Before the NFL Scouting Combine kicks off later this month in Indianapolis, we’re taking a position-by-position look at the New England Patriots’ roster. We’ll examine which players stood out in 2019, which ones have some work to do this offseason and which ones could be leaving town.
Next up: the quarterbacks.
IMPENDING FREE AGENTS
2019 SEASON REVIEW
— By almost any metric, this was one of the worst statistical seasons of Brady’s storied NFL career.
His 6.6 yards-per-attempt average? Worst since 2002. Passer rating of 88.8? Worst since 2013 and second-worst since 2006. Ditto for his adjusted net yards per attempt (6.24). His 52.5 QBR was his worst since ESPN began tracking the stat in 2006, and his 60.8 completion percentage was his fourth-lowest mark as a Patriot.
Brady ranked outside of the top 15 in all five of those categories and near the league floor in completion percentage and yards per attempt (27th in both). His Approximate Value — Pro Football Reference’s measurement of a player’s overall performance in a given season — also equaled the worst of his career (tied with 2003).
New England’s offense as a whole failed to crack 25 points in eight of the team’s final nine games — the lone outlier being a blowout win over the 2-14 Cincinnati Bengals — and managed just one touchdown in its wild-card playoff loss to the Tennessee Titans.
Was all of this Brady’s fault? Certainly not. The Patriots failed to adequately replace Rob Gronkowski (more on that below); didn’t have a single consistent, reliable receiving threat outside of a banged-up Julian Edelman and running back James White; and dealt with costly injuries along the offensive line and at fullback.
Each of those factors contributed to the most disjointed offensive campaign by any Patriots team in recent memory. But Brady’s play was a factor, as well.
— Stidham, a fourth-round draft pick last spring, turned in the most impressive training camp/preseason of any recent Patriots rookie QB, allowing him to beat out veteran Brian Hoyer for the top backup spot. The Auburn product played sparingly during the regular season, seeing garbage-time action in three games. He attempted just four passes, one of which resulted in a pick-six by New York Jets safety Jamal Adams.
— Kessler spent the bulk of this season as New England’s third quarterback. The 26-year-old was with the Patriots for 12 of their 17 games over two stints but never cracked the gameday roster. Still, the Patriots liked Kessler, who’s started games for the Cleveland Browns and Jacksonville Jaguars, enough to re-sign him two weeks after releasing him to make room on the roster for tight end Ben Watson. It’s tough to project how the next few months will play out for the former USC star. He could be in the mix for a roster spot this summer. He also could be released if the Patriots add another QB through the draft, in free agency or via trade.
TOP OFFSEASON STORYLINES
1. Will Tom Brady re-sign? There’s no bigger question in the NFL this offseason. Will Brady, who turns 43 in August and is not considering retirement, remain in New England for a 21st season or opt to play elsewhere for the first time in his pro career? It’s unlikely either Brady or the Patriots know the answer at this point.
According to reports from ESPN’s Mike Reiss, NFL Media’s Mike Giardi and NBC Sports Boston’s Tom E. Curran, Brady and the team have yet to engage in contract talks. Those reportedly are expected to begin in the coming weeks, before the legal tampering period begins March 16 and Brady’s reps are free to negotiate with other suitors. Brady officially will hit unrestricted free agency at 4 p.m. ET on March 18 if he and the Patriots do not reach a deal before then.
Per the terms of the pseudo-extension Brady signed last summer, $13.5 million in dead money would hit New England’s 2020 salary cap if the QB does not re-sign before that March 18 deadline. Bill Belichick and his staff are skilled at navigating the cap, but doing so could be much more difficult this year if the new collective bargaining agreement is not ratified before the new league year opens. (More on that here.)
Belichick surely would prefer a prompt decision from Brady — who reportedly is prioritizing improvements to New England’s skill-position groups over a significant pay increase — to avoid the type of situation the Patriots found themselves in with Gronkowski last offseason.
Gronk announced his retirement 11 days into free agency, a delay that prevented the Patriots from signing top free agent Jared Cook. New England wound up with Matt LaCosse, Ben Watson and Austin Seferian-Jenkins (who was cut in June), ignored the position in the 2019 draft and boasted the NFL’s least productive tight end group this season.
2. If Brady leaves, where would he go? We did a whole series on potential Brady landing spots last month, but the Los Angeles Chargers and Las Vegas Raiders stand out as the teams most likely to make an aggressive push for the future Hall of Famer. Whether Brady would be interested in playing for either of those franchises is a different story.
Two teams we didn’t mention in our initial rundown that could be fascinating (albeit unlikely) dark horses in the Brady sweepstakes: the New York Giants and Dallas Cowboys.
3. If Brady leaves, who replaces him? Let’s say Brady does follow in the footsteps of Joe Montana and Peyton Manning and opts to finish his career elsewhere. How would the Patriots proceed at the game’s most important position? Would they sign a free agent like Marcus Mariota, Teddy Bridgewater or Philip Rivers? Swing a trade for a veteran like Andy Dalton or Cam Newton who does not appear to be part of his current team’s future plans? Roll the dice on Taysom Hill and revamp their offense?
The key player in this discussion would be Stidham. Did the Belichick brain trust see enough from the 23-year-old in practice and the preseason to believe he’s not only their quarterback of the future, but also a viable 2020 starter? The Patriots’ opinion of Stidham also will impact their draft strategy this spring. If they’re not sold, perhaps they use a high pick on a signal-caller, as several prominent draft analysts have speculated in recent weeks.
Thumbnail photo via Winslow Townson/USA TODAY Sports Images