This fall, the New England Patriots plan to rely on a starting quarterback not named Tom Brady for the first time in 20 seasons. It’s a jarring reality that will have sports talk shows buzzing about who Brady’s successor will be until the 2020 NFL regular season gets underway, whenever that may be.
The release of Patriots third-string quarterback Cody Kessler leaves Jarrett Stidham and Brian Hoyer as the lone quarterbacks left on the New England roster. With minimal cap space at their disposal currently, the only other move that the Patriots are likely to make at the quarterback position this offseason is drafting a rookie QB.
Whether they draft a quarterback or not, it is time for Patriots fans to get comfortable with the idea of Stidham being the starter in 2020. The 2019 fourth-round draft pick earned encouraging reviews during his rookie season, and has drawn positive remarks in recent weeks from Devin McCourty and Matthew Slater, with Slater saying, “certainly he has a lot of great qualities that can make him a good player at the quarterback position.”
Having watched every throw that Stidham made in the 2019 preseason and regular season, it’s not hard to see why the Patriots appear to have a good level of confidence in last year’s fourth-round draft pick from Auburn. Here is what stood out to me most in reviewing Stidham’s tape from 2019.
What stands out the most about Stidham’s tape is his arm. In the preseason, Stidham had several eye-catching throws that made you blink once or twice and check to make sure you weren’t watching Tom Brady in the pocket. He is an accurate thrower who can make elite throws at all three levels of the field.
Stidham’s first preseason game on the road against Detroit Lions was filled with some pretty passes. Here, facing a first & 10 with the Lions showing a Cover-3 defense, Stidham stands tall in the pocket and fires a beauty of a ball to Jakobi Meyers on a deep in route for a 27-yard gain.
What’s most exciting about Stidham is his ability to put the ball in places where only his receivers can catch it, like here, as well as his penchant for throwing his receivers open, rather than waiting for them to get there. With the Lions defender on Meyers’s hip and in between him and the ball, Stidham fires a perfectly-placed laser high and away, where only Meyers can come down with it.
Later in that same Lions game, Stidham shows off his deep ball placement on a 3rd & 9 strike down the left boundary to Maurice Harris that Harris lets slip through his hands. The play is also an example of Stidham’s mental acuity.
The Lions start off showing a Cover-2 look with two deep safeties in the middle of the field and Harris’s defender showing press man technique at the line of scrimmage. At the snap however, one of the safeties rotates down, putting the Lions in a Cover-1 defense and leaving Harris one-on-one with his man on the left sideline. With his defender in trail coverage and Harris getting half a step on him, Stidham throws the ball over Harris’s shoulder and drops it in a bucket, but it doesn’t show up in the stats because Harris couldn’t complete the play. Nevertheless, the throw on its own was impressive, and one that even some starting NFL quarterbacks still can’t make today.
Against the Tennessee Titans a week later, Stidham showed off nearly the exact same throw, this time to Damoun Patterson. With Patterson facing press coverage at the line of scrimmage, and the Titans in a Cover-1 look with a single high safety, Stidham knew to attack the edges with the middle of the field covered, and lofted a great ball to Patterson, where only Patterson could get it, on his back shoulder away from his defender in the front corner of the end zone. Again, another example of Stidham’s touch and placement on his long throws.
In Week 3 against the Carolina Panthers, Stidham delivered again on a post route to Meyers, a nearly identical throw to the one highlighted earlier, against the Lions. Stidham’s ability to throw to a spot, rather than to a receiver, is an exciting trait that bodes well for his promise as a starting NFL quarterback, and is an example of why his accuracy is one of his defining traits as a quarterback.
Stidham can make plays with his feet, too. He’s no Lamar Jackson, but in the preseason, Stidham rushed 17 times for 88 yards. Over the course of a 16-game season, that projects to about 68 rushes for 352 yards. Only four quarterbacks had over 400 yards rushing last season: Jackson, Kyler Murray, Josh Allen, and Deshaun Watson.
