Jarrett Stidham is in a fascinating, epic conundrum.
He's in line to be the starting quarterback for the six-time champion New England Patriots with Bill Belichick as his head coach. Unreal situation for a former fourth-round pick, right?
But, yeah, he's following arguably the greatest quarterback in the history of the game of football in Tom Brady. Unenviable situation. Giddy up.
Now, with the fate of the Patriots firmly in his hands, let's explore everything about his environment in New England and what Stidham needs to do to take the next step as a quarterback.
Previous installments in this young QB outlook project:, , ,
How I viewed Stidham as a prospect
Stidham had serious first-round buzz entering his final season at Auburn in 2018, a campaign that ultimately fizzled fast. I had the reins of QB Stock Watch during that college football season, and I typically ranked the top five or six quarterback prospects in the country each week. Stidham's last appearance in that article was September 17, after a brutal performance against LSU.
I compared Stidham to Blake Bortles in my notes, writing this:
Stidham and Bortles have similar, somewhat three-quarter deliveries and can really drive the ball after they see a receiver come open. Under pressure Stidham can be extremely panicky, like Bortles. Bad decisions and off-target throws are relatively common in those situations. However, Stidham's a good athlete and can create outside the pocket very well.
In Gus Malzahn's option-based, screen and play-action heavy offense, Stidham only completed 60.7% of his throws in 2018 with 18 touchdowns, five interceptions and a rather paltry 7.6 yards-per-attempt average. Stat-wise, the last year at Auburn was a far cry from what he accomplished in his debut season with the Tigers, when he connected on nearly 66% of his passes at 8.5 yards per attempt.
But for as much as the deterioration of his offensive line and receiver group was the culprit in his efficiency dip, the issues Stidham displayed in 2017 -- poise in the pocket at the sign of pressure and wayward tosses on easy throws -- were unimpressive in each of his seasons in the SEC.
In my pre-draft breakdown of the, I wrote this about Stidham, my QB11, in the "Developmental/Third-Stringer" category:
Once the recipient of first-round buzz, Stidham fell off across the board in 2018. He's not very poised inside the pocket, and for every dime he drops down the field, there are two or three bad misfires on what should be easy completions. Stidham does have an NFL arm, and he can make good throws from many arm platforms. He needs to get faster through his reads.
Over the past few years, the Patriots have made it work through the air with Julian Edelman, a wide array of lesser-known wideouts, and a fun collection of stellar pass-catching backs in Tom Brady's offense.
Edelman and James White remain in New England after Brady's departure -- they'll be key security blankets for Stidham. Beyond those two, it's not pretty skill-position talent-wise. Last year's first-round pick N'Keal Harry flashed down the stretch but altogether had a disappointing rookie campaign. Mohamed Sanu averaged three catches and 26 yards per game after getting traded to the Patriots at the deadline. He turns 31 in August. After him, there's a plethora of uncertainty.
Beyond White in the backfield -- who I almost deem a receiver at this point -- there are plenty of horses including Sony Michel, Rex Burkhead, 2019 third-rounder Damien Harris and one undrafted scatback to watch, J.J. Taylor from Arizona.
Up front, the Patriots return one of the better blocking units in football, which should bode well for Stidham and his tendency to crumble under pressure. At the end of the 2019 season, Pro Football Focus ranked New England's line as the 10th-best in football, and former first-round pick Isaiah Wynn, who starred in his eight contests last season, is set to start Week 1.
In the draft, Belichick picked back-to-back tight ends in Round 3, UCLA's Devin Asiasi and Virginia Tech's Dalton Keene. Asiasi flashed serious YAC ability for the tight-end position, although he tested as an average athlete at the combine. Keene, too, is slippery with the ball in his hands and is a high-end athlete.
Stidham will be in Josh McDaniels' Erhardt-Perkins that typically utilizes shorter terminology to call plays that can be run from a variety of formations. Option routes are a staple of McDaniels' offense, making it vital for his quarterback and receivers to be on the same page essentially at all times.
McDaniels uses concepts from a variety of offenses and has proven to be able to mold his offensive identity to the strength of his team during a given time period or the weaknesses of an opponent in each week.
Improving his weaknesses
According to Sports Info Solutions, Stidham's pressure rate was just below 30% in both of his final two years at Auburn, so while it may have seemed like he was running for his life more frequently in 2018 than he did the previous season, that wasn't truly the case.
And his play under duress is likely going to make or break him in 2020 with the Patriots. In his better year with the Tigers -- 2017 -- Stidham was on target on 49.5% of his under-pressure throws at 6.4 yards per attempt with three touchdowns, four interceptions, and nine sacks on 110 drop backs. His numbers against pressure were eerily similar in 2018.
Defenses are going to blitz him, in exotic ways, in hopes of confusing him. And for the past 20 years, blitzing the Patriots has typically led to a Brady-led dissection of a secondary.
Stidham simply needs to handle blitz packages thrown his way and work less frantically and more efficiently than he did in college.
Strengthening his strengths
Stidham has a strong arm and is a good, natural albeit unspectacular athlete, meaning he's unlikely to evade high-caliber rushers outside the pocket but can effortlessly throw downfield from a variety of platforms and arm angles if necessary on the run.
And his arm talent led to terrific work down the field at Auburn. Per PFF, Stidham had the fifth-highest passer rating (123.3) in last year's draft class on throws 20-plus yards down the field in 2018.
The season before that, he was on target on 50% of his long ball attempts with seven touchdowns to just two interceptions, according to SIS.
Brady has always been a methodical, quick release, surgically accurate passer underneath and at the intermediate level. That's where the Patriots lived for the vast majority of his Hall of Fame stay in New England. But with the Stidham, McDaniels will likely dial up more shot plays in 2020, and building on the young passer's accuracy downfield would provide the Patriots a new offensive dynamic.
It's rare to see a quarterback drastically improve his pocket presence, processing speed, and accuracy under pressure, which represents the main justification for my concern with Stidham as New England's starter. The soon-to-be 24-year-old passer has two important assets on his side though -- McDaniels, a bright offensive coordinator who should play to his strengths and a sturdy offensive line.
Even with perennial turnstile Marshall Newhouse on the line for half the season in 2019, Brady was pressured on just 29.3% of his snap, per SIS. Anything under 30% is darn good in the NFL.
Edelman and White will likely be leaned on often and are likely to continue as dangerous underneath, YAC options in McDaniels' system. It'll be interesting too to see if Harry can be utilized more under Stidham than he was with Brady. Don't be surprised if the former gives Harry more opportunities in contested-catch situations, where the former Arizona State star shines.
And fortunately for Stidham, it looks like the Patriots are going to be a run-heavy, defense-oriented team. After more than 15 years with the quarterback as the unequivocal focal point of the team, New England probably won't lean on that position to take over, a philosophy that bodes well for any young passer as he's learning his way.
I think there'll be plenty of hiccups for Stidham in Year 2, some flashes, but plenty of room for improvement as he enters Year 3, and it wouldn't surprise me if the Patriots decide to go in a different direction at quarterback in 2021.