New England Patriots | What we know about Patriots QB Jarrett Stidham, the favorite to succeed Tom Brady

New England Patriots | 	 				 			What we know about Patriots QB Jarrett Stidham, the favorite to succeed Tom Brady

The answer was in plain sight all along.

Right there on the depth chart.

Until last week, the NFL had grappled all offseason with where Tom Brady would play in 2020. For those who believed Brady planned to leave, the natural follow-up question asked who would succeed Brady in New England. During a free agency period unusually flush with capable quarterbacks, the possibilities were plentiful and speculation fascinating.

Boy, they must’ve had a good laugh in Foxboro.

By finally picking their free agent Sunday, reaching a 1-year deal with Brian Hoyer, the Patriots effectively slated Jarrett Stidham as the favorite to start at quarterback next season. As a smart and experienced signal caller, Hoyer’s addition makes sense on several levels — except the one his agent floated to the NFL Network last weekend: he’s a contender for the starting job.

As a rookie last summer, Stidham beat Hoyer out to serve as Brady’s backup. In fairness, the math behind their roster battle was never a traditional head-to-head measurement. The Pats had to weigh Stidham’s long-term potential versus Hoyer’s immediate value as a veteran, plus the open roster spot Hoyer’s release could create minus the risk incurred by keeping only two quarterbacks.

Stidham was never getting cut. Still, he claimed a decisive victory.

What the rookie won was more than a job for 2019 — it was tangible trust from the team that if Brady went down, he provided the Pats their best chance to win. That trust remains evident in 2020, when both quarterbacks will be a year older; a positive for the greener Stidham and a negative for the graying Hoyer.

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It’s true they’ll compete again this training camp, but an upset would be stunning.

It’s also true the Pats could continue to pad their quarterbacks depth. Although their available 2020 cap space is approaching zero, with an entire draft class still to sign this spring. And the indefinite delay of OTAs and offseason programs has forced front offices to put a premium on system experience when acquiring players.

Meaning the Patriots, who have always prized institutional knowledge of their program when team building, aren’t about add Andy Dalton or Cam Newton at the cost of almost $20 million this season and a trade asset so they can sit around outside the facility during a pandemic.

Because if Stidham can perform at even 75% of their career levels, he already presents greater value to the franchise in the short and long-term, as a gifted passer with upside, system experience and a salary cap hit less than $1 million. Of course, Stidham’s teammates don’t care much about where he fits into the cap sheet. They care about how he fits on the field.

Stidham apparently checked that box last year, listening to Patriots defensive captain Devin McCourty on the latest episode of his podcast, Double Coverage with the McCourty Twins, on Sunday.

“I love (Stidham’s) poise. I would be faking a blitz sometimes, and we’d make eye contact. And he’d just start smiling and laughing,” McCourty said. “To me, there were weeks he was just on point, and those were some of our best weeks as a defense mainly because (Stidham) ate us up in practice leading up to the game… So, I really admire just how hard he works.”

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For those on the outside, Stidham’s regular-season work can only be summed up by his final stat line: 2-of-4 for 14 yards and a pick-six. The interception, an unpressured checkdown against the Jets, highlighted one of Stidham’s chief weaknesses: his tendency to miss some gimmes.

When he was drafted last April, NFL Network draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah remarked that during his two years starting at Auburn, Stidham balanced out his spectacular throws with unusually bad misfires. However, Jeremiah’s first comment after his selection was more notable: “(Stidham) throws the best ball of anybody in this draft.”

He proved as much last preseason, throwing for 732 yards, four touchdowns and an interception. He led several scoring drives, including a 99-yard game-winner at Tennessee. His game performances were an extension of impressive showings in training camp, when through 10 practices his completion percentage ranked well ahead of Brady’s: 68% to 58%.

Now practice data is rife with noise, meaning it carries so much variation and interference it’s almost meaningless. But as Stidham continued to gain reps last summer, his physical traits became unmistakably clear: a strong, accurate arm to all levels of the field, above average mobility and poise within the pocket. By drafting him a year early, the Pats allowed Stidham to develop and successfully bet they would draw the best out of him.

Heading into Year 2, Bill Belichick and Co. are now betting they can iron out enough wrinkles in his game for him to start; namely, the occasional scratch-your-head misses and a slow trigger that’s common to young quarterbacks. These flaws were evident in the preseason, masked by his statistics and good fortune.

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At Tennessee, Stidham fired three passes at Titans defenders. Not one was secured for an interception. A week later, over a 2-turnover, 3-point outing against Carolina, he played his worst game against the one defense that resembled a regular-season outfit. And in the Pats’ finale, two of Stidham’s three touchdown drives began inside Giants territory.

Upon closer look, Stidham’s interception and most of his nine sacks because he held onto the ball too long. That was the same sin he committed repeatedly in training camp, when quarterbacks aren’t allowed to be hit. It’s fair to assume — for several reasons — the Pats are destined to take more sacks with Stidham.

Projecting how Stidham will play overall, though, is a fool’s errand. He is simultaneously a talented, heady, promising passer and a complete question mark. Not even Belichick knows how his young quarterback will perform.

As a rookie, Stidham did enough to make believers out of the front office and his teammates. Twenty years ago, Brady began engendering similar faith in the Patriots’ building, which he eventually grew into unprecedented expectations through years of unparalleled greatness.

Without Brady, the Patriots have officially entered a new era. They’ve chosen a new direction.

Where it leads is an answer far from plain sight.