New England Patriots: Full Position Breakdown and Analysis at Quarterback
Tom Brady's presence has been the one constant in the Patriots' success since 2001. The Patriots have taken liberties with his supporting cast, cutting ties with the likes of Deion Branch, Randy Moss and Wes Welker when their asking prices rose too high.
New England is able to take a harder stance knowing that Brady provides the ultimate insurance, as the Pats have consistently ranked among the best offenses, despite shifting personnel and often lesser talent.
Headed into 2014, the outlook remains prosperous at the position. Bleacher Report's Matt Miller recently ranked the Patriots as possessing the best quarterback situation in the entire league. Between Brady and a pair of promising young prospects in Ryan Mallett and Jimmy Garoppolo, New England has taken no chances at the game's most vital position.
But how long will the good times last? Brady is entering his age-37 season, while Mallett and Garoppolo remain unknowns, albeit ones with intriguing tools. For fans accustomed to quarterback brilliance, however, uncertainty is a frightening proposition.
The Patriots' 2014 quarterback depth chart is virtually set in stone at this point. Nevertheless, that does not mean the Pats do not face present and future questions. Let's take a deeper look at each quarterback, as well as the most critical questions facing the team at the position.
1st String: Tom Brady
Though Brady's stat line was subpar by his lofty standards, his ability to keep the Patriots offense afloat despite ostensibly debilitating personnel losses was one of the most impressive accomplishments of his career. Despite playing virtually the entire season with one of the league's most talent-poor receiving corps, only Denver scored more points per game during the regular season.
Thus, with his top 10 receiving leaders from last season under contract, it seems likely that Brady's counting stats will bounce back. Brady was recently featured in Peter King's Monday Morning Quarterback column, in which he explained how he trains not only to reinforce his mechanics but also to keep his aging body healthy:
It’s hard to explain this to people, but the commitment I make, in terms of keeping my body in shape and my nutrition right, should make me healthy. I feel better today than when I was 25, and I know that’s hard for people to believe, but I do.
I work at it. Basically, I work all off-season to prepare my body to not get hurt. I can’t help the team if I’m on the sidelines. I’ve got to be durable.
Recovery is slower for older players, and there may come a time when Brady's bumps and bruises turn into afflictions that noticeably affect his performance or require time off (more on that later). Nonetheless, his work ethic sets the tone for the Patriots' business-first mentality and a culture of preparation that ensures New England holds a leg up on their competition.
2nd String: Ryan Mallett
Though Ryan Mallett's Foxboro future became increasingly inscrutable during draft weekend, it appears the former third-round pick will finish out his four-year contract as the resident clipboard holder. In truth, Mallett would not necessarily represent poor draft value if he never takes a meaningful snap, as peace of mind at quarterback is akin to a premium insurance plan.
Nevertheless, the rumors will likely continue their relentless swirl until the trade deadline passes next season. Considering how loath Bill Belichick is to divulge information, his explicit denial of an impending Mallett trade should be enough to dissuade further speculation, per The Boston Globe's Ben Volin:
That’s not really something that we’re that interested in. Ryan’s done a good job for us. Fortunately for us, but unfortunately for him, he hasn’t really had any playing time in the last three years. But he’s improved tremendously as a quarterback and as a football player, and we’ve got a lot of confidence in him.
Fans' favorite players are often the ones who have yet to prove they do not belong, and Mallett certainly seems to fit that criteria. Just as draft prospects arrive with bloated expectations, Mallett is still a young unknown commodity whose ceiling is still open to imagination.
But that does not translate to any discernible trade value. In fact, by allowing Mallett to walk in free agency next offseason, the Pats could potentially reap a mid-round compensatory pick depending on the type of contract he receives and his 2015 playing time. At the moment, Mallett would likely only fetch a conditional late-round pick.
Many are anxious for activity in this dead period of the NFL calendar. Still, making a trade simply for the sake of action is fallacious, and Mallett clearly provides more value as Brady insurance than he does as a potential sixth- or seventh-round pick from another team.
3rd String: Jimmy Garoppolo
The Patriots' most polarizing draft pick figures to stay in the background for a while. Jimmy Garoppolo may or may not end up being Tom Brady's successor, but for 2014, he'll likely be a healthy game-day scratch every week, barring injury.
Among the draft's developmental prospects, Garoppolo possesses a more well-rounded tool kit than the likes of Tom Savage, Zach Mettenberger or Logan Thomas. The Eastern Illinois product comes with a quick release, rock-solid mechanics and excellent arm strength, a nice foundation for a young quarterback.
