Over the last 20 years, we have become accustomed to the New England Patriots hibernating this time of year. Usually not flush with cap space, the Pats annually sit out the opening period of free agency, showing up in headlines only to sign little-known veterans to cheap deals that don't appear to move the needle. It is both the consequence and luxury of having the best quarterback in the league on your team and the salary investment that comes with his presence.
That has not at all been the case this year. In part due to Tom Brady's departure this time last year and in part due to terrible drafting on Bill Belichick's part leading to no homegrown talent worthy of contract extensions, New England had the second-most cap space in the league to burn heading into the offseason. They took full advantage, handing out big contracts left and right over the first two days of free agency and addressing every major hole that existed on last year's 7-9 squad. The offense will look completely different boasting Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith while the defense's linebacker core was transformed in a very short period of time.
The one weak position from 2020 where the team was unable to upgrade was quarterback. New England was reportedly involved in talks for Carson Wentz and Matthew Stafford but didn't have the ammo to get the deals done. Instead of bringing in a journeyman like Andy Dalton or Ryan Fitzpatrick, the Patriots turned instead to continuity and re-signed Cam Newton to a one-year deal worth up to $14 million. Newton was, shall we say, not very good last season; his running prowess and goal-line efficiency is still nearly unmatched by his peers at QB around the league, but he went multiple games without a touchdown pass last year and by later weeks was throwing passes into the ground rather than to receivers. There's reason to believe an overhauled pass-catching core and another year in the offense will make for a better Newton performance in 2021, but unless he reverts back to MVP level New England still has no long-term answer at the position.
This year's NFL draft will give them the opportunity to find that long-term answer. Sitting at No. 15 in the order, the Patriots are out of range for any of the top-four quarterback prospects unless one dramatically slides. After those top four, the quality of prospect falls off a cliff. Mac Jones could very well be good but he doesn't have the physical tools of Trey Lance nor the resume of Justin Fields. For the Patriots to have any chance at drafting one of the best QB prospects in the 2021 draft, they must do the unthinkable: trade up.
Belichick doesn't trade up. Not in the first round, anyway. The last time he did that was 2012, when he traded up for Alabama linebacker Dont'a Hightower. That obviously worked out great, as Hightower turned into an All-Pro and played crucial roles in all three of the team's Super Bowl victories starting in 2014. But it was rare because it's usually far too expensive to trade up in the first round for Belichick, who hoards draft picks like Smaug does his treasure in The Hobbit. Trading up six spots to take Hightower cost New England a fourth-round pick, which is fairly cheap, but giving up any picks at all is like pulling teeth for Belichick and thus his team almost never does it.
But as described above, this offseason is unlike any other for the franchise under Belichick's watch. Even their propensity to stay put or trade down in the draft could change. That's what the rumor mill is churning out, anyway. Daniel Jeremiah reported on his Move the Sticks podcast with Bucky Brooks that he's hearing the Patriots are "really high" on Justin Fields and Trey Lance is another name that makes sense (starting at the 4:40 mark):
"“I keep an eye on somebody like Trey Lance or Justin Fields. Those are the two that would make sense for them to target. Hear a lot of rumors out there that they are really high on Justin Fields out of Ohio State. So, they’d have to (trade up) quite a ways to get Justin Fields.”"- Daniel Jeremiah
That really would put quite an exclamation point on the Patriots' offseason to this point. It also makes sense for a team in their position. Newton can make up to $14 million with his one-year deal if he hits every incentive, but if everything goes wrong he's only owed $3.5 million so the team did not exactly invest a huge amount of capital in the former MVP for 2021. They just spent an astronomical amount of money patching the biggest holes on the roster, perhaps for the purpose of giving themselves the freedom to sacrifice picks to get their guy when the draft comes. Each of the top non-Tevor Lawrence prospects have the talent to play right away and, at worst, could step in with a year of experience in 2022 and play well. New England doesn't want a third-round pick who needs three years to develop into a starter. Belichick isn't in the business of rebuilding after all those years of success and his age.
It will take a lot to make this move, though. Fields and Lance could go anywhere from No. 2 to No. 7 overall. The Patriots would have to jump at least eight spots in the draft to have a realistic shot at either, depending on how things play out. It's not cheap to do that. The closest comparison in recent history was when the Rams gave up a haul to jump from No. 15 to No. 1 and pick Jared Goff in 2016. To do that, they sent the Titans their 2016 first-round pick, two second-round picks, and a third-round pick along with a 2017 first and third-rounder in exchange for the top pick in the 2016 draft and a fourth-round pick.
The Patriots theoretically wouldn't need to give that much up because they would only need to jump up 10 or less spots, rather than all the way to No. 1. But they also need to out-bid any team who might be interested in doing that same thing, which will be tough. The Jets, Falcons, Eagles, Lions, Panthers, and Broncos are all teams in the top-10 who could feasibly pick a quarterback. Even if Fields and Lance make it past the Eagles at No. 6, there will be multiple teams vying to get that No. 7 pick if Detroit decides to sell it. New England is looking at giving up at least one first-round pick and multiple second and third-round picks to go along with their No. 15 pick if they want to make that leap.
That isn't Belichick's style. But nothing about this offseason has been. The Patriots made waves in free agency. They might be biding their time to make the biggest move of all and find a quarterback that gives the team a legit shot at playoff contention with a massive draft-day move.