For the Patriots to rebuild, it’s time for Bill Belichick to do something he’s never done as a head coach
Nine months ago, when the NFL scouting combine thwarted college prospects, a member of the Los Angeles Chargers contingent was hiding in a booth in a suburb of Indianapolis, drinking coffee and asking what the Miami Dolphins were up to the 2020 NFL drafted fifth choice overall. By that time, the Chargers were engrossed in their quarterback ratings, trying to figure out who would be on the board in the sixth election.
"Do you think the dolphins like [Justin] Herbert?" he asked.
The belief at the time was that Miami was tied to Alabama's Tua Tagovailoa. But Chargers Human Resources members wondered if the dolphins were telegraphing interest in Tagovailoa to prevent a team from acting in the third or fourth election to steal Herbert. This was important for the chargers as they went in love with the combine and hoped it would fall on them.
"What's the plan if Herbert isn't there at six?" asked a visitor.
"If he doesn't show up at six, we'll probably do something to make sure we have him," the Chargers source said. "We're designing a quarterback one way or another - unless the owner wants [Tom] Brady. But I think everyone else in the team would prefer Herbert now."
This is the moment I think of when I see the New England Patriots. Not because it was a discussion about Tagovailoa - which helped Miami beat the Patriots on Sunday between 10pm and 12pm - but because the gist of the conversation profoundly changed the future of chargers.
New England coach Bill Belichick is in a situation he has never been in before and the 2021 NFL draft will consider whether or not he can rebuild the Patriots. (Mark Brown / Getty Images)
Without going into the nuance of the entire meeting, it could be summed up this way: nine months ago, after one of the most dying franchise moves in NFL history, the Chargers had a very clear idea of what to do to change the future of the franchise. Or, more appropriately, who would be the person pointing the team's compass in the right direction. That player would be a quarterback, and if HR got what they wanted, that quarterback would be Herbert.
Nine months later, the chargers have this basic player. And if everything goes as planned, they will build the organization around him for the next decade and beyond. That makes it a Patriots talk - because it's time Belichick dramatically changes his approach to the quarterback position.
Bill Belichick's lack of quarterbacks for the first round
For the first time in his 26 years as the NFL head coach - including five with the Cleveland Browns and 21 with the Patriots - Belichick has never taken a quarterback in the first round. It's a wild rarity, driven in large part by Brady's long, unprecedented success, but still completely unique in the NFL record books.
In fact, no other head coach in league history has participated in 26 drafts or won a quarterback in the first round. These include the four other coaching legends who are the only ones with more seasons than Belichick: Curly Lambeau, Tom Landry, George Halas and Don Shula.
But Belichick? Never. When it comes to choosing the most important position in the game in the first round, his abstinence is second to none.
And now that has to change.
This comes from someone who watched Cam Newton for the first two weeks of the season and thought that everything would change - not just for Newton, but for the Patriots as well. For a quick peek, he looked healthy, confident, and closer to MVP form than any other season since 2015. Not only offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels seemed to have figured out how to mold a scheme around himself, Belichick seemed to be enjoying himself, too work out.
Patriots quarterback Cam Newton turned out not to be the answer New England was looking for after Tom Brady left for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. (AP Photo / Chris O'Meara)
Finally, the regression to the mean crept into the picture. The questionable throws for cover and balls come up short and imprecisely. There were a few happy feet in my pocket, a few sales and one mechanically cumbersome pass attempt after another. The Patriots who don't trust Newton to throw the ball at Newton seem unsure about this part of his game. All of this brings this year-long relationship to a logical conclusion.
Now we know that even if Newton stayed with the Patriots, it would be little more than a bridge starter handing the team over to someone younger, better and representing the future of the franchise. If you want to know what that looks like, check out Tyrod Taylor, who made way for Herbert with the chargers earlier this season.
Belichick has to identify the quarterbacks who can be franchise players in the first round of the upcoming draft, and then he has to come up with a plan to get one of them.
If this means trading valuable picks or other building blocks to get into the required position, it must be done. The fact is, Belichick's long draft of the history of the middle round quarterbacks does not represent the ability to change the face of this impending rebuilding. Don't fool yourself about it either. This will be a remodel. Parts of the defense are too slow or too old for some kind of micro-pivot, including some players who signed out before the season for COVID-19 reasons.
If Belichick doesn't change its considerably deep streaks and suddenly decides to blow them out during the free agency, this is going to be a team that needs to be built from within. And it will take a few years.
Patriots should follow the charger path with Justin Herbert
The best way to start this process will be like the chargers did with Herbert. Start by identifying the correct player. Find out where he is available to you. And then you have the strength to embark on the process it takes to develop it and rebuild the franchise the right way: from the quarterback.
That means you don't have to hope for another lottery ticket like Brady. It also means saying no to another pretty good second round player like Jimmy Garoppolo. The same goes for another Jacoby Brissett in the third or a Jarrett Stidham in the fourth. The Ryan Malletts and Rohan Daveys and even Matt Cassels don't have to apply. Belichick has to take a special player with him at the beginning of his journey. An elite and sought-after player who won't be kicked out by any other team.
Of course it won't be easy. Not when the Patriots have already won six games and are staring at a choice that is somewhere deeper in the first round than most quarterbacks. In fact, it's likely that New England will have to move up for this guy - whether it's Zach Wilson of BYU or Trey Lance, North Dakota. Alabama's Mac Jones might be the guy too, as Nick Saban Belichick will give the absolute brass nail rating he will be looking for. Hell, even Ohio state Justin Fields can't be ruled out if, for example, the one who ends up reaching number 2 isn't sure he's the cornerstone so many believe is.
Somewhere in this group there has to be a player Belichick believes in. Someone who can become the centerpiece that the patriots need. Someone who is worth the effort, fortune, and cunning it takes to secure the next decade of success. Because this player is not on the list of patriots right now. If it was Stidham he would play. If it were Newton, he wouldn't be playing the way he is right now.
It's time. Twenty-six years is a long, impressive, and blessed time to never have to deal with a first-round quarterback. But that time is over. And even Belichick has to be able to see it.
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