FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Quick-hit thoughts and notes around the New England Patriots and NFL:
1. Time to make move? If the Patriots come to the realization Jimmy Garoppolo is their preferred quarterback option, and there is a notable gap between him and Plan B, this would be the time to press the issue.
The Patriots can’t make another team trade with them, but they can at least make the San Francisco 49ers consider it with an enticing offer as the start of the new league year begins March 17, with salary-cap space at a premium.
Niners general manager John Lynch recently told the “Eye Test” podcast, with no hesitation, he believes Garoppolo will be the team’s starting quarterback in September if he’s healthy. But Garoppolo’s health challenges are part of the reason the 49ers have previously considered an upgrade, and that’s why some around the NFL are skeptical of their commitment to him.
How committed would they be if the Patriots, taking more of an aggressive approach, floated something like a second-round pick (No. 46) or even cornerback Stephon Gilmore to get ahead of what could be a challenging contract situation?
Former Patriots assistant to the coaching staff Michael Lombardi, on his “GM Shuffle” podcast, presented a hypothetical: The 49ers acquire Sam Darnold from the New York Jets for a high second-round pick, then deal Garoppolo (in a situation controlled by Garoppolo because of his no-trade clause).
The 49ers, who have about $12 million in cap space, would pick up an additional $18.9 million in the exchange because Darnold would only count $4.7 million on the cap in 2021. They’d also get a solid draft pick from the Patriots.
New England, with more than $66 million in cap space, would get its presumed No. 1 QB choice (inheriting his $24.1 million base salary and $1.4 million in bonuses) and still have about $40.5 million to operate.
And the Jets would likely be drafting a quarterback at No. 2, which might be their preference anyway.
2. Jimmy’s downside: If the Patriots put all their chips on Garoppolo, and the 49ers bite, it would come with notable risk. He has started 52% of possible games in the past three seasons (25 of 48) because of a torn ACL and high ankle sprain. He also has the third-highest interception rate over the past two seasons (including playoffs), despite the third-shortest pass length, according to ESPN Stats & Information. That’s another reason some doubt the 49ers’ commitment to him if they are enticed with a solid offer. It’s also why some wonder if he’s really the best option for New England.
3. QB-win stat: Since 2017, the 49ers are 22-8 (.733) when Garoppolo starts and 7-27 (.206) when anyone else starts over that span. That win-percentage gap (+.527) is larger than the difference between the best (New Orleans Saints) and worst team (Jets/New York Giants) in the NFL since 2017. That’s one of the top cases for San Francisco to keep Garoppolo, and improve the depth chart behind him. When he’s on the field, they usually win.
4. Tag deadline: The window for teams to assign the franchise tag opened Feb. 23 and since then … just one tagged player (Denver Broncos safety Justin Simmons). This sets up a notable couple days if the Patriots are thinking big to fill their needs at wide receiver and tight end, with the tag window closing Tuesday at 4 p.m. ET. If wide receivers Allen Robinson II, Kenny Golladay and Chris Godwin, and tight ends Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith aren’t tagged, it’s an open bidding situation. If Patriots coach Bill Belichick peeked into his hypothetical suggestion box, I’d submit one word: Pounce.
5. Why ARob: Robinson is the type of free-agent target who fits into the profile of others the Patriots have paid at the top of the market under Belichick, a group in which Gilmore was the most recent addition (2017). Robinson is a blue-chip player in his prime years. He accounted for 32% of the Bears’ receiving yards the past two seasons, the highest mark of any player to play in both seasons, ahead of Arizona’s DeAndre Hopkins (31%) and Buffalo’s Stefon Diggs (31%). And he did it with Mitchell Trubisky and Nick Foles as quarterbacks. Robinson, who could command $20 million per season if not tagged, would immediately transform any wide receiver corps.
6. JMac’s in: Veteran defensive back Jason McCourty is among a handful of Patriots who have been working out at Gillette Stadium in recent weeks. McCourty, 33, has spent the past three seasons in New England and was asked late in the 2020 season if he was thinking about retirement. That isn’t part of the plan. I’m told McCourty, who is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent, is planning to play in 2021.
7. Belichick and OT: This is the time when teams propose rule changes to the NFL’s competition committee, and the Ravens’ suggestions to change overtime serves up a reminder of where Belichick stands: He endorses a fixed period of time with no sudden death. In one of his most informative interviews on the topic, on sports radio WEEI in 2012, Belichick once said, “I think the best part of the football game is the end of the game — whether you take your timeouts, how you manage the game, the last two minutes, getting the ball back, trying to keep the ball away from the other team, whatever it is. I think that combines all the elements of football.”
8. Retired numbers: The Arizona Cardinals‘ un-retiring No. 99 for defensive end J.J. Watt makes you wonder if more teams will consider something similar — in part because as rosters have expanded over the years, the inventory of available numbers is shrinking and a Pro Football Hall of Fame/Ring of Honor distinction could be seen as equal to a retired number. The Patriots’ retired numbers are 20 (Gino Cappelletti), 40 (Mike Haynes), 57 (Steve Nelson), 73 (John Hannah), 78 (Bruce Armstrong), 79 (Jim Lee Hunt) and 89 (Bob Dee). Hall of Famer Andre Tippett’s 56 is out of circulation but not officially retired. Also, it’s hard to imagine anyone will ever wear No. 12 in New England again.
9. Draft nugget: Stanford’s Davis Mills (6-foot-4, 225 pounds), who falls into the second tier of QB prospects in the 2021 NFL draft with ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. projecting him as a mid-round pick, has 11 career starts. “He’s a guy who not enough people have talked about this year. He may be the sixth or seventh quarterback taken,” Kiper said on the “First Draft” podcast. Mills’ lack of game experience has drawn comparisons to Trubisky, who went No. 2 overall in 2017 after only starting 13 games in college.
10. Did You Know: Belichick has drafted 10 of coach Nick Saban’s players, most of any NFL coach, per research from Paul Hembekides of ESPN’s “Get Up.” Belichick hasn’t drafted more than five players from any other college coach.