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Kelley: New England’s 2024 Starting QB Is Not on the Roster

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New England Patriots quarterback Bailey Zappe (4) and quarterback Mac Jones (10) prior to an NFL football game against the Los Angeles Chargers, Sunday, Dec. 3, 2023, in Foxborough, Mass. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)

On Sunday, both Bailey Zappe and Mac Jones were auditioning for the 2024 New England Patriots. The franchise’s evaluation of who is best suited to be their backup next year has begun. One thing has become painfully clear over the course of this season, next season’s starter is not currently under contract in New England.

Even when things were going poorly for the Patriots offense this season, there was hope Mac Jones would show he was capable of being an NFL starting quarterback. His rookie year he proved capable of being solid, and solid is good enough to give management another year with Jones under his rookie contract.

A team can try to build around an adequate QB. New England could use their high draft position to select a future star elsewhere, like wide receiver Marvin Harrison, Jr. Or they could use it to trade down and address multiple needs on the team. Unfortunately, that is a luxury they no longer enjoy.

Unfortunately, Mac Jones is no longer decent or adequate. Jones being the starting quarterback who will guide New England back into contention is not an appropriate game plan at this point. Even those who argue that Mac Jones is not the problem, must acknowledge that he is not the solution either.

Throwing in the Towel on Mac Jones as a Starting QB

I wrote an article two weeks ago, questioning if Mac Jones in New England can be salvaged. In that piece, I opined:

“Bailey Zappe will not be the New England Patriots starting quarterback in 2024. Same goes for Will Grier and Malik Cunningham. While it might be unlikely Mac Jones will be the Patriots starting quarterback next season, it is the only option among the current crop of quarterbacks. As a result, Jones should start out the remainder of 2023.”

Mac Jones started two more games after that article was published. He proved, definitively, in those starts that he will not be the Patriots starting quarterback in 2024 either. Jones played with no confidence, making it impossible for his coaches, teammates, or New England Patriots fans to have confidence in him either. This caused panic, leading to poor decisions. And without a great NFL arm, Jones can’t afford to be indecisive or careless. Doing so leads to costly turnovers, as has been witnessed often this season.

So, Jones is now auditioning to be a backup quarterback. Can he be a good teammate when he’s not the starter? Is he willing to put his ego aside for the benefit of the team? Will he remain a team leader, even while holding a proverbial clipboard?

Every quarterback wants an opportunity to start, especially a former first round pick that experienced some early NFL success. It is normal and healthy for everyone to want to play. But will Mac Jones be a positive or negative on the roster when he knows the starting job belongs to somebody else? This is what the Patriots need to figure out heading into the offseason.

Is Bailey Zappe Good Enough to be an NFL Backup?

While Mac Jones has to show what he can do from the sideline, Bailey Zappe needs to prove what he can do on the field. Can Zappe show enough to keep a place on the Patriots roster? Is he better suited to fill in should something happen to next season’s starting quarterback? That is what he needs to show.

Zappe’s 2023 experience was largely a positive one. He was great coming on in relief during the Packers game, and then starting the next two games. He was far less impressive coming on in relief against the Bears the following week when Jones returned. But for a rookie fifth round pick, his small sample size was impressive. It was enough to get a certain segment of the fanbase wrapped up in Zappe Mania.

But in the offseason, Jones proved to consistently be the superior quarterback, putting an end to any QB controversy in New England early. Even when the Patriots starter struggled at numerous times this season, Zappe failed to capitalize on his opportunities. The offense looked just as awful with him under center.

On Sunday, Zappe was given his first start of the season. The New England Patriots scored zero points. To Zappe’s credit, he stepped up in the pocket and moved around to keep plays alive. He also committed no turnovers, something that Jones has failed to do far too often. But in the end, Bailey Zappe led the Patriots to no points against one of the worst defenses in the entire National Football League.

At this point, Zappe has proven he is not QB1 material in the NFL. Can he play well enough to retain his backup job for the 2024 starter? That remains to be seen.

What About Cunningham and Grier?

The Patriots elevated Malik Cunningham from the practice squad on Sunday, but he did not play a single snap. It is possible there were packages set for Cunningham in certain situations, but those situations never arose. He was signed as a UDFA following the 2023 NFL Draft. According to Bill O’Brien, Cunningham has spent more time working as a wide receiver in practice than as a quarterback. So the idea of the Louisville product being the answer to the Patriots prayers seems unlikely. However, with the way things are going in Foxboro, giving him an opportunity in an NFL game isn’t going to make things worse. It is likely Cunningham will see some more game action before this season is through. It is also likely that he is back with New England in 2024, given the amount of time the Patriots have put into developing him.

Will Grier was recently waived by New England but brought back to the practice squad. Grier is now with his fourth NFL franchise. He turns 29 in April and has appeared in only two NFL games. Given the dire situation with New England’s offense, Grier would likely have been given an opportunity by now if he’d shown almost anything to the staff. Instead, he was waived just five days after taking first-team snaps in practice. At this point, Grier is attempting to do enough to occupy a similar role (emergency depth) in 2024.

Veteran QB Options for the 2024

Still too early to determine who next year’s starting quarterback will be. However, based on the team’s ineptitude, there are a few candidates starting to emerge.

The free agent market does not offer much beyond Kirk Cousins (Vikings). Obtaining the Minnesota QB, who will be coming off a season-ending injury, will be expensive. With the number of holes in the New England roster, it is hard to say if that is money well spent. Other veteran free agent options include Baker Mayfield (Buccaneers), Ryan Tannehill (Titans), and Jimmy Garoppolo (Raiders), none of whom are going to generate much excitement from Patriots fans.

Trade options could include Justin Fields (Bears) and Kyler Murray (Cardinals) depending on what their franchises opt to do in the 2024 NFL Draft. Murray has a massive contract, which should scare the Patriots away. Fields has done little in Chicago to warrant putting faith in him at this point. Another unappealing trade option would be Daniel Jones (Giants).

2024 NFL Draft Options

This leads us to the Patriots plans in the NFL Draft. It is the easiest path to finding a potential franchise quarterback for a franchise desperately in need of one.

In my first mock draft of the year, I had New England selecting North Carolina’s Drake Maye with the third overall pick (they have since moved up to second in the draft order). USC’s Caleb Williams was already off the board in that scenario. There were three other quarterbacks taken Round 1 in that initial mock: Jayden Daniels (LSU), Bo Nix (Oregon), and Michael Penix, Jr. (Washington).

It is possible the Patriots try to trade back in the first round to take one of those options. They could also move up from the second round to do so. Or New England could gamble that one of them falls to 35, however unlikely that may be. If New England opts to go elsewhere with their top pick, and those five are all gone by their second selection, J.J. McCarthy (Michigan) or Quinn Ewers (Texas) could be the starting quarterback for New England next season.

Whoever ultimately becomes the starting quarterback for next year’s squad, it is apparent that player is not currently on the roster. The New England Patriots have a lot of areas that need improvement, but none is as important to the team’s success as quarterback. The starting QB will not be Mac Jones, Bailey Zappe, Malik Cunningham, or Will Grier.  But for five more weeks, all those players will have an opportunity to show what they can do. Whether it is on the field, on the sideline, or in practice, they need to show they are worthy of being kept around as a backup. Next year’s starter is going to need one.

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