The Stidham Gambit

No matter what moves they made over the rest of the offseason, the New England Patriots were going to be in an unusual position in 2020, having to replace legendary quarterback Tom Brady after nearly two decades. It turned out they didn’t make any moves. After passing on quarterbacks in the 2020 NFL Draft, the Patriots find themselves handing the reins to 2019 fourth-round pick Jarrett Stidham (assuming he beats out veteran journeyman Brian Hoyer). That’s quite a downgrade in quarterback prestige. The question is, can Stidham succeed?

Talent isn’t the question. Stidham graduated high school as one of the top quarterback recruits in the country and enrolled at Baylor, but transferred after head coach Art Briles was dismissed for covering up sexual assaults. He wound up at Auburn, where after sitting out a season because of transfer rules he turned in a solid redshirt sophomore campaign, finishing fourth in the SEC with 8.5 yards per attempt and throwing 18 touchdowns against just six interceptions. His junior year disappointed, however; while his TD / INT ratio remained an excellent 18 / 5, he averaged just 7.9 yards per attempt (SEC average was 8.0) and the Tigers went 3-5 in conference.

Once projected as a first-round pick, his down year sent him tumbling to the fourth round, where he was the seventh quarterback selected. The Patriots tabbed him with pick #133—not even their first fourth-round pick! But Stidham wowed in the preseason, completing 68% of his passes for 731 yards, four touchdowns, and only one interception. That performance led the Patriots to release Hoyer and make Stidham Brady’s primary backup. Once the regular season started, however, Stidham was nowhere to be seen; he threw just four passes all season. Only the Patriots know for sure how he developed behind the scenes.

Historical Precedent: Unheralded Quarterbacks

Plenty of unheralded quarterbacks have started games in the NFL. Brady famously was pick #199 back in 2000. Tony Romo had a long and distinguished career as undrafted free agent. Gardner Minshew, taken even later than Stidham last year, figures to start for the Jacksonville Jaguars.

The difference between Stidham and these players is that they didn’t start the season as the #1 option until they had already established some baseline level of NFL competence. Brady entered 2001 as backup to Drew Bledsoe and only took over when a chest injury put Bledsoe out of commission. The Patriots won the Super Bowl and Brady never relinquished the job. Romo coincidentally was also a Bledsoe backup who took over when Bledsoe was struggling near the end of his career. Minshew was forced into playing when starter Nick Foles broke his clavicle, and played well enough to hang on to the gig. By the time these players entered a season as a starting quarterback, they had a body of work. Minshew has thrown 470 NFL passes, more than 100 times what Stidham has.

There have been less distinguished Week 1 starters, but few have been by design. Trevor Siemian started in Week 1 for the 2016 Denver Broncos, but he had to beat out first-round pick Paxton Lynch. Kurt Warner started an improbable Hall-of-Fame career Week 1 of 1999 with the St. Louis Rams, but that was only after Trent Green suffered a preseason ACL tear. Dennis Dixon started Week 1 of 2010, but only after the league suspended starter Ben Roethlisberger and backup Byron Leftwich tore his ACL.

Another common paradigm is the stopgap starter, where an undistinguished veteran starts Week 1 before inevitably giving way to a highly-drafted rookie. That was likely the intention with Siemian, but Lynch fared so poorly that he never took over. Nathan Peterman started Week 1 for the 2018 Buffalo Bills, but first-round pick Josh Allen took over before before Week 1’s game was even over. Tom Savage similarly started Week 1 for the 2017 Houston Texans, but he was only a speedbump on Deshaun Watson’s road to success, lasting only a half before the rookie took over. Longtime backup Doug Pederson started early on for the 1999 Eagles to ease the pressure on second-overall pick Donovan McNabb. That same year, Shane Matthews started the year for the Chicago Bears to give 12th pick Cade McNown more time to develop.

