With less than a week until the most unique draft that has ever taken place due to coronavirus-related alterations to the format, it's nearly time for this year's crop of top prospects to find their new homes. And aside from what happens at No. 1, there has been a lot of speculation on what will happen with the top quarterbacks available in 2020.
Smokescreen season appears to be in full effect regarding Tua Tagovailoa's health, with some predicting it'll be Justin Herbert who is the second player taken at his position. The Dolphins and Chargers appear to be teams primed to take a QB at No. 5 and 6, but the Lions (at No. 3) and Giants (at No. 4) have made it clear they're open for business when it comes to trading down.
One team that doesn't appear positioned to get one of the best QBs in the 2020 NFL Draft is the team that just lost the best QB of all time. But magician Bill Belichick has used the draft to pull rabbits out of his hat in the past, so let's not count the Patriots out from making a bold move if they believe the price is worth it.
I can't tell you whether or not they do in fact have serious interest in one of the draft's top QBs. Indications to this point have been they're ready to move forward with untested Jarrett Stidham at the helm. But I do know that if they do have a target in mind, they will find a way to get in position for the right successor to Tom Brady. And here's how I think it could happen: by following the blueprint the Eagles laid out in 2016 when they put together a pair of trades to get from No. 13 to No. 2 for Carson Wentz.
Step 1: Identify the right veteran trade pieces
The Patriots are famous for a lot of things, and one is parting ways with quality veterans a year too early instead of a year too late. When you take a look at their top five cap hits for 2020, the only one we can say with near certainty won't be traded is cornerback Stephon Gilmore, who is arguably the best corner in the league and who would leave more than $15 million in dead cap space on the books. The four guys behind him? I don't think trading any would be out of character.
Guard Joe Thuney
The Patriots surprisingly hit Thuney, 27, with the franchise tag this offseason, which gave him a $14.871 million cap hit for 2020 that can be cleared completely if he's shipped out the door. There's been trade speculation regarding the talented guard seemingly since the day the tag was applied.
Linebacker Dont'a Hightower
Hightower, 30, doesn't appear to be a trade candidate at first glance, considering the team doesn't have much else at the position in terms of proven talent on which to rely. But at his age and with 2020 the final year of his deal, Hightower can't be ruled out as a potential trade piece for the Patriots. A deal would clear nearly $10 million in cap space.
Receiver Julian Edelman
After Brady landed in Tampa, people immediately started wondering whether the Bucs would go get Edelman, 33, to play the slot in their offense. Like with Hightower, an Edelman trade seems unlikely due to the state of the position group behind him. The Patriots offense already had issues finding dependable weapons last season, so willingly parting with their one reliable receiver would be surprising. An Edelman trade would clear $4.3 million in cap space while leaving behind a $5.3 million dead cap hit.
Tackle Marcus Cannon
Cannon, 31, is closing in on the end of a five-year extension signed back in 2016, but he's still under contract through 2021 at an affordable rate. Of course, that could also make him a more appealing trade chip to other teams than someone with a bigger cap hit on a shorter deal like Thuney. A Cannon deal would clear about $5.9 million in cap space.
Step 2: Find the right trade partner in the top 10
The Eagles shipped Byron Maxwell and Kiko Alonso to the Dolphins in order to get from No. 13 to No. 8 in 2016. That's the avenue that makes the most sense for the Patriots to make their first big move up the board, considering they don't have any other picks in the top 80 beside their first-rounder. And several teams in the top 10 could be interested in the players above. Let's look at the four that sit right behind the Chargers.
Panthers (No. 7)
Carolina would figure to trade back if they're getting extra draft capital rather than expensive veterans to line up with their rebuild, so they're an unlikely trade partner. But Thuney would address a key need after the team traded Trai Turner earlier this offseason, while Hightower would give them a defensive leader in the middle of the defense after losing Luke Kuechly to retirement. Trading their pick for one of those two plus No. 23 is a stretch, but let's not completely rule it out, even though the team doesn't have a lot of cap space to work with.
