Every year, one player defies conventional wisdom and plummets down the draftboard. Sometimes, it has its roots in a shaky performance at the NFL combine. Other times, there's concerns about the measurables (height, weight, 40 yard-dash time). Yet, the most debilitating of draft-day free falls usually stem from the dreaded label of "character issues."
The nebulous and often unfounded term thrown around by supposed "experts" is comparable to an individual standing trial for criminal charges. Once the "guilty" charge has been assessed, there's little to no chance of recovery.
Case in point, former Arkansas and newly drafted New England Patriot QB Ryan Mallett.
His measurables make NFL scouts salivate profusely (height: 6''7", weight: 253 lbs.). His scouting report has first round written all over it. Unquestionably, the strongest arm in the draft. Sure-fire accuracy on short throws, above average accuracy on the deep ball. Arguably the most NFL-ready of any 2011 draftee after thriving in a pro-style offense under Arkansas head coach Bobby Petrino.
In addition, Mallet established his ability to read NFL defenses on ESPN's "John Gruden's QB Camp" where he dazzled the former NFL head coach with the ability to verbalize every read and explicate every player's job on the plays Gruden tested him on. He put up monster numbers in his two years at Arkansas (7,493 passing yards, 60.3 completion percentage and a QB efficiency rating of 158).
So, no way this guy drops out of the first round right?
Three rounds, six quarterbacks and 73 total picks later, Mallett finally came off the board.
There are many alleged reasons for his free fall on draft day, rumors were afloat of drug convictions and run-ins with the law that Mallet was forced to confront in interviews after the NFL combine. Mallett refused to talk about the aforementioned allegations, but according to many reports, was much more candid when interviewed by NFL team representatives. Nonetheless, it was universally agreed upon that these rumors were a causal factor in Mallet falling out of the first round.
Which brings us to why Ryan Mallett could potentially be the steal of the draft. Let's look at five main reasons why Pat's fans should be reveling in having the former Hog on their squad.
We've already discussed Mallett's prodigal skill set (and we'll delve into it further later), but what makes that skill set so enticing for the Patriots is getting a player such as Mallet at such great value.
As a third-round pick (and the seventh quarterback overall), the Patriots will have all the leverage when signing Mallet. Even with this current lockout preventing teams from beginning negotiations with their draft picks, Patriot fans should be able to rest easy in knowing Mallet will eventually be signed (whenever that may be). As NFL history illustrates, NFL teams usually sign all their draft picks from the second round and up with relative ease.
Because of the real and perceived prestige of being selected among the first 32 picks, first-round draft picks are often much tougher to sign before training camp begins. Yet, fortunately for New England, they won't have to worry about this problem with Mallett. Given the volume of players taken ahead of Mallett, the Patriots know that Mallett and his agent will almost be forced to accept whatever offer he is given.
That offer will also likely be influenced by one of the main demands by the owners in the current CBA negotiations, that a rookie wage scale be put in place, much like what the NBA has. Before the current labor strife, there was a precedent set in the NFL that players drafted high in the first round held the leverage to sign some of the most lucrative contracts in the entire league before playing a down of football.
Case in point, Sam Bradford. As the first overall pick in the 2010 NFL Draft, Bradford signed an obscene six-year $78 million contract with the St. Louis Rams, with $50 million of that guaranteed. Not only is that contract beyond most human comprehension, it also happened to be the richest contract in NFL history.
You read that right, a rookie who has never played a down of football signed the highest-paying contract in the history of the NFL.
Any surprise there was a lockout?
But, bringing us out of the labor talk and back to the issue at hand, what does all of this mean for Mallet and the Patriots?
Although Mallett probably won't be affected too much by the inevitable rookie wage scale, his contract will still probably be smaller than the 73rd pick in the 2010 draft (and for those of you wondering at home, it was Ole Miss offensive lineman John Jerry). This means that the Patriots will be able to pay minimal money to a first round-caliber player. Not a bad deal at all. That means the best-case/worst-case scenario isn't all that bad for all those with a vested interests in seeing the Patriots succeed.
Best case, Mallett pulls an Aaron Rodgers and learns from a future Hall of Famer on the bench for a few years until Brady hits the downside of his career and then steps right in and picks up right where Brady left off. Worst case, Mallet never materializes into the player many thought he would be, and the Patriots either release him or trade him without ever taking a big payroll hit.
Now that, my friends, is a risk worth taking.
I know, we're getting ahead of ourselves a little bit by talking trade value just after a player is drafted, but I promise you it's on the minds of the Patriots' front office already (although they would never say it, yet).
The Patriots are obviously set at the quarterback position in the near future; that's usually the case when you employ a future Hall of Famer who owns two of the greatest statistical years by a quarterback in NFL history in 2007and 2010. Yet, the same cannot be said about most teams in the NFL. Given that the NFL is now a quarterback-driven league, each team must be proficient at the quarterback position to be successful (see every Super Bowl winner in NFL history).
This, I can only speculate, played a large part in the Patriots reasoning to draft Ryan Mallett. The Patriots will likely use the first year (assuming there is one) to evaluate how well he grasps the Patriot's system and how effectively he can command the second or third-team offense. If he makes adequate progress from one year to the next, the Patriots will likely feel good about keeping him in Foxborough until the time finally comes to part ways with Tom Brady. In addition, even if Mallet blossoms into a solid quarterback after a couple of years of sitting on the Patriot's bench, the Patriots can still trade Mallet for solid value to take care of other pressing needs at that time.