So who are actually precedents for Stidham, players who were neither highly-drafted nor game-experienced? There are only a few:

  • Tyrod Taylor made his first career start in Week 1, 2015 for the Bills. He faced stiffer competition than Stidham, however, having to beat out former first-rounder EJ Manuel and experienced starter Matt Cassel. The bloom was off Manuel’s rose by that point, so I distinguish this instance from those above. Taylor wound up making the Pro Bowl and starting three years for the Bills; he remains a quality backup / fringe starter.
  • The Texans traded two second-round picks to the Atlanta Falcons for Matt Schaub and inserted him as the 2007 starter. Schaub had started only two games for Atlanta. Like Stidham, he had shown prowess in the preseason, including an 11 for 13 performance in a high-profile game in Japan. Schaub would start seven years in Houston, making two Pro Bowls.
  • Tim Rattay, a seventh-round pick in 2000, got the starting nod in 2004 after acquitting himself fairly well in three spot starts the year prior. He did not fare as well in more extended use, throwing 10 interceptions in nine starts and taking a whopping 37 sacks while completing barely 60% of his passes. The 49ers finished 2-14 and took Alex Smith with the first pick of the 2005 draft, dealing Rattay to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
  • Chris Redman, like Stidham a highly-touted recruit that fell to the midrounds (he was a third-round pick in 2000), started the first six games in 2002 for the Baltimore Ravens. The team averaged only 17 points in his starts and the team benched Redman for veteran Jeff Blake. Blake didn’t fare much better, and in the next draft the Ravens traded up for Kyle Boller, who also didn’t impress. Redman would bounce around as a backup for most of the next decade, making a handful of starts.
  • Matt Hasselbeck was a former sixth-round pick who had only thrown 29 NFL passes when the 2001 Seattle Seahawks made him the opening-day starter. Seattle had made something of an investment in Hasselbeck, however, dealing a third rounder and swapping seven spots in the first round to obtain him from the Green Bay Packers. Seahawks coach / GM Mike Holmgren had worked with Hasselbeck in Green Bay. After some early struggles, Hasselbeck would go on to a distinguished career, including three Pro Bowl appearances and a Super Bowl berth.
  • Jay Fiedler had started only one game before the Miami Dolphins inserted him as the Week 1 starter in 2000 (and heir to Dan Marino). He did have to beat out Damon Huard, who had started a handful of games for the Dolphins the year before. Fiedler never won accolades but was a quality starter for five seasons.
  • Brian Griese, like Stidham and Fiedler, took over for a legend: Denver Broncos quarterback John Elway. A teammate of Brady’s at Michigan, Griese was a third-round pick in 1998 but threw just three passes that season. The team elected to insert him as their opening day starter in 1999 after Elway’s retirement, and he went on to start 83 games over the next 10 years with four different organizations. The results were mixed, but he did make a Pro Bowl in 2000.

Historical Precedent: Mid-Round Picks

Of course, we don’t have to compare Stidham only to quarterbacks who followed his career path; we can also measure him against other fourth-round picks. However, that comparison also fails to tell the whole story.

Since 2000, 30 quarterbacks have been selected in the fourth round. Two of those (James Morgan and Jacob Eason) were drafted this year, and certainly we don’t know what they will amount to. It’s probably fair to exclude the 2019 draftees—Stidham and Ryan Finley—as well. We’ll leave in 2018 4th-rounder Kyle Lauletta as he has already washed out of his original team. So we have 26 picks, and only three Pro Bowlers—Dak Prescott, Kirk Cousins, and David Garrard. Beyond that trio, Kyle Orton is the only player to start more than two seasons worth of games. We’ll call the success rate 4 / 26, or about 15%.

At the risk of getting too nerdy, we must also consider Bayes’ Theorem. You can read the Wiki page if you want your eyes to glaze over, but the application here is that we shouldn’t compare Stidham to the entire population of fourth rounders because he’s already proven he’s better than some of them. Take, for instance, Tyler Wilson, a fourth-round pick of the Oakland Raiders in 2013. Like Stidham, Wilson was a once-heralded college prospect whose stock fell. Unlike Stidham, he played so poorly that he could not even win the third-string quarterback job—on a Raiders team that finished 4-12! He never threw an NFL pass. We already know Stidham, by virtue of sticking on an NFL roster for a year, is better than Wilson, so it doesn’t make sense to include Wilson in the comparison population.

If we take for granted that Stidham will start at least one game and thus we should compare him only to fourth-round picks who started one game, we’re left with a population of 15 (note that three fourth-round QBs wound up converting to different positions and starting there). A success rate of 4 / 15 is about 27%. If we assume Stidham will start at least half a season worth of games (perhaps not a safe assumption), we’re looking at 4 / 9, about 44%: much better odds.

