The Patriots made ten selections in the draft following Rob Gronkowski’s brief retirement yet did not draft a tight end, opting to add multiple undrafted free agents.
One year later, the Pats double-dipped in the third-round at tight end, but it was another critical position on the roster that saw a legend move on, and Bill Belichick ignore it in the draft.
Less than two months after Tom Brady’s decision to sign with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Patriots didn’t select a quarterback despite 13 of them coming off the board at various points in the draft.
“That wasn’t by design,” Bill Belichick said of the decision not to select a quarterback. “If we feel like we find the right situation, we’ll certainly draft them. We’ve drafted them in multiple years, multiple points in the draft. Didn’t work out the last three days.”
Belichick’s explanation makes sense when you look at the landscape of the quarterback market.
Five quarterbacks came off the board in the first 53 picks, but New England wasn’t prepared to go that early on a QB despite the opportunity to draft Jalen Hurts and Utah State’s Jordan Love.
The Patriots had interest in Washington’s Jacob Eason and Florida International quarterback James Morgan. But the team was focused on the defensive side of the ball and tight end before they were willing to select a quarterback. Plus, they didn’t have a fourth-rounder following a trade up for tight end Dalton Keene, where Eason and Morgan came off the board, and didn’t feel either were worth another trade up on day three.
Belichick also agreed with the premise that punting on this year’s quarterback class in the draft was a testament to how the team felt about current quarterbacks, Jarrett Stidham and Brian Hoyer.
“I like both those players,” he said. “We’ve had Brian a couple times. I think he certainly gives us a very solid level of play. We have a lot of confidence in him. And Jarrett had a good year last year. He improved a lot. We’ll see where that takes him. I have confidence in both players.”
Just like the offseason of Gronk’s retirement, the Pats went the undrafted free agent route following Brady’s departure, adding Louisiana Tech’s J’Mar Smith and Michigan State quarterback Brian Lewerke.
Both had draftable grades on some teams’ boards, and the Patriots had discussions about selecting Smith in the seventh round but didn’t want to lose out on Memphis center Dustin Woodard, and correctly assumed Smith would go undrafted.
The Patriots technically didn’t draft a quarterback, but that narrative is a bit disingenuous when you consider who they came away with in undrafted free agency.
Below, we’ll take a deep-dive into Smith and Lewerke’s film as they’ll battle it out for QB3 in Foxboro:
J’MAR SMITH, LOUISIANA TECH
Smith slipped through the cracks in this year’s draft after a successful three-year run as the starter for the Bulldogs.
Louisiana Tech went 25-12 with Smith at the helm, winning three consecutive Bowl Games, including a 14-0 victory over the University of Miami in the Independence Bowl this past season.
Smith finished his collegiate career with a 51-21 touchdown to interception ratio and was Conference USA’s Offensive Player of the Year in 2019, but is relatively unknown as a draft prospect. There are no scouting reports of Smith on NFL.com or The Draft Network, but his film and resume are both impressive, offering plenty of upside.
The league never sleeps on prospects, there’s always an explanation as to why a talented player goes undrafted, and in Smith’s case, it might be a two-game suspension last season.
As a fifth-year senior and team captain, Smith was suspended for unknown reasons by the school but did return in time for Louisiana Tech’s bowl game. Still, a suspension is not something NFL teams want to see at the quarterback position, especially from an experienced starter that was a team leader.
Plus, as a Conference USA product, Smith already had to overcome the small-school label, and at 6-1, 218 pounds, he’s smaller in stature for an NFL quarterback.
But Smith’s polish maneuvering the pocket and throwing with anticipation outside the numbers took me by surprise, and he has playmaker qualities both inside and outside the pocket.
Smith has a great feel for eluding pressure and makes explosive moves in tight spaces to find voids of space while keeping his eyes downfield to reset and throw.
Here, Smith steps up and around pressure off the edge from LSU linebacker Andre Anthony and gets outside the pocket to extend the play. With his eyes downfield, Smith sees his wideout at the bottom of the screen on the outside of the defender. With a flick of the wrist, Smith throws a perfect back-shoulder ball nearly 40 yards in the air on the move.
Although the previous throw was an impressive display of arm talent, Smith doesn’t just extend outside the pocket; he’ll also maneuver inside the pocket with a quick reset and trigger.
On this play, Smith feels immediate pressure up the middle and heat off the edge, but has the awareness to locate clean air in the middle of the pocket. Smith takes a few hitches up into the pocket and then delivers a low but catchable ball to his receiver running a post route downfield.
There are examples of Smith climbing the pocket and finding escape routes over all his tape, and he does it while scanning downfield to make throws after he avoids pressure.
Along with sudden movements and terrific spatial awareness, Smith also routinely makes throws with anticipation before his pass-catchers get out of their breaks to turn back for the ball.
Louisiana Tech runs a mirrored smash concept here. Mirrored means that the route combination is the same for both sides. On the play, the quarterback, Smith, makes a high-low read on the boundary corner. If the outside corner stays on the hitch, it creates a passing window for the corner route. And if the corner drops, the QB takes what the defense gives to him and throws the hitch.
As we roll the play a bit, the defense declares as a two-man structure, with the outside corner sticking with his man on the hitch route, leaving the slot receiver on the flag pattern in man coverage with an out-leveraged deep safety, giving Smith a clear decision and passing lane.
Now, at full speed, the ball comes out well before the receiver snaps his head back to the quarterback and is in a perfect spot along the sideline to beat both the corner and safety.
There are plenty of examples on tape of Smith throwing with great timing and anticipation, especially outside the numbers.
