1 – Two seasons later, it’s rather interesting to look back on the crop of quarterbacks that filled out the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft. The group, which obviously includes New England’s No. 15 overall pick Mac Jones, in many ways is a football tale of risk, reward and fluid uncertainty.
Jones for example, was a revelatory rookie in 2021, winning the Patriots starting job by beating out fading veteran Cam Newton. He led his team to the playoffs and earned a spot in the Pro Bowl, for whatever that’s worth. A year ago at this time he was seen as the unquestioned future and franchise QB. But a season later, Jones faces significant questions about his ability, emotions and upside as the man with the most important on-field job at Gillette Stadium.
Conversely, 2021 No. 1 overall pick Trevor Lawrence didn’t enjoy the rookie success that many expected in Jacksonville. Surrounded by the circus of a coaching staff that was in place under Urban Meyer, Lawrence was the one facing lots of questions early in his NFL career. He answered plenty of those this fall while leading the Jaguars to the Divisional round of the playoffs thanks in part to Doug Pederson’s arrival on the sideline. Now, Lawrence is seen as what he was expected to be, one of the bright young franchise QBs in the NFL.
Then there is Justin Fields in Chicago. After the Bears traded up to the No. 11 pick for the former Ohio State star he looked like a raw, athletic project as a rookie. This fall that athleticism took center stage as Fields rushed for more than 1,100 yards and improved incrementally as a passer, though Chicago won just three games to secure the No. 1 overall pick in this April’s draft. Seemingly content to see where Fields goes with his development as a passer – and likely to surround him with more capable talent in the passing game – the Bears will apparently not dip into the QB draft well again this spring. Fields is the guy in Chicago, at least for now.
While Fields is an ascending a talent, it appears that 2021 No. 2 overall pick Zach Wilson has bottomed out in New York and his time with the Jets could be coming to an end. All signs point to New York moving on from Wilson after a two-year tumultuous stint that included way too many mistakes both on the field and in trying to be a leader in the locker room. Wilson appears to be proof that it takes much more than “arm talent” to be worthy of a franchise QB opportunity in the NFL.
Finally, there is San Francisco’s Trey Lance. The 49ers traded three first-round picks to move up to take the North Dakota State project who has started just four games in his first two NFL seasons. Eating up years of the ever-valuable rookie QB contract, Lance is almost as much a mystery unknown today as he was when drafted and the breakout efforts of 2022 rookie Brock Purdy do nothing but muddy the future of the position in Kyle Shanahan’s offense.
So as we draw closer to the latest, greatest crop of NFL Draft prospects at the QB position – a group that includes Alabama’s Bryce Young, Ohio State’s C.J. Stroud and Kentucky’s Will Levis – passer-needy teams need not look back any further than two years ago to get a full spectrum feel for the uncertainty of drafting a quarterback in the first round. At best, it’s a developmental process that takes time and patience. At worst it’s a wasted pick and reality check that leaves the team no better off a couple years later.
And, as is the case here in New England, it can be a roller-coaster ride of uncertainty that leaves a team and its fan base still wondering if it has the right guy for the job. It’s not all Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen and Justin Herbert when you take a quarterback atop the draft. In fact, those are the outliers, like the tease that is the guy ahead of you in the convenience store line who lands a big winner on scratch ticket.
2 – Though Tom Brady’s latest retirement removed his HOF name from the mix this week, the draft isn’t the only way teams might inject life into their quarterback depth chart this offseason. In recent years we’ve seen such high-profile names as Brady, Russell Wilson, Matthew Stafford and other veterans changes teams via either trade or free agency and this spring will be no different. Brady aside, Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers is now the biggest name and talent to keep an eye on. There is plenty of smoke around the idea that Rodgers could be a trade candidate, with the Packers eyeing a supposed two first-round picks in return. Las Vegas would love to trade Derek Carr, but his contract makes it likely that he will hit the open market as a free agent, alongside the likes of Seattle’s Geno Smith and San Fran’s Jimmy Garoppolo. Lamar Jackson has played out his rookie contract in Baltimore, but it would seem the former MVP will get the franchise tag from the Ravens. As the Broncos learned last year, adding a proven, veteran QB in the offense is no guarantee of success. And so many QBs moving around the NFL on an annual basis may not even be good for the quality of play for the league as a whole. But, having so many big names on the offseason QB carousel does make for some fun for fans in the months of February, March and April!
