What is the Patriots’ future at QB? Jarrett Stidham, Jimmy Garoppolo or draft pick could replace Cam Newton in 2021

When Tom Brady was in New England, the Patriots didn’t have to worry about their quarterback of the present or their quarterback of the future. Now, both are major concerns.

New England (2-5) brought in Cam Newton as a low-risk option at QB after Brady left for Tampa Bay, but it’s looking like Newton won’t be the answer beyond 2020. Jarrett Stidham is still young and could be in the plans, but his early NFL performances haven’t been encouraging. For the Patriots to return to AFC East contention, it’s likely their next franchise quarterback will come from outside the organization, be that a reunion with Jimmy Garoppolo, jump-starting Mitchell Trubisky’s career or drafting one of the top 2021 QB prospects.

For many years, Brady masked the occasional errors in free agency or the draft that the Patriots made. New England’s return to relevance will depend on finding another quarterback, albeit not the G.O.A.T. one, who solves the problems put in front of him. While Belichick and the New England front office will surely explore every last possibility, we’ve dug into some of the more likely ones here to see which shoe might fit.

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Can Jarrett Stidham start for the Patriots?

The verdict is still out on Stidham to some extent. The 2019 fourth-round draft pick from Auburn has thrown 27 passes in his NFL career (completing 13), mostly in relief settings that haven’t allowed for any sort of rhythm. But throwing one touchdown compared to four interceptions in any sample size isn’t a great start to an NFL career.

At 6-3, 215, Stidham looks the part of an NFL quarterback, but he’s just not quite a good enough passer. Even as a junior at Auburn, Stidham completed a relatively pedestrian 60.7 percent of his passes for an underwhelming 18 touchdowns in 13 games. He brings very limited ability as a runner, so everything about Stidham points to him being an NFL backup. 

The fact that the Patriots turned to Brian Hoyer ahead of Stidham when Newton went on the COVID-19/reserve list earlier in the season doesn’t suggest tons of belief in Stidham’s ability, either. New England certainly didn’t draft him in the fourth round expecting a franchise quarterback (there’s only one mid-to-late round QB allowed to turn into the G.O.A.T. per franchise). Some expected Stidham to be the starter to begin 2020 before Cam Newton’s signing, and maybe the Pats will follow that pattern again heading into 2021. But don’t expect Stidham to come to camp without some very intriguing competition, at least. 

Will the Patriots reunite with Jimmy Garoppolo?

Sporting News’ Vinnie Iyer recently broke down the chances of Garoppolo leaving the 49ers in the offseason. We’ll rehash some of what he said here.

Garoppolo isn’t a candidate to be released, but he could be a trade target to save the 49ers more than $20 million. New England is currently looking at about $60 million in cap space for 2021, so they could afford to take on Garoppolo’s contract if they plan ahead for it. As Iyer wrote, if Nick Foles was attractive to a team needing a quarterback, Garoppolo certainly will be.

New England helps its cause by being so bad in 2020, because each of its draft picks increase in value. The Pats will also give ample time to younger players down the stretch, presenting options for San Francisco to request in a trade. 

Garoppolo, of course, already knows Josh McDaniels’ system. If San Francisco wants a second-rounder for Jimmy G, it might be a deal New England will take (especially if the Pats expect the draftable QB they want to be gone by their pick).

Other QB trade candidates in the offseason include the following players who would be available if their team takes a rookie QB: 

Could Cam Newton return to New England in 2021?

Conceptually, yes. Newton could come back to Foxborough in 2021. He’s on a one-year contract and would have to re-sign, which isn’t out of the realm of possibility if New England doesn’t get another quarterback that it wants. 

However, Newton doesn’t seem like an obvious match to return to the Patriots next season. After an exciting start to 2020, Newton has struggled mightily since returning from the COVID-19/reserve list. He’s falling into the same pattern he did in 2019, throwing passes into the ground or too high over his receivers. Without accuracy, defenses can key on Newton’s running and slow that down.

Heading into Week 9, Newton had only thrown two touchdowns in 2020 compared to seven interceptions. He hasn’t been helped by receiver injuries, but that’s not really the point here. The Patriots took a low-risk gamble on Newton for 2020, serving to some extent as a stopgap option. It hasn’t been a roaring enough extent to run it back in 2021.

Other QBs currently slated to be free agents in the offseason include: 

QB draft targets for Patriots

Before the Pats’ game against the Jets in Week 9, New England sits at the No. 8 overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft. The top QB targets, Trevor Lawrence (Clemson), Justin Fields (Ohio State) and Trey Lance (North Dakota State), could all go before that selection. Fields and Lawrence almost certainly will, although Lance could slide. The latest Sporting News mock draft has quarterbacks going off the board at the following selections:

The biggest factor as to whether the Patriots wind up with one of those quarterbacks, or even fast-rising BYU quarterback Zach Wilson, is how they feel about a given individual. Belichick and co. haven’t had to worry about drafting a top-line QB in so long that they likely won’t just take one to take one. They’ll have to be real believers in the player.

If the Patriots are only high on Lawrence and Fields, they’ll likely go in a different direction, shore up the rest of their roster and hope for a good quarterback in the following year’s draft (or indeed, a potential trade). But if the Pats like Lance (who reminds some of Newton), Jones, Trask or Wilson, they’ll likely have a shot to pick one.

Of course, picking one of those passers doesn’t guarantee that’s the Day 1 starter in 2021. It’d likely be best for New England to have a stopgap option, be it Stidham or Newton or a different veteran, to hold down the fort until New England is sure its youngster is ready. But it’s certainly time for the Patriots to start thinking about who the next face of their franchise will be, because it doesn’t look like the answer is a player on their current roster.

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