Crazy, isn't it? Despite the struggles the Patriots have endured in 2023, they remain a fascinating team to follow. That won't stop this weekend as the Chargers head to town.
Could Bill Belichick be rocking baby blue sweats next season on the West Coast? Is there a Justin Herbert clone who could make his way to Foxboro in a few months?
Ahead of the Patriots matchup with the Chargers, let's dig into those topics and more...
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1. What does Bill Belichick think of Justin Herbert?
If Bill Belichick isn't coaching in New England in 2024, might his next stop be with the team he faces this weekend?
The Chargers offer perhaps the best quarterback situation of any team that will be looking for a head coach ahead of 2024, and therefore possibly the best situation for a head coach looking to win games as quickly as possible.
The Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2020 and a Pro Bowler in 2021, Herbert has established himself as one of the most tantalizingly talented quarterbacks in the league at just 25 years old. He's eighth in quarterback rating this season, fifth in ESPN's QBR metric and ninth in Pro Football Focus grade.
How he's handled this weekend by Belichick's defense could be indicative of just how much respect Belichick has for the face of the Chargers franchise.
Blitz him to kingdom come, the way he did when he had Sam Darnold seeing ghosts in 2019? Belichick probably doesn't believe in Herbert's ability to process quickly and make his defense pay.
Try to contain him in the pocket with a "crush rush" while also devoting numbers in coverage, blitzing him about a quarter of the time? That's the kind of plan he's had cooked up for guys like Aaron Rodgers over the years and Tom Brady back in 2021.
"Offensively, [Justin] Herbert can do everything you need a quarterback to do," Belichick said this week. "He’s very athletic, can make all the throws...
"[He] creates some plays on his own when there really isn’t anything there. He pulls something out with a scramble or an extended play, or throwing into tight coverage that there aren’t too many guys who can get in there, but he can."
If Belichick is looking for a new locale this coming offseason, perhaps we'll reflect on this matchup -- how Belichick handled Herbert, how Herbert handled Belichick's defense -- and wonder if there were any clues left behind as to just how willing Belichick would be to work alongside Herbert as his head coach.
2. Does Justin Herbert's performance impact the Patriots' draft?
At 6-foot-6, 240 pounds with a rocket arm and a big brain (he was the 2019 Campbell Trophy winner, also known as "the academic Heisman"), there isn't much Herbert doesn't offer at the quarterback spot.
And there's a passer in this year's draft class who has drawn a number of comps to Herbert because of his size, his arm, and his ability to make big-time throws into tight windows: North Carolina's Drake Maye.
If Herbert lights up what has been a rock-solid Patriots defense this year -- they rank 12th in DVOA -- then would that push Patriots ownership to make googly eyes at Maye in the lead-up to the 2024 draft? Would Bill O'Brien, if and when he's brought back as Patriots offensive coordinator, be clamoring for "Herbert 2.0" after watching the original version be dialed in at Gillette Stadium? If Jerod Mayo is the next head coach in Foxboro, would he push for a guy who could give other defenses the kinds of problems that Herbert presents?
Those questions would be fascinating to try to answer in a few months if Herbert goes off Sunday.
3. Can Bailey Zappe be a No. 2?
Bailey Zappe, in some ways, has been fortunate to be a part of the quarterback room in New England this year. If there were other options to throw into a regular-season game, the Patriots would've likely tried them by now. But with starter Mac Jones coming undone, and with new additions like Will Grier and Matt Corral unable to win the backup job, Zappe looks like the guy.
The question now is this: Can Zappe have a role with the franchise moving forward?
This would be a good time to find out. And if the Patriots are interested in finding out, they'll have to ask him to do more than he did last week in mop-up duty in the second half of a loss against the lowly Giants. Zappe's average depth of target at MetLife Stadium was a measly 2.3, which was the lowest in the NFL for Week 12. He was force-fed a steady diet of screen passes and quick-game calls. But if he's going to be a reliable backup, he's going to have to be able to do more than that.
If this really is a fact-finding mission as it relates to the fourth-rounder from last year, he should have more heaped onto his plate. He should be thrown into the deep end. Sink or swim. See what you have. That means an ADOT of something greater than 2.3 and a game plan that is something other than screen-or-die.
4. What does Malik Cunningham's workload look like?
If the Patriots don't treat this weekend's game as an audition of sorts for Zappe, then they should be ready and willing to feature their undrafted rookie jack-of-all-trades.
Cunningham got real work at quarterback this week -- a throwback to Week 6 when he went into a game against the Raiders as Jones' backup, ahead of Zappe as the emergency No. 3 -- and it would come as little surprise if there were a package of plays ready to go for him against the Chargers.
Would it be fair to ask Cunningham -- who has worked primarily at receiver and seen plenty of work in the kicking game since becoming a pro -- to get significant snaps behind center against an NFL defense? No. But it might provide the Patriots and their fanbase a bit of excitement amid a lost season. He's "dangerous" with the ball in his hands, according to teammate JuJu Smith-Schuster. There aren't many players on this roster about whom you could say the same.
Give Cunningham a little work at quarterback. And if it goes well, give him a little more. Particularly if Zappe struggles.
At this point, what do you have to lose?
5. Another fourth-round pickup in smoke?
While there has been plenty to focus on when it comes to Patriots draft misses in the first two rounds -- and we've covered it thoroughly on the Next Pats Podcast and on NBCSportsBoston.com -- it's been a struggle for the Patriots lately in the middle rounds where at one time they had great success.
The fourth round in particular is worthy of some focus simply because they've had so many selections there over the last decade. And they were hot for a time. They landed James White, Trey Flowers and Shaq Mason in consecutive years. They got a Super Bowl contributor, though an injury-plagued prospect, in Malcolm Mitchell in 2016. They hit on Deatrich Wise in 2017.
That's an excellent streak given they were all Day 3 choices. And they landed another dynamic player in the fourth a few years later in Rhamondre Stevenson in 2021.
But over the last two years, the team has had six fourth-round picks and the results have left the Patriots wanting. Jack Jones, Pierre Strong and Bailey Zappe have all been discarded by the Patriots since being taken in the fourth in 2022. Now another recent fourth-rounder is backsliding.
Sandwiched between fourth-round offensive linemen Jake Andrews (hasn't played as a rookie) and Sidy Sow (positive results as a run-blocker but up-and-down as a pass-protector) in the 2023 fourth round was kicker Chad Ryland. Taken higher than any specialist -- punter, kicker or long-snapper -- during Belichick's tenure in New England, Ryland could be on the verge of a demotion.
The Patriots worked out a variety of kickers this week after Ryland missed a game-tying field goal against the Giants in Week 12. They ultimately signed Matthew Wright to the practice squad, and it wouldn't be surprising to see Wright kick on Sunday if he had an effective week of practice. Belichick had some pointed criticism for Ryland after chip-shot misses in consecutive games.
Amplifying the impact of this potential draft-day miss is the fact that Ryland's field-goal percentage (66.7, 32nd out of 34 qualifiers) pales in comparison to his predecessor, now with the Titans, Nick Folk's (95.7, third).