The lowly New England Patriots are set to take on the Pittsburgh Steelers in primetime on Thursday night. With the Pats taking a 2-10 record into the Week 14 matchup, many fans will be rooting for a loss that would improve their odds of attaining a top-three pick in the 2024 NFL Draft.
We had plenty of draft, free agency, and general offseason talk in the mailbag this week. Let's jump into your questions...
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Those teams all have to be pretty, pretty, pretty pleased with their quarterback picks at this point, Neil. At the same time, you get why the others chose to go in another direction.
Remember, the Commanders and Giants had taken quarterbacks in the first round one year prior. The Lions still had a high-level quarterback in Matthew Stafford (Pro Football Focus' ninth-best passing grade in 2019). But they all would handle the first round differently with the benefit of hindsight.
It's a fascinating class that simultaneously illustrates the value a good quarterback selection provides an organization... as well as the pitfalls of missing and committing to the wrong guy at that position.
Moral of the story, in my opinion, as far as the Patriots are concerned? Good idea to take a quarterback if you think he's worthy of the selection. Even if the situation around the quarterback is horrible.
Think about it. The Bengals and Dolphins were about as bad as the league had to offer in 2019. Brian Flores got the Dolphins to win a few games late that season -- including beating the Patriots in the regular-season finale -- but they were essentially an offensive roster devoid of hope. The Bengals won two games and had zero offensive building blocks, unless you want to include running back Joe Mixon.
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Still, those teams opted to thrust high-end first-rounders Tua Tagovailoa and Joe Burrow into the fire. And look at 'em now. After aggressively adding offensive talent around both, they look set up to contend for a long time.
There's a blueprint there for the Patriots to follow. Soon we'll get into some of the other team-building models that represent alternative paths for whoever's running the 53-man roster in Foxboro this offseason. Would a Kansas City or Buffalo or San Francisco plan appeal to them, for example?
But the quickest and most desirable way to relevancy is to load up on offense. Starting with the quarterback spot.
I'd go with UNC's Drake Maye, based on what we know of these quarterbacks at the moment. He's not without his moments of self-inflicted on-the-field chaos. But if the choice is between USC's Caleb Williams and Maye, Williams looks like the player more prone to freelance. And Williams' skill set allows him to do some unbelievable things with the football whilst freelancing. But those may be hard habits to break. Both players are incredible talents, but Maye seems to be the less turnover-prone player right now and so I'd lean in his direction.
There's an optimist's optimist right there. The Patriots should be OK on the defensive side of things. Offensively, you're going to need to give them some time. Buckle up.
Even if the Patriots are willing to take a quarterback early -- say it's Maye and he really is "Herbert 2.0" -- and invest heavily on the offensive side of the ball, it's going to be a while. Burrow won four games in his first season. Tagovailoa was hurt for chunks of last season, but in Miami's first year with Waddle and Hill surrounding their young quarterback, they were smidge better than a .500 team.
Good things come to those who wait. And even if the Patriots add a bunch of good things this offseason, they should be prepared to wait for all of them to jell together and form a contending team.
Let's give out a couple of big names first and we'll dive deeper on the free-agent class as we get closer to the end of the season.
At receiver, you know where I'm going: Cincinnati's Tee Higgins.
At tackle, this one might come as some surprise: Dallas' Tyron Smith.
I know, Smith is about to turn 33 years old. I know he's dealt with a long list of injuries and he's closer to the end than the beginning. I know he's past his prime when he was a first or second-team All-Pro from 2013-2016. But he's also playing some of the best football of his career this season. And he's one of the only starting-caliber tackles -- along with New England's own Trent Brown -- available in free agency this year.
For a team like the Patriots that has oodles of cap space, and that may be strongly interested in protecting a young quarterback, Smith might actually make some sense as a stopgap at the position until a younger player is ready to go on the left side.
I really respect Mike Evans' game. Know how hard it is to play with the quarterbacks he's played with -- outside of Tom Brady for two years -- and put up 10 straight 1,000-yard seasons? He's a stud. But he's also on the wrong side of 30 at this point. And I'd be looking to spend on Higgins because he's younger and may be able to grow alongside a young quarterback for years to come.
I'd be surprised if J.C. Jackson is back for another season, SMB. Felt like a desperation move for a team dealing with injury and incompetence at the position. They remain thin on the outside with the departure of Jack Jones, but they may be more inclined to draft a player there -- or play vet Jonathan Jones on the boundary as a No. 2 opposite Christian Gonzalez -- than to hope Jackson can provide some reliability at that spot.
Things happen fast once the season ends. I wonder if the Kraft family and Belichick will have something worked out -- potentially with another team as part of a trade -- so that when the regular season is over, all parties can act quickly. We went over some after-the-season scenarios on the most recent edition of the Patriots Talk Pod.
Thanks for the kind words, Rob! My guess is Jerod Mayo is still the next head coach of the Patriots, whenever that happens. And if the Krafts go in that direction, that has the potential to complicate the offseason timing questions posed above.
Would the Patriots ever hold onto Bill Belichick (under contract for 2024, per our Tom E. Curran) and force a team that is interested in him as its next head coach to trade for him to get him out of Foxboro?
With Mayo already in-house, in theory, the Patriots wouldn't be pressed for time -- to get the coach and his staff settled as the offseason gets underway -- in the same way other teams might. It can be a mad dash to get your guy when you're in need.
But it's hard for me to foresee the Krafts handling it that way to ensure they get some compensation for the greatest coach in the history of the sport. If they knew they didn't want him for 2024 and beyond, keeping him from the market would be a good way to make sure things end badly between the two sides.
Can you give us one more month, Bearfoot? It'll get even more interesting -- and there will be some hope -- at that point. Promise.
It's been interesting to hear from Patriots receivers on the arm-strength topic, Steven. Bailey Zappe has a noticeably stronger arm, according to them. (Which is interesting because NFL evaluators who studied both Zappe and Mac Jones indicated to me after the 2022 draft that it was Jones whose arm was clearly stronger than Zappe's, which was considered borderline NFL-caliber.)
Zappe also moved better last weekend than Jones has in some of his most recent performances. It wasn't what you would call a good performance by any stretch, but there were some flashes of pocket mobility there.
I like where your head is at, Kieran. Drafted. Developed. Christian Barmore continues to play well despite this being a lost season. Keep him around.
One good quarterback. One true No. 1 receiver. Two starting-caliber tackles. A starting-caliber tight end. It's a lot. Just to get back to average.
I'd start with the coaching changes. Then I'd move to swapping out Jakobi Meyers for JuJu Smith-Schuster. Passing on George Pickens (three games of more than 100 yards this year) in favor of Tyquan Thornton (34 yards in five games) looks like it should be on the list as well. Not doing more to fortify the tackle position has to be mentioned, too. Those are the four calls I'd start with.
Yes, actually! Although it's not clear Belichick will be in position to make that decision, I did discuss trade-down opportunities (believe it or not) for the Patriots on the latest Next Pats. There's a chance they only love one quarterback, right? And if they're at No. 2 or 3 overall, that pick will be worth boatloads to someone else.
It's actually a fun discussion. OK maybe "fun" isn't the right word. How about "interesting," though? OK, maybe only to me. But check it out anyway, will you?