The Patriots turned the page at quarterback from Tom Brady in 2020, ulltimately going with Cam Newton late in free agency as the best fit for this season, instead of rookie draft pick or second-year option Jarrett Stidham.
But what if they had already landed Lamar Jackson as their worthy Brady successor in the 2018 NFL Draft? Their near future — and the entire landscape of the AFC — would be a lot different.
With the No. 31 overall pick two years ago, the Patriots went with running back Sony Michel out of Georgia. One selection later, at No. 32, the Ravens traded up into the last pick of the first round to take Jackson out of Louisville.
Since then, New England has won another Super Bowl and two more AFC East titles. Baltimore, by replacing Joe Flacco with Jackson halfway through the latter’s rookie season, has won two AFC North titles. Jackson ran away with NFL MVP in his second season as a starter, leading the Ravens to the conference’s top seed at 14-2. The teams met the same fate after the 2019 season — losing to the upstart Titans at home in the playoffs.
How would have things changed for the past two seasons and going forward had Jackson become a Patriot, instead? Let’s look at the “what if” ripple effects.
Lamar Jackson would not have started a game in the NFL until 2020
The Patriots used a second-round pick on Jimmy Garoppolo behind Brady in 2014. He got limited live action until he needed to start the first two games of 2016 with Brady serving the Deflategate suspension. They used a third-round pick on Jacoby Brissett, who played as a rookie in 2016 only because Garoppolo got hurt while Brady wasn’t available.
Jackson may have seen some mop-up duty in blowouts had he been in New England since 2018, but to give him a chance to absorb the offense behind Brady and get fully developed in Josh McDaniels’ complex system, the Patriots would have waited to unleash Jackson as a dynamic dual threat in 2020. Jackson still is only 23, a little younger than Stidham.
With Jackson as a late first-rounder in 2018, Stidham wouldn’t have been drafted by New England in 2019. The Patriots also drafted a QB late in 2018, Danny Etling, who flashed as an explosive runner in his rookie preseason but failed to make a successful transition to wide receiver before getting cut in the middle of last year’s training camp.
The buzz on Jackson would be just beginning, as the Patriots no doubt would have catered to his skill set the way the Ravens have. The Patriots also are known for being adaptable with their system. Belichick would have loved the challenge of winning with a completely different style of QB for the modern game, something he could embrace with Jalen Hurts two years later in the 2020 NFL Draft. Choosing Newton now was a hint they could have made it work with Jackson then.
Many teams would not be willing or able to make the best use of Jackson’s rare talent. File New England right with Baltimore with capacity of turning into him into a top-flight, all-around QB.
Last season, Jackson was the NFL’s first unanimous MVP since Brady in 2010. He also was the Ravens’ first NFL MVP. Without Jackson in action, it’s a good bet either Super Bowl MVP Patrick Mahomes would have been the first repeat winner since Peyton Manning in 2004, or Russell Wilson would have won his long overdue first MVP.
The Brady-Mahomes rivalry was short-lived in the AFC. Jackson vs. Mahomes would still be the one to watch, only with the twist of keeping Patriots vs. Chiefs as the premiere conference matchup.
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The Patriots would have drafted a different running back in 2018.
Instead of Jackson, New England surprised in a different direction by landing the committee back. Michel was the third running back off the board after Saquan Barkley (No. 2 to the Giants) and Rashaad Penny (No. 27 to the Seahawks).
Michel’s college teammate, Nick Chubb, was a better backfield pick by the Browns four spots later at No. 35. After the Patriots picked cornerback Duke Dawson at No. 56 overall, Derrius Guice (Redskins) and Royce Freeman (Broncos) went within the next 15 picks.
The Patriots did visit with Guice pre-draft, so he most likely would have been the choice with Jackson being taken instead of Michel. Unfortunately for Guice, the still-promising back out of LSU, he tore his ACL while making his preseason debut — against the Patriots. Otherwise, a good selection for the Patriots would have been Justin Jackson (Chargers), a seventh-rounder they could have had instead of Etling at No. 219.
Michel has been a good power back for New England when healthy. He is the team’s leading rusher since 2018 with a combined 1,843 yards rushing and 13 TDs. With Guice’s injury issues, he would have been a frustrating pick.
The Ravens would have flopped by drafting another quarterback in 2018.
Said Ravens coach John Harbaugh a few months before the 2018 NFL Draft: “Certain positions are going to be more important than others, but when you have a veteran quarterback at this stage, that is the time you are always looking for a young backup. If we draft a quarterback, if it turns out to be the thing we do, it is only going to make our team stronger.”
Harbaugh said that while making it clear he still believed Flacco could give the Ravens another good season as “their guy.” Jackson wasn’t expected to be used more than as a running QB in certain offensive sets, but once Flacco suffered a hip injury in Week 9, Jackson never gave the starting job back.
Had the Patriots taken Jackson at No. 31, the Ravens would not have traded up from No. 52 with the Eagles to get him. With the QB well rather dry, with Baker Mayfield, Sam Darnold, Josh Allen, Josh Rosen and Jackson all long gone, Baltimore’s best option in the second round would have been Mason Rudolph, who would been have been a reach given he went to the rival Steelers at No. 76 in third round. The Ravens also would have considered Kyle Lauletta, who went to nearby Richmond and whom the Giants took at No. 108 in the fourth round.
Rudolph proved to be overwhelmed as a fill-in starter for an injured Ben Roethlisberger in 2019, while Lauletta had off-field trouble as a rookie and was an easy cut in 2019 after Daniel Jones was drafted as Eli Manning’s true successor. Whether the Ravens would have had to play out the string with Flacco or turn to a middling young option, their offensive results would be drastically different — to the point of not being a playoff team for the past two years.
Or, the Ravens would have waited and drafted Flacco’s real replacement in 2019.
With Jackson established as the starter, the Ravens’ 2019 offseason was all about tailoring their offense to what he could do as a passer and runner. They used their first-round pick, No. 25 overall, on wide receiver Marquise Brown.
With no Jackson to relieve Flacco and revive the team from a 4-5 start in 2018, the Ravens might have picked high enough to consider Potomac, Md., native Dwayne Haskins, who went instead on the other side of the Beltway to the Redskins at No. 15 overall. Had they stayed in the late first round, the Ravens might have taken a shot at Drew Lock, who went No. 42 to the Broncos and is now that team’s second-year starter.
It’s hard to know what Haskins or Lock would have done in Baltimore, but you can bet they wouldn’t have been as ready to produce and lead like Jackson, who came into the NFL with a much higher pedigree as the Heisman Trophy winner and with more of an “it” factor.
Tom Brady could have signed with the Ravens in 2020.
Had the Ravens forced a QB pick of Rudolph or Lauletta in 2018, they could have been gunshy about forcing a higher pick on a QB in 2019 with Kyler Murray and Jones off the board. There’s a fair chance they would have gone the bridge QB route to transition from Flacco, being disappointed in those results, too.
The Ravens were on the radar for Brady in 2000, the year they ended up winning the Super Bowl with Tony Banks and Trent Dilfer toggling at QB to complement an elite defense. Two decades later, had they been struggling at the game’s most important position despite a strong roster elsewhere, they would have had major appeal for Brady, with Harbaugh and a winning, well-run franchise being the draw.
In the end, the Patriots got two more years out of a healthy Brady, and the Ravens made the right call to aggressively go after Jackson. It’s weird to think they could be starting a whole new AFC QB rivalry in 2020.
Jackson will be the face of the Ravens’ franchise for a long time. The pressure is now on the Patriots to replace their long-time starter in a perfect new way.
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