Bailey Zappe sparks New England and should stay in the starting QB role. Plus, how the top five picks in the 2024 NFL draft could play out, Saturday’s Heisman ceremony and much more in Albert Breer’s Friday news and notes.
Week 14 is here. Here’s what we’ve got …
• So what are we supposed to make of Bailey Zappe helping drive the Patriots to a 21–18 win over the Steelers on Thursday night in Pittsburgh?
The main thing I could ascertain from people close to the team in the immediate aftermath was this—a spark. Everyone I talked to affirmed that, yes, there was an energy, an urgency and a rhythm to the way the offense played Thursday, and there even were spots Sunday against the Chargers where the offense looked good in ways it didn’t under Mac Jones.
The logical conclusion: Jones’s 2023 is effectively over.
The coaches could more easily sell Zappe to the other players in the locker room mostly because of how he practiced. As Jones’s in-game gaffes mounted, the same sorts of missteps would routinely show up in practice, to the point where defensive teammates would call them out.
Things changed, if subtly, last week, when Jones was demoted and moved to the scout team (playing the role of Justin Herbert) in the days leading up to the game against the Chargers. Now, Zappe wasn’t overly impressive. In fact, one coach called his performance “decent.” But what he did do that Jones didn’t was run the offense as designed, which put his teammates in a better spot to make plays. Meanwhile, Jones’s issues carried over to his scout-team work.
So if you’re Bill Belichick, it’d be really hard to sell Jones as the team’s quarterback. Which is why, as long as Zappe stays competent, it’ll probably be his show for the team’s final four games.
And that raises the bigger-picture question of whether we’ve seen the last of Jones as a Patriot. He’s due $2.8 million fully guaranteed in 2024, with offsets in the deal, and a $2.2 dead-cap charge waiting if they move on from him, which means moving on wouldn’t exactly be a huge problem for whomever is making that call for New England.
That last part, of course, will be a factor. It’s getting tougher to see Belichick or even Jerod Mayo bringing Jones back for another run, given all the history here. But if someone new comes in with designs on reviving the first-round pick, such as Mike McDaniel did with Jones’s ex-teammate Tua Tagovailoa, maybe he could be salvaged as a Patriot—an idea that, as Thursday unfolded, seemed to become less and less realistic.
• The Patriots’ win also brought into focus the tight quarters near the bottom of the NFL standings. New England is stuck at the second spot, but now its record matches Arizona’s with five four-win teams behind them.
So in the spirit of that, and with a bunch of conversations with scouting types already in the bank, here’s a way-too-early look at how the top five picks could go, with the college season now in its postseason stage …
- Bears (via Panthers): Caleb Williams, QB, USC
- Patriots: Drake Maye, QB, North Carolina
- Cardinals: Marvin Harrison Jr., WR, Ohio State
- Commanders: Joe Alt, OT, Notre Dame
- Bears: Dallas Turner, OLB, Alabama
And I’ll leave you with a couple of thoughts on top of this. One, you shouldn’t sleep on LSU’s Jayden Daniels eventually climbing into this territory, and he may even give Maye a fight to be the second quarterback selected. Two, I’d have had Penn State’s Olu Fashanu in Alt’s spot even a couple of days ago. The shift is indicative of how strong the top of the tackle board will be, with those two, Alabama’s JC Latham and Georgia’s Amarius Mims in the mix.
• The Steelers outlasted the Bengals on Thanksgiving weekend, and that 16–10 win seemed to set the team up for the remainder of the season. At 7–4, they had two of the three worst teams in the league—Arizona and New England—on deck, both at home, over a five-day stretch, putting 9–4 in sight.
Instead, they’re 7–6, and it looks worse than it even sounds.
Pittsburgh has trips to Indianapolis and Seattle, and home games against the Bengals and Ravens, remaining, with Kenny Pickett having undergone tightrope surgery for his high ankle sprain—a procedure that quickens a player’s recovery timetable but still takes about a month to come back from.
