Tom E. Curran

Patriots can jump-start their rebuild by trading down from No. 3

It's time to put a giant 'FOR SALE' sign on New England's first-round pick.

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The best way for a bottom-feeding team to get good players? Force them to come. How do you do that? You draft them.

The Patriots are a bottom-feeder. If you don’t have a quarterback, left tackle or decent receivers but you DO have the No. 3 overall pick, that makes you a bottom-feeder.

This week has been a referendum on how hard it is for an unimposing team to build through free agency.

Calvin Ridley, a very good wide receiver who’s about the 15th-best in the league at his position, turned his nose up to the New England Patriots. He chose to go to Tennessee to play for a first-year coach on a team without an established quarterback for four years and $92 million with $50 million guaranteed. If he didn’t go to the Titans, he may have stayed in Jacksonville, where the situation is more stable and the cost of living is much cheaper.

The Patriots have been – from the outside looking in – watching the paint dry as potential hole-fillers like wideout Marquise Brown and left tackle Jonah Williams signed with Kansas City and Arizona, respectively.

It’s time for New England to put a huge “FOR SALE” sign on the third overall pick and start looking for buyers. And the most obvious buyer stepped to the front of the line Friday when the Vikings dealt for a second first-round pick.

In a draft that’s heavy on top-end wideouts and tackles, the Patriots can trade down and take 11th and 23rd picks off the Vikings' hands IN ADDITION TO first- and third-round picks in 2025, which is what Pro Football Talk’s Mike Florio suggested Friday. The Patriots then take a tackle and wideout (or vice versa) at 11 and 23, and with two firsts next year -- both of which will likely be in the top half of the first round -- you have mobility to move up and get the best quarterback if you want.

Then you’d have a left tackle, top-tier wideout and quarterback on rookie contracts growing together.  

Meanwhile, you send a third-rounder to Chicago for Justin Fields. If he beats out Jacoby Brissett (which he should), you have a young, experienced, mobile, strong-armed quarterback who's motivated to show the league he’s ready to follow the Baker Mayfield plan we saw unfold in Tampa Bay.

The Patriots can either pick up Fields’ fifth-year option in early May for about $25 million in 2025 or, more likely, let it play out with Fields and cross the free-agent bridge when they get there.

UPDATE (Saturday, March 16): The Steelers have acquired Fields from the Bears for a conditional 2025 sixth-round pick that could become a fourth-round pick if Fields plays more than 51 percent of Pittsburgh's snaps in 2024.

We spoke at length about dealing with the Vikings and trading for Fields on Thursday’s episode of the Patriots Talk PodcastOur guest was draft expert Thor Nystrom, who’s one of the most intelligent and informed quarterback analysts you can find.

🔊 Patriots Talk Podcast: Were the Patriots smart to push away from the table on Calvin Ridley? | Listen & Subscribe | Watch on YouTube

Nystrom is based in Minnesota, so we discussed the possibility of a trade down with the Vikings. The reason Minny is the best partner? Sam Darnold is at the top of their depth chart and wide receiver Justin Jefferson cannot be sentenced to a year of catching passes from Darnold.

So trade for Fields and send No. 3 to Minny for two firsts and a second (or the Florio deal)?

“I think that'd be brilliant,” said Nystrom. “If you trade down with the Vikings and get their first round pick next year, the Vikings aren't going to be good next year because (of their cap situation). …

“The Patriots then would be indicating that they're not going to be contending next year either …So you're going to have two picks in the top half of the first round. Then Justin Fields, I think a third-round pick gets that done right now. That's perfectly reasonable. You trade (Chicago) a third-round pick, you let Fields start for one year on a cheap contract. When he leaves as a free agent, probably he's going to sign for a contract where you recoup the third-round pick. If not, it's going to be a fourth on the compensatory pick.

"So you're getting the pick back on the opposite end when you got one year of a starting quarterback, an acceptable starting quarterback in the NFL at a very acceptable market rate.

“I don't understand why a couple of these quarterback desperate teams are not jumping on this,” added Nystrom. “If I was Sean Payton, I would have already tried to consummate that trade. If I was the Giants, I would have offered that instead of signing Drew Lock. And certainly I think the Patriots (should explore it).”

Phil Perry and I have opposing views on this strategy so far. He likes the Bengals model. They drafted Joe Burrow No. 1 overall in 2020 and got Ja’Marr Chase a year later with the fifth overall pick after a four-win season in Burrow’s rookie year. They already had Tee Higgins (second rounder in 2020) and spent a 2019 first-rounder on left tackle Jonah Williams.

Passing on a quarterback in a four-deep quarterback draft when you DON’T HAVE A QUARTERBACK is risky. Especially if the guy who goes at No. 3 goes rips it up.

You can almost see Drake Maye throwing to Jefferson indoors in Minny and people wondering how the Patriots could have passed on Maye and calling for the head of Eliot Wolf.

But Drake Maye isn’t Joe Burrow. He’s not as good or as accomplished. Maye may actually get leapfrogged by J.J. McCarthy in this process as he already did by Jayden Daniels.

If the Patriots aren’t absolutely positive that the quarterback they’d take at No. 3 is a “lift-all-boats” kind of player with leadership ability and the ability to make everyone around him better, they need to GTFO. They need to get players who can help make the quarterback better. And the fastest way to do that is drafting talent around the position.

Look at the Eagles, Niners, Bucs, Rams and Chiefs. All those teams have been in and/or won the Super Bowl and every one did so either with a quarterback who was overlooked, underrated, cast off or recycled. Jalen Hurts, Jimmy Garoppolo, Tom Brady, Matt Stafford, Patrick Mahomes. Every single one was dropped on to a team that was really friggin’ good before they got there. Or, if not good (Bucs), loaded with potential.

You need homegrown. Every success of this franchise was built on it.

The Patriots of the 1970s were briefly as talented as the Steelers, Cowboys and Raiders for a blink. They used first-rounders in 1973 on John Hannah, Sam Cunningham and Darryl Stingley. In 1975, they took Russ Francis in the first round. In 1976, they got Mike Haynes, Pete Brock and Tim Fox in the first round. In 1977, two firsts and two seconds were Ray Clayborn, Stanley Morgan, Horace Ivory and Don Hasselbeck.

How’d they get all those firsts? By sending quarterback Jim Plunkett, the first overall pick in 1971, to the 49ers for an absolute bounty.

It's the same but different from the situation they now have at No. 3. Plunkett failed because of situation. So did Mac Jones.

The 1990s Patriots rose on the drafting of Drew Bledsoe, but Bill Parcells and his personnel staff killed it elsewhere too with Chris Slade, Willie McGinest, Ty Law, Curtis Martin, Ted Johnson, Lawyer Milloy, Terry Glenn and Tedy Bruschi. Every one of those players was taken in the first three rounds between 1993 and 1996.

The Pats of the aughts? From 2001 to 2005, they took Richard Seymour, Matt Light, Deion Branch, Ty Warren, Vince Wilfork, Daniel Graham, Ben Watson and Logan Mankins in the first two rounds.

The last chapter of the dynasty? Jerod Mayo, Patrick Chung, Devin McCourty, Rob Gronkowski, Nate Solder, Shane Vereen, Chandler Jones and Donta Hightower were taken in the first two rounds between 2008 and 2012. When the success at the very top of the drafts dried up, so did the dominance.

The safest, fastest, least sexy, most tried-and-true way of going from bottom-feeder to shark is hitting on high picks. The more high picks you have in drafts with good players who fit your needs, the better your chances of hitting.

Bottom line: If the franchise savior isn’t there at three, build the church and wait for him to show up.

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