Mailbag: A Four-Step Plan for the New England Patriots at Quarterback

Plus, answering questions on the Vikings' handling of Yannick Ngakwoe, where Eric Bieniemy will land, the MVP race, Matt Patricia's job security, Carson Wentz's struggles, Taysom Hill's contract and more.
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It’s Week 11, and I got lots of good questions from you, so here we go …

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From BradyForcesJetsFansToCry (@Pats_1988): If you put on your GM hat for the Pats, what would you do at the QB position in the 2021 season? Stick with Cam, jump on the Stidham hype train, try to trade for Darnold or draft a QB in Round 1? And which one, assuming Lawrence and Fields are gone? Thx and best regards from Austria.

Brady, you know I’m always happy to answer a question from the homeland—and I’ll give you my fool-proof, four-point plan for finding your next quarterback of the future.

Sign Cam Newton to a reasonable Band-Aid extension. Would Newton do a two-year, $40 million deal right now? If he would, I think I’d sign up for that. It would give you a level of certainty through 2022 and give Newton a chance to reestablish himself as a starting quarterback in the league, with another shot at being a free agent at 33. And it would buy the Patriots time to find the long-term answer.

Draft a quarterback in April. And notice that I didn’t say draft a quarterback in the first round. I believe you have to have conviction to take one in the first round, because when you do, you’ve married your future to him, which is why I think Newton’s giving you the flexibility not to force that kind of decision is huge. Alex Smith gave the Chiefs that leeway for years, and it allowed them to pass, pass, pass, pass and then to go all in on Patrick Mahomes. That said, I do think they should probably start firing off some darts. So deciding to take one at some point in the draft (it worked for Seattle!) is appropriate.

Start the intensive process of quarterback scouting now. Evaluating college players is a year-round thing for NFL teams, so it’s not like this will take some sort of wild swing. But there’s no price too high to get it right at the most important position. So start now, and look at multiple quarterback classes in the process, so you have context on what is available now and what will be down the line. A good example of why: Part of the decision-making for a couple of teams that took QBs in 2018 was that that the 2019 class looked fairly barren.

Continue to evolve the offense. I understand the Patriots like the advantage their offense gave them over the last 20 years—they stuck with calculus, while many others backtracked to basic math. They could do that because they had Tom Brady. They don’t anymore, and colleges simply don’t produce quarterbacks ready to do what Brady could. Having Newton is nice in this regard, in that it makes you look at different things. However they get there, simplifying things for players (which they’re already doing some) is a must. It’s why, in fact, Dolphins coach Brian Flores fired Patriots alum and OC Chad O’Shea this year in favor of Chan Gailey.

Now, is this foolproof? Of course not. Finding a franchise quarterback is hard. But I do think these four steps give you the best chance—and it’s possible Bill Belichick has all of them in motion already.

From Valion13 (@Valion13): Did the Vikings give up too soon on Yannick Ngakoue, or was there something behind the scenes that made that trade necessary?

Valion, I’d say no. And I’d say that even as a guy who believes the Vikings are going to make a real run at the last NFC wild card. They’re talented enough to do it and well-coached enough to do it, and they’re playing with some purpose right now, too. But does that mean that pulling the plug on their all-in approach to 2020 was wrong? It does not.

Basically, Minnesota looked at its roster in October, saw an aging core and a cap issue coming down the pike in 2021, and decided it was time to be flexible in roster-building—and other teams were made aware that the Vikings were open for business on well-pedigreed vets on the roster. It makes sense, too. If you’re 1–5, foresee a bottleneck in your cap coming and need to get younger in general, draft picks (see: cheap, young talent) are the great elixir.

And now that the team is 4–5 heading into a date with the Cowboys, I don’t think that changes. Again, Minnesota’s a good team. But I don’t think they’re a championship team right now, and they were honest with themselves about that last month. That doesn’t mean the rest of the season can’t be fun, or good for the program going forward. It does mean that it continues to be prudent to look at anyone on the team who might not be around in 2021 a little differently than you might otherwise.

Remember, the Vikings couldn’t complete a long-term deal with Ngakoue because of franchise-tag rules—and signing him was going to be difficult this offseason, given that paying him at market rate would probably drive his high-end bookend, Danielle Hunter, batty (and probably require a major adjustment to Hunter’s deal). So the fact that the Vikings got a three and a five back two months after giving up a two and a five is a win, I think, with the team starting to become more reliant on young guys (Jeff Gladney, Justin Jefferson) as it goes.

Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy reacts after beating the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl LIV at Hard Rock Stadium.

From Craig M (@Dolfan2334): Eric Bieniemy is expected to be the hot coaching name this offseason. Do you think he ends up in New York, Jacksonville or somewhere else?

Craig, the one thing I’ve heard from a handful of people that’s gotten a little harder to ignore is the idea that Atlanta has its eyes on Bieiemy. The Falcons, obviously, are free now (with Dan Quinn gone) to vet candidates through background work and send whatever signals they want to a coach that they’ll be interested when the time comes.

It’s also notable that team president Rich McKay is about as connected as it gets to the league office, which has been very out front in trying to motivate teams to hire diverse candidates for GM and coach positions. McKay is chair of the competition committee, serving on that panel with EVP of football operations Troy Vincent, who’s a leader for 345 Park Avenue on the diverse-hiring front.

To be clear, I’m not saying that this is a bag job. But if anyone with a team would be sensitive to the issues the league has had and might’ve heard how Bieniemy is deserving of his shot at being a head coach in the league, it would probably be McKay. I also think owner Arthur Blank, if all other things are equal, would like to be part of the NFL’s making progress in that area. So just keep an eye on this one.

From Guzman (@NoShotsJones): As a Washington Football fan, what should I root for the remainder of the year?

Guzman: Development. I think it’s clear now that Washington is going to, at the very least, be doing a lot of work on the quarterbacks in next year’s draft. And while Trevor Lawrence looks like a long shot, I think watching Ohio State games (Justin Fields) or highlights from North Dakota State (Trey Lance) and BYU (Zach Wilson) could be a fun exercise for any fan of the Football Team.

Elsewhere, there’s a lot of work that can be done the next seven weeks. First and foremost, decisions on who is in and who is out on the offensive line need to come. Really, right tackle Morgan Moses is the only guy who can say (with anything approaching confidence) that he’ll be back and in his current role in 2021. Continuing to develop the right mix with a deep, talented and young defensive line should be a priority too, as should getting skill guys like Terry McLaurin and Antonio Gibson reps and assessing the defensive back seven.

Bottom line is that the guys running the show there know the score. This was always going to take time. Being where they are now, despite being just a game and a half out of first in a really bad division, only confirms it.

From Danny (@bettheover85): Most likely to win MVP now?

Danny, I think if this is about the best and most valuable player in the sport, Patrick Mahomes should be your winner. Everything looks obscenely easy to him right now—and there’s really not much sign of that changing any time soon. I had ESPN’s Dan Orlovsky (who played 13 years in the league) on the pod this week, and when we talked Mahomes, he brought up how we’ve almost been desensitized to what he’s capable of.

Orlovsky gave me an example, too. If you have NFL Game Pass, pull up second-and-10 from the Denver 30 with 9:51 left in the first quarter. Watch the play from the end zone cam. And after you see it, realize that no one, outside of the guys calling the game, said a second word about that throw, which is incredible.

That also illustrates the problem. Normalizing what Mahomes is doing takes away from, well, what he’s doing. Which is incredible—a second 5,000-yard and 50-touchdown season is within reach, and there have been only two of those before, one of which was Mahomes’s last MVP season. That should be a big deal. But because of the way story lines move in the NFL, it just hasn’t been.

And I say this with all due respect to Russell Wilson, Aaron Rodgers, Alvin Kamara, Dalvin Cook and whoever else is rightfully in the running. I’m also not saying the race is over. I’m just saying that Mahomes should absolutely be the leader right now.

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From Matt (@Smitty_Matt): If Matt Patricia somehow squeaks into 88, does that buy him another year? What about Stafford going forward?

Matt, I think it’s hard to have a firm grip on that, just because there’s a new controlling owner, in Sheila Ford Hamp, and obviously we have no track record to judge. But her mother, Martha Firestone Ford, did say this when retaining Patricia and GM Bob Quinn last year: “We are committed to year three of Coach Patricia’s plan. To be clear, our expectation is for the Lions to be a playoff contender in 2020.”