Nine players is a tiny sample, so it might be worth examining a broader group: 50 picks in either direction from 133, where Stidham was selected. That gets us up to seven Pro Bowlers—the three above, plus Schaub, Taylor, Foles, and Marc Bulger—and two more players to start 32 games or more, Trent Edwards and Jacoby Brissett, in addition to Orton. The total population is 92 players, 83 if we exclude the last two draft classes. Ten successes out of 83 is 12%. Of the 83, only 49 started games; 10 / 49 is about 20%. Thirty started at least 8 games; 10 / 30 is 33%. Pretty big error bars here, but we should project Stidham with something like a 20-45% success rate.

Scenario: Yeah But Stidham is Awesome!

There is an emerging narrative that Stidham was underdrafted, based on his reputation coming out of high school, limitations in the Auburn offense, his physical talent, etc. You can find very early 2019 mocks that have him in the first round, though you can also find very early 2019 mocks that have Shea Patterson as a first-round pick. (Patterson stayed in school for the 2019 season and no team selected him in the 2020 draft. So my default state here is skeptical.)

But let’s assume the Patriots did get a major bargain on Stidham, and rather than compare him to other fourth rounders or players selected 83 to 183, we should compare him to much higher picks, let’s say those chosen 15 to 83. That’s a range that describes Stidham at best as a mid-first round process and at worst as a 50-pick bargain.

That changes things, but maybe not by as much as you’d think. There have been 46 players selected 15 to 83 since 2000, 43 excluding picks in the last two drafts. Seven have made Pro Bowls, including superstars Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, and Russell Wilson and 2019 NFL MVP Lamar Jackson. There are 14 players who started at least 32 games, and we’ll put Jackson and Jimmy Garoppolo in that group just for completeness. So that’s a hit rate of 16 / 43, or 37%. Excluding players who never started a game doesn’t change things much, as only four terrible busts (Pat White, Christian Hackenberg, Garrett Grayson, and the immortal Giovanni Carmazzi) failed to start at least one game (16 / 39 takes us to 41%). And of the players who started at least a game, only four failed to get to eight starts. Sixteen successes out of 35 players drafted in this range who started at least eight games is a 46% success rate—about the same as the upper-end estimate for the later drafted players.

It gets worse, because not all the players who started 32 games turned out to Brees, Rodgers, or Wilson. Jason Campbell, Chad Henne, Rex Grossman, and J.P. Losman are among the passers who started 32 games but didn’t have careers that would necessarily scream “success story” to the casual fan.

Historical Precedent: Belichick Quarterbacks

Bill Belichick has built something of a reputation for finding diamonds in the rough at quarterback. First there was Brady in 2000. When Brady suffered a knee injury in the 2008 opener, the team turned to Matt Cassel, a seventh-round pick in 2005 who hadn’t started a game since high school. He acquitted himself competently and went on to start 81 games over the next decade. When Brady was suspended for four games to begin the 2016 season, Garoppolo started the first two games. He injured his shoulder in Week 2, and rookie third rounder Brissett stepped in. The Patriots went 3-1 in Brady’s absence and Belichick was ultimately able to turn them into assets, a second-rounder for Garoppolo and veteran receiver Phillip Dorsett for Brissett. The duo has combined to start 58 NFL games.

Not every Belichick quarterback pick turns to gold. Rohan Davey, a fourth rounder in 2002, threw only 19 career passes. That was better than 2008 third-round pick Kevin O’Connell, who lasted only a season and attempted only six passes. Still, if we zero in on mid-round picks who started at least one game, we get two successes in Garoppolo and Brissett and only one failure: 2011 third-rounder Ryan Mallett, who struggled in eight starts between 2014 and 2015. Going way back to Belichick’s Cleveland days, 1995 third-round pick Eric Zeier started only 12 games in parts of six seasons. Still, a sample size of three or four players doesn’t tell us a whole lot.

It’s not clear how successful even these success stories really are. Brady obviously has turned in a Hall of Fame career. Cassel lasted only three seasons as a full-time starter and his teams went just 26-40 in his non-New-England starts. Brissett’s record as QB is just 12-20 and the Colts elected to sign veteran Philip Rivers rather than continuing to play him. Garoppolo has been effective when healthy, but has only played 16 games once. If we move Brissett from the “success” column to the “failure” one, we wind up with one hit out of three or four: about the same as in the general rate of success in that draft range, as noted above.

