Handicapping Patriots’ Quarterback Competition: Who Will Start Week 1?

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How does it feel to replace a legend? In a few short months, one of these quarterbacks will find out.

With Tom Brady choosing to close out his unparalleled NFL career in Tampa Bay, the New England Patriots are set to stage the first legitimate competition for their starting QB job since 1992, the year before they drafted Drew Bledsoe first overall.

Brady took the baton from Bledsoe in 2001 and held it for 19 seasons. Who will be next in line?

Let’s run through the candidates:

J’Mar Smith
Pros: Accurate; good deep ball; scrambling ability; strong senior year

Cons: Undrafted rookie quarterback

Smith, a three-year starter at Louisiana Tech, is coming off an impressive senior season in which he completed 64.3 percent of his passes, threw 18 touchdown passes with five interceptions and won 10 of his 11 starts. But he generated very little buzz during the pre-draft process, went undrafted and now faces a steep learning curve in an offseason that will feature far fewer on-field reps than usual due to COVID-19. Even landing a roster spot as QB3 would be an accomplishment for the 23-year-old.

Chance of starting Week 1: 0.5 percent

Brian Lewerke
Pros: 
Arm strength; good deep ball; mobility; once was a promising prospect

Cons: Undrafted rookie quarterback

Lewerke’s Michigan State career peaked in 2017, when he threw 20 touchdowns with seven interceptions and ran for another five scores. Over the past two seasons, his play waffled between mediocre and downright bad, tanking his draft stock. Overall, Lewerke completed just 57.7 percent of his collegiate passes, and evaluators knocked his decision-making and confidence. He reportedly turned some heads at the NFL Scouting Combine but, like Smith, faces an uphill climb for a roster spot.

Since it’s difficult for teams to divvy up practice reps among four quarterbacks, one of the two UDFAs could be cut once on-field work begins.

Chance of starting Week 1: 0.5 percent

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Brian Hoyer
Pros: Extensive NFL starting experience; knowledge of New England’s offense; intelligent veteran

Cons: Hasn’t looked like a capable starter since 2016; provides little upside; couldn’t beat out Stidham last summer

In our view, Hoyer is an insurance policy. Now in his third stint with New England after being let go by the Indianapolis Colts last month, the 34-year-old has started games for six different NFL teams and has a firm grasp of Josh McDaniels’ Patriots offense. If Stidham’s development lags this summer, the Patriots can roll with Hoyer as their starter to begin the season. Their ceiling would be substantially lower with the veteran at the controls, but they should at least be able to rely on him not to make glaring mistakes or mental errors.

Stidham already prevailed in one roster battle against Hoyer, though, winning the No. 2 spot behind Brady last summer and sending the journeyman packing. And that was as a rookie. Why wouldn’t he be favored to do the same this year? Ideally, Hoyer would be a modestly paid ($1.05 million this season) backup who could help tutor Stidham while providing necessary depth at the game’s most important position.

Chance of starting Week 1: 34 percent

Jarrett Stidham
Pros: Impressive 2018 preseason; high upside; seemingly has coaching staff’s confidence

Cons: No legitimate regular-season NFL experience 

First things first: Yes, Stidham is unproven. Yes, his only regular-season NFL experience to date has come in garbage time. And yes, the fourth and final pass he threw as a rookie resulted in a Jamal Adams pick-six. Regardless of how good the 2019 fourth-round draft pick looks on the practice field or in the preseason, the Patriots cannot know with certainty how he’ll perform in a game that counts until he gets that chance.

That said, Stidham did look darn good in training camp and his exhibition performances last summer — better than any Patriots rookie QB had looked in recent memory. And every move New England has made at the position since Brady’s departure in March — from declining to sign a more capable veteran than Hoyer to passing on every signal-caller in the NFL draft — has conveyed confidence in Stidham’s ability to lead the team in 2020.

Our prediction: the 23-year-old Auburn product gets the nod.

Chance of starting Week 1: 65 percent

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