Now, the Patriots almost assuredly do not want Stidham running the ball that much. But it is an added element that Stidham brings to this team that could open up the playbook for Josh McDaniels and allow him to get creative with his play-calling.
Take this play against the Titans. Facing a 3rd & 11, Stidham faces almost immediate pressure coming out of a three-step drop in the shotgun, with an edge defender coming on his right and a defensive lineman flying in his face from the interior. Stidham tucks the ball, sneaks past the two oncoming pass rushers, and calmly slides for the 12-yard gain to move the sticks.
In the fourth quarter against Tennessee, facing another third down, Stidham moved the sticks again with his feet. After New England left tackle Dan Skipper failed to execute a chip block on his man, the Tennessee defender had a free run at Stidham…until Stidham spun away from him, escaped the pocket, and dove for the first down.
The play is an example of Stidham’s ability to make things happen with both his arm and his feet, but also shows how Stidham must learn to protect his body at all times. Diving for a first down in a preseason game, with a defensive lineman crashing down on you, is going to lead to an injury at some point. Stidham must learn to be smart when he leaves the pocket.
Rookie quarterbacks can often be skittish in the face of pressure, but Stidham showed the ability to make throws with defenders in his face, and did not shy away from contact often. If anything, Stidham needs to learn when to give up on a play, rather than try to extend a play and risk injury when the pocket is collapsing around him.
Against the Titans, Stidham sees the blitz coming on this third-quarter possession. With a trips formation to his right, Stidham sees a six-man box for Tennessee and identifies the blitz, motioning into an empty formation with running back Nick Brossette split out wide left.
That leaves Jakobi Meyers as the “hot route” on this play, the route that is a quarterback’s first read when a blitz is coming, almost like the built-in safety valve. Stidham knows an extra defender is coming, and that he has to get the ball out quickly. After correctly identifying the blitz, Stidham calmly delivers the ball to Meyers for the first down, with the pocket quickly closing in on him.
Here, against Carolina, the Panthers bring six in a hurry on 3rd & 12. With defenders closing in on both sides of Stidham, the rookie deftly takes a couple of short steps up in the pocket and fires a low laser to Meyers for a first down.
Stidham’s ability to keep his eyes downfield in pressure situations stood out on tape, and is an impressive sign of maturity for the young quarterback.
Two plays from the Lions game show Stidham’s grasp of the mental side of the playbook.
In the second quarter, facing a 3rd & 3, Stidham and the New England offense lined up in a 2 x 2 formation with four wide receivers and one running back, Brandon Bolden, offset to Stidham’s left.
To Stidham’s right he has Braxton Berrios in the slot and Damoun Patterson split wide. The two are running a two-receiver combo route, with Berrios running a whip route and Patterson a fade or a hitch route, depending on the coverage. With the Lions in a Cover-2, the expectation is this is a classic “Cover-2 Man Underneath,” with the corners playing up on the line and with inside leverage. This means Stidham should expect Patterson to run a fade route up the right sideline, leaving Berrios open underneath.
But after the snap, the boundary corner bails on Patterson’s route, and doubles Berrios. What’s notable about this play is how quickly Stidham sees this, and tucks the ball and runs for a first down on the other side of the field.
Most rookie quarterbacks in their first preseason game would have thrown the ball to Berrios after seeing the alignment of the Detroit defense prior to the snap. But Stidham’s post-snap mental processing allowed him to avoid what likely would have been a costly mistake.
Now this time, the Lions actually do play Cover 2 Man Underneath. With New England in “11” personnel, with 1 RB and 1 TE, Stidham has a decision to make again here.
Ryan Izzo, the tight end, is playing off the line in a three-point stance with his hand in the ground. At the snap, Izzo will run a seam route with a linebacker on him in man coverage. Meyers, four feet to Izzo’s left in the slot, is running a 10-yard in. If the deep safety on the left half of the field goes with Izzo, Meyers should be open in the middle of the field. If the safety doubles Meyers however, then Izzo will be one-on-one up the field with plenty of space around him.
