Jim Nagy still can’t believe Jarrett Stidham was a fourth-round NFL draft pick in 2019.
The Senior Bowl director understood the questions about Stidham, the Auburn quarterback who failed to build on an impressive 2017 season. But coming off a rousing bowl win over Purdue in which he completed 15 of 21 passes for 373 yards and five TDs, and a strong week at the Senior Bowl, Stidham still fell to Day 3 of the draft.
Even New England reasonably had doubts. Stidham was selected 133rd overall, the seventh QB drafted in 2019. When the Patriots made the pick, it was the 10th time they were on the clock that draft, three trades down included.
“For a quarterback with as much ability as Jarrett had to go that late, it’s still just a head-scratcher,” Nagy said.
Now Stidham is on the cusp of a life-changing opportunity with the Patriots: the chance to replace Tom Brady, one of best ever to do it in league annals. With only journeyman Brian Hoyer standing in his way, Stidham could become only the fourth starting quarterback to take the majority of the Patriots’ snaps in a season during Bill Belichick’s 20-plus years in New England.
So what exactly do the Patriots have in the soon-to-be 24-year-old passer with four career regular-season pass attempts?
To arrive at that answer, we must revisit his up-and-down college career, one that offered promise and also showed why he wasn’t universally beloved as an NFL prospect.
Stidham’s mixed college career
Stidham had a strange college experience. He was a top-100 Rivals recruit in the class of 2015, first committing to Kliff Kingsbury at Texas Tech before ending up at Baylor. As a true freshman, Stidham won the backup job behind Seth Russell and was strong (24-of-28 passing, 331 yards and six touchdowns, plus one rushing score) in seven relief appearances.
When Russell went down with a neck injury that season, Stidham was thrown into the fire as a 19-year-old. He faced three fairly tough opponents and hung tough despite taking a beating. Stidham completed 51 of 81 passes for 934 yards, six TDs and two INTs in three starts against Kansas State, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State, also rushing for another TD.
But Stidham injured his back against the Sooners, and suffered hand and ankle injuries against OSU, being knocked out of that game and eventually shut down for the season. In the wake of Art Briles’ ouster from Baylor amid a sexual assault scandal at the program, Stidham eventually landed at Auburn.
After sitting out in 2016, Stidham won the Tigers’ starting QB job in 2017 over incumbent Sean White. There were rough patches, including a 10-sack, 79-pass-yard performance vs. Clemson. But Stidham earned SEC Newcomer of the Year and was named second-team all-SEC with a strong season — completing 66.5 percent of his passes for 3,158 yards, 18 TDs and six INTs, plus four rushing scores.
The Tigers finished 10-4 and No. 10 in the final AP poll. In regular-season victories over national title combatants Georgia and Alabama, Stidham completed 37 of 51 passes (72.5 percent) for 451 yards, three TDs and no picks, also running for two more scores.
The 2018 season wasn’t the breakout year many expected. He was solid in the opening victory over No. 6 Washington, but struggled in Auburn’s five losses, completing 100 of 177 passes (56.5 percent) for 1,024 yards with four TDs and all five of his picks in those games.
In Auburn’s eight victories, Stidham completed 64.6 percent of his passes for 1,770 yards and a 14-0 TD-INT ratio, adding three rushing scores. The banner bowl game vaulted Stidham into a strong pre-draft process.
What the Patriots likely saw in Stidham
An NFC scouting director told Yahoo Sports that Stidham was a solid prospect with starter potential. But there were enough hangups for their team to have doubts.
“You had enough questions ... to wonder what his upside would be,” the director said. “Similar to [2020 prospect] Jordan Love, it’s problematic when a guy takes a step back his last year. Even with the bowl game, there just wasn’t enough consistency. Against pressure, being decisive with reads, hitting [receivers] in stride ... [His] footwork was also a bit of a mess.”
But the director added: “The offense was in disarray. He had young receivers, a bad offensive line ... a scheme that didn’t play to his strengths. It made no sense until [head coach Gus Malzahn] fixed it late. [Stidham’s arm talent was] pretty good, and he could throw on the move. He also went to the Senior Bowl and did well.”
Stidham worked with Kyle Shanahan and the San Francisco 49ers’ coaching staff at the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Alabama, and got better with each practice. Capping his week with a sizzling red-zone session and some nice throws in third-down work, Stidham mostly stood tall.
“I was expecting him to show really well,” Nagy said. “Really, I knew he would show well.”
When the Patriots drafted Stidham, he became their fourth QB selection in a six-year span, following Jimmy Garoppolo (second round, 2014), Jacoby Brissett (third round, 2016) and Danny Etling (seventh round, 2018). Nagy says Stidham has a chance to be as good as any of them.
It’s fair to assume that the Patriots graded his arm talent, plus a few other strengths, positively.
How Stidham’s pre-draft scouting report reflects in his NFL projection
If Stidham beats Hoyer for the starting job, he faces a fairly daunting Patriots schedule. It features showdowns with Russell Wilson and Patrick Mahomes prior to the Week 6 bye.