Cardinals (No. 8)
The Cardinals made a big move to pick up DeAndre Hopkins, and they appear primed to make a run at the playoffs in 2020. Cannon would give them a right tackle for the next two years, and then they could use No. 23 on another impact player. However, Arizona has even less projected cap space than Carolina, so it may be too difficult to make a trade work.
Jaguars (No. 9)
The Jaguars appear to be in rebuild mode, but perhaps they'd move back 14 spots in order to pick up some offensive line help to protect Gardner Minshew. A Hightower trade wouldn't make much sense after giving Joe Schobert a big deal in free agency. The Jags sit in the middle of the league in cap space and could make a Cannon deal work, but Thuney might be too pricey unless they were to sign him to an extension that significantly lowers his 2020 cap hit.
Browns (No. 10)
Cleveland appears to be the best fit of all for a trade up. First, they have the most projected cap space in the league at just over $40 million, per Spotrac. Second, their needs match up with several of the high-priced Patriots players who could be available. Thuney would be an excellent addition to the line, as our John Breech Christian Kirksey this offseason. Even Edelman would be interesting, as he would give the team three proven options at the position. On the Browns side, there has been plenty of buzz they like offensive tackle Ezra Cleveland, and he's someone who will likely be available at No. 23. If their top left tackle target at No. 10 comes off the board, that could be the impetus to make a move down the board in order to land Cleveland to fill the left tackle hole while also adding another key piece.. Hightower would address their biggest need on the defensive side after losing both Schobert and
Step 3: Package draft capital to hop into top five
The Eagles followed up their 2016 trade to No. 8 by swinging a deal to get to No. 2, giving up No. 8, No. 77, No. 100, a 2017 first and a 2018 second for No. 2 and a 2017 fourth. If the Patriots are going to No. 3 or 4 from No. 10, they'd likely have to pay a similar or slightly less price.
The Bengals and Redskins are almost certainly locked into taking Joe Burrow and Chase Young with the first two picks. Sitting at No. 3 is the Lions, a team with plenty of links to the Patriots organization. While it would be tough to pass on someone like Jeff Okudah at No. 3, maybe the Lions have other guys they're interested in who would be a stretch to take at No. 3. At least one of the top two defensive tackles, Derrick Brown or Javon Kinlaw, should be there at No. 10. Cornerback C.J. Henderson is another guy who could be available.
The Lions are also a team with a lot of cap room (nearly $30 million projected), so the possibility is there to combine this with the previous step and maybe add Thuney to a package of picks and go straight from No. 23 to No. 3.
The Giants are another team that has indicated it's willing to move down (though we'll believe it when we see it happen). Moving back to No. 10 and accumulating draft picks could make a lot of sense for the Giants, who are expected to be in the offensive tackle market even though there isn't a clear-cut guy who stands out among the top four at the position.
What would a trade into the top five look like? According to, the Patriots might be able to get there with an offer of No. 10, No. 87 and a 2021 first-round pick. That package is almost exactly equal to the projected value of the No. 3 pick in a standard year.
However, if there's competition to get into the three slot for a quarterback, it's possible the Patriots' offer falls short to one from the Dolphins or Chargers. You can see it took more than that hypothetical offer to pull off the Eagles deal a few years back. Even adding both of their other thirds and next year's second doesn't reach the value of the package the Colts got to move down to No. 6 from No. 3 two years ago, for example.
Will a trade happen?
It's unlikely the Patriots make the pair of moves necessary to get into the top five and get Tua Tagovailoa or Justin Herbert. But the point is that it's not impossible, and considering the Patriots' history of trading veterans earlier than expected, this scenario might even be a bigger possibility than we assume. If it does happen, expect it to look something like trading Thuney plus No. 23 to the Browns for No. 10, and then trading No. 10, No. 87 and a 2021 first-round pick to either the Lions or Giants to hop their division rivals for a franchise quarterback.