As a ball carrier, Smith didn’t have a Pro Day or test at the combine, but his estimated 40 time is in the 4.7 range. He has good speed, but not Lamar Jackson speed, and is more athletic in tight spaces jump-cutting out of sacks than in the open field.
Still, Smith adds a dual-threat element to the offense, and there are flashes on tape of fantastic open-field runs against lesser competition.
On the other side of the spectrum, there are two weaknesses in Smith’s game that led to a day three grade. Although, I like Smith over other quarterbacks, such as Nate Stanley and Jake Luton, that were drafted.
One of those flaws is poor deep-ball accuracy. We won’t bore you with errant throws all over the map, but Smith’s control on his deep ball is wildly inconsistent and might be beyond repair.
However, his mental processing can improve and needs to improve if he wants an NFL future. Smith tends to come off his first read too quickly, leading to missed opportunities and unnecessary sacks once he gets into scramble mode. He’s a decent athlete, but he’s not fast or elusive enough to run around like he’s Michael Vick; the ball needs to be out on time.
Smith has a deep out from the slot and a fade from the outside receiver. By the initial looks of it, Smith sees the split safeties and the aggressive approach by the corners as a declaration of cover-two zone, with the boundary corner sitting on the out pattern.
But when the play rolls, the coverage declares as match quarters with the outside corner running upfield with the fade pattern. The outside corner has his back to the quarterback, and the route combination works perfectly to throw the out route, but Smith gets caught in his pre-snap read, bails too quickly and ends up throwing the ball away.
Here’s another example of Smith bailing on a clean pocket too quickly and missing an open corner route at the top of the screen. If he stands in for an extra beat, he’ll hit that every time.
Although Smith’s accuracy might not improve, there’s hope that his ability to diagnose coverages could, as it’s clear at this stage that he’s still figuring out how to read defenses.
The undrafted rookie has the physical talent to develop into an NFL quarterback, most likely a backup. But if he reaches his ceiling, his arm talent and pocket mechanics are starter level.
BRIAN LEWERKE, MICHIGAN STATE
Lewerke is less exciting, but once upon a time, the former Spartans quarterback was a viable mid-round prospect.
The anonymous scout crowd rips into Lewerke’s body of work at Michigan State, citing uneven play that got worse every season.
There are times where Lewerke fails to make basic throws, and there are other times that he looks almost terrified to stand in the pocket with questionable poise and footwork.
But the baseline tools are there in terms of arm talent, athletic ability, mental processing, and insanely big hands that were the largest of any quarterback at the combine (10.6 inches).
Hand size is old-school. But it’s a factor for bad weather teams that need their QB’s to handle the ball in poor conditions, and was part of the reason the Pats didn’t draft Georgia’s Jake Fromm (8.8-inch hands).
Lewerke, unlike Smith, threw an accurate deep ball at Michigan State, going 20-of-41 for 605 yards and six touchdowns to three interceptions on throws of 20-plus yards. Lewerke does a nice job of dropping it in the bucket with great touch and above-average ball placement.
On this play, Lewerke properly reads out the safety rotation to take a shot downfield. The defense shows a two-high structure before the snap, but the deep safety to Lewerke’s right rotates down to take the running back in man coverage, while the safety on the far hash rallies back to the deep middle. Lewerke drops a dime into the hands of his slot receiver on a fade, knowing the lone deep safety is too far away to impact the play.
Lewerke also gets through a full-field progression, something he improved on each season.
Here, he starts on the left to locate the other safety in the box and gets all the way to his third option in the progression on the back-side dig route. As he circles through his progressions, his eyes and feet are in-sync, giving him an efficient throwing base to deliver the pass with zip and accuracy.
And there’s evidence on film of him running Patriot-like schemes from under center and attacking out-leveraged defenders.
Lewerke has a seam route from his wideout to the right of the quarterback in a tight split. The offense uses ghost motion on a jet action to get the defense moving before the snap, and it pulls the deep safety, who is responsible for the motion, out of centerfield. The boundary corner at the top of the screen replaces the deep safety, but the seam route is out-leveraging the outside corner at the bottom of the screen, and there’s no way for the corner at the top to provide the necessary help. Lewerke sees the rotation and rips the seam route for a touchdown.
Although he only ran a 4.95-second 40-yard dash (21st percentile), many evaluators say that Lewerke’s mobility is a strong point of his game. And there was a zone-read package in the Michigan State offense. He isn’t fast in the open field. But Lewerke makes good reads on the zone-read plays and has a slithering style to avoid tackles.
Lewerke’s biggest area of weakness, as we mentioned earlier, is poise in the pocket and an unwillingness to hitch up in a clean pocket to set his feet and throw.
Here’s one play that perfectly explains all of the concerns with Lewerke. The route combination is a variation of the mesh concept called mesh-wheel. The idea is to either get a big play with the running back on the wheel route or present a catch-and-run opportunity for the shallow crossers with traffic over the middle.
Lewerke has two wide-open receivers that probably score on the play with the running back behind the defense on the wheel and the shallow crosser alone on one side of the field.
As we roll the play, Lewerke also has a clean pocket, but instead of hitching up in the pocket and making a confident throw, he panics, and his footwork goes awry, leading to an awful miss.
On top of misses like that, there are also bone-headed interceptions littered all over his film, leading to a subpar 17-13 touchdown to interception ratio last season.
There’s some hope that Lewerke can unlock his physical gifts and return to the quarterback he was at the beginning of his career at Michigan State, making him worth a UDFA flier.
But the skittishness in the pocket and plethora of bad mistakes need to improve in a hurry.