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Facing Justin Herbert prompts question for Patriots: What's the future at QB?

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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The New England Patriots visit the Los Angeles Chargers on Sunday (4:25 p.m. ET, CBS) in a game that highlights a balance between short-term urgency to keep playoff hopes alive and the longer-range conundrum of finding a franchise quarterback.

The Patriots (5-6) likely can't afford another loss if they want to avoid missing the playoffs for the first time since 2008. Meanwhile, the Chargers (3-8) are mostly looking ahead to 2021 -- with a mix of disappointment and hope because rookie quarterback Justin Herbert has shown early signs of promise.

"You can tell he's going to be a great player in this league for a long time," Patriots safety Devin McCourty said of Herbert. "We'll have a tough task."

That challenge is twofold -- in Sunday's game and, in the big picture, finding a prospect to build around like the Chargers have with Herbert.

Often, a team has to bottom out to be in position to draft a top quarterback. The Chargers selected Herbert No. 6 overall after a 5-11 season in 2019.

The Miami Dolphins had the same record and drafted Tua Tagovailoa at No. 5. And, of course, the Cincinnati Bengals landed Joe Burrow No. 1 overall after a 2-14 campaign.

There are exceptions, of course. The Patriots would be thrilled if a Jimmy Garoppolo-type option was there for them in the 2021 NFL draft, like it was in the 2014 second round (No. 62). And there are never any guarantees a top pick means a top quarterback, with countless examples of swings and misses over the years.

The 6-foot-6, 236-pound Herbert was a prospect the Patriots, who were considering various scenarios at the time as they transitioned away from the two-decade Tom Brady era, seemed to like this past spring.

"We evaluated him. I think he's got all the tools. I think you saw that at Oregon," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said this week.

Added offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels: "I did look at Herbert in the draft. He's a big kid, obviously, can throw the ball well, to all levels of the field. Athletic. Can make plays with this legs as well. ... Talented kid, obviously. Very smart kid. Got a lot of the traits you look for."

Because the Patriots were picking at No. 23, the only way they would have been able to draft Herbert was with a major trade up the board, which likely would have necessitated them giving up their 2021 first-round pick as well.

That's the approach the Kansas City Chiefs took in 2017 when they moved from No. 27 to No. 10 to select Patrick Mahomes.

The final five weeks of the season will put the Patriots' 2021 draft position into sharper focus. If the season ended today, they would be picking 15th.

They have picks in the first, second, fourth, fifth, sixth (two) and seventh rounds, and according to OverTheCap.com, they can expect to receive a third-round compensatory pick for losing Brady in free agency, and two fourth-round compensatory picks for losing Kyle Van Noy and Jamie Collins Sr.

That's a solid collection of assets in a draft analysts believe has some potential franchise quarterbacks, headlined by Clemson's Trevor Lawrence, Ohio State's Justin Fields, North Dakota State's Trey Lance and Brigham Young's Zach Wilson.

As for the possibility the long-term answer could be on the Patriots' roster, it has been wild to see how that has evolved.

After three weeks of the season, one of the dominant topics on New England sports-talk radio was how much it might cost to sign Cam Newton to an extension and if the team would be willing to pay $25 million to $30 million per season. Few are thinking along those lines now, as Newton has been inconsistent as a passer in the second half of the season.

Then there was all the media-based buzz from the offseason about the possibility of 2019 fourth-round pick Jarrett Stidham possibly being the guy. But when he surprisingly didn't make a charge in training camp, and opened the season as the No. 3 option (a demotion from 2019), that spoke volumes.

So, for now, the possibilities for the Patriots at quarterback are wide-ranging. That provides a notable contrast to their opponent Sunday, as the Chargers seem to have found the key player to build around.

"He's impressive," Belichick said. "It looks like he's going to be a good quarterback for a long time."