Although head coach Bill Belichick wouldn't publicly disclose his starting quarterback on Wednesday, Zappe reportedly took most of the first-team reps at practice over the last two days, while other reports indicate the Patriots are prepping him as the starter this week.
The move to Zappe comes on the heels of third-year quarterback Mac Jones's recent struggles. Jones, a 2021 first-round pick who quarterbacked the Patriots to the playoffs as a rookie, has seen his play slowly decline from the start of the 2022 season until hitting rock bottom. The Alabama product has been benched in four different games this season, including a late fourth-quarter benching in a loss to the Colts in Week 10, followed by Zappe replacing the once-promising quarterback at halftime of a 10-7 loss to the Giants last week.
In four relief appearances, Zappe's performance has not necessarily incited the team to turn to the 2022 fourth-rounder. Instead, it's more about how rough Jones's recent performance has been, with the team needing to go down a different path while Mac could use the mental break.
On Thursday, Zappe spoke to reporters inside the Patriots locker room about his mindset as he prepares to potentially start against the Chargers on Sunday. Zappe declined to say he will start on Sunday, deferring those questions to Coach Belichick.
"Nothing set in stone. I'm just taking it day by day. Treating every rep I get in practice like it's a game rep and just preparing like I do every other week," Zappe said. "It's cliche to say it, but I try to prepare every week like I'm the starter as far as watching film, studying the plays, and getting with the guys. For me, this week is not any different."
In two starts last season, Zappe put up impressive numbers while leading the Patriots to wins over the Browns and Lions. As a starter, Zappe completed 74.5% of his passes for 9.0 yards per attempt, an excellent +0.23 expected points added per drop-back, and a completion percentage over exception of +4.6%. Zappe's EPA per play as a starter ranked fifth in the NFL last season.
|Bailey Zappe (Last Two Seasons)
However, the Patriots lost all six games Zappe entered as a non-starter. The Pats quarterback only completed 56.6% of his throws for 5.8 yards per attempt. Zappe's expected points added per drop-back drops to -0.40 with a CPOE of -11.7. So, here lies the question: with a full week of practice reps and a game plan catered to his strengths, will Zappe be better than he has been in his four relief appearances this season?
Obviously, it's comparing a small sample size of two games against a 16th-ranked Browns and 27th-ranked Lions defense by DVOA to a similarly small six-game sample coming off the bench. But the numbers suggest that Zappe fares better as the starter heading into the game.
"That's one of the hardest parts about it, but there's no excuses, You've gotta be ready," Zappe said of entering mid-game last week. "I'm sure that there is a difference. But, for me, like I said, as cliche as it sounds, I try to do it every week. Long hours, here early, stay late. It really doesn't change my mindset whether I'm starting or the backup," he added on Thursday.
The other angle we'll analyze is the type of plays that O'Brien calls for the second-year QB. Last week, Zappe registered the third-lowest air yards per pass attempt in a game since the 2016 season (1.1 yards, min. ten attempts). Zappe threw seven screen passes and four play-action passes, so only four of his 15 plays were traditional drop-backs. For comparison, Jones had ten straight drop-backs in 22 plays.
Based on O'Brien's play-calling, it appeared that the Pats offensive coordinator had little faith in Zappe throwing the ball downfield, particularly vs. a blitz-heavy Giants defense. Zappe also gave O'Brien little reason to trust him throwing downfield. His longest pass in terms of air yards was intercepted at 16.4 yards, while he was 0-of-3 on passes over five air yards.
With the Patriots potentially preparing him as the starter this week, how much input would Zappe have in the game plan for Sunday's game?
"Every week, I always watch film, and if there's a play that I see that beats that certain defense, I always throw my two cents in. Whether they put it in there or not, that's their decision, and I don't think this week is any different," Zappe told Patriots.com.
If they allow Zappe to be more aggressive, most of those downfield throws, like last season, will probably be of play-action. Among quarterbacks with at least 25 play-action drop-backs, Zappe led the NFL in both yards per attempt (17.2) and passer rating (158.3) in 2022. We went more in-depth on the Patriots potential offense in our gameplan preview here.
The main storylines for Sunday's expected start for Zappe will be about how the entire team performs with a new starting quarterback and, of course, if the Patriots beat the Chargers. Still, evaluating his future on the roster, how he plays individually, and the offense O'Brien plans for Zappe will tell us a lot about his future, even as a serviceable backup in New England.
We are a long way from cutdown day, when the Patriots waived the second-year quarterback following a rocky preseason, to potentially starting this week, which Zappe reflected on briefly on Thursday.
"It's been crazy. There have been a lot of talks with [Matthew] Slater and [the coaches]. It's part of the journey. I guess everyone says it part of your book, its a chapter, or whatever you want to say. But it's been fun," the Pats quarterback said.
The Patriots have one more day of practice this week before hosting the Los Angeles Chargers at Gillette Stadium on Sunday.