As the play develops, Stidham has good protection in the pocket, and is able to watch as the Detroit safety moves down to help on Meyers, leaving Izzo open. Stidham releases another rope, this time up high to Izzo where only he can reach it, with the linebacker’s back turned to the ball. Izzo lets the ball go through his hands, but this play highlights Stidham’s accurate ball placement and mental acuity, again.
Now, it’s not all pretty for Stidham. There are still question marks that he needs to answer heading into Year Two.
For Stidham to even become a starting quarterback－let alone a successful starting quarterback－he must fix his ball security issues.
Everyone saw the pick-six he threw in relief duty of Brady at the end of the Week 3 win at home against the New York Jets. Taken on its own, that’s OK. Players make mistakes, and it’s hard not to give Stidham some benefit of the doubt on account of first game jitters.
But there were several plays in the preseason that hinted at potential ball security issues with Stidham heading into the regular season.
On this play, Stidham evades a pass rusher by stepping up in the pocket. After seeing nothing developing with his receivers, Stidham bails out of the pocket and runs to his left, another good example of his mobility and speed. What’s concerning about this play is how Stidham carries the ball in the open field, with his palm, rather than tucking it into the nook of his elbow. Stidham escapes on this play without losing the ball, but soon thereafter…
…on this play, Stidham pays the price for his lackadaisical ball security. On another play where Stidham sees nothing that he likes down the field, he flees the pocket and tries to scramble for yards. This time, he is tackled from behind, and the ball comes flying out of his hand, and is recovered by Carolina. With two hands securely on the ball, rather than patting the ball like he does here, he would greatly improve his chances at holding onto this ball, and just taking the sack instead. Instead, he compounds one mistake with another. It’s little things like this that he must continue to refine in Year Two.
For as good of a thrower as Stidham is, he can get a little overconfident at times.
Here, against Carolina, Stidham tries to force a throw into a tight window against zone coverage to Meyers on 1st & 20. If Stidham had taken his time and looked for the safe option, he had tight end Stephen Anderson in the right flat for what would have been an easy 10-yard pickup to get back some yardage that was lost on the previous play. Instead, he forced a throw on first down that he didn’t need to, and it almost resulted in another turnover.
And here, another risky play that could have cost Stidham. Stidham motions out Nick Brossette wide left, and the Titans corner follows the running back out wide. At the snap, the corner backpedals in off-man coverage, but Stidham stares Brossette down the whole way. The corner sees this, and charges at Brossette as Stidham winds up to throw. Stidham completed the throw over the outstretched arms of the defensive back, who mistimed jumping the route by a second, but this easily could have been a pick-six against a more experienced defender.
Stidham must learn to understand the difference between giving a play enough time to develop and waiting too long for something to happen. He occasionally gets caught hanging in the pocket for too long, waiting for something to develop, which leads to a sack, turnover, or hurried throw.
On this play action pass, Stidham looks deep, but both receivers are covered. He pauses for a moment, waiting for someone to get open, when he had Brossette open in the middle of the field for an easy checkdown. Instead, he got hit from behind as he got ready to launch a deep ball, and the ball wobbled high into the air, falling into the welcoming arms of a Giants defensive back for an interception. Stidham needs to learn to take the easy throws when they are presented to him, rather than trying to make something out of nothing.
On this play, Stidham waits too long again. He had Meyers on a quick five-yard in route that would have been an easy completion, but Stidham held onto the ball for a couple more seconds, and got sacked as a result.
Jarrett Stidham can be the next franchise quarterback of the New England Patriots. Based on the moves they have made at the QB position so far this offseason, the team believes he has a shot to. He certainly has the physical and mental tools to do so.
Getting to that point, however, will require him improving his ball security and learning the finer details of the position, like knowing when to make the easy play, and not the big play. Whether or not he can do that will determine how his career plays out in New England.