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Replay: Patriots Unfiltered Tue Apr 16 - 02:00 PM | Wed Apr 17 - 09:55 AM

2024 Free Agent Forecast: Quarterbacks

The new NFL league year begins Wednesday, March 13, and with it, the advent of 2024’s free agency marketplace. Leading up to that day, we’ll examine the landscape from a Patriots perspective. Today, we analyze the quarterbacks.

Patriots quarterback Bailey Zappe.
Patriots quarterback Bailey Zappe.

Notable Exteneral Free Agents: Baker Mayfield, Kirk Cousins, Ryan Tannehill, Garder Minshew, Jacoby Brissett, Jameis Winston, Joe Flacco

Positional Analysis: The biggest decision the Patriots new regime must make this offseason is charting a course at the quarterback position.

Heading into the league year, the Patriots have quarterbacks Mac Jones and Bailey Zappe under contract for the 2024 season. However, New England is squarely in the market for an upgrade after both currently rostered options proved to be limited in last season's 4-13 campaign.

As starters, Jones and Zappe finished with identical 52.2 grades from Pro Football Focus, tied for 36th out of 38 qualified quarterbacks. The Patriots were also 31st in the expected points added per pass play, which doesn't all fall on the quarterback, but their quarterback play was clearly part of the offense's problem over the last two seasons.

The Patriots could take a few different approaches to free agency without a viable starter on the roster. The path with the highest upside is to select a quarterback with the third overall selection in April's draft, but it's worth exploring other avenues to upgrade the room as well.

The options for the Patriots in the veteran market fit into three buckets: the win-now veteran, a high-upside reclamation project, or the backup/mentor to help groom a rookie quarterback. One would expect New England to add a quarterback in one of these molds this offseason. The question is, which is best for their current situation?

Vikings free agent quarterback Kirk Cousins (8)
Vikings free agent quarterback Kirk Cousins (8)

Let's start with the win-now veteran option, which would likely be Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins in this market. There's always a chance another quarterback could become available, but the 35-year-old Cousins is hitting unrestricted free agency after a shortened 2023 season due to a torn Achilles in late October. Cousins ranked sixth in EPA per drop-back before the injury (+0.145) and has statistically been a top-10 quarterback since 2022.

Although he's a winning quarterback who is a proven producer with a legit supporting cast, Cousins's age (35) and expected cost ($35-40M APY) make him an unlikely option for a rebuilding Patriots team that isn't a Cousins away from playoff contention.

Browns free agent quarterback Baker Mayfield (6)
Browns free agent quarterback Baker Mayfield (6)

Bucs free-agent QB Baker Mayfield is the other vet who could bring immediate stability to the Patriots offense, but Tampa Bay has expressed a strong desire to retain Mayfield. If he does hit the open market, one would expect the Patriots, who hired Mayfield's former offensive coordinator in Cleveland, to show interest in reuniting him with Alex Van Pelt. However, Mayfield played his way into a lucrative deal with the Bucs last season, so he might price himself out of a rebuilding team like New England.

There's also Broncos QB Russell Wilson, who could become available for free if Denver decides to cut its losses with his hefty contract. Wilson has failed under two offensive minds, head coach Sean Payton and former Broncos coach Nathaniel Hackett. Wilson's physical tools, which once carried him as a big playmaker due to a terrific deep-ball and off-script magic, are diminishing, forcing Wilson into more of a game-manager category that he hasn't been capable of executing.

The path of instant gratification for the Patriots with a "win-now" quarterback sounds good in theory, but finding a partner that makes sense with their current roster is extremely difficult. For those reasons, the immediate fix at quarterback isn't a likely solution for New England.

Moving on to option two, there's searching for the next Mayfield where the Pats can rescue a former prized asset and turn their career around as the Bucs did with Mayfield last season. One could make the case that New England has that player on its roster already in Mac Jones, but ideally, if they're going this route, the reclamation project would have superior physical tools to provide a higher ceiling for the Patriots offense.

Bears free agent quarterback Justin Fields
Bears free agent quarterback Justin Fields

The quarterback who fits the bill here isn't available in the free-agent market but will be discussed as a prime trade candidate throughout the offseason. With the Bears holding the No. 1 overall pick, Chicago could shop current QB Justin Fields, swapping Fields out to select quarterback Caleb Williams, who is considered a potential franchise-altering talent, in the draft.

With Fields, it's a gamble whether or not he'll ever turn the corner as a passer to be a consistent thrower from the pocket. The current Bears QB1 has immense physical talents, with plus-arm talent and mobility. However, his timing and ability to read defenses within the structure of the offense have held him back, and Chicago hasn't been able to build an offense around his abilities as a runner to the point where his physical tools can be his carrying trait in a viable offense.

To make a Fields trade, which could have a steep asking price of the No. 34 overall pick plus more, the Patriots would need to be convinced that offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt is the right play designer to mask Fields's weaknesses as a passer. From this perspective, Fields shouldn't be viewed as a non-starter for the Pats, but he cannot be Plan A, either.

Lastly, the most likely option for the veteran market is adding an experienced backup who can mentor a high draft pick and start games early in 2024. If the Patriots draft a quarterback in the first round, signing a veteran backup who could help groom and allow the team to be patient with a rookie makes a ton of sense. Given their experience in this system with the Browns, former Patriots draft pick Jacoby Brissett and 2023 NFL Comeback Player of the Year, Joe Flacco, make sense as options to follow Van Pelt to New England.

Brissett and Flacco aren't long-term starting options, but they won't need to be, assuming either Drake Maye or Jayden Daniels are Patriots come April. Plus, they're much better fits as backups than Jones or Zappe, who have both struggled to take a back seat to one another.

In theory, the Patriots taking a big swing at a quarterback that would make them playoff contenders sounds great. However, it's hard to envision a scenario where the available options open a contention window for a rebuilding roster. Instead, the landscape sets up for them to find a veteran who can serve as a short bridge and sounding board to a high draft pick.

DISCLAIMER: The views and thoughts expressed in this article are those of the writer and don't necessarily reflect those of the organization. Read Full Disclaimer

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