This is the first in a series of articles examining questions the New England Patriots will have to answer in the run-up to free agency on March 11.
After the New England Patriots selected Arkansas quarterback Ryan Mallett in the third round of the 2011 NFL draft, Michael Lombardi (now general manager of the Cleveland Browns) said this on NFL.com:
Ryan Mallett will have the largest impact of any quarterback drafted this year, and his impact will be felt on and off the field. On the field, he will be given time to develop, to watch and learn from one of the greatest ever in the game -- Brady. Off the field, Mallett's ability will make Patriots coach Bill Belichick not want to stop coaching in the next 10 years and keep chasing titles. Mallett brings good news to Pats fans in every area.
Reading this, it appears that Lombardi saw Mallett as the likely successor to Brady.
At the time, it was a bold prediction; time has since proven it an incorrect one.
Mallett as trade bait
Mallett doesn't have a clear path to becoming the starter in New England.
The Patriots are still Tom Brady's team. There is almost no chance of Mallett supplanting Brady as the starter barring an injury. Even worse for Mallett, Brady's contract makes it difficult for the Patriots to move on from Brady in the short term. Suppose that somehow Mallett became the starter this year; if the Patriots wanted to trade Brady, Brady would still take up $18 million in cap space in 2015—and then they would still have to pay for Mallett.
But suppose Mallett doesn't become the starter. Why would he want to stay for another two, three or more years when there's no guarantee he'd ever get a chance to start? And would the Patriots even be willing to pay him veteran backup money? The last veteran to act as Brady's primary backup was Doug Flutie in 2005.
There may be teams willing to part with a draft pick for Mallett. It's not inconceivable that Lombardi might want to bring Mallett to stabilize Cleveland's quarterback rotation. The Patriots might also be able to convince the Texans, now coached by former Patriots offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien, to bring Mallett back to his native Texas.
Mallett as backup
Notice that might in the last sentence? That's because, unfortunately, Mallett is a complete mystery. Mallett has never had a chance to show what he can do with first-team talent. While the Boston Globe reported that he did emulate both Tom Brady and Peyton Manning during postseason practices, he didn't take a single snap in 2013, according to FootballOutsiders.com. Teams trading for him would have to guess based largely on his inconsistent preseason play (55 percent completion rate, three TDs, one INT in 2013). This might reduce his value to other teams too much to justify a trade.
Trading Mallett would also leave the Patriots a hole at QB. Not only have the Patriots not kept a third quarterback over the last two seasons, they haven't even had one on the practice squad. If they want to replace him, his replacement would have to come from outside the organization.
Finally, in part because he's been the only other QB on the roster (not counting the abortive Tim Tebow experiment), he knows the system inside and out. Even if they were to draft another backup for Brady, the Patriots might decide to keep Mallett to help the rookie learn the system. The Patriots did that with Mallett, keeping Brian Hoyer around in 2011.
Mallett's fate will depend on two factors. First, how do the Patriots view this year's crop of prospective rookie quarterbacks? Is there one they trust to be Brady's backup for the next couple of years? If not, Mallett isn't going anywhere.
Second, how highly do they rate Mallett's services as a backup? If a team called offering, say, a 2015 seventh-round pick for Mallett, Belichick would probably hang up the phone. If Houston called offering their first-round pick, Mallett would probably be boarding Robert Kraft's private airplane for a one-way trip that same day.
In all likelihood, the Patriots will need to receive at least a third-round pick in 2014, or the potential for an even higher pick in 2015, to part ways with Mallett. Failing that, Mallett will likely stay a Patriot in 2014.