It's a shame Will Hunting left New England long ago to "see about a girl." His mathematical expertise would be relied upon come football season.

Not long ago, New England Patriots fans would perhaps call upon Matt Damon's breakthrough character to determine the earliest possible date of an AFC first-round bye clinch. Things have gotten far grimmer, as any current calculations rely upon the path to the best pick at the 2024 NFL Draft. 

Following last week's catastrophe in Frankfurt, New England is in the midst of its annual bye week. Patriots fans are thus mercifully spared from a game this week and one can see that as either an early Thanksgiving blessing or a time to self-reflect. Against better judgment, many of the Foxborough faithful will likely engage in the latter, more than happy to put their general manager's cap on and play literal fantasy football. 

It's safe to assume that such fantasies will follow a similar plot structure with different stars in the protagonist role: many will call upon the Patriots' general manager ... be it Bill Belichick or otherwise ... to use the high draft pick that's presumably coming this spring on a quarterback. 

It's been a long, long time since New Englanders found themselves doing draft prep before the Boston Ballet took the stage for "The Nutcracker:" the Patriots' last scheduled top 10 pick came in 2001 when Richard Seymour arrived at sixth overall. The quarterback spot was, of course, spoken for: Drew Bledsoe had recently signed a then-record $103 million deal that would keep a Flying Elvis on his helmet for the next decade before medical fate intervened. 

Related: Prediction: Will Patriots Win Another Game This Season?

At first glance, it's hard to deter New England, or any of its rebuilding brethren, from this route. The Mac Jones era, for all intents and purposes, was officially rendered kaput in Germany. The only reason for Jones to reach another Week 1 as a New England starter is if the rebooted United States Football League moves the Breakers back to Boston.

Elsewhere on the depth chart, New England management is somehow even more wary of his backup Bailey Zappe. Deep reserves Will Grier and Malik Cunningham became preseason cult heroes but there's little to suggest that either is the next Tom Brady. 

Combine that with a star-studded prospect class talented enough to afford the Patriots a win or two along the rest of the way ... this is a draft where Heisman favorite Jayden Daniels could be among the last in the green room ... in lieu of playing for the top choice and it becomes increasingly clear that picking a quarterback is the best path forward. 

Like any good mystery, however, the obvious path forward can be misleading.

Patriots signage at the NFL Draft


Blaming the fall of the New England empire exclusively on Brady's departure is a brilliant, if not dangerous, example of gridiron scapegoating. If the content-craving public can agree on one thing, it's that it loves having a single party to blame for all of its protagonists' problems. New England sports fans are particularly guilty, often reducing their mortal enemies into single words (i.e. Manning, Magic) when they're not extending their names ("Bucky Bleepin' Dent"). 

Since Belichick has brought himself six circles of leeway that reside on his fingers, that Foxborough foe is Jones, whose 2021 drafting perhaps served as a reality check for any New Englanders living in denial of both Brady's departure and Lombardi Trophy hoist in another uniform. 

But if this stretch of football, these days long-awaited by 31 other fanbases, has proven one thing, it's that Patriots problems extend far beyond No. 10. 

A golden opportunity awaits the Patriots this spring: the first-round choice, even in the extremely unlikely event that it's traded, will determine whether high choices become a Cleveland-esque norm or mere comic relief in the cherished new century chapters of the Patriots' record books. 

Simply put, they can't afford to flub it. That's why a legitimate conversation must be had before blindly committing to a quarterback-or-bust philosophy, even if it's a near guarantee a lauded rookie thrower will be around by the time the Patriots pick. 

The funny thing about the state of the Patriots is that most positions, especially on defense, are well-spoken for and require only medical patience. The pass rush lost Matthew Judon early on and drafting the also-injured Christian Gonzalez remains one of the high points of this season. There's one more year until there's an awkward conversation about paying Rhamondre Stevenson so that narrows the debate further. 

Quarterback may well prove to be the path the Patriots pave. But getting a playmaker or even the boring route of a blocker might prove more lucrative.

Think of the last time the Patriots needed to rely on big-play antics from someone other than Brady, whose greatness proved contagious to the tune of countless 1,000-yard seasons from receivers otherwise proven to be journeymen. New England has neglected the spot ever since. 

Poor Cam Newton's potential revival tour was perhaps doomed from the start once he was forced to make do with an aging Julian Edelman and an undeveloped Jakobi Meyers as his top targets. Meyers, to his credit, made himself reliable but the Patriots let him leave for Las Vegas without much resistance and signed JuJu Smith-Schuster.

Hints of potential linger in the Kendrick Bourne/Demario Douglas regime, but there's no fully established big-gainer in place for the presumed new quarterback (especially with Bourne coming off a torn ACL). Would not, say Marvin Harrison Jr. or Brock Bowers not make for an attractive alternative pay off both now and later?

What about surrounding that passer in question with an outside blocker, such as Olumuyiwa Fashanu or Joe Alt, especially with cornerstone Trent Brown due for free agency? Could the Patriots even wind up trading the pick for veteran assistance? Even if there's a new passing sheriff in charge, it's way too early to commit to a freshman flinger at this point on the gridiron timeline.

The idea of a quarterback obviously won't be going anywhere, as it's not like the list of free agent alternatives (at least beyond Kirk Cousins) will have teams flocking for the phones. One could make a case for a stopgap like Gardner Minshew, but that's an uncomfortable conversation for another time. 

Related: NFL 2024 Mock Draft: Patriots Pass on WR Marvin Harrison Jr.?

Obviously, a lot will change between November and April and those happenings will remove the eraser shavings from the draft blueprints. The growing obsession with draft culture, namely endless mocks that will be drawn up until the pick card is delivered, has killed any semblance of rookie patience, even if it's, again, of the imaginary variety.

For the time being, New England's prep should solely focus on what's on the field. Allow prospects, bit players to go in, make their mistakes, develop, and, against all odds, make themselves indispensable for the road ahead ... and trim the offseason to-do list.

Make sense out of Thanksgiving. Worry about Easter later.