How the Patriots' remaining schedule offers a road map for rebuilding
If there was any further evidence needed to argue how the Patriots should rebuild, it's lying there, staring at them on their schedule.
The Pats' next five opponents all reversed their long-term fortunes by finding quarterbacks in the top 10 of the past four drafts. Every one except the Chargers, who have endured brutal luck this season, through injuries and an unconscionable 0-8 record in one-score games, now looks playoff-bound. All five will be favored head-to-head against the Patriots, starting this weekend in Foxboro with the Cardinals.
To review, Arizona drafted dual-threat Kyler Murray first overall in 2019, two years after the Rams selected Jared Goff in the same spot. Last spring, the Dolphins and Chargers found their quarterbacks of the future with Tua Tagovailoa and Justin Herbert at No. 5 and No. 6 overall, respectively. In the AFC East, Miami now sits a game behind division-leading Buffalo, which took Josh Allen with the seventh pick in 2018.
In a few months, the Patriots could follow suit. How? By tanking.
True tanking, of course, won't happen in New England. Not outright, anyway. Losing intentionally would cut against the ethos of the organization that built and sustained the greatest dynasty in NFL history by creating and exploiting every small edge it could.
But tanking, as an idea, must be re-branded to work and massaged in its messaging before being adopted as an approach. Really, tanking is just a commitment to the future, the greater good and a way to generate momentum back to the top in the unending cycle of competition after an inevitable downturn.
When tanking, players with minor injuries might begin to sit as if they were more severe. Rookies receive starting nods down the stretch after spending most of the season as backups. The team's ultimate goal remains the same: competing relentlessly through adversity ... even if it's self-created.
The Dolphins executed their tank brilliantly last year, winning five of their last nine games and still yielding a top-5 draft pick the following April. Miami expedited its slide in the first half of the season by actively leaking talent, trading away top players for draft picks. It's clear the Patriots viewed themselves differently this year, becoming the rare team to add a piece at the trade deadline.
That's fine. Their moves since then have been more telling? scouring the waiver wire and opponents' practice squads for wide receivers, tight ends and defensive linemen; clear and obvious roster holes the front office is scrambling to plug before another inevitably springs the next week.
Equally clear and obvious is the Pats' ceiling in 2020: a first or second-round playoff exit? if they get lucky. But they don't hang banners inside Gillette Stadium for postseason berths. Those are reserved exclusively for championships.
The Pats' path back to Super Bowl contention is a well-worn road last traveled by the reigning champion Chiefs: climbing into the top 10 of the draft.
Find a quarterback in the NFL, and you've found your future.
Almost 75% of the starting quarterbacks this week are former first-round picks, a figure that would be higher if not for injuries. That number includes Kansas City's Patrick Mahomes, whom the Chiefs traded up with Buffalo to select in 2017, the same season the Bills executed a mini-tank before using their surplus of draft capital to move up and take Allen the next spring.
More recently, Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury explained what selecting Murray meant to him in his first year as a head coach. Kingsbury, a famously lifelong bachelor, answered by calling his professional marriage to Murray "a dream come true."
"As the draft process went on, we felt like this was a move that we couldn't pass up. We really evaluated Kyler and what we thought he could be at this level. So, when it went that way, I think any time you're a young coach, offensive-minded and have an opportunity to grow with a young quarterback and kind of build it together and try to put pieces around him to play at a high level and do some unique things offensively ... it couldn't have been better for me personally," Kingsbury said.
Of course, credit for these franchise-turnarounds doesn't entirely belong to the quarterbacks. It took a full roster reload for the Cardinals, Rams, Dolphins and Bills to reverse course. Except those reloads were made possible by, well, the quarterbacks. More specifically, their contracts.
Thanks to the rookie wage scale installed by the league's 2011 CBA, drafted quarterbacks are now signed to largely predetermined deals that carry tremendous upside for their teams. If and when these young quarterbacks succeed, reaching a Pro Bowl level or higher, they become the most valuable commodity in the NFL for two reasons: their obviously important and excellent on-field production and the roster-building flexibility their contracts provide.
Basically, franchises that are led by good, young quarterbacks pay for top-10 passers at a 60-70% average annual discount compared to those led by good, veteran quarterbacks who are paid at market rate.
"It's certainly changed the roster building a lot," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said Friday of rookie contracts. "Teams that have had young quarterbacks that have been productive have been able to take those resources and put those into other positions on the team. And then once the quarterbacks hit their, let's call it, close to market value-type contracts, then that process shifts a little bit in some way, whether it's cap borrowing or just less spending on other positions because you reallocate it to the quarterback. But that quarterback number is generally such a high number. Or if it's a low number, it creates quite a bit of extra spending dollars."
Despite fielding one of the NFL's oldest passers all last decade, the Patriots have reaped the benefits of a cheap quarterback contract more than anyone. Tom Brady played on a below-market deal for basically his entire New England career. Consequently, Belichick's margin of error when building the team around Brady grew, allowing him to survive multiple bad signings and/or missed draft picks that would otherwise sink the average general manager because he had more time and money to keep swinging and inevitably pad his roster the first, second or third try.
As long as Brady played at an above average to elite level, he was out-performing his contract, and therefore providing Belichick the greatest possible edge in NFL roster building.
After the rookie wage scale was introduced, the connection between contending and extracting value from quarterback contracts has seemingly only strengthened. Since 2012, no Super Bowl champion has ranked in the top five of quarterback spending, according to Over The Cap. Here are those champions, followed by their respective spending rankings out of the league's 32 teams: 2013 Seahawks (30th), 2014 Patriots (13th), 2015 Broncos (7th), 2016 Patriots (18th), 2017 Eagles (26th), 2018 Patriots (13th) and 2019 Chiefs (25th).
By vaulting themselves into the top 10 of a quarterback-rich 2021 draft, the Pats can find a new face of their franchise and maintain the rare roster-building advantage they've enjoyed for years. Of course, everything hinges on nailing the pick, as the Patriots' sixth and final opponent, the Jets, can tell you. Miss on that quarterback, and a front office is fired or back at the beginning.
The counter to all this is simply keeping Cam Newton, whose career baseline is that of a top-12 to top-16 quarterback. He's returned to that level in recent weeks and impressively so; surrounded by subpar skill-position talent and while his speed and elusiveness slowly leave him. Moving on from Newton would be a tough decision, but he will soon command a larger contract he's unlikely to out-perform.
Furthermore, toughness inside the Patriots' facility is defined as players and coaches doing what's right by the team when they aren't right for them personally. Replace the word "team" with "franchise," and Belichick's toughest decision is clear: tank away.
Losing a few games might be difficult to swallow.
But sustained mediocrity? That will make you choke.
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