Historical Precedent: Preseason Superstars

You can argue that Stidham was the best quarterback in the entire NFL in the 2019 preseason. He finished second in passing yards, and he threw 4 TDs against only one pick while averaging 8.1 yards per attempt. He also made several highlight-reel throws that his receivers couldn’t haul in, plays that would have made his stat line even gaudier:

If Stidham wasn’t the best passer in the 2019 preseason, it was Tampa Bay Buccanneer Ryan Griffin, who also averaged 8.1 yards per attempt and led the league in passing yards. Or maybe it was Tim Boyle of the Green Bay Packers, who threw an NFL-leading six TD passes and 0 INTs. Or maybe Kyle Sloter, a preseason standout the two previous years as well, who completed 76% of his passes.

You see where I’m going with this: none of these players is a household name. The NFL did not take their preseason performances seriously, and neither should we. It’s not even clear that a bad performance matters; Minshew averaged a paltry 4.9 yards per attempt in the preseason with zero touchdowns, but 7.0 when the bright lights were on.

The preseason showed Stidham’s clean mechanics and accuracy; he throws a pretty ball. How he will diagnose coverages and blitzes, deal with the speed of starting-caliber defenses, and handle pressure remains to be seen. Stidham only threw 90 passes in the preseason; even regular-season passing statistics don’t stabilize until several hundred attempts. It’s tempting to read into the preseason performance because the regular season body of work is virtually non-existent, but it’s ultimately foolish.

Scenario: The Draft Quarterback

The Patriots had set themselves up before the draft to add a quarterback, cutting veteran Cody Kessler a few weeks ago, leaving just Stidham and Hoyer on the roster. Drafting one didn’t materialize, but in Belichick’s words, missing out on a signal-caller “wasn’t by design.”

We can’t know for sure who Belichick might have targeted had things worked out, but we can speculate based on who went when:

  • The team had no shot at the draft’s top quarterbacks, Joe Burrow, Tua Tagovoiloa, or Justin Herbert, who all went in the top six.
  • The Patriots could have selected Jordan Love at 23, but elected to trade back instead.
  • The Patriots passed on Jalen Hurts at 37, and the Eagles took him at 53 (more on this in a minute). No other quarterbacks were chosen on day two.
  • When the team traded up for tight ends Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene, it cost them all three of their fourth-round picks. Presumably had they had their hearts set on developmental prospects Eason or Morgan, they would have made sure to hold on to at least one fourth.
  • The Patriots passed up on Jake Fromm with their fifth-rounder to select kicker Justin Rohrwasser instead. Fromm went to the Bills eight picks later.
  • Jake Luton went to the Jaguars seven picks after New England took guard Michael Onwenu.
  • With three sixth-round picks and a seventh, the team had ample opportunity to select any of the signal-callers that went in the seventh round: Cole McDonald, Ben DiNucci, Tommy Stevens, or Nate Stanley.

Perhaps they misjudged where one of the late-rounders would go. The more intriguing possibility is that they targeted Hurts and were surprised when Philadelphia, who has an entrenched starter in Carson Wentz, took the Oklahoma quarterback. When they passed on Hurts at 37 to select Kyle Dugger, their next pick was 71, but the Patriots had enough ammunition to trade up to the late second round, which they ultimately did, choosing Josh Uche at 60. Director of Player Personnel Nick Caserio called Dugger and Uche two of three targets they had going into round two. Perhaps Hurts was the third?

I don’t know. This is idle speculation. The pieces fit together, but there’s a lot we don’t know and can’t know. If the Patriots did target Hurts, it might suggest a different level of confidence in Stidham than pundits are assuming after the draft. Or it might not. They did, after, decide they preferred a Division II safety, and they certainly didn’t seem to be in any rush to add to the quarterback room in the late rounds.

Scenario: Bullyball

The Patriots didn’t just pass on selecting a quarterback; they eschewed adding to a wide receiver room in one of the deepest draft for receivers in years—all in all, 37 WR were chosen, none by New England. That was surprising given the struggles of the unit in 2019 and the age of presumptive starters Julian Edelman and Mohamed Sanu (34 and 31, respectively, by the time the season begins). That’s after the only offseason addition was speedster Damiere Byrd, who set career highs in 2019 with a modest 32 catches for 359 yards.

