In 2021, the New England Patriots used an early-round draft pick on a former Alabama quarterback.
What if they’d done so a year earlier instead?
During the leadup to the 2020 NFL Draft, which took place one month after the Patriots officially lost Tom Brady to Tampa Bay, the QB most closely linked to New England was Mac Jones’ predecessor’s predecessor with the Crimson Tide, Jalen Hurts.
“There’s word out that (the Patriots) like Jalen Hurts,” ESPN draft expert Mel Kiper said in an April 2020 appearance on WEEI. “… There’s talk they could look at Jalen Hurts. I’m not buying (at No.) 23, but if they move out of the first round, could they look at Jalen Hurts in the second round?”
Our 2020 draft coverage at NESN.com also pegged Hurts’ as the Patriots’ top QB target, spotlighting his Nick Saban connection, top-tier athleticism and potential to be used as a Taysom Hill-esque situational weapon even if he didn’t immediately win the starting job.
“That’s not to say he’s the best quarterback in the draft nor the best fit for the Patriots’ offense,” we wrote at the time. “But for where New England could likely draft Hurts … we like his potential to help the team more than any other realistic QB in the draft.”
We’ll likely never know whether the Patriots were hoping to land Hurts with a Day 2 selection, but they nearly had a chance to.
After trading out of the first round and taking safety Kyle Dugger early in Round 2, New England was set to make its second pick at No. 55 overall. The Philadelphia Eagles grabbed Hurts at No. 53. Shortly thereafter, the Patriots traded down, eventually selecting linebacker Josh Uche with the 60th pick.
Despite having just Jarrett Stidham and Brian Hoyer on their QB depth chart, the Patriots opted not to use any of their 10 selections on a quarterback. Two-and-a-half months later, they signed Cam Newton.
“If we feel like we find the right situation, we’ll certainly draft them,” head coach Bill Belichick said in his post-draft news conference. “We’ve drafted them in multiple years, multiple points in the draft. It didn’t work out the last three days. That wasn’t by design. We just tried to do the best we could with what we had this weekend.”
Hurts, who finished his college career at Oklahoma after losing his starting job to Tua Tagovailoa, likely wouldn’t have been an instant success in New England. His march to NFL stardom was a methodical one, progressing from Carson Wentz’s backup as a rookie to a promising but unfinished starter in 2021 before finally enjoying a true breakout this season.
A second-team All-Pro and NFL MVP finalist in Year 3, Hurts improved in nearly every passing category, rushed for 760 yards and 13 touchdowns, won 14 of his 15 starts and, on Sunday, led the Eagles to an NFC title, setting up a date with Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl LVII.
It’s fascinating, though, to imagine how things might have played out had the Patriots drafted Hurts. Since he wasn’t viewed as a likely Day 1 starter, there’s a chance they still would have gone out and signed Newton, who, as the best dual-threat QB of his era, would have been an ideal early-career mentor for Hurts. Former offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels also likely would have found creative ways to utilize Hurts’ rushing ability while he developed as an NFL passer.
The Patriots wound up with two players in Dugger and Uche who, three years in, look like foundational pieces for their defense, with the latter taking longer to emerge than the former. After starting Newton behind center in 2020, they used the 15th overall pick in the next year’s draft on Jones, who excelled in his first season before regressing under Matt Patricia and Joe Judge’s leadership in his second.
Belichick and the Patriots are hoping new OC Bill O’Brien can rekindle the franchise QB potential Jones showed as a rookie. But when they watch Hurts take the field on Super Bowl Sunday, they might be wondering what could have been.