New England Patriots' QB question: Who will replace Tom Brady?

Bill Belichick has been thinking about this moment for years, the moment he would continue on as New England Patriots coach without Tom Brady by his side.

The surprise is that Belichick's next move isn't more obvious.

No one can accuse Belichick of pretending this day would never come. Starting in 2008 with Kevin O'Connell, the Patriots selected four quarterbacks (O'Connell, Ryan Mallett, Jimmy Garoppolo and Jacoby Brissett) in the first three rounds of the draft, more than nearly any team in football and far more than any team with an all-time great quarterback in place. The Patriots selected Jarrett Stidham in the fourth round last year, and his presence helps explain why Belichick is so comfortable using his go-to move this March: slow-playing the market.

The Patriots appear to be in no hurry to find Brady's successor because he may already be in-house, and they know there will be starting options available for backup prices. Cam Newton, Andy Dalton and Jameis Winston are three men without a country. Jacoby Brissett is the highest-paid backup in football. The Patriots have less experience at quarterback than any team in football, but they also don't have much competition for the remaining options. The Chargers are committed to Tyrod Taylor (and presumably a rookie), according to NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport. The Dolphins are expected to seek out a rookie to pair with Ryan Fitzpatrick. The Panthers are rolling with Teddy Bridgewater and possibly a rookie. The Bears and Raiders quickly pounced on their reclamation projects (Nick Foles and Marcus Mariota, respectively) to have in place if their current starters falter.

Perhaps the Redskins will look for an alternative to Dwayne Haskins, but heading to D.C. won't look nearly as attractive to a veteran player seeking to rejuvenate his career as playing for New England. The game of musical chairs is nearly over, and the Patriots can eventually point at one of the few remaining options and name a price, if they want. So whom may they choose? Let's take a look at the possibilities ...

Rolling with Jarrett Stidham and a backup to be named later is the most Patriots-like move on the board. NFL Network's Mike Giardi has noted in recent weeks that Stidham received far more first-team reps throughout training camp and the 2019 regular season than expected because Brady missed so many practices due to his family or injury. By nearly every account, Stidham made the most of his time.

Patriots beat reporters who watched Stidham in camp believed he performed better as a rookie than Garoppolo or Brissett ever did. Stidham had the best preseason stats of any rookie in the Belichick era, and the Patriots were confident enough in him to release veteran Brian Hoyer before the season, making Stidham the backup.

Even the most ardent Stidham supporters in the Patriots building, however, have no idea how he'll actually perform as the starter in a regular-season game. There's no way they are going into the season with just Stidham and Cody Kessler, so another veteran is coming on board eventually. There are plenty available ...

Trading for Andy Dalton or Jacoby Brissett would create a competition with Stidham. There's every reason to believe that Dalton or Brissett would have an advantage because of their experience, but there's also every reason to believe Belichick will make it an open competition with virtually any incoming quarterback. Belichick is loath to admit that any of his players have starting jobs locked up; there's no way he's going to just hand the QB reins to an outsider, sight unseen.

Stidham knows the Patriots' system better than Dalton. With organized team activities delayed indefinitely, there will almost certainly be a highly condensed offseason. There's no guarantee training camp will start on time. That will make it difficult for anyone trying to replace Brady, including Stidham. Brissett's familiarity from his rookie season with the Patriots would help here, although his contract creates a challenge.

It's hard to imagine the Patriots giving up much in compensation for either Dalton or Brissett, and their salaries are a problem. Brissett is due nearly $16 million in 2020 pay, while there's no way Dalton will see the $17.7 million he's due. Would Dalton be willing to take a big pay cut to play for Belichick? Would the Colts be willing to pay some of Brissett's salary to help out Pats offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, just two years after he left them at the altar? Both options are messy.

Signing Cam Newton at a discount would be fascinating. McDaniels doesn't get enough credit for his creative scheming year by year, often staying one step ahead of the league. The Patriots were reportedly high on both Lamar Jackson and Baker Mayfield entering the 2018 draft, and it's easy to imagine Belichick wanting to get wild with some college-influenced spread concepts. He's been borrowing liberally from the most innovative college thinkers on defense for years.

Newton's health status makes him nearly impossible for the Panthers to trade, so a release should come sooner than later. Newton may subsequently have to wait until travel and regular medical testing return to normal before finding a team. Luckily for the Patriots, they can afford to be patient. Belichick often scoops up premier talent when the value is at a low, and Newton would qualify. This would be the biggest swing for the fences the Patriots could take -- and the most fun. Who wouldn't watch Cam playing in Foxborough?

It's hard to imagine Jameis Winston in a Patriots uniform. Belichick prizes reliability and avoiding mental mistakes perhaps above all else. While picking up a 26-year-old former No. 1 overall pick with 70 career starts and a career 7.7 yards-per-attempt average looks good on paper, Winston would probably drive Belichick crazier than he already did Bruce Arians. I just can't see it. And this reflects the Friday reporting of Giardi, who said a high-ranking New England official told him the Pats are "unlikely" to target Winston.

Of course, there's probably some surprise path Belichick is considering that no one can think of. That's why he's Bill Belichick and you're not. I suspect he's a lot less concerned with his quarterback situation than the Patriots fan base at large. No matter what he does, Belichick has an abundance of options, and Stidham is atop the depth chart. Just don't be too shocked if the second-year QB stays there.

Follow Gregg Rosenthal on Twitter @greggrosenthal.

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