On the flip-side, even if Mallet fails to make adequate progress learning behind Brady, the Patriots will still have a contingency plan. In the event of Mallett never panning out, the Patriots will keep very quiet about his weaknesses and tout him to other teams willing to trade for a QB. This form of duplicity will likely work because Mallet will never see the field (assuming Brady doesn't sustain another freak injury like he did in 2008). So, for the next three to five years, this gives Mallet pretty good trade value for the Patriots.
No matter the situation, the Patriots are in a win-win with Ryan Mallett.
If there was ever a quarterback for Ryan Mallet to emulate based off of a similar background, it is, without a doubt, Tom Brady.
Not only are both QB's former Wolverines (Mallett played at Michigan his freshman year before transferring to Arkansas), each experienced similar disappointments on draft day. We've already chronicled Mallett's fall down the draft board, but Tom Brady's was far more egregious. As recently chronicled on ESPN's documentary about Tom Brady and the 2000 NFL draft called "The Brady 6," Brady was told by many NFL Scouts that he was expected to be drafted in the second or third round after a stellar career at Michigan.
Yet, on draft day, the first three rounds came and went without Brady's name being called by the commissioner or called by a team.
Fourth round, nothing.
Fifth round, phone still didn't ring.
With each passing pick, Brady took a mental note of each team that didn't believe enough in the QB to draft him and utilized it as motivation to repay each and every team for their lack of faith. Finally, in the sixth round, pick number 199, the New England Patriots finally pulled the trigger and took Tom Brady.
The rest is history.
Brady's gut check of an NFL draft should be a lesson for Ryan Mallett that draft order doesn't matter, only how hard you're willing to work to prove the doubters wrong. I'm sure that these tidbits of advice, and many more, have already been communicated by Brady to Mallet. After all, they both know the pain of having been drafted much later than their skill sets would predict.
Yet, even beyond their shared draft day disappointments, Brady and Mallett exemplify similar physical traits.
Both have the requisite height to become a starting NFL QB (Brady is 6'4" and Mallett is 6''7"). Both will never be mistaken for Michael Vick outside the pocket (although Brady is much better at evading defenders because of his well-practiced "shoulder swerve" move). Both have inordinately strong arms and, as is the catchy phrase among talent evaluators, "can make every throw."
In addition, both QB's success in the NFL is predicated upon their ability to be a pocket passer and be in complete control of the offense. As football fans know, Brady has already proven to be successful in doing this, while Mallet is hoping to get a chance to prove himself equally successful.
With such similar skill sets, Mallett and the Patriots know that Mallett landed in the perfect situation. He now gets to spend multiple pressure-free years on the bench learning behind arguably one of the greatest quarterbacks in the game who knows how to play the quarterback position the way Mallet is physically designed to play it. Because of this, Mallett now has the ability to hone his physical and leadership skills with the second or third team and bide his time until Brady's abilities begin to deteriorate.
In addition, just being in the presence of Brady and learning from his insatiable work ethic and drive to succeed will be the best thing for Mallett. Given the (supposed) maturity issues that came with drafting Mallet, there is no better role model than Tom Brady to iron those issues out. Despite being married to a Brazilian supermodel and a highly public figure, Brady has exemplified professionalism at every stage of his career. Mallet won't have to look far across the locker room to see the best possible example of how to handle the public nature of playing quarterback in the NFL.
In all, Ryan Mallett fell into a perfect situation in New England. Learning to play pressure-free behind Tom Brady will have that type of effect.
Not many teams can boast a 14-2 record while also ranking 22nd in the league in run defense. Yet, thanks to a top 10 ranking in total offense, the 2010 New England Patriots were able to achieve just that.
This is not only due to the aforementioned Tom Brady, but the balanced offensive system that head coach Bell Belichick oversees. In 2010, the Patriots ranked eighth in total offense due to a solid balance of 3,847 yards passing (11th overall) and 1,973 yards rushing (ninth overall). This balance gives the Patriots a potent attack that makes for many sleepless nights by opposing defensive coordinators trying to scheme against them.
One reason for this success is the Patriots exquisite use of the "play-action fake," where Tom Brady fakes the hand-off to one of his many capable running backs such as Danny Woodhead or BenJarvus Green-Ellis, but then pulls it back and makes the pass to one of his receivers open downfield. The continued success of the play-action pass is legitimized by the fact that the Patriots ranked first in the NFL in receiving offense in 2010.
All of this is music to the ears of Ryan Mallett.
One needs to look no further than his trick play-action pass to a wide open Ronnie Wingo Jr. against Georgia this past season to know how well Mallett would fit into Belichick's offensive scheme.
Not only does Mallett have the great ability to sell the play-action pass, he has the perfect skill set to make for a potentially smooth transition from the Brady era to the post-Brady era. We've already discussed the similarities between Brady and Mallett, and they are extremely important to the Patriots continued success. With Randy Moss now traded away during the season, the Patriots no longer have a deep ball threat