An old quip says the most popular player on any football team is the backup quarterback—at least until he takes the field.
That said, Patriots fans are well aware of the value of a good backup (see: Cassel, Matt). Right now, the Patriots have two backup QBs on the roster: Ryan Mallett and Tim Tebow.
Why Mallett fell to the third round isn't entirely clear, as most reports cite nebulous "character concerns," without going into any details (here's one example). By all accounts, though, he's been a hard worker in New England, and has kept his nose clean.
Then, of course, there is Tim Tebow and his infamous career. A June 2013 article in the Boston Globe notes Bill Belichick has long been a supporter of Tebow, calling him a "special" quarterback because of his ability to both run and throw.
It seems highly unlikely that Belichick would have brought Tebow into Foxborough if he didn't at least have a coherent plan for using Tebow (something notably lacking during his 2012 tenure with the New York Jets).
Both Mallett and Tebow are signed through 2014. Unfortunately for both of them, Tom Brady is signed through 2017, and has cap hits that make him essentially untradeable (see the invaluable Patscap.com for details on Brady's contract).
So what's the best-case scenario for both Mallett and Tebow?
Mallett's biggest selling point, of course, is his arm: his ability to sling the ball downfield is impressive, as this video from the 2011 Sugar Bowl shows. That said, the Patriots have done a very good job of "hiding" Mallett, giving him few opportunities to demonstrate it.
So it's not really surprising that Mallett has been the subject of trade rumors: according to the Boston Herald, the Cleveland Browns and Tampa Bay Buccaneers (headed, likely not coincidentally, by two friends of Belichick in Michael Lombardi and Greg Schiano, respectively) both made trade overtures before this year's draft. Neither team, however, seemed willing to trade the second-round pick the Herald claims the Patriots wanted.
The Herald then goes on to make a claim that I find mystifying: "Next offseason, when Mallett can restructure or extend his contract, teams are expected to be more aggressive for his services, so long as he shows improvement this preseason."
I've never understood this logic: Why would a team prefer to extend a quarterback at higher dollars when they can acquire his services and control his rights for two years for about $1 million total?
In any case though, Mallett will help his cause immensely if he puts on an impressive performance this offseason, starting with the Pats' preseason game tonight against the Eagles. If he does, he will likely get traded no later than next offseason to a team where he won't have to compete with Brady for the starting job.
In my opinion, the best case scenario for Mallett would be that he impresses a team enough that they are willing to cough up a 2014 draft pick to acquire his services now.
Tebow, however, has a less lofty goal: he simply needs to convince the Patriots that he's one of the 53 best players on the roster.
He doesn't need to beat out Mallett; he simply needs to show that he can run the offense.
As long as Tebow and Mallett are on the roster, though, Tebow is unlikely to see much game time, although he might come in on certain packages (e.g., as an extra "fullback" on goal line plays, or on special teams). So the best-case scenario for Tebow, too, is for Mallett to get traded, and sooner rather than later.
So the real question comes down to what's best for New England. Are they better off keeping Mallett on the roster this year (which, barring an absolute disaster, is a given), or are they better off trading him?
Trading him would give them extra roster flexibility at another position, but it would also mean taking their chances with Tebow if something happens to Brady.
Personally, while I like Mallett, I see no positive scenario where he ends up the starter in New England. That said, the Patriots know what they have in Mallett. So while I think the best-case scenario might be for Mallett to get traded this year, I expect that unless someone offers a 2014 first-round pick, the Patriots will hold on to him until next offseason.