Around the midway point of the Patriots’ worst season in 30 years, it became abundantly clear that their long-term answer at quarterback was not on their current roster.

Mac Jones is not the guy. Bailey Zappe, despite what he believes, is not the guy. Upgrading behind center should be a top offseason priority for New England, which closed out its 2023 campaign Sunday with a snow-covered home loss to the New York Jets.

And while that could happen through free agency or the trade market, it would not be at all surprising if the Patriots looked to land their QB of the future in the 2024 NFL Draft.

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New England — which may or may not be run by Bill Belichick by the time the draft arrives in late April — will spend the next several months scrutinizing this year’s impressive quarterback class. After landing the No. 3 overall pick, the Patriots are guaranteed a shot at USC’s Caleb Williams, North Carolina’s Drake Maye or LSU’s Jayden Daniels, who are considered the top three QB prospects as the pre-draft process kicks off.

They could even have their pick of two of those players if one of the teams above them takes someone like Ohio State wide receiver Marvin Harrison Jr., and they have the resources to trade up to No. 1 or 2 if they so choose.

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But let’s say the Patriots pass on whoever’s left from the Williams/Maye/Daniels trio and either address a different need at No. 3 overall (say, wideout and offensive tackle) or trade back and acquire additional assets. In that scenario, they could set their sights on one of the two signal-callers set to battle for the College Football Playoff National Championship on Monday night in Houston.

Washington’s Michael Penix Jr. and Michigan’s J.J. McCarthy both are viewed as potential first-round prospects — and markedly different ones, at that. Either could be in play for the Patriots in the middle of the first round or early on Day 2, depending on how they fare both Monday and at key pre-draft events, like the NFL Scouting Combine and their respective pro days.

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Penix is a 23-year-old five-year starter who dazzled in Washington’s semifinal win over Texas, completing 76.2% of his passes and throwing for 430 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions. He throws a gorgeous deep ball, maneuvers well in the pocket and makes excellent use of the Huskies’ squadron of elite receivers.

The knocks on Penix? He’s an older prospect (turns 24 in May) and has a lengthy and concerning injury history, including two season-ending ACLs in the same knee. Penix has started every game since transferring to Washington from Indiana two years ago, but NFL teams will need to see how the lefty checks out medically before determining how high to place him on their draft boards.

The Patriots have been burned before by draftees with injury red flags — Sony Michel and Malcolm Mitchell are two recent examples — so they’ll want to be as certain as possible that Penix’s body will hold up.

If Penix is the seasoned vet, McCarthy is the up-and-comer. The Michigan QB turns 21 later this month and was a two-year starter. He also isn’t a lock to be available in this year’s draft, as he had yet to declare as of Monday afternoon.

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McCarthy won a lot of games for the Wolverines — he’s 23-1 in his career, with head coach Jim Harbaugh calling him the best college QB in Michigan history — but wasn’t asked to do much in many of them. Michigan operates a run-heavy offense, giving McCarthy comparatively few opportunities to showcase his arm and playmaking ability.

While Williams, Maye, Daniels, Penix and Oregon’s Bo Nix all ranked in the top eight nationally in passing yards per game this season, McCarthy was 63rd. The other five all averaged over 300 yards per game; McCarthy was at 203.6.

McCarthy is an efficient passer, however, ranking third in the FBS with a 73.2% completion rate while averaging 9.1 yards per attempt. He also threw just four interceptions this season, with three of those coming in one bizarro outing against Bowling Green. McCarthy went 17-for-27 for 221 yards and three touchdowns with no picks in Michigan’s semifinal win over Alabama.

While Penix easily is the more exciting option of the two, there are things to like about McCarthy’s game. But as a 21-year-old who wasn’t the centerpiece of his college offense, it could take him longer to develop at the NFL level.

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The uncertainty surrounding Belichick’s job status makes it difficult to project which QB would be a better fit for the 2024 Patriots, but expect either Belichick or his successor to do plenty of work on both.

The talent on display Monday night won’t be limited to the quarterbacks, though. A total of 12 players from Michigan and Washington — six from each side — are ranked in the top 100 on Pro Football Focus’ big board, with an additional six slotting in between 100 and 150.

Those include Washington’s aforementioned superb wideouts: Rome Odunze (No. 6 in those rankings), Ja’Lynn Polk (No. 58) and Jalen McMillan (No. 78), any of whom might have started for the receiver-deficient Patriots this season. The Huskies also boast a couple of fringe first-rounders in edge rusher Bralen Trice (No. 25) and offensive tackle Troy Fautanu (No. 36). Fauntanu, a powerful and freakishly athletic left tackle, is one to watch for New England if he slips to Day 2.

Michigan’s top-100 representatives outside of McCarthy are defensive lineman Kris Jenkins (No. 52), safety Rod Moore (No. 65), receiver Roman Wilson (No. 83) and running backs Blake Corum (No. 89) and Donovan Edwards (No. 100).

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The Patriots have selected five Michigan products in the last five drafts and haven’t taken a Washington player since 2001 (linebacker Hakim Akbar) — a precedent that, again, won’t matter if Belichick is ousted and a new regime installed.

Kickoff for the title game is set for 7:30 p.m. ET at NRG Stadium.

Featured image via John David Mercer/USA TODAY Sports Images