The 2021 NFL draft finally arrives with the first round Thursday night.
It’s no secret the Patriots are in the hunt for a quarterback. But which one?
Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence and BYU’s Zach Wilson are expected to go to the Jaguars and Jets, respectively, with the first two picks, then the 49ers will reportedly choose between North Dakota State’s Trey Lance and Alabama’s Mac Jones. That will leave two of three players — Lance, Jones and Justin Fields of Ohio State — for the teams after them looking for elite options, including the Patriots.
So which available quarterback — including the mid-round prospects — fits the Pats best?
Is it a prototypical pocket passer, such as Jones, Florida’s Kyle Trask or Davis Mills of Stanford?
Or, might the Patriots be looking for the mobile guy, be it Fields, Lance or Kellen Mond of Texas A&M?
The Herald’s Patriot beat writers debate.
Guregian: My vote goes to Jones. In my view, he’s easily the best fit. As much as I’d like to say the Patriots have joined the mobile quarterback generation, I’m not buying it, even with Cam Newton back for a second go-round. The quick decision-making, and short passing game utilizing backs and tight ends, doesn’t suit Newton. He’s like a square peg in a round hole. Sure, they implemented some read-option last year, but when it came to throwing the football, the type of offense that took advantage of Tom Brady’s strengths was still in place.
That brings me to Jones. What sets him apart from the rest is his quick release, his brain and his footwork in the pocket. Beyond that, he’s one of the most accurate passers in the draft class, and has a great feel for the game. When it comes to the Patriots, those are the traits that fit best.
Andrew Callahan: And that’s exactly why Fields fits them. He’s the most accurate overall passer in this class, far better at the deep ball than Jones, whose first-round targets at Alabama often bailed him out. Fields is extraordinarily tough, and was revered as a leader and worker at Ohio State. He commanded the line of scrimmage and changed protections. His tape clearly shows a pass-first quarterback, not a scrambler, whose athletic tools were utilized for option runs and extending plays.
Fields also started two years in college, which has become a prerequisite for the Patriots. Their last five drafted quarterbacks were multi-year starters. Jones was not.
Guregian: I like Fields. And he certainly has a few traits the Patriots want in a quarterback. But the tape also shows him to be hesitant at the line. He holds the ball too long if his first read isn’t open.
Jones bests him in that all-important decision-making department. He has the type of football savvy and smarts that is a must in the Patriots offense. He’s got it all figured out pre-snap much like Brady when he was in Foxborough. With his poise in the pocket, his quick release, his touch, timing and accuracy, he would excel almost instantly.
Callahan: Right, but does he need to excel instantly? The Patriots have Newton for 2021, so the ideal quarterback for this team is a potential franchise passer who can develop and has the requisite traits to eventually fulfill his potential: toughness, smarts, work ethic.
There’s no question Fields’ ceiling is higher than Jones. Between that, his accuracy and intangibles, he’s the perfect fit. And when the play breaks down, he can burn a defense with his 4.4 speed. That mobility is basically a wider margin for error, which every young quarterback needs but not all of them have.
Guregian: The ideal quarterback for the Patriots is one who is best suited for the offense, whether he steps in this year, next year, or whenever. The ideal quarterback is the one Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels are most comfortable with it. And, once again, Jones best fits that bill. He’s the perfect game manager and leader for what’s expected in Foxborough between his competitiveness, his processing speed pre-and-post-snap ... not to mention his accuracy and touch.
He has even advanced to the point of being able to utilize his eyes to look off receivers. Basically, he’s the whole package when it comes to a Patriots quarterback.
Callahan: Right, Mac Jones is a game manager. But is that what the Patriots sought in Tom Brady? Or Cam Newton? No, and a first-round quarterback should be more. Belichick is on the record saying the team adapts its offense to the quarterback, as seen last year with a revamped run game for Newton.
With Fields, the Pats can maintain their middle-of-the-field, play-action passing game, their multiple run game and develop top-5 quarterback upside.
With Jones, it’s a limited menu with a lower ceiling. This isn’t about fitting a prospect into the offense of the past, it’s fitting the offense of the future. Fields checks every box — experience, accuracy, pre-snap responsibilities and protecting the football.
Guregian: When it comes to the Patriots, it’s about having a winning offense. And that so-called “offense of the past” has earned them six Super Bowls. It’s been tweaked and adjusted over time, but the main ingredients are the same. That’s why Jones is the best fit. What he may lack in mobility isn’t a big deal.
I don’t think the Pats are going to sweat it if they don’t have a ton of read-option looks. Jones is mobile enough to move when needed. Plus, his instincts and feel for the game are rare for a young quarterback. With all the money spent in free agency, the Pats want to win now. Of all the quarterbacks, Jones is best-suited to that scenario. The only fly in the ointment is whether the 49ers are truly serious about taking him at No. 3. But the same applies for Fields.
Callahan: Mobility is more than option runs. It’s the ability to fix broken plays — which abound for young quarterbacks — into big gains. Jones is basically dead in the water when things break down. Meanwhile, Fields fits what the Patriots have done historically, did last year with Newton and what they must do to succeed in the evolving, modern game, AKA extending plays.
Comparatively, Jones lacks that ability, multi-year starting experience and top-5 ceiling. His 2020 passing stats got fat off RPOs and first-round pass-catching talent at Alabama. Yes, both players could suit up in New England, but there’s only one potential franchise quarterback between them, and that’s the player who fits the Pats best. It’s Fields.