So then, the natural answer to your question is with another question: How do they get to 88? Are they 87 going into Week 17, and lose with a playoff spot on the line? Or are they 58 in early December and out of the race, and put together three relatively meaningless wins? That stuff, to me, matters. As does the continued development of a core that’s got good young players like Kenny Golladay, Taylor Decker, T.J. Hockenson and Jeff Okudah in it.

As for Matthew Stafford, I think he’s criminally underrated and absolutely capable of putting together the kind of MVP season that, say, Matt Ryan did when everything became right around him in Atlanta. I guess it’s hard to say what his future is in Detroit if we don’t know who’ll be making that decision, but I don’t think he’s the problem there.

From Craig M (@Dolfan2334): Have the Dolphins added enough in the trenches to make skill players the priority in the draft and FA? Who do you like for them to add? Chase and Etienne or are there others you like?

Hey Craig, I think they’re getting closer. The fact that you have three rookies that could evolve into long-term starters on the offensive line—Austin Jackson as a left tackle, Robert Hunt as a right tackle and Solomon Kindley as a guard—is a good place to start, and Christian Wilkins is a nice building block on a mostly veteran defensive line.

Now, I don’t think that means Brian Flores and Chris Grier will suddenly go away from adding players in trenches. But I do think having that foundation frees the Dolphins brass up to give Tua Tagovailoa some weapons, or infuse some youth at linebacker, and given the amount of capital the team is going into 2021 with—remember, they have the Texans’ (likely high) first- and second-round picks—that’s a great position to be in.

As for who I’d like to see there, LSU’s JaMarr Chase would make sense for just about any team, and I think his size and toughness would be a pretty good fit for what Flores wants in players. Florida tight end Kyle Pitts would be another fun piece to pair with Tagovailoa. But if you’re picking in the top six or seven? I can’t ignore how perfect Penn State LB Micah Parsons would be for Flores, both in his athleticism and versatility. In fact, just the fact that he could be in play is remarkable and a testament to Grier’s work piling up assets.

Bill O'Brien instructs Deshaun Watson during a game

From michael christopher (@Bigdogz1318): Will Adam Gase or Bill O’Brien get another coaching job in NFL next season or are both destined for college? What college coach do you think jumps to NFL this season?

Michael, I’d be stunned if Adam Gase got a third crack at being an NFL head coach so soon after striking out on his second one. O’Brien, on the other hand, is an interesting case. Over his six full seasons as head coach, he posted five winning records, four playoff appearances and two playoff wins working for a franchise that had only four winning seasons, two playoff appearance and two playoff wins in its 12-year, pre-O’Brien history.

This is a fact: O’Brien can coach. You can say he failed as a personnel man, and you can point to the problems internally that persist, but you can’t say he can’t coach. And that’s why it’s not impossible to me that some team with a strong GM may look at him and say, There’s really something here. And if they don’t? Well, then he’d be a logical OC candidate if the Titans or Patriots were to lose their coordinators this offseason.

The other possibility is the scenario you raised where a college program hires either of these guys. O’Brien, of course, has a ton of experience at that level, and did an incredible job in a downright awful situation at Penn State, so my guess is he’d have opportunities, if he wants them, somewhere in college football.

Gase hasn’t been in college ball for 15 years, but is connected to Nick Saban, which carries weight in those circles. (I’d still say the most likely scenario for Gase is as an NFL coordinator job somewhere.)

From John Thompson (@JThompson8): With Damien Harris playing so well this season, why couldn’t he get on the field last year?

John, it’s a good question, but Harris’s predicament in 2019 wasn’t exactly unprecedented. See, where in most places tailback is a position where guys translate easily and quickly from college to the pros, it really hasn’t worked that way in Foxboro.

In 2011, the Patriots drafted Shane Vereen in the second round. He had just 15 touches as a rookie. By Year 2, he was a major cog in the offense. And he capped his fourth and final year as a Patriot with 11 catches in the team’s Super Bowl XLIX win over Seattle. Ditto for James White. Drafted in the fourth round in 2014, he had 13 touches as a rookie. His role grew exponentially in Year 2. And at the end of Year 3, he caught 14 balls to help beat Atlanta in Super Bowl LI. He remains a big piece of the Patriots’ offense to this day.

