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Patriots Mailbag: A Way-Too-Early Look at the Top Prospects in the 2024 NFL Draft

With the Patriots currently holding the third overall pick in the 2024 NFL Draft, here's an initial look at the upcoming draft class.

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Nobody wants to talk about the 2024 draft before the calendar even turns to December, but the 2-9 Patriots have given us no choice.

The Pats currently hold the third overall pick in next April's draft, which is hard to fathom for head coach Bill Belichick. Ultimately, the answers to questions about how the Patriots got here are less exciting than deliberating over how they rebuild a broken-down roster. But one thing is clear: the Pats will be squarely in the quarterback market next offseason.

Due to popular demand, let's get into my preliminary rankings of the 2024 quarterback class. In the interest of full disclosure, these rankings are based on a small handful of live viewings of the TV copy. I haven't begun watching these guys on film yet, so this is very early in my process. In other words, take these as an outline rather than gospel.

With those caveats out there to not come at my throat for these way-too-early takes, here is my current top five for the 2024 quarterback class:

1. USC QB Caleb Williams - Williams has the best arm talent and is the best improviser in the class. He will need to improve his ball security in the pros, but he should be a day-one playmaker. Based on on-field talent, Williams is QB1 in this class. But we all know how draft season works. The maturity/mental toughness stuff will be over-analyzed for months (pro comparison: discount Mahomes).

2. UNC QB Drake Maye - a well-rounded prospect with easy velocity to all three levels, poise in the pocket, and the arm talent to win off-platform. Maye needs to improve his base/footwork to be more consistent with his ball placement at the next level. But he's a prototypical NFL quarterback prospect with a playmaker gene (pro comparison: Justin Herbert).

3. LSU QB Jayden Daniels - A rhythm-based thrower with great quarterback instincts to manipulate zone/help defenders, lightning-quick, and calm under pressure. Daniels has similar traits to Texans QB CJ Stroud as a passer, with +mobility that mirrors some of the most dynamic runners in the NFL. I'm putting all the eyeball emojis for Daniels. He's a very intriguing player (pro comparison: CJ Stroud with wheels).

4. Washington QB Michael Penix - If you want a vertical passing offense, Penix is your guy. He collects more deep-ball dimes than any quarterback in this class. Penix is an older prospect with two torn ACLs and arm/shoulder issues in his injury history. Still, his pinpoint accuracy is intriguing if you build a vertical passing system around him (pro comparison: lefty/Seahawks Geno Smith).

5. Oregon QB Bo Nix - Nix is a tough evaluation. He had legitimately awful film at Auburn. But he has improved significantly with the Ducks, where his raw physical tools have shown up more as a good runner and a strong thrower on the move, and Nix's timing/poise as a pocket passer is improving. Nix is not a pinpoint passer, and many of his in-structure reads are watered down. But the arm talent and mobility are there (pro comparison: Baker Mayfield).

Without further ado, let's empty the Patriots Unfiltered mailbag heading into Week 13:

Q: Why does the offense look worse under Bill O'Brien than Matt Patricia? - Jake H

I've probably spent way too much time thinking about this. As someone who respects O'Brien's 30-plus years of experience coaching offense, it blows my mind that they're statistically worse than last year. Truly, it's inexplicable given what they installed this summer compared to 2022. The micro answer is even worse quarterback regression, lack of talent/investment to upgrade offensive tackle, and swapping Jakobi Meyers for JuJu Smith-Schuster. I have to believe it's personnel drive because nothing schematically supports Patricia's offense over O'Brien's.

However, my worst fear is that this system predicated on timing, razor-sharp details, and quarterback's problem-solving things at the line of scrimmage isn't built for the modern NFL. The execution has to be so meticulous for the offense to drive the ball, while other offenses are playing the game in space and are simplifying things for the quarterback. Let me be clear: I'm not trying to deflect blame from O'Brien. He isn't getting the job done, but this is bigger than Mac or O'Brien as we spin it forward.

Along with the route running details, take for example the pre-snap responsibilities on the quarterback. In the Pats system, the quarterback will have run/pass checks based on the defense's pre-snap structure. Then, they have an alert system where the quarterback is in full control of the pass protection, asking the QB to reset MIKE points and flip/slide protections depending on the look he gets from the defense. In the Shanahan offense, for example, the quarterback isn't tasked with pre-snap protections and is told to throw "hot" if the defense blitzes, allowing the QB to play with less of a pre-snap burden. It becomes cumbersome when the quarterback has to make difficult pre and post-snap reads/decisions and then go play ball at a high level. My fear is that only one quarterback, Tom Brady, could take on all the mental responsibilities while still executing at an elite level once the play is live. It's not just Mac who has failed. This offense hasn't traveled well elsewhere, either. Ask Josh McDaniels with Derek Carr and Jimmy G.