The biggest hurdle will be the mental side of the game. Garoppolo executed a shotgun-heavy one-read offense in college, a far cry from the diverse option-based Patriots passing game. Reading coverages can be taught in the classroom, but the mental acuity to understand and adapt these concepts is often innate.
That's truly where the Patriots' gamble lies, not Garoppolo's small hands or his FCS-level competition. There are auspicious signs, as his makeup is that of an intelligent hardworking player who brings all the intangibles teams look for in their leaders.
Garoppolo possesses solid vision during the play; now, the question is whether or not he can apply that vision to identifying pre-snap reads and manipulating the defense.
Next year, the second-rounder will be a scout-team quarterback who tries to absorb as much information as possible. But the Patriots did not select him with 2014 in mind. So where does Garoppolo play into the future of New England's quarterback outlook?
Having two quarterbacks on rookie contracts has allowed the Pats to control the position's cost. New England has $15.7 million in cap hits committed to the position in 2014, per Spotrac, and Brady's relatively flat contract should allow the Patriots to keep that number steady going forward.
Because of that, Brady is likely to remain the Patriots starter through the end of his contract in 2017, provided he stays healthy and does not exhibit a huge decline. Garoppolo's contract happens to expire at the same time, meaning that the Patriots could face an franchise-altering decision in four years.
Ideally, Garoppolo will have gotten some meaningful game action by then. It's not necessarily a prerequisite—Aaron Rodgers had no starts and threw just 59 passes before taking over in 2008—but it would make the evaluation process easier. Either way, Garoppolo will surely be eager to start somewhere, placing him in a position much like the one Mallett currently occupies.
For the immediate future, the Patriots should have a crystal-clear outlook at the position, no small feat for a team with a veteran quarterback. Peace of mind at quarterback is an invaluable luxury, and the Pats' approach has sought to preserve that commodity even in the event of a potential Brady injury.
Burning Question for 2014
Question: Can Brady still throw the deep ball?
If there's one complaint about Brady's recent play, it's his undeniable regression in deep passing. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Brady's deep-ball accuracy (passes of 20-plus yards) in 2013 was 39.4 percent, 12th in the league. The season before, it was a similarly middling 40.5 percent, which ranked 14th.
Between age and the loss of incomparable deep threat Randy Moss, it's no surprise to see a dip in these numbers. However, further decline could have the Patriots teetering on turning into a static passing game.
While the short-to-intermediate passing game has always been Brady's strength, defenses are increasingly clogging the coveted hook-curl zones and trying to force the Pats to pass outside the numbers and deep.
It's not a bad strategy based on New England's track record. According to Pro-Football-Reference, the Pats accrued 49 pass plays of 20 or more yards in 2013, which ranked 16th in the league. This wasn't entirely due to Rob Gronkowski's absence either. Between Weeks 7 and 14, when the Pats had Gronk, they hit 24 big pass plays, good for 14th in the league, per Pro-Football-Reference.com.
The Patriots will never be a vertical-based Air Coryell team, and they do not have the receiving personnel to execute that kind of offense. Still, apart from the play-action seam passes they hit a handful of times per game, it will be interesting to see if Brady and the offense can reclaim any more vertical ground.
Prediction: Ryan Mallett starts at least one game.
This is surely not the prediction Pats fans want to hear, but it's a possibility they should prepare themselves for. According to Pro-Football-Reference.com, only 17 quarterbacks aged 37 or older have started 16 games in a season. Brett Favre and Vinny Testaverde are the only ones to accomplish that feat more than once, and they account for six of the 17 seasons.
In fairness, there's some noise behind those numbers. There aren't many quarterbacks playing that are 37 or older, and most are backups. Moreover, with advancements in medical technology and nutrition education, players are able to take more direct control over their health and extend their careers.
Nonetheless, older players do take longer to recover from injures, and there exists the possibility that a nagging injury could force Brady out of action. He's always been tough, playing through broken ribs in 2010, a sports hernia in 2005 and a separated shoulder in 2002. At some point, though, there comes a threshold where continuing to play is deleterious to a team's success.
In reality, a Brady injury is highly unlikely to resemble the doomsday scenario that played out in 2008. As the Green Bay Packers illustrated during Aaron Rodgers' seven-week absence last season, having a backup capable of steadying the ship for a brief period can make the difference between a playoff berth and a wasted opportunity.
Mallett has been groomed for an emergency situation. While no fan of the game wants to see Brady miss time, the Patriots have ensured that a short-term absence should not cripple their championship aspirations.