For all the holes in the roster of the New England Patriots, physical manifestations of their offseason to-do list, there is only one task that truly matters.

Finding a quarterback.

If the Patriots can cross that off their list, it will be a successful spring. In the coming weeks, the Pats will try to thread a needle through time by landing a quarterback of the present and near future. This front office did not sustain 20 years of winning by sacrificing the team’s ability to compete tomorrow so it could contend today.

The Patriots are perpetually playing a long game with their roster, even when their short-term needs are obvious and pressing. So however they approach the quarterback position in free agency and/or the draft, it won’t be with the 2021 season solely in mind.

Using that philosophy as a framework, here are their best options.

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Ryan Fitzpatrick could be a bargain for the Patriots. He is projected to command a salary of at $10 million to $12 million per year. Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

PLAN A: Sign Ryan Fitzpatrick, explore top-10 draft trades

Uninspiring as Fitzpatrick might be, he checks every major box the Patriots should want coming off the Cam Newton experience.

Fitzpatrick can step in immediately and run the offense, having played in the Patriots’ system for Miami under former New England assistant Chad O’Shea in 2019. Finding a quarterback capable of system mastery will be critical, given OTAs and minicamps are likely to be virtual again.

Fitzpatrick can also win with a below-average set of weapons. No matter who is added in free agency, the Patriots aren’t about to jump from worst to first on the NFL’s pass-catching power rankings. Fitzpatrick has won throughout his career while throwing to discount receivers, including last year in Miami. He’ll need to do it again.

Fitzpatrick’s naysayers would fairly point to his interceptions. He committed a turnover-worthy play on 4.4% of his offensive snaps last year, per Pro Football Focus, one of the league’s worst figures; though Fitzpatrick also trailed Josh Allen and Patrick Mahomes by just a percentage point in that category.

Is that really enough to scare the Pats away, particularly when Fitzpatrick projects to come at a bargain for starting quarterbacks at $10 million to $12 million per year?

Fitzpatrick’s aggression should instead be viewed as a positive, given Patriots wideouts won’t be generating much separation in 2021. Newton often required wide-open windows before pulling the trigger in 2020, which ultimately led to fumbles. Meanwhile, Fitzpatrick will throw into tight coverage and defeat it, around, of course, a few palatable picks.

But the Patriots should gladly accept a couple extra turnovers for a quarterback who can unlock their entire system, throw lesser receivers open and start Day 1. Fitzpatrick’s presence would allow a first-round rookie to develop for a year, ideally one of the top four quarterback prospects, should a trade into the top 10 be feasible.

If not, the Patriots might still land the fifth-best prospect: Alabama’s Mac Jones.

Then, if after a year the Patriots like Jones – who checks basic boxes with plus accuracy, processing and leadership but lacks upside – he’s the favorite to start in 2022. If not, they can deal him ahead of the 2022 draft (which projects to have a poor quarterback class) at the expense of roughly $12 million in dead money spread over the next three years. Otherwise, the cost of keeping Jones as a developmental passer is still minimal.

As the 15th overall pick, he would carry an average annual cap hit of less than $3 million, per Over The Cap salary projections. Even making him the No. 10 pick would incur an average annual cap hit of less than $5 million.

Finally, by adding Fitzpatrick and a first-round rookie, the Pats would devote less than $20 million of their 2021 cap to the quarterback room, putting them in prime position to invest extra money elsewhere and extract maximum value from the most important part of their roster for years to come. Win-win.

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The Patriots could pursue Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields in the draft, but would need to give up a lot to move up in the draft.

PLAN B: Go all-in for Justin Fields or Trey Lance

So Fitzpatrick spurns the Patriots, and the cost of acquiring pick No. 8, 9 or 10 is too much for their liking. Well, grab a bat. It’s time to take a swing anyway.

While the Patriots are reluctant to trade future picks compared to most teams, it’s time to face the reality of their situation. The price of chasing an improbable wild-card spot last November and December is having to overpay this April for a pick in the top 10 of the draft, the only place where franchise quarterbacks are found with any regularity.

The good news is it’s a great class, regardless of recent buzz.

Media evaluators have reached the overthinking stage of draft season, calling into question the order and potential of quarterbacks not named Trevor Lawrence. But Ohio State’s Justin Fields is a stud. A supremely accurate, tough, dual-threat, playmaking stud. Questions about his processing speed are overblown.

Yes, Fields will face an adjustment transitioning from an Ohio State offense that lacked a quick passing game. But he’ll make up for missed opportunities within the first 2.5 seconds of plays by extending them to later ones until he’s mastered the timing and nuances of the NFL game.

The energy around Fields’ draft stock feels like Deshaun Watson’s in 2017, when Watson went 12th overall with similar questions and promptly set the league on fire as a rookie. It’s likely the Patriots would need to jump to No. 4 to nab Fields, assuming Lawrence and Zach Wilson are drafted ahead of him. Based on recent draft history, that would cost the No. 15 pick, their 2022 first-rounder, a second-round pick and probably more.

But perhaps the Patriots prefer North Dakota State’s Trey Lance, who’s also expected to go somewhere in the top 10. Lance’s exact draft selection is more difficult to project given he’s played one competitive game since 2019. But his physical tools are awe-inspiring, and no prospect owned a better touchdown-to-interception ratio during his last full college season than him: 42-0.

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Marcus Mariota could also be an option at QB for New England, if he is released by the Raiders and does not prove too costly.

PLAN C: Sign Marcus Mariota, add a mid-round prospect

Meh.

Mariota, whose trade interest has reportedly dried up in recent weeks due to his loaded contract incentives, could hit the free-agent market soon if the Raiders cut ties. He offers a higher floor than re-signing Newton would and a new, more valuable type of mobility: light-footed escapability to extend plays.

The trouble is Mariota is too often reluctant to threaten defenses with his legs or tight-window throws. He’s far from Alex Smith, but defensive coordinators nonetheless don’t lose sleep the night before facing him. Mariota would represent both a value play and the Patriots kicking the can down the road.

As for mid-round rookies, Florida’s Kyle Trask, Georgia’s Jamie Newman and Stanford’s Davis Mills are names to remember.


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