But looking back at New England’s transactions over the past few years, I see two explanations for the lack of attention to receiver. One is that the team is letting past investments play out. They dealt a second-round pick for Sanu last season, only to see him hurt his ankle in his second game and play poorly afterwards. They used a 2019 first-round pick on N’Keal Harry, who missed half the season with injury and struggled to separate, but brings contested catch skills and physicality. They signed Jakobi Meyers as an undrafted free agent, and he immediately clicked with Stidham in the preseason, leading the NFL with 253 yards. Meyers showed promise in the regular season as well, leading the team’s WR with 8.8 yards per target. It seems that Belichick would like to see how things materialize with this group rather than rushing to add to it.

The other explanation I see is that the Patriots are seeking a return to the run-centric offenses that they used in Brady’s early seasons. They’ve invested in the offensive line, extending veterans David Andrews, Shaq Mason, and Marcus Cannon, using the franchise tag on Joe Thuney, and spending a first round pick on Isaiah Wynn and later picks on additional depth. They shocked the analytics community by taking running back Sony Michel in the first round in 2018. Harry and Sanu are both big, physical receivers and effective blockers. The same is true of the tight end duo they added this year; Asiasi and Keene are two physical, aggressive players.

All this points to a renewed focus on the run game and an effort to reduce the impact of the passing game. There are two reasons for this, I believe. One is that it makes sense to lighten the load on a young quarterback by not asking him to be the focal point of the offense. The other is that with defenses getting faster and lighter, the Patriots are cutting against trend by doubling down on strength and physicality. In an article about the Harry draft pick, I called this “bullyball.” That certainly seems to be the direction they’re leaning in 2020.

Bullyball never got off the ground in 2019. Andrews missed the season with blood clots in his lungs. Michel ran 15 times in Week 1 … for just 14 yards. Left tackle Wynn and fullback James Develin landed on Injured Reserve shortly thereafter. The running game rallied a little with Wynn’s return, but ultimately the team finished 25th in the NFL with 3.8 yards per carry, forcing Brady and a suspect group of receivers to try to carry the load offensively again.

The run game should be better in 2020, with Andrews back and Wynn presumably healthier. Will it be good enough to carry the offense? I’m skeptical. The 2019 season seemed to hearken back to an earlier era with the Ravens, Titans, and 49ers all excelling on the ground, but Baltimore (Jackson) and Tennessee (Derrick Henry) have dynamic running talents the Patriots don’t, and the 49ers have run schemer extraordinaire Kyle Shanahan. The likely outcome is the New England run game is good, not great, and a lot is on Stidham’s shoulders.

How will the youngster fare? The analysis above suggests something like a one-in-three chance Stidham turns into a quality starter. Maybe 40%. So, as a Patriots fan, I wouldn’t describe myself as “cautiously optimistic” but more “hopefully skeptical.” Most quarterbacks don’t pan out. But Stidham has a reasonable chance, and he certainly showed some NFL attributes with his 2019 preseason performance.

I’m less bullish on the New England offense as a whole. The three standout rushing offenses in 2019—Baltimore, Tennessee, and San Francisco—all stalled out in the playoffs when they fell behind and had to air it out. And the Patriots don’t have a star rusher to make things go. They really don’t have any kind of dynamic big play talent offensively, and will likely rely on consistent, mistake-free execution to move the ball downfield.

That’s tough sledding for an inexperienced quarterback. As terrific as Stidham looked in the preseason, he also took a whopping nine sacks, which can be drive killers. He figures to take a lot more than Brady, who knew the offense inside and out and has exceptional pocket movement. Even if he plays relatively clean, there are still plenty of other young players in the mix who will likely struggle with consistency. It is hard for me to see a unit that can put up enough points to stay with the top offenses, even if the still-excellent defense is able to limit them somewhat.

Fans of old-school football will enjoy the 13-10 rockfights that seem inevitable for the Patriots in 2020. As an analyst, I’m skeptical of the merits of de-emphasizing the passing offense in a pass-happy era. As a fan of the Patriots and the league in general, I’m intrigued to see if Belichick, the most brilliant football mind of his generation, can make it work anyway. And I’m fascinated to see Stidham, a completely unproven talent, thrust into the role of successor to Brady. Whatever happens, it’s a new era in New England.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *