If Jarrett Stidham becomes New England’s starting quarterback, as expected, play-action passes will be an important tool for the Patriots, who would also be well served to use his strengths as a deep passer and a runner. Mark Tenally/Associated Press

As the Patriots continue to build toward their most critical training camp since the dawn of the Bill Belichick era, all eyes will rightfully turn to Jarrett Stidham.

How will he play? When will he be named the starter? Can he truly succeed Tom Brady?

In the interim, another question deserves New England’s attention: How does the coaching staff plan to put Stidham in the best position to succeed?

The truth is the way to support one young quarterback is not too different from helping any other.

There are certain principles of modern passing: play-action is most efficient, throws on early downs are more effective, and protection is key. Full-field reads should probably be limited. And when in doubt, lean on your defense and run game.

However, it’s also true quarterbacks deserve to have their systems tailored to them. Brady certainly did.

“Over the last two decades, everything we did, every single decision we made in terms of major planning,” Belichick began last April, “was made with the idea of how to make things best for Tom Brady.”

In Brady, the Patriots had a master of the middle of the field, whose processing before the snap and elite accuracy often kept the offense a step ahead. He had total control.

Over the last 12 months, Stidham has been praised by coaches and teammates alike for his ability to grasp and execute the playbook. Still, he’s far from the passer he’s replacing: a 20-year veteran who three seasons ago proclaimed he had “all the answers to the test.” Stidham is raw, gifted and growing, a player whose physical talents will carry him until he nears Brady’s level mentally.

The Patriots system must change, and it will. Here’s how they can guide Stidham to becoming the best quarterback he can be in 2020.

MORE FIRST-DOWN PASSING

Like other old, rotten beliefs swallowed by the undertow of progress in 2020, establishing the run is an NFL notion that will hopefully fade soon.

Recent research in several corners of the analytics community has shown rushing efficacy is not connected to rushing frequency. Offensive coordinators intent on pounding the rock on first and second down, thinking they’ll wear down a defense, are actually doing their opponents favors, both now and later. As the NFL has become more analytic-friendly, it’s come to accept what it’s been for a long time: a passing league. Belichick said as much in 2018.

Now, Belichick should practice what he preaches to ease Stidham’s transition.

Since 2015, the Patriots have averaged more yards per pass attempt on first down than any other down, according to data from Sports Info Solutions. They’ve also, unsurprisingly, averaged more yards on first-down pass attempts than first-down rushes. This wasn’t because of Brady. Both trends hold true for the league at large.

The idea of protecting Stidham by taking the ball out of his hands would actually hamstring him, forcing him into obvious passing situations while leading an offense that averaged 3.9 yards per rush last year. Trust the kid, let him rip it, and capitalize on defenses that creep toward the box, leaving 1-on-1 matchups on the outside. The time to strike is as soon as possible.

EXTRA PLAY-ACTION

If there’s a method for the Patriots’ pass-happy madness, it should be this: more play-action.

The play fake has never been more popular in the NFL, another analytics-driven change that’s proven powerful enough to morph league-average quarterbacks into Pro Bowlers (see: 2019 Ryan Tannehill and 2018 Jared Goff). When using play-action, the Patriots have passed more effectively every season since at least 2015. Again, this holds true for the rest of the league.

Yet somehow, Tom Brady owned an average play-action rate among starting quarterbacks last year.

A higher rate of play-action in 2020 will allow Stidham to thrive just as he did last preseason: by delivering throws to the vacated middle, where Julian Edelman or N’Keal Harry can gain yards after the catch. According to Pro Football Focus, no quarterback took more play-action dropbacks last preseason than Stidham. That was no accident.

Play fakes create throwing lanes by punishing aggressive linebackers who must crash the line of scrimmage to honor their run responsibilities and then bail to remain accountable to nearby passing threats. These fakes also simplify reads for quarterbacks, who often eye only a single side of the field or route concept once they turn to throw. Basically, for coaching staffs looking to bring a young quarterback along, more play-action kills two objectives with one fake.

STRETCH THE PASSING GAME VERTICALLY

If there’s one area where the Patriots will most obviously split from the Brady era, it may be the deep passing game. Time to ditch the days of dink and dunk.

Dating back to college, most scouting reports on Stidham opened by noting his arm. Not merely its strength, but its look.

He’s a natural thrower of the football. The ball flies out of his hand. His mechanics are perfect.

As often as the scouting eye can lie, there’s more than beauty behind Stidham cocking his right arm and unleashing a high-arching spiral. There’s untapped potential. The kid can sling it where he wants to – especially downfield.

Over his first year at Auburn, when he was surrounded by sufficient talent, Stidham’s accuracy and yards per attempt on intermediate throws ranked higher than eventual first-round picks Lamar Jackson, Sam Darnold and Josh Rosen. It validated what scouts saw. Despite a down year in 2018, Stidham didn’t lose his touch.

Last summer, he ranked as one of the NFL’s most accurate preseason passers on deep throws, per PFF. Were it not for a pair of dropped touchdowns by Maurice Harris (later released) in Week 1, highlights of those August touchdowns would still be circling the internet, as hype for Stidham continues to build. Per the Herald’s play charting, his best preseason throws were delivered to receivers running go, post, seam and over routes.

Not only is Stidham suited for the deep ball, the deep ball is suited for an offense that must take more risks in order to generate explosive plays. None of the Patriots’ skill-position players can be considered down-to-down threats to score. The team must find a way to feed Harry, the best jump-ball option on the outside, as well as free-agent speedster Damiere Byrd and/or athletic dynamo Jeff Thomas, an undrafted rookie wideout.

The best way to do that?

Play to Stidham’s strength, and let him throw it long.

SPICE UP THE RUN GAME

The Patriots’ running game, a mishmash of man and zone-blocking designs, is not known for its diversity. A lack of quarterback involvement keeps outside eyes from marveling at the great variety of schemes Patriots running backs and the offensive line execute week to week. Stidham can change that.

In fact, he should be allowed to.

To be clear, Stidham is not half the runner of a Lamar Jackson or even Kyler Murray. He can, however, be of great use in short yardage, beyond quarterback sneaks. His experience executing various read runs at Auburn, from standard zone-reads to triple option-style concepts, can add a new dimension to the Patriots offense. Excluding sacks, Stidham averaged better than six yards per rush for the Tigers in 2017.

With a little luck, he could get there again in the pros, which would place him among the league’s elite statistically. He’s quick enough to keep defenders honest and fast enough to do damage in the open field. Fronted by one of the NFL’s best offensive lines, it makes too much sense not to let No. 4 loose in Year 1.


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