The plan for Bailey Zappe in his rookie year seemed pretty straightforward. As the Patriots’ third-string quarterback, he could learn from watching Mac Jones on Sundays, as well as from veteran Brian Hoyer.
And as long as both were healthy this season, Zappe did not even figure to suit up, much less see action in a game. He was listed as one of the inactives for each of the first three games of the season. But when Mac Jones was ruled out with an ankle injury for Week 4 against Green Bay, Zappe was elevated to back up Hoyer.
He was then pressed into action when Hoyer exited with a head injury in the first quarter, and put together a solid day, completing 10 of 15 passes for 99 yards while directing two second-half touchdown drives in the 27-24 overtime loss to the Packers.
At the very least, Zappe could be in uniform again on Sunday again when the Patriots host the Lions because it’s possible Jones misses more action. If Hoyer is not cleared to play, Zappe could get the call again.
Here’s a look at the young signal caller whom the Patriots selected in the fourth round of last April’s NFL Draft.
He’s drawing praise from his teammates
Zappe’s ability to step up off the bench despite not getting much practice time with the starters impressed his Patriots teammates.
“I just want to give a huge shoutout to Zappe, man,” linebacker Matthew Judon said after the loss at Green Bay “The way that he stepped up in that game, I don’t even believe he took that many [practice] reps with the [starters]. The way he played, and the poise he had … that’s amazing for a rookie, that’s good for our team. Big shoutout to him for being ready.”
It was a less-than-ideal situation tor a debut — in the middle of a game, on the road, against one of the top teams in the NFC.
“Proud of the way he competed, man,” said center David Andrews. “Went really quickly from probably thinking he wasn’t playing much this year to getting thrown in the mix in a pretty hostile environment against a really good defense. I thought he led us well, did a really good job … just proud of the way he competed.”
He made progress in the preseason, but had his struggles
“Every day is a learning day for him,” coach Bill Belichick said in August. “He’s gotten better every day. Hopefully that will continue. But he’s been good to work with, he works hard, and he’s smart and has a good skill set.”
In the preseason opener against the Giants, he struggled early but finished 19-for-32 for 205 yards, including a go-ahead touchdown drive in the fourth quarter that culminated with a toss to Lil’Jordan Humphrey.
For the preseason, he completed 45 of 71 passes for 462 yards with one touchdown and three interceptions. In the second preseason game, Panthers cornerback Tae Hayes returned one of the interceptions for a touchdown.
Zappe, who grew up in Victoria, Texas, starred at Houston Baptist, making nine starts as a freshman and starting all 11 games as a sophomore. In 2019 he led the nation with 35 touchdown passes as a junior.
After throwing 15 touchdown passes in four games in 2020, he took advantage of the NCAA’s COVID-19 extra year of eligibility and attended Western Kentucky. There he was able to continue to work with Zach Kittley, who had been his offensive coordinator at Houston Baptist before moving on to the same position with the Hilltoppers.
At Western Kentucky, he completed nearly 70 percent of his passes for 5,967 yards and 62 touchdowns in 2021. He set FBS season marks for yards (previously held by B.J. Symonds) and TDs (once owned by Joe Burrow).
He topped the Wonderlic test among QBs
Zappe scored 35, just ahead of Sam Howell (34) and Malik Willis (32) and well ahead of everyone else whose results surfaced on the league’s intelligence test.
He’s viewed as an intelligent quarterback who makes wise decisions with the football. Running Kittley’s Air Raid system played to his cerebral strengths. He has excellent recognition skills and throws a very catchable ball.
He adjusts arm slots and can fit balls into precise windows without needing a ton of velocity, the Globe’s Jim McBride wrote ahead of last April’s draft.
Here was his scouting report ahead of the draft, courtesy of Field Level Media.
The overview: Zappe has one of the best resumes in college quarterback history if based solely on production. He was a dominant force in the FCS in 2019 and 2020, but elevated his game to new heights as a member of the Hilltoppers. He earned Conference USA’s 2021 MVP honors, taking Western Kentucky to its first C-USA conference championship appearance since 2016 and racking up a Senior Bowl invite.
The strengths: No shortage of system quarterbacks trampolined into the record books with all-go and quick verticals playcalling, but Zappe is more than numbers. He’s able to make some beautiful touch throws, and knows to efficiently change trajectories. Zappe has a release with no wasted motion, and he’s a good short passer who leads his targets well. He’s also incredibly confident and willing to take shots.
The weaknesses: Zappe is an undersized passer doesn’t meet typical height thresholds (He’s 6 feet). Arm strength is far below average for an NFL quarterback and will be a difficult hurdle to overcome. He’s also a limited athlete who will struggle to make plays and struggles to survive in the pocket when things break down.
Pro comp: Gardner Minshew, Eagles
Zappe doesn’t have the same level of feel within the pocket as Minshew, but he’s a similar athlete with limited arm talent. Just like Minshew, he has sufficient accuracy to move the chains.
Material from previous Globe reports was used in this story.
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