Patriots Mailbag: Is Trading Up in the First Round for a Quarterback Worth it for Pats?

Trading up in the draft for quarterbacks is a mixed bag in recent NFL history.

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The overwhelming majority of outside observers believe the Patriots should trade up in the first round to select their next quarterback.

Former Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields, Alabama’s Mac Jones, and FCS stud Trey Lance all offer legitimate first-round profiles in a quarterback class that falls off after the top five. 

However, there are legitimate concerns with all three and a rocky track record of selecting quarterbacks in the first round; if you’re going to trade up, you better be confident that’s your guy. 

Following the Matthew Stafford/Jared Goff and Carson Wentz trades, zero first-round quarterbacks drafted from 2009-2016 are with their original team. It’s not surprising that QBs selected over a decade ago are no longer with the clubs that drafted them, but it’s worth pointing out that many of those failures, such as the most recent ones in Goff and Wentz, were trade-ups.

Although that trend doesn’t favor a first-round trade-up, there’s another that could benefit the Patriots. According to Pro Football References’ approximate value metric, only two of the last nine top quarterback picks accumulated the most career AV to date. 

For example, Goff was the first overall pick in the 2016 draft, but Dak Prescott ended up as the best QB in the class. In 2017, Chicago selected Mitchell Trubisky second overall, passing on an eventual league and Super Bowl MVP in Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson.

Last season, Joe Burrow and Tua Tagavioloa both went ahead of AP Offensive Rookie of the Year, Justin Herbert. Burrow and Tua dealt with injuries, but Herbert looks like the real deal. 

Based on the NFL’s struggles with stacking quarterback classes, the Pats could end up with the best one in this year’s draft still even if they’re taking the fourth or fifth QB off the board.

As we approach April 29, dominos are beginning to fall that suggest Bill Belichick won’t need to trade all the way up to four to get a quarterback, making it more plausible. 

Quarterback-needy teams such as the Panthers (Sam Darnold) and Lions (Goff) are out of the running, and Denver doesn’t seem locked into a quarterback with the ninth pick either. 

Plus, Cincinnati (Burrow), Miami (Tagovailoa), and Dallas (Prescott) are all set at the position. 

We know the top three teams are locked into QBs, but the rest of the top 14 are less inclined to take quarterbacks. Keep in mind, we’ve never seen a draft where four quarterbacks went in the first four picks (since 1967). 

There’s always a dark horse lurking that could make a push up the board, but the Patriots might not need to deal a king’s ransom like San Francisco did to move from 12 to three. 

Despite what former Pats exec Mike Lombardi said on his GM Shuffle podcast, it’s hard to justify the Pats passing on Fields or Lance if they’re getting them closer to the 15th pick. 

Lombardi said, “I couldn’t imagine they could get either one of Lance and Fields to a high enough point (in their grading system) to justify trading up to get them…That doesn’t mean they don’t like them. What I’m saying is they don’t have them graded high enough to be able to justify drafting them at that point in the draft.”

Lombardi’s view on how the Patriots value quarterbacks is an accurate depiction of how they usually approach it, but in the past, Belichick didn’t commit $300 million to free agents either. 

Furthermore, Lombardi was referencing a scenario where the Patriots would need to trade up to the fourth pick to get their quarterback, which I also see as a long shot for New England. 

A more accurate trade proposal now might be what Buffalo traded in the 2018 draft to select Josh Allen, which was two second-round picks to move from 12 to seven to get their guy. 

If owner Robert Kraft’s words were true, and the Pats take a different approach to the draft, then a first-round quarterback should be on the table.

After all the shuffling around the league, the price to move up a few spots might not be as steep.

