats Will Take: Jones. I say this on March 24th. This presumes a veteran quarterback they love (hellooo, Jimmy GQ) doesn't shake loose. They can not only stand pat at No. 15 and still land him, they could conceivably drop back a few spots, add a pick, and still get him. Hell, I've seen at least one publication that had them drafting him … with their 2nd round pick. No. 47 overall. That would be the dream scenario. If they do add a veteran they want long term, I like Davis Mills as a late round backup/long term project.
I state the obvious that this is not the most off the wall prediction ever. A lot of people have this. But that doesn't change my mind. Mac Jones to New England. Book it.