So, suddenly, it looks like Mike Tomlin’s .500-or-better streak, which is at 16 years, is in jeopardy, and a lot more could be on the line for the Steelers. The direction of the offense is one question to be answered for 2024, with interim co-coordinators at work. The long-term viability of Pickett at quarterback is another and will be further in focus if the team’s draft position rises in the coming weeks. Which is to say that this is either a playoff team in a weakened AFC, or the remainder of the season will bring bigger-picture questions.
• The anecdote from Tyler Dunne’s deep dive into Sean McDermott’s seven-year tenure as Bills coach was, indeed, a terrible look, both for McDermott personally and the team. And that, to his credit, was affirmed by the coach himself in how quickly he responded to a terrible moment.
What does it mean going forward?
There are just 15 players left from the 2019 team that was there for McDermott’s words, and three of them are on injured reserve. That group of guys will either be engaged and locked in for Sunday’s critical game in Kansas City or they won’t. They’ll either make it into the playoffs for a fifth consecutive year or they won’t. And the hard truth is that’ll determine how everyone will look at all of this a month from now.
• This weekend’s Heisman ceremony illustrates the changing face of what NFL teams are getting in star college players.
Harrison’s route to the league is a conventional one. He flashed as a freshman, starred as a sophomore, dominated as a junior and now will (I’m presuming he will declare) climb on the stage at the draft to take his steps to the next level.
The other three guys, who will share the spotlight with Harrison on Saturday night in New York, took paths that are decidedly more new-age. All three quarterbacks—Daniels, Oregon’s Bo Nix and Washington’s Michael Penix Jr.—started multiple years at schools before transferring, then starting multiple years at another school. And for NFL teams that should help in assessing each one.
Scouts have had the chance to see each of those guys in different offenses, and different conferences, with different teammates. Also, they’ve all played a lot. Nix has 60 college starts, Daniels has 55 and Penix has 43, experience that (as Brock Purdy has shown) is usually a good indicator of a quarterback’s readiness to adapt quickly to the pro game.
So for all the saber-rattling over the damage the transfer portal has done to the sport, these guys are good examples of where it’s been good for both college football and the NFL.
• Saw ESPN’s story this week on the record-chasing the Dolphins’ offense will be doing in the coming weeks, and one particular statistic caught my eye—their 428.4 yard-per-game pace gives them a chance to catch the 2011 Saints’ record of 7,474 yards in a season.
But what’s really amazing is that Miami’s pace right now is about 200 yards short, and those Saints reached that mark in just 16 games. New Orleans was piloted by Drew Brees, who had Marques Colston, Jimmy Graham and Darren Sproles. Brees threw for a then record 5,476 yards, and Colston, Graham and Sproles were all well over 1,000 yards from scrimmage (and Pierre Thomas had 987).
It's mind-blowing, especially when you consider how sustainable the whole thing was—the Saints ranked top 10 in total offense in each of Brees’s first 14 seasons in New Orleans, top five in 11 of them and first six times. And it certainly makes you wonder how we’d remember those teams now if they’d won more than one championship.
• Bryce Young’s progress is worth watching the rest of the season. His passer rating has been under 80 the past five weeks and under 70 in four of those five games. To give you perspective, a passer rating of 80 would place you 29th among qualifying quarterbacks, between Joshua Dobbs and Jimmy Garoppolo. Zappe has a 70.0 rating, and that puts him 44th on the list, just ahead of Tim Boyle.
One thing that has been raised to me on Young’s development is that there simply have been too many cooks in the Panthers’ offensive kitchen this year, with so many assistants coming from so many different backgrounds. It’s one big reason why Josh McCown and Duce Staley were fired just after Frank Reich. We’ll see if the streamlining of the scheme helps Young more this week than it did last week against Atlanta.
• And we’ll finish with one more note on the Panthers, to simply send our best to Hayden Hurst. That’s a scary situation. Here’s hoping everyone handles it with care.