Patriots Positional Preview: New England’s Three Biggest Questions At QB

How far can Mac Jones move up the QB depth chart?

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As the Patriots progress through Phase 3 of their offseason program, we’re taking a position-by-position look at New England’s new-look roster.

Next up: quarterbacks.

OFFSEASON CHANGES
The New Patriots brought the band back together, re-signing Cam Newton and Brian Hoyer as free agents to re-join Jarrett Stidham. They also made a major splash by taking Alabama’s Mac Jones 15th overall in the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft.

Newton started 15 of 16 games in 2020, only missing the Patriots’ Week 4 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs after testing positive for COVID-19. Hoyer started that game but struggled so mightily that he lost his second-string job to Stidham for the rest of the season.

Jones enters the organization as one of the most accurate passers in college football history. He’s coming off of a 2020 season in which he completed 77.4 percent of his passes for 4,500 yards with 41 touchdowns and four interceptions in 12 games. Jones is the first quarterback head coach Bill Belichick has picked in the first round since being hired by the Patriots in 2000, so he also comes in with high expectations.

Newton and Hoyer are only signed through the 2021 season. Even if Jones doesn’t start this season, he should be penciled in as the top QB in 2022 and beyond.

THREE BIG QUESTIONS
1. Who’s the Week 1 starter?
If the season started today, it would be Newton. But it doesn’t, so the incumbent starter has three more months to fend off Jones, and to a lesser degree, Stidham and Hoyer.

There’s reason to believe the Patriots’ offense will be in better in 2021 than it was in 2020 regardless of which QB is under center. New England spent big on tight ends Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry and wide receivers Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne. The Patriots also still have a deep running back stable and one of the league’s better offensive lines.

Newton completed 65.8 percent of his passes for 2,657 yards with eight passing touchdowns and 10 interceptions in 2020. He also added 592 rushing yards, 12 rushing touchdowns and one lost fumble while going 7-8 as a starter with bottom-of-the-barrel receiving options. Those numbers should improve this season, and more wins should come with them because of the money spent at wide receiver and tight end.

Still, if Jones looks better than Newton in OTAs, minicamp, training camp and the preseason, he’ll get the nod in Week 1. It’s an optimistic sign that Jones already was taking No. 2 QB reps during last Thursday’s OTAs. Newton clearly wasn’t guaranteed a starting role when signing a one-year, $5 million contract worth up to $14 million back in March.

There have been 23 quarterbacks taken in the first round of the NFL Draft since 2016. Only four of them (Carson Wentz, Sam Darnold, Kyler Murray and Joe Burrow) started Week 1. Jones is no guarantee to start right away despite his pedigree.

2. Who’s the backup if Newton doesn’t start?
Based on last Thursday’s OTAs session, it appears Jones is the front-runner. That said, Stidham was the Patriots’ backup in 2019 and for most of the 2020 season. Hoyer began last season as New England’s backup and was New England’s second-stringer in 2017 and 2018.

So, the Patriots have been willing to head into recent seasons with both QBs at No. 2 on the depth chart.

3. Who’s the odd man out?
If Newton is the starter and Jones is his backup, there is no real reason to keep Stidham aboard.

If Newton is the starter and Stidham is his backup, Hoyer will probably be cut.

If Newton is the starter and Hoyer is his backup, Stidham would be the odd man out.

Things could get crazy if Jones wins the starting job. The Patriots could save more than $1.9 million by cutting Newton or more than $3.4 million by trading him if they could find a partner.

If the Patriots think the quarterback room dynamic would be OK with Newton behind Jones, it makes the most sense to keep him. He’s a better quarterback than Stidham and Hoyer. If New England believes Newton backing up Jones would create awkwardness, it would only have to eat $2-to-$3.5 million by parting ways with him.

MOST TO PROVE
Stidham needs to prove his worth to the Patriots and the entire NFL this offseason. If he looks good in training camp and preseason, he could either stick around in New England or garner some value in a trade.

The 2019 fourth-rounder was great during the summer of his rookie season and won the backup job behind Tom Brady. He got hurt last training camp and was never able to make up enough ground to compete with Newton for the starting job or beat out Hoyer as the backup until Week 5.

Now, Stidham needs to hope for an offseason similar to his first. He started it out strongly by organizing an offseason camp with teammates in Southern California.

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