3 – Speaking of big NFL names that might be on the move, word out of Cincinnati this week was that budding star receiver Tee Higgins might be a trade option for teams looking to upgrade at the position. The Patriots should be among those at the top of the list. As we’ve been discussing for months now on the “6 Rings” podcast, Higgins was an obvious trade target for any team looking for a franchise receiver, taking a path the Bills, Raiders and Eagles have walked in recent years. Higgins is a No. 1option playing in the shadow of Ja’Marr Chase. He’s got one year left on his rookie deal and has earned the right to be paid. The Bengals probably have to make a tough decision with contracts for Joe Burrow and Chase on the horizon. It’s probably going to cost a first-round pick and north of $100 million for a team to acquire Higgins, but the impact a true No. 1 receiver can have on an offense and young quarterback has been proven. New England should at least kick the tires on the idea.
4 – As the Patriots likely look to find a way to augment their receiver position, the first decision the team must make is regarding its own impending free agent in Jakobi Meyers. The former undrafted Meyers will be one of if not the most attractive receiver on the market if he hits free agency. He certainly would make a lot of sense for a team like the Bears that has nearly $100 million in cap space to spend in an effort to surround Fields with more talent. But Meyers has tremendous value in New England as well. He’s been the team’s go-to receiver for most of the last three years. He may not be flashy, but he fulfills Bill Belichick’s preference for guys who simply get open and catch the football. He’s a leader on and off the field, the kind of guy teams often like to reward for their service. It would behoove the Patriots to get a deal with Meyers done before he hits the big money of the open market and he has expressed a loyal desire to remain in New England. Would three years and $39 million entice him to do that? Will it take something in the range of $50 million over four years? For the sake of stability and Jones’ development, New England may just have to open its purse strings a littler wider than it would like to keep a key player like Meyers in the Foxborough fold. Even if the Patriots overpay a little, it’s hard to imagine the team ever really regretting a contract with Meyers, especially when compared with recent regrets on the balance sheet such as Jonnu Smith and Nelson Agholor.
5 – New England made its most important coaching move of the offseason when it brought Bill O’Brien back into the fold as the team’s offensive coordinator and QB coach. It brought immediate stability to the unit that was, as the Boston Herald detailed a couple weeks back, totally “dysfunctional” in 2022. Now, though, remains the question of how O’Brien works with Bill Belichick to fill out the rest of the offensive coaching staff. It would seem that additions to the sideline staff are likely to include an offensive line coach, a tight ends coach and maybe others, depending on which coaches are retained. How and when those hires unfold will play a secondary role in how the offense as a whole bounces back in 2023 under O’Brien’s competent leadership.
6 – The “reimagined” Pro Bowl has been taking place this week in Las Vegas, with Matthew Judon on hand as the Patriots’ representative, marking the fourth-straight year the pass rusher has earned the all-star honors. No longer an actual padded football game, the new-look Pro Bowl week includes other various games and challenges for players, including teeing off for a longest drive competition. Like so many of us, Judon had trouble keeping his drives straight in the contest, hitting his last attempt so far right that he quickly asked, “Where’d it go?” The AFC squad did win the longest drive competition thanks to a 320-yard effort by Bills safety Jordan Poyer.
7 – Six years ago today many of us saw the greatest football comeback we’ll likely ever witness as Tom Brady led the Patriots back from a 28-3 deficit to pull off the 34-28 overtime win against the Falcons in Super Bowl LI. It was the most remarkable of New England’s Super Bowl trips, still almost unbelievable to this day when you take into account everything that had to go the Patriots’ way to secure the victory and for Matt Ryan and Atlanta to fail to hold onto what seemed to be rightfully theirs. It’s never smart to say never in the world of sports, but it feels likely we’ll never see another Super Bowl like what New England and Atlanta put forth six years ago today in Houston. As Julian Edelman predicted, it was indeed a “hell of a story.”