Would Drake Maye check off the ‘toughness’ box for Patriots?

Would Drake Maye check off the ‘toughness’ box for Patriots? originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

They can all throw. They can all run. They all have the whiff of franchise guys. The top four quarterbacks at the top of this draft – Caleb Williams, Jayden Daniels, Drake Maye and J.J. McCarthy – all have oodles of highlights that make you go, “Jaysus!!!” It’s why they’re up there.

Harder to find are plays or sequences that tell the story of something the Patriots are seeking. Toughness. How do they respond to the inevitable physical punishment of the position? How quickly do they get to their feet? How do they play in the immediate aftermath?

When it comes to Drake Maye, the Patriots can glean an answer early in a 95-minute YouTube cutup of every single throw and run from his 2023 season.

It starts at the 12:55 mark. North Carolina hosting Minnesota in the season’s third game. Second-and-6 at the 36. First quarter.

Maye takes a shotgun snap, browses left, glances right and – with a rusher coming free – bolts the pocket.

As he gets to the line, a diving edge rusher gets him around the thighs. Just as Maye’s about to hit the turf, 6-foot-2, 305-pound Kyler Baugh dives onto him full force. It’s an attempted spear but Baugh’s aim is off and he ends up driving his shoulder into Maye’s back. Baugh came down at such a steep angle, his feet are actually off the ground and pedal in the air. No flag.

You see Maye react briefly to the pain, bowing his head as he’s still down (16:20 mark on this full-game clip). But there’s no histrionics. No complaining to officials. The camera leaves him and returns two seconds later and he’s up and getting a play from the sideline.

On the next play, Maye takes off on a full-speed, purposeful scramble and picks up seven yards on third-and-6. And on the next, he rips what may have been his best throw of the day through traffic for a 15-yard gain.

The other 94 minutes has plenty of picks, bad footwork and weird decisions to go around. And even more evidence of why he’s so highly-regarded. All of it will be picked over closely.

From a Patriots perspective, that three-play stretch is porn. Physical toughness. Mental toughness. Resilience.

Tough. Tough, tough, tough, tuffity, toughness. The Patriots haven’t missed an opportunity this offseason to stress that their next quarterback best be tougher than a $2 steak.

At the NFL Combine, head coach Jerod Mayo said when asked about the prime-cut prospects:

“It’s important just to get a sense of what type of competitor they are, their toughness and things like that. Those are things you really want to look for.”

Circling back at the NFL Owner’s Meetings, Mayo said, “(One) of the things that often gets lost is just competitiveness and toughness. You see some of the top quarterbacks in the league, like those guys get smacked and get right back up. … I think that is very important when you’re kind of scouting this position.

“The competitor, like Tom [Brady], the toughness, like, you see guys like Joe Burrow, he gets smacked and gets right back up. It’s pretty impressive. But it also sends that subliminal message to the rest of the team, like, ‘I’m here with you. I’m gonna get hit, and I’m gonna get back up, and we just gotta continue to go as we go forward.'”

De facto GM (and the man who says he’ll have final say on the pick) Eliot Wolf spoke at the Combine about finding a quarterback who “can elevate his teammates, someone that your teammates want to play for.”

Later, Wolf added, “Body language on the field is very important at that position. You don’t want a guy that’s throwing his hands up after a bad play, or you can you can see him physically pointing at somebody. Body language is important, everybody’s looking to the quarterback.”

One of the most indelible moments of Brady’s first season was the hit he took from Buffalo’s Nate Clements and Brady’s reaction to it.

At the other end of the spectrum was Mac Jones’ unfortunate reaction to the high-ankle sprain suffered against Baltimore in 2022. Obviously, it had to hurt. Calais Campbell is a massive man. But it wasn’t storming Normandy. Jones’ screaming, facial expressions and histrionics did him no favors.

The enlightened can snort all they want at the Neanderthal mindset that high pain tolerance (or at least a stoic reaction to it) has value anymore. But it does. It’s a collision sport. The ability to withstand pain is a valued and appreciated trait. Maye seems to have it. He didn’t miss a game at UNC and the 6-5, 230-pounder ran 300 times.

For what it’s worth, Maye grew up the youngest of four boys. Two played basketball at UNC, another won a national championship in baseball at Florida. His father played quarterback for the Tar Heels in the 80s. A tolerance for physical pain was likely instilled in Drake early.

That’s not all there is to it, of course. If it was that easy, you could just slam hands in doors and see who takes it the best.

Mental resiliency and the ability to deal with adversity might be as important as skill for whoever the Patriots choose.

Maye, if chosen, will be the most recognizable player on one of the league’s most heavily-scrutinized teams. He’ll be picked apart by a massive media contingent and a noisy fanbase skeptical of a quick road back to success.

He’ll be coached by a first-year staff and a roster light on offensive talent. His job is to – sooner or later (preferably sooner) – help make an unwatchable offense into something kind of nice.

Since 1993, the Patriots have had three multi-year starting quarterbacks: Drew Bledsoe, Brady and Jones. Parcells kept the heat off Bledsoe with his personality and Bledsoe was at his best in the first four years of his Patriots tenure. But Bledsoe was also huge, physically tough, very smart and stoic. He was an impressive guy. He did fine.

Brady was Brady. Goofy, cutthroat, lovable, profane, emotional and unflappable. The perfect quarterback.

Jones arrived with a reputation for getting emotional. He was nicknamed McEnroe by his college coach Nick Saban because Jones’ body language sucked.

Jones used his competitive edge for good in 2021, driving himself in training camp to beat out Cam Newton. But when the worm turned in 2022 and the situation got untenable, Jones eventually cracked, went off on coaches and lost a lot of support among them and his teammates. He never fully recovered from it.

In 2021, Saban talked about Jones’ emotional outbursts.

“That was probably Mac’s biggest hurdle to overcome – being able to control his emotions. Especially to play the quarterback position. To not get so upset or frustrated when he threw a bad ball or made a bad read or whatever. And he did kind of have a tennis player’s mentality. It was: Do you understand how you’re affecting everybody else?

“This is not an individual sport. You’re the leader of the team, and you’re kicking and fussing and acting like you messed up, and everyone else sees that. And that’s not a good thing for your position. You have to be the commander in chief. You have to be in control of what’s happening.”

You have to have a little gravitas. Jones was the wrong guy to be in a situation as difficult as the Patriots 2022 setup.

There’s a lot to like about Maye’s arm, physical toughness and durability. He’s a decisive and productive runner – not a scrambler. He’s smart.

He’s also going to a team in complete flux with more questions than answers. Think about it: Wolf has final say on the third overall pick and the Patriots are doing interviews after the draft before they decide to give him the job? Even if it’s just a formality, it’s wonky as hell.

It’s going to be a process to get the Patriots to a point where they can average 20 points per game on offense. Will Maye be the right choice to withstand all that? The film shows he can take a hit. If he’s the guy the Patriots pick, the hits are going to keep coming.

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