Patriots may only need two quarterbacks on the roster this season

Aug 29, 2019; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Patriots quarterback Jarrett Stidham (4) looks to pass against the New York Giants during the first half at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brian Fluharty-USA TODAY Sports
Aug 29, 2019; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Patriots quarterback Jarrett Stidham (4) looks to pass against the New York Giants during the first half at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brian Fluharty-USA TODAY Sports /

The Patriots may be willing to gamble that their third-string quarterback can be kept on the practice squad this season.

New England Patriots fans may be watching an interesting sub-plot unfold as young Jarrett Stidham and ancient Brian Hoyer fight for the role of third-string quarterback, but it might be that the team is prepared to enter the season without either one on the active roster.

Roster spots are precious, and after Bill Belichick’s free agency splurge, a third-string quarterback may be too much of a luxury item to justify the 53rd job this season.

The consensus is that Cam Newton will be given a second chance to play quarterback for the Patriots, but this time we will see what he can do with a better supporting cast. Mac Jones may or may not be ready to be the starter, but he’s probably at least ready to be the backup from Day 1.  He had four years under Belichick’s close pal Nick Saban and the team probably believes that he can handle a run-first, ball-control offense if called upon.

What would then be the role for last year’s “quarterback of the future,” Jarrett Stidham?

If he’s better than perpetual backup Brian Hoyer, is that enough to nail down a roster spot as the third string quarterback? That might have worked last season, but this year roster spots are harder to come by.

Stidham is entering his third year after a good-but-not-great NCAA career, in which he stood out mainly for his ability to avoid throwing interceptions — only 13 while accumulating 7,217 yards in one year as a Baylor Bear and two seasons as an Auburn Tiger. That comes out to 515 passing yards per interception, a remarkable ratio. The TD/INT ratio was 48/13, which is also excellent.

However, his brief chances at the pro level have been way less encouraging. He was reasonably impressive during the 2019 preseason, but in the regular season, he got some garbage time minutes in relief of Tom Brady and promptly threw a pick-six against the Jets, causing Belichick to send Brady back into the game. Not cool.

Last season, Stidham relieved Hoyer versus the Chiefs and contributed two interceptions, including another memorable pick-six that sealed KC’s victory. Hoyer had some blunders of his own that game, including taking a sack right before halftime that cost his team a chance for a short field goal attempt, which would have tied things up.

Overall, in the regular season, Stidham has thrown for only 270 yards passing with four picks, or 68 yards per INT. The best you can offer is that the data sample is small. But what was most telling of all was that after the Patriots were knocked out of the playoffs at the tail end of the season in 2020, the normal thing to do would be to play the kid to get him some experience. Coach Belichick declined to do that, and instead played Newton, underscoring his commitment to Newton, and perhaps his unhappiness with Stidham.

To justify a roster spot, the Patriots have to believe that they cannot afford to lose Stidham. They can afford to lose a career backup quarterback. They cannot afford to lose a potential franchise quarterback. Which one is Stidham?

Right now, Stidham is trending somewhere between a career backup and a broadcaster. He needs to reverse his trajectory completely to justify a roster spot for the third string position. He would have to create some doubt whether Mac Jones is the second-best quarterback on the team, and he’ll have to have one hellacious summer camp to do that. He will have to start by doing something dramatic; like, say, picking up the magic hammer of Thor and hurling a few lightning bolts, and then build upon that.

Without evidence of that level of dramatic improvement, the Patriots will probably be willing to risk subjecting Stidham to waivers with the intention of keeping him on the practice squad. So would he clear waivers? One team that might claim him is the Houston Texans due to their troubling situation with Deshaun Watson. Currently, they’re committed to Tyrod Taylor as their starter and rookie third-round pick Davis Mills as their “quarterback of the future.” Third string is Jeff Driskel, the “backup quarterback of the present” who actually has pretty good tools. That could go either way. The Indianapolis Colts might be another candidate depending on how they feel about Jacob Eason as their backup.

The New York Jets managed to construct a roster in which no quarterback has ever thrown a pass in the NFL. Has that ever happened before in NFL history? Maybe in 1920 when the league first started. That means Stidham already has thrown more Jets TD passes (via the pick-six) than any QB the Jets have in camp.

On that basis, it is probably about 50-50 whether the Patriots could stash Stidham on the practice squad. The sole purpose for doing so is to keep alive the faint hope that he might continue to improve and still reach the level of an NFL starter … assuming Stidhim wants to stay in New England.  Once he clears waivers, he’s allowed to sign with another team’s practice squad if he so desires.

If Stidham cannot make the case that he can be developed into a future starter, or if he elects to flee New England, Hoyer might be a better alternative for a team in win-now mode.

Because of his age (he has been around so long it seems like he might be just a few months younger than Belichick), Hoyer is not likely to interest any team that’s in rebuilding mode. He’s close to being “the quarterback of the past.” He could be picked up if some team loses a quarterback due to injury, but even then, his familiarity with the Patriots system makes him more valuable to the Patriots … and really nobody else. That is a polite way of saying that he’s less useful to 31 other NFL teams. As a rough guess, it’s 99% likely he will clear waivers, but also highly likely he will see his best opportunity to hang around with the practice squad in Foxboro.

According to Tom Pelissero of NFL Network, most of last year’s expanded practice squad rules will probably stay in effect for 2021, meaning that the Pats will be allowed to keep a veteran quarterback on the practice squad. The Patriots would be allowed to partially protect four players from being signed away or “poached” by other teams. However, there’s a window from the end of each game until the following Tuesday at 4:00 p.m. when even the protected players can be legally signed away by other teams.

In summation, the way things are trending going into summer camp, Newton will be the starting quarterback unless he is injured or Mac Jones shows surprising maturity and readiness. Jones is the likely second-string unless Stidham knocks Belichick’s socks off this summer. Stidham will not make the 53-man roster unless he unseats Jones or comes close, but Stidham might be kept on the practice squad if he (1) clears waivers or (2) convinces the staff that he can in fact develop into an NFL-caliber starter and not just a perpetual backup. Brian Hoyer, who is just a perpetual backup, has a slim chance at making the roster, but the Pats would probably be comfortable with him as a practice squad option.

In the end, he’ll undoubtedly be a better option that Stidham given his experience and knowledge based on what we’ve seen from the Auburn star in his first two years.