There is life after Tom Brady. The New England Patriots are fully aware that one day their Super Bowl-winning, two-time league MVP quarterback will retire.
There is also life after Ryan Mallett, whose contract expires after the 2014 season. There are questions at quarterback in the short-term and long-term.
How do the Patriots prepare? There are two options: Stay ahead of the curve, or push the panic button.
No one should be surprised that they chose the former over the latter. The Patriots brought in several top quarterbacks from this year's class for visits and then played coy when asked if they were preparing for life after Brady. Plus, they only continued a trend that's developed over the past six years.
Before the 2014 draft, the Patriots had selected a quarterback within the first three rounds in two out of the previous six drafts. They made it 3-for-7 with Garoppolo.
The Patriots have put a lot of weight in the backup quarterback spots on their roster for a while, dating back to 2008 when the team drafted San Diego State quarterback Kevin O'Connell in the third round with the 94th pick in the draft.
Three years later, they took Arkansas quarterback Ryan Mallett in the third round of the 2011 draft, 74th overall. Three years later, it's Garoppolo in the second round with the 62nd overall pick.
The Patriots could choose to feel entitled; it seems they can roll out of bed and go 13-3. Instead, they recognize their own mortality as a franchise. And they've seen at least one example of a team that tried to squeeze too much blood from its lifespan under one particular franchise quarterback. Said coach Bill Belichick in his final draft press conference:
I don’t think we would put together a team the way Indianapolis did it when they lost [Peyton] Manning and they go 0-16, 1-15 or whatever it was [2-14]. I don’t think that’s really what we’re looking for. Unfortunately when we lost Tom [Brady] in 2008 – we had a player that could step in and we won 11 games. We want to be competitive even if something happens to a player at any position.
|Indianapolis Colts quarterbacks, 2011|
|Credit: Pro Football Reference|
By bringing in Garoppolo, the Patriots are covering the bases to ensure that they never suffer the same fate. But there's also a precedent in the other direction. The San Francisco 49ers groomed Steve Young behind Joe Montana. The Green Bay Packers drafted Aaron Rodgers and groomed him for three years behind MVP and Super Bowl champion Brett Favre.
In a best-case scenario, Garoppolo is the next franchise quarterback. In a worst-case scenario, he rides the bench for four years, departs when his contract expires and the Patriots have come full-circle, looking for a quarterback again. Either way, the Patriots are determined not to get caught with their pants down at the most important position in sports.
Now that we understand the "why" of the Patriots' selection of Jimmy Garoppolo, let's get a closer look at the "who" (hold on to your sunglasses, David Caruso).
Whether it's in peewee leagues or the NFL, throwing for more than 5,000 yards in a season is an impressive feat. It's also impressive to break the Eastern Illinois school records set by prolific passers such as Tony Romo and Sean Payton.
As a senior, Garoppolo was the trigger man for an offense that led the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) in yards per game, points per game, passing efficiency and first downs on offense, and he ranked second in passing yards per game.
He also broke Romo's records for career passing touchdowns (118) and yards (13,156) as well as passing yards (5,050) and touchdowns in a season (53).
The level of competition will get much higher in the NFL than it was in the Ohio Valley Conference, but Garoppolo was on a level of his own against inferior competition. He won both the OVC Male Athlete of the Year and the Walter Payton Award as the best offensive player in the Division I FCS in 2013.
Even in the near-term, Garoppolo is a better fit for the Patriots offense than Mallett.
Make no mistake, Mallett has the bigger arm. He also has far more knowledge of the Patriots offense than Garoppolo. Where Mallett always seems to struggle is in his footwork, release and touch.
It's probably not a coincidence that those three traits are considered Garoppolo's greatest strengths.
"Gets the ball out very well. He doesn't have the same arm as Carr but he's got great feet, a quick release and he's accurate," said an unnamed scout, according to Bob McGinn of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.
These traits are immediately evident the moment you turn on a game.
He has nice touch on deep throws, but his finest work is when he is throwing in rhythm with his receivers on short and intermediate routes. On this play, however, he showed picture-perfect footwork, the poise to hang in the pocket and he kept his eyes downfield. Those are all traits you expect to see from Brady.
The result was a 34-yard gain on a throw where Garoppolo fit the ball into a tight window.
"He's lethal in the red zone," said another unnamed scout, per McGinn. "Maybe the best I've ever seen throwing fades."
This touchdown pass took touch, the kind we haven't seen from Mallett in practices. Garoppolo threw this fade route against Tennessee-Martin and completed it for a touchdown by throwing the ball to a spot where the defender couldn't get to it, and his receiver tracked it down.
That's the kind of accuracy we will need to see from Garoppolo if he is to take over the backup spot from Mallett.
Sometimes, it's not the tangible traits that are most important. You can't see what a quarterback is thinking, but oftentimes, you can tell how quickly he is processing information just by how quickly he turns his head from one read to the next and how quickly he gets the ball out.
In those respects, Garoppolo has impressed talent evaluators.
His offense at Eastern Illinois made his decisions easier at times, though. His first read was sometimes his only read, and although he showed an ability to go through his progressions, he was usually firing out the ball very quickly after the snap.
He will have to round out his game by taking snaps from center and going through his progressions on five- and seven-step drops. That being said, the rhythm element of Garoppolo's game is one we see often in the Patriots offense, with Brady quickly dropping back and getting the ball out.
Garoppolo is still a far way from being ready to play in a worst-case scenario of Brady getting injured. He admitted as much when he said learning the Patriots offense felt like learning a different language, "Spanish compared to English."
Give him some time to learn the offense, though, and his traits could blossom into an ideal fit as Brady's top backup.
So, what do we expect from Garoppolo?
If all goes well, nothing. Not at least for two to four more years.
Future action (or inaction) on Mallett could be a barometer for how the coaching staff feels about that progress; if Mallett is re-signed after this year (which doesn't seem likely), it may indicate a learning curve that's a bit longer than the coaching staff may be hoping.
For now, the best anyone can expect is for Garoppolo to study as hard as he can, learn from the veterans and do everything he can to make the transition from OVC All-Star to NFL backup.
Garoppolo has regarded Brady as his favorite quarterback since before he was drafted. Now, he has an opportunity to learn from his favorite quarterback and eventually take over for him. Whether it all works out will determine whether the Patriots are looking for yet another quarterback down the road or whether the Patriots have a smooth transition from one franchise quarterback to another.
Scouting combine information provided by NFL.com.
Erik Frenz is also a Patriots correspondent for Boston.com.