Q: Evan, do you think some of you in the media may be downplaying the role of injuries? They're not far away if they're reasonably healthy - @NBTFTW

It's a fair question with the Patriots missing three of their best players (Judon, Gonzalez, Bourne) and a key role player in Marcus Jones. Speaking for myself, blaming their record on injuries feels like you're making excuses, which you're always wary of doing as a reporter. Plus, in Bourne's case, they were a bottom-three offense with Bourne out there for the first eight weeks. The truth is somewhere in between. It's safe to say they wouldn't be _this _bad if they were fully healthy on defense. But you don't get to 2-9 solely because you lost some key players to injuries. The fact that it's fallen apart this badly speaks to the roster's need for more talent/depth to increase their margins. Every team deals with injuries, but some are better equipped to weather the storm than others.

Q: A rebuild is clearly needed. Who on offense do you build around, who do you re-sign, who do you draft? - Abigail N

There are a few players who I would prioritize in free agency and build around moving forward. First, you have Rhamondre Stevenson under contract for another year. With better blocking over the last month or so, Stevenson is back in form, ranking eighth in yards after contact since Week 6 (291). Then, Demario Douglas is one piece in your passing game, likely as a gadget/slot, and you have Cole Strange, Sidy Sow, and David Andrews under contract. Next, the absolute priority in free agency is to re-sign Mike Onwenu. Onwenu is a potential foundational player on the offensive line, ranking second in PFF grade since moving to OT in Week 7. I would also consider retaining Hunter Henry and Kendrick Bourne in free agency. From there, the rest of the roster is up for grabs: quarterback, WR1, left tackle, tight end depth, running back depth, and offensive line depth. There is a long way to go offensively.

Q: I've watched football for a long time, but these Patriots are so unaware in critical situations on offense. Is there a possibility that Kraft is trying to tank in the most efficient way possible? - Chris From Florida

This was a popular mailbag submission this week, and I get that it would make fans clamoring for wins feel better if the organization was purposely tanking. However, I don't think the Patriots would ever purposely lose games. Organizationally, this team had playoff aspirations heading into the season. Now that they've locked in a losing record before December, what is motivating these guys other than pride?

Once this team lost winnable games against the Commanders and Colts before the bye, I was worried about the compete level. Defensively, they came to play against the Giants. But the offense looked unprepared and rudderless with so much uncertainty at quarterback. Unfortunately, this is more about a team struggling to find confidence offensively and motivation as a whole at 2-9 than the organization deciding to tank.

Q: I think the WRs are awful, but coaching has to play a role here. Who is more responsible for making sure guys run the right routes, Troy Brown or Bill O'Brien? - Christian S

I couldn't agree more that the route running is a weekly issue for this offense. At the end of the day, it's on both Brown and O'Brien to have these guys ready to play. It's O'Brien's offense, play designs, route combinations, and responsibility to set a high standard. As for Brown, I've been critical of the coaching at wide receiver since the beginning of 2022. Brown was a great Patriot, and he's a good returners coach. But there are so many sloppy routes with this group (spacing, conversions, technique), and promising young players like Demario Douglas are error repeaters. These issues need to be fixed at some point, which could mean making a tough decision on Brown in the offseason. We are two years of this now.

Q: What do we have to lose by starting Malik Cunningham at quarterback? Do you think that's a possibility? - Oxley91

I understand that fans would be excited to see something different, both a fresh face and a mobile quarterback. But, no, it's not a realistic possibility. Most importantly, Cunningham has been practicing primarily at wide receiver since the summer, so he doesn't have the reps at quarterback to run the offense. They could try a package of plays like they did against the Raiders to give Cunningham another look in-game, but having him be QB1 is not happening. Everything depends on who is coaching the offense next season, but I would like to see Cunningham play more quarterback in camp next summer. Until then, it's not fair to Cunningham to start him at quarterback, let alone the rest of the team.

Q: The current regime should not be in charge of the next draft and free agency. Who should be, though? - Bradley C

Well, Brad, that's a fair assessment of the current regime. If there is an opening, my number one target for the Patriots general manager opening is 49ers assistant GM Adam Peters. Peters has plenty of personnel experience (21 years) and is essentially the Nick Caserio/Matt Groh to John Lynch and Kyle Shanahan. He gets a lot of credit league-wide for San Francisco's recent draft success but might want a chance to run the show himself. My shortlist also includes Chiefs assistant GM Mike Borgonzi and Eagles co-assistant GMs John Ferrari and Alec Halaby. Ultimately, I want the Patriots to be more forward-thinking in their approach to the salary cap and analytics, which I think those three teams do better than anyone in the NFL. My fear is that Kraft will play it safe by beefing up Groh's staff with Dave Ziegler or John Robinson returning.

Q: What do you think the timeline is for a decision regarding Belichick's future with the team? Will the Pats move quickly? - Eric

As critical as I am of Belichick, he has earned the right to finish out the season. He brought this organization unprecedented success for 20-plus seasons. He's a first-ballot Hall of Famer, an immediate Patriots Hall of Famer a la Brady, and should be celebrated with honors galore at Gillette Stadium. You don't fire coaches like that mid-season, nor should you want them to because it will damage the organization's relationship with one of its franchise pillars. With that said, I don't think the Patriots will move fast if they do part ways with Belichick. My guess is that they'll try to orchestrate a trade with his next destination, assuming that Belichick wants to keep coaching, so that could take time. I wouldn't expect any immediate announcements.

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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