Patriots Mailbag: Chiefs, Bills Give Patriots Most Likely Blueprint for Successful Rebuild

Although most Patriots fans will be focused on Tom Brady this weekend, it's the AFC Championship Game that deserves our attention.

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All eyes in New England will be on the NFC Championship Game between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Green Bay Packers this Sunday. 

Former Patriots quarterback Tom Brady is playing for an absurd tenth trip to the Super Bowl. However, Brady would become just the sixth non-homegrown quarterback in the last 30 seasons to win a championship with a team that didn’t draft him. 

If any of the other three finalists teams hoist the Lombardi Trophy, the trend of homegrown quarterbacks, especially first-rounders, winning it all will continue in the NFL. 

Although our attention is on Brady, the AFC side of conference championship Sunday features two teams with a blueprint that is far more likely to yield title-winning results than finding another franchise quarterback in the sixth round or paying an already established veteran.

Both the reigning champion Chiefs and Bills took chances on first-round quarterbacks that weren’t perfect prospects. Kansas City and Buffalo traded significant hauls to move up in the first round to acquire quarterbacks Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen. 

At the time, Mahomes, who has now won a league MVP and Super Bowl in his first three seasons, was coming from an air raid offense in a college football conference that didn’t play much defense. Plus, Mahomes was unconventional, deviating from the usual norms of quarterback mechanics to play his free-wheeling style. 

In Buffalo, Allen was an erratic college passer that some analytics-based studies gave a less than ten percent chance of blossoming into the quarterback he is today. Improving accuracy, especially at Allen’s starting point, is statistically unlikely. Allen’s lower-body mechanics and footwork were a mess at the University of Wyoming, as was his questionable decision making.

Then, there’s this: since 2000, only six quarterbacks were taken in the 15-20 range of the first round. In the last seven drafts, only one quarterback, and besides Joe Flacco and Chad Pennington, the other four were busts.

The draft history at the position is clear: by the time the 15th overall selection rolls around, all of the top quarterbacks are taken while teams either reach, wait, or no longer need a quarterback.

Still, the Chiefs and Bills saw raw talents in Allen and Mahomes that are unmatched later on in the draft. They took a chance and hit home runs, with the reward greatly outweighing the risks of selecting a bust. 

Although they invested their early-round draft capital in their quarterbacks, Allen and Mahomes are on rookie contracts, allowing the two AFC finalists to add impact players with cap space.

The Bills helped Allen get to where he is by rebuilding their offensive line and acquiring three marquee weapons in All-Pro receiver Stefon Diggs, Cole Beasley, and speedster John Brown.

Kansas City won the Super Bowl by keeping their offensive core together and signing defensive leader Tyrann Mathieu in free agency because Mahomes was cheap.

Trading an early-round draft selection, potentially even a first-round pick, for the likes of Matthew Stafford or Matt Ryan is a similar investment for aging quarterbacks that are making top dollar (i.e., there goes half your cap space and a high draft pick). 

Therefore, it’s in the Patriots’ best interest to take from the Chiefs and Bills by finding their quarterback in the draft while turning to veteran acquisition to fill other holes on the roster. 

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Let’s get into your questions for this week’s mailbag. I want to thank everyone that asked a question, as there were tons of great ones, so don’t fret if I didn’t answer yours directly. I see them all and will answer your question eventually. Thank you. 

Now here’s the mailbag stuffed with great tidbits about the Patriots’ plans moving forward: 

After my opener, it’s worth noting that Lance is the most likely trade-up option for the Patriots and someone that I’d certainly consider. Lance projects similarly to Allen in that he’s one of the least accurate passers in this year’s class, but he also led the class in average depth of target. When you watch Lance throw, he has a smooth delivery and mostly efficient footwork; this is not a case of a broken quarterback mechanically, which means his problems are fixable. On top of that, Lance has electric arm talent and athletic ability. My Twitter thread features downright stupid deep passes where he flicks the wrist 60 yards on a dime. Although there are concerns as a one-year starter against FCS competition, Lance is the real deal. Belichick should be eying a trade up for the North Dakota State quarterback. 

My sense is that Watson is cooling off a bit after he was disappointed with the hiring process for general manager Nick Caserio. The relationship isn’t fixed by any means, but I don’t think it’s as hot as a few weeks ago. Plus, let’s play out this scenario where he’s traded to the Patriots: Caserio is supposed to deal a 25-year-old elite quarterback to his former boss who has, at best, the third-best trade package on the table. The Pats cannot beat the Jets’ (no. 2 + Sam Darnold) or Dolphins’ (no. 3 + Tua Tagovailoa) offers. Caserio would be throwing Belichick a major bone by trading Watson to New England, one that will absolutely anger the rest of the league. 