It looks like Harris went through something similar. And while I can’t tell you exactly why backs might take longer to crack the lineup in New England, I can take an educated guess—the Patriots really prioritize pass-protection based on how they play offense, and that’s usually a hole for rookie running back, and New England would rather not put a back on the field if he isn’t bringing passing-game value, which can take time to develop.

Either way, it looks like the Patriots are in good shape now with Harris flashing potential to be a real bell cow at the NFL level.

From Not who you think I am (@DonRidenour): What is wrong with Wentz?

Don, I have a working theory on this, and it really applies to all young quarterbacks. I believe that the way the position is being developed and coached now allows for early success, largely because coaches are open-minded to borrowing from young quarterbacks’ collegiate schemes to make those guys more comfortable, and playable, early. Then, other teams adjust, and the quarterback has to be able to counterpunch.

We’ve seen plenty of quarterbacks—Tim Tebow, Robert Griffin III, etc.—struggle, and ultimately fail, to make that second adjustment. At this point, I think it’s fair to ask whether that’s where Wentz is. Early in his career, Doug Pederson, Frank Reich and John DeFilippo moved heaven and earth to get the most out of Wentz, and got him playing fast (which accentuated his athletic ability) and confident and, pre-2017 ACL injury, at an MVP level.

Now, with defenses having a book on him, it’s on Wentz to grow and take the next step as a player. That’s where early returns on 2020 for Wentz have come back poorly. Defensive coaches who’ve worked against him see a guy who’s pressing—evident to them in how he’s squeezing the ball—and not trusting what he’s seeing. One thing the RPO game did for him early in his career was get the ball out of his hand quickly. And years later, he’s gone the other way, holding the ball too long, falling out of rhythm and taking too many hits.

This stuff isn’t uncorrectable, of course. But, again, we have seen plenty of quarterbacks struggle to make that second adjustment in the past.

From phil laciura (@PLaciura): Who is Dak Prescott's agent and how much blame does he deserve for Prescott's situation?

Phil, Dak Prescott’s agent is Todd France, who’s long been one of the NFL’s best. And to blame him alone for the situation Prescott’s in would be unfair. Really, this boils down to a philosophical divide that both the Cowboys and France failed to bridge. Dallas has basically mandated that its biggest stars sign extensions of at least five years. Prescott wanted a four-year extension, mirroring what’s been done in Seattle for Russell Wilson twice.

The thing some people still failed to understand with NFL contracts (especially quarterback contracts): In most cases, the longer a top-end deal is, the more team-friendly it is. Almost all NFL contracts don’t have a guaranteed dollar past Year 3 (and most non-quarterback deals don’t have any past Year 2), meaning every year beyond that is a de facto team option. So the shorter the deal the player does, the sooner he gets another bite of the apple.

I believe if Dallas had been willing to do a four-year extension, Prescott would be signed to a long-term contract right now. The trouble for them if they’d done that, though, becomes this: What do you tell Tyron Smith, Zack Martin, Zeke Elliott, Jaylon Smith or DeMarcus Lawrence then, after insisting they sign longer deals?

So this is just where we are.

From Ben Clapperton (@BenClapperton): Why did the Saints make Taysom Hill the highest paid backup QB in the league if they’re just going to use him as a gadget player, especially with the salary cap issues they have?

Ben, I think they hedged their bet, to be honest. Pursuant to the first-year tender they put on him last winter, they were paying him $4.55 million for 2020 regardless. Now, if you think there’s a chance the guy is your quarterback in 2021 (which putting the first-round tender on him signals), you’re considering what it would cost to franchise tag him—and even if the cap drops to $175 million next year, that number is going to be around $25 million.

That’s why the Saints looked at it, saw a chance to get Hill some money now and spread the damage out over two years, while saving at least $9 million (his one-year extension had $16.3 million in new money) and maintaining control over the situation. If it worked out with Hill as the quarterback in 2021, then the Saints then have the franchise tag available without a 120% tax on it (the cost of tagging a player a second time) for 2022. And if it doesn’t work out? Well, that’s the cost of doing business at quarterback.

We saw the Colts spend more to do this with Jacoby Brissett after Andrew Luck’s retirement. We saw the Eagles do it way back when with Kevin Kolb, too, and you may remember that allowed them to trade him after Michael Vick emerged as the team’s replacement for Donovan McNabb. Don’t let the sticker shock get you here. Making these sorts of provisional moves at quarterback is always an expensive proposition.