DECEMBER 1: Zappe will indeed make his first start of the season Sunday, Howe reports, adding Cunningham is on track to play as a specialty package performer. Cunningham made his debut against the Raiders in October, logging six snaps, but has not suited up since. It is unlikely Jones sees action, per Howe, unless circumstances change during the game (as they have often this year for the Patriots).
While the repeated Jones benchings have pointed to this happening, it will still mark a significant change. The former first-rounder has only missed three starts in his three-year career, each coming due to injury.
The Patriots are preparing to give the record-setting college passer a start over Jones this week, The Athletic’s Jeff Howe tweets. Bill Belichick is again not planning to announce his starting quarterback, but Jones’ second-year backup took the bulk of the first-team snaps in practice Wednesday, according to MassLive.com’s Mark Daniels.
Zappe made two starts for an injured Jones last season. With the Patriots winning both those games, the Western Kentucky alum generated some momentum. But Jones did not cede his job upon returning from the high ankle sprain he sustained. As Belichick-Jones tension simmered coming out of the former first-round pick’s step-back 2022 campaign, Zappe was rumored to have a shot at the starting job. But a true competition did not materialize in camp. Jones’ game action in his third season has changed this equation.
Two years after guiding the Pats to the playoffs, Jones sits 28th in QBR. He has thrown 10 touchdown passes and 12 interceptions, two of those picks coming last week. The Alabama product is averaging just 6.1 yards per attempt, and while New England’s receiving corps resides as one of the NFL’s worst, Jones has regressed to the point he is far from a lock to be part of the 2024 Patriots.
This Zappe bump does come after multiple reports of the 2022 fourth-rounder failing to impress in practice, with issues developing in Bill O’Brien‘s system being at the root of these struggles. Zappe continued to encounter issues during in-season practices, but with Jones scuffling each week during games, he has made four second-half cameos. After completing 70.7% of his passes as a rookie, Zappe has connected on just 48.7% of his throws — albeit on just 39 tosses — this year. Zappe came to Foxborough after setting the Division I-FBS single-season touchdown pass record, throwing 62 in the Hilltoppers’ pass-heavy offense in 2021 to break Joe Burrow‘s record.
The Patriots do not have a good option here. Belichick’s team is barreling toward a top-five draft pick, sitting third in the early 2024 order after 11 games. This should be expected to produce another first-round QB investment, though Belichick may not be around to make that move. For now, this Jones-or-Zappe pattern persists. Neither rookie UDFA Malik Cunningham nor third-rounder-turned-journeyman Will Grier profile as players the team is ready to consider for starts, per ESPN.com’s Dan Graziano, though each could conceivably be an option as the Belichick era’s worst season moves toward the finish line.
Zappe, Cunningham and Grier have each been exposed to waivers this year, but no team claimed any of the New England backups. The Pats’ Matt Corral experiment fizzled early as well. This leaves Zappe as the lone viable alternative ahead of the Patriots’ matchup with the Chargers, but considering the way the team has operated at QB this season, Jones probably should not get too comfortable on the bench.