Stidham could face off against a first-round QB in New England’s final 11 regular-season games and possibly face QBs who were drafted higher than he was in all but one game — Week 1 vs. Miami (Ryan Fitzpatrick, assuming he wins the job).
The way Stidham can prove that he should have been drafted earlier is by doing some of the things he did well at Auburn.
It would not be stunning to see New England’s offense start fairly conservatively, playing to its assumed strengths (a good offensive line and run game). Coordinator Josh McDaniels has shown he can adapt well to who is under center, adjusting his play-calling in recent years when Garoppolo and Brissett earned starts.
Stidham’s throwing mechanics have been roundly praised. Shanahan said the toughest thing to teach a young quarterback is a significantly altered throwing motion.
Said Shanahan: “If a guy throws a certain way and you think, ‘We’re going to teach him at 23 to throw it differently,’ he might do it in practice and might do it in drills, but you throw him into an NFL game in the heat of a battle and he’s going to resort to who he is and what he’s always done.
“If they’re not one of the 32 best throwers on the planet, they better be extremely fast, they better be able to run, they better be extremely something, because [throwing] is something you really can't teach.”
Stidham has the potential to be one of the 32 best throwers on the planet. What he showed in college was a clean, over-the-top delivery with a fairly quick release and consistent, catchable passes.
Brady threw consistently catchable balls for two decades. Garoppolo did the same in limited relief of Brady. Even Matt Cassel, a 15-game starter in place of an injured Brady, turned in a career-best completion percentage his one year starting in New England.
Stidham has some of what can’t be taught ...
When we asked the same question about things that can’t be taught to quarterbacks, Baltimore Ravens general manager Eric DeCosta told us a year ago: “They’ve got to have the right mentality. They’ve got to have an insatiable desire to work and to be the best worker in the building.
“I think competitiveness is key with that position, more than any other position.”
It’s what DeCosta and the Ravens saw in Lamar Jackson. And Nagy says Stidham has the work ethic, intelligence and competitiveness to thrive.
“This gets lost sometimes, but he’s a really bright guy,” Nagy said. “And two, he’s a gym rat. He was around the building all the time in college. He did the same last year in New England, according to people I talked to.
“He picked up [Shanahan’s Senior Bowl playbook] quickly. … I think he’s going to be very ready from a mental and a competitiveness standpoint.”
A college scouting director who spoke to Yahoo Sports mostly agrees. He pointed to Stidham having to overcome injuries at Baylor and his transfer thereafter. He mentioned the SEC title-game loss and bowl-game loss to UCF in 2017 after beating Bama and Georgia, as well as the disappointing 2018 season.
The director also mentioned that Stidham has faced what he has often publicly branded as “personal problems” with his family, a subject the QB seldom opens up about.
“I like players who have faced adversity and overcome it, those extra layers of skin built up,” he said. “It shows me how they handle the toughest things thrown at them.
“His best game [outside of the bowl game in 2018] was the Texas A&M game, which I just happened to be at,” the director said. “Missed a few throws early but rallied them back from down 10 late. Two big-boy drives to win it. [Stidham] made some great throws along the sideline that game. Showed me some grit there.”
… and Stidham can be taught what he lacks
One year ago, Cincinnati Bengals director of player personnel Duke Tobin also took a crack at what traits a quarterback has to have to be successful.
“I would say accuracy is maybe the No.1 trait in any quarterback — accuracy, anticipation and field vision,” Tobin said. “Those things are hard to learn. I can’t say that they can’t be improved, because there’s been a lot of great quarterbacks that have improved their accuracy over time, but it’s hard. That’s something that's almost built in.”
This is an area where Stidham didn’t always thrive.
There were examples of him throwing with good timing, rhythm and anticipation, especially against Alabama, Ole Miss and Missouri in 2017 and versus Washington, Texas A&M and Purdue in 2018. A low INT percentage for his career (1.5) also reflects well for Stidham’s decision making.
But there were concerns about Stidham facing pressure and holding onto the ball too long. He ranked 60th out of 78 quarterbacks with 350-plus dropbacks, per Pro Football Focus, in terms of time to throw at 2.63 seconds in 2018. (Ideally, that number should be under 2.5 seconds.) In 2017, his number was actually worse at 2.64 seconds, ranking 55th out of 65 qualifying passers.
Stidham also struggled more vs. pressure (76-of-182 passing, 41.7 percent, 1,185 yards, 6.5-yard average, 5-5 TD-INT ratio in 2017 and 2018 combined) vs. non-pressure situations (372-of-560, 66.4 percent, 4,470 yards, 7.98-yard average, 32-6 TD-INT ratio).
“The rush bothered him,” the director said. “His feet got bad, the eyes [dropped], he became less confident. Gotta speed up that clock because timing is everything in that offense.
“It’s something that can be coached out of him, and a good scheme will protect him from some of that.”
Brady once was accused of holding the ball too long. He proved it’s an area a QB can improve readily.
How much of that was accomplished last year while Stidham backed up Brady is tough to know. But the message Bill Belichick sent while bypassing other more alluring QB options in the draft and free agency this offseason suggests the coach believes Stidham has come a long way since his up-and-down college days.
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