The obvious name here is Florida’s Kyle Trask, who will grade out as a day-two prospect for me due to limited arm talent and athleticism. However, Trask does a lot of things New England wants at the position. He throws with good touch, timing, anticipation, and solid accuracy. Although, there are some head-scratching decisions on his tape. I’m not in love with Trask, but if he stars at the Senior Bowl next week, maybe that’ll help move the needle. After Trask, we are staring at a steep dropoff on day three. I don’t see any of the other quarterbacks available this draft cycle as viable starting options—more Jarrett Stidham’s than legit starters. 

I wasn’t thrilled to hear that Philip Rivers was retiring because Colts GM Chris Ballard is a dealer. Ballard is an aggressive personnel exec, and with the 21st selection in the first round, Indy is in shouting distance of one of the top five quarterbacks. I don’t expect the Colts to stand idly by at quarterback, which means they’ll be trying to leapfrog the Patriots for one of the available QBs in the draft or the veteran market. I don’t think Watson is a fit there. If traded, I expect Caserio to ship Watson out of the division. 

It is a fascinating question because the Packers are in the same situation they were in with the Favre-Rodgers transition, and it’s similar to Brady-Jimmy G. Rodgers is going to win league MVP this season. With LaFleur’s QB friendly system, he could presumably play at a high level for at least another three seasons. I don’t see the Packers moving on from Rodgers any time soon, which could mean Love eventually comes available. We’ll have to see when in his rookie contract Love is on the trade block, but I like the top four quarterbacks in this draft a little more than Love.

My personal feelings will differ from Belichick’s, but one of the “big four” weapons will likely be available at 15. It’s early in the process. Still, it’s hard to imagine Pitts, Smith, Waddle, and Chase going in the top 14 picks. Unless they drastically upgrade at receiver with veterans, one of those four would immediately be the best weapon on New England’s roster. If it’s not a pass-catcher, a versatile linebacker like Micah Parsons, EDGE defender like Kwity Paye or a cornerback (Patrick Surtain) makes sense. 

Totally my gut talking, no inside info, but my answer is Will Fuller. When it comes to splash free-agent signings, the Patriots tend to look for players with freakish athletic profiles like Gilmore or Adalius Thomas. Fuller fits that mold, isn’t exactly what you’d expect out of them, and brings a vertical element to their offense that only Brandin Cooks possessed since the Moss era. Fuller was ninth among all wide receivers in PFF grade this past season and is looking at roughly $17.5 million per year on the open market, per Over the Cap. That’s a lot of dough for a wide receiver with an injury history, but he’s a specimen. 

Good question. There’s optimism that Beau Allen can contribute in 2021, and they liked him quite a bit last offseason. The draft has a few day two prospects in Tyler Shelvin (LSU) and Marvin Wilson (Florida State). Titans free agent DaQuan Jones would be a good addition, too. According to the projections, he’ll make roughly $7.5 million per season. 

It’s either David Andrews or Lawrence Guy. Onwenu looks like an obvious candidate to move inside and replace Joe Thuney, but losing Andrews or Guy would create significant overhauls along the line of scrimmage. On the defensive line, they really can’t afford to go down that road since they already have holes to fill there. If Guy walks, that could mean an almost entirely new starting defensive line in 2021. 

It depends on the quarterback, but my ideal Patriots offense would look like Kansas City. It’s difficult to replicate Mahomes and those weapons. But the Chiefs are an early-down RPO machine, run the ball only to compliment the passing game, and use deep passing schemes that create winnable foot races for their playmakers. The best part of Andy Reid’s system is that he doesn’t just line Tyreek Hill up at “X” and tell him to run by the coverage. Reid moves Hill around and sends him across the field instead. I would also be open to borrowing from the McVay/Shanahan tree with bootleg concepts and heavy play-action. Either way, they need playmakers and a quarterback. 

Always love getting questions from non-english speaking Patriots fans. Although he might not immediately get the title, assistant director of players personnel Dave Ziegler will take over. Ziegler ran the Patriots’ pro scouting department before his promotion, which is stronger than their college scouting recently. 

Cowart is an interesting player to monitor in camp next summer. I thought he was developing nicely in the early part of the 2020 season, but he dealt with some nagging injuries and never broke out. His ideal role is as a penetrating A or B-gap player. Belichick once called him one of the most explosive players on the team, so letting him shoot gaps and knock blockers back with his first step is his best role. 

Ideally, Winovich would blossom into a Kyle Van Noy clone (he’s not the same as Flowers). But to get there, he needs to bulk up and play with more discipline on the edge. If Wino stays at his current form, he will only be a situational/passing down player for Belichick. No edge, no chance. 

The only confirmed opt-outs returning are safety Patrick Chung, running back Brandon Bolden, and wide receiver Marqise Lee. Hightower opted out due to his child’s birth and his mothers’ diabetes. If the situation with COVID doesn’t improve by the fall, his status might not change. My gut says he’ll be back, but there’s nothing official. 

My new and old podcast co-host, Alex Barth, is my go-to for all uniform questions. Barth tells me that the NFL might agree to allow teams to wear multiple helmets, which means the throwback “Pat Patriot” helmet logo with the red and white jerseys could make a return. Check out Patriots Beat, where Alex and I break down the latest Pats news each week.