Now let’s get to the mailbag, where we’ll cover a little bit of everything. Thanks again to those that asked questions this week, and be sure to subscribe to our YouTube channel Patriots Press Pass for more Pats Q&A’s and other content:

Schrager is far from the only national media member projecting that the Patriots will move up to four for a quarterback, and his trade package isn’t a complete overpay: no. 15, no. 46, 2022 first-rounder, and a 2022 third-rounder. If all it takes is one future first-round pick, and the Patriots love Fields/Lance/Jones, then maybe they make the deal. But as I said in the open, the value of trading four premium picks for one player isn’t Bill Belichick’s typical operating procedure. If they do trade up, you’d think it would be for Justin Fields. My hesitation with Fields is that he’s a better fit in a spread/vertical passing system than in a Brady-style scheme. If the Patriots move up, they’re obviously confident in Josh McDaniels’ ability to adapt the scheme to Fields’s strengths. Trading up to force Fields into their current system doesn’t make much sense. He’d work well throwing up the seams to the tight ends and deep to Agholor, though.

For those following along with my draft coverage, I’ve been against the Patriots taking another first-round wide receiver. My main concern is that I’m not confident in their ability to identify the right receiver and then use him properly to get the best out of him. N’Keal Harry was the wrong pick in 2019, and then they did him no favors with his usage. With all that said, Alabama wideout DeVonta Smith feels like a can’t-miss prospect for the Pats. He has excellent play speed, runs precise routes at all three levels of the defense, is a tough catch-and-run artist inside, and plays bigger than his size. Plus, they’ll know plenty about Smith from Nick Saban. If the Heisman Trophy winner falls to 15, that’s a no-brainer. He would be a great stylistic fit as a “Z” receiver, making the projection and transition easier than it was for Harry. 

I get countless replies about the Patriots taking Micah Parsons, and the fit is there. He’s a three-down linebacker that has excellent playmaking ability from the second level. Parsons can also blitz from off the line or rush the passer off the edge in passing situations. The Penn State product would instantly make the defense faster and has all the tools to succeed in Belichick’s scheme. But people are missing the main issue at hand: will the Patriots clear him off the field? Parsons was named as a ringleader in Penn State’s recent hazing scandal, leading to maturity concerns. The Patriots like to take high-character players in the first round, and they’ll need to believe Parsons put that all behind him to take him at 15. The fit on the field is there, and Parsons is a terrific prospect, but I also wouldn’t be surprised if he’s off their board. 

If it’s not Parsons or Tulsa’s Zaven Collins as first-rounders, there are some linebacker prospects that might interest the Pats later on. I’m a big fan of Ohio State’s Pete Werner as a coverage linebacker who also brings good size to the table. Kentucky’s Jamin Davis is another top 50 prospect that fits that mold, but he could go in the first round. If we are looking for round three and later, I’ll give you these names: Michigan’s Cameron McGrone, Alabama’s Dylan Moses, or Northwestern’s Paddy Fisher. McGrone’s career arc is similar to Josh Uche’s in that he didn’t get much early playing time for the Wolverines but is an explosive athlete in pursuit and has a nice feel for navigating the trenches. Due to injury, Moses never lived up to the billing at Alabama, but he’s got tons of physical upside. Fisher is in the same mold as Ja’Whaun Bentley. A three-year captain with over 400 career tackles that was the quarterback of Northwestern’s defense. He’s far from flashy, but he’s a positionally sound linebacker prospect with good size. There are some off-ball linebacker fits in this class.

I finished studying this year’s safety class, and you can find complete reports in my spreadsheet. Here are a few names that stood out for New England as they look for a successor to Devin McCourty. First, Richie Grant from UCF has the most upside as a pure centerfielder. He has terrific range and ball skills to play over the top and showed off strappy man coverage skills at the Senior Bowl. Syracuse’s Andre Cisco and Texas’s Caden Sterns are high-upside athletes that are raw in their reads as deep safeties but have ball-hawking athletic profiles. The safe pick would be Georgia’s Richard LeCounte, who isn’t as long as Duron Harmon but reminds me of the former Pats safety. LeCoutne seems to be in all the right places as an assignment-sound player. He doesn’t have the athleticism as the others listed, but he gets the job done, and in big moments too. Lastly, Ar’Darius Washington and Tyree Gillespie are intriguing day-three guys. Washington has day-two tape but is undersized and reminds me of Myles Bryant. Gillespie will be an instant contributor on special teams and a backup free safety. The class also has quite a few hybrids or box safeties.

Since New England’s roster is filled with veterans in free agency, day three draft picks will need to be big-time contributors on special teams to make the 53. With that in mind, check out Boise State corner Avery Williams. Some teams have Williams as an offensive weapon and a corner, but his contributions in the kicking game project him onto an NFL roster. Williams has five career blocked kicks and nine total kick/punt return touchdowns. Senior Bowl director Jim Nagy compared him to current Lions returner Jamal Agnew. I could see Williams in Foxboro. 

If recent history is any indication, we need to wait till after the 2021 season to project 2022 quarterbacks. This time last year, Mac Jones was a late day two pick. Baker Mayfield, Joe Burrow, and Kyler Murray were in the same boat as Jones, so you never know who will emerge. North Carolina’s Sam Howell is the favorite to be the top quarterback selected, while others might favor Oklahoma’s Spencer Rattler. After watching his 2020 tape, I was also really impressed with Cincinnati quarterback Desmond Ridder, who opted to go back to school rather than be a second-rounder this year. USC’s Kedon Slovis and Minnesota’s Tanner Morgan round out the consensus top five. Since the Patriots won’t have the #1 pick, my guy right now is Rider. Are any of them better than this year’s crop? Ask me after the fall season. 

Dugger’s role is one of the biggest questions the Pats need to answer regarding the long-term outlook at safety. Based on his rookie year, the Pats view Dugger as a box safety in a similar mold as Patrick Chung, playing at linebacker or over the slot to cover tight ends. However, Dugger was an excellent deep safety in college with great ball production ranging over the top. In that sense, he’s more of a natural at free safety. To optimize his unique athleticism, I’d like to see the Patriots use Dugger more like Rodney Harrison than McCourty or Chung as a throwback strong safety. Most of the time, that means playing closer to the line, but I also want him hunting for interceptions as a robber or deep zone defender. Dugger brings more of a physical presence to the box than McCourty but is a much better ball hawker than Chung. Pigeon-holing him as a tight end stopper, a la Chung, takes away his playmaking ability to force takeaways; let him roam a little bit. 

Gunner and Edelman are different types of receivers in my mind. I don’t think Gunner has Edelman’s short-area quickness. Whenever Gunner plays receiver, he’s much better on a vertical route tree and even taking reps on the outside. Although Edelman transitioned to more downfield routes on crossers, seams, and post/corners later on in his career, I don’t think Gunner has the change of direction to separate on shorter patterns. Jakobi Meyers, Nelson Agholor, and Olszewski can run Edelman’s intermediate route tree, but none are jitterbugs. In the draft, the wide receiver class is loaded with undersized speedsters out of the slot in the mold of a poor man’s Tyreek Hill. Jaylen Waddle, Kadarius Toney, Elijah Moore, Amari Rodgers, Rondale Moore, D’Wayne Eskridge, Jaelon Darden, Tutu Atwell, and the list goes on. Those players are dynamic field-stretchers and ball carriers that win differently than a traditional Pats slot receiver, but that’s where the league is heading. The Pats have spoken numerous times with Eskridge, per NBC Sports Boston’s Phil Perry.

The easy answer is 12 personnel with Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith both on the field. Due to their versatility, the Pats can make their 12 personnel look like 11 with Henry and Smith detached from the formation. There are a lot of possibilities with those two moving around the formation. My guess is we’ll see a passing downs group like this: Agholor (X/Z), Bourne (X/Z), Henry (Y), Smith (H), and James White at running back. If they want to get crazy, swap White for Jakobi Meyers and play Smith in the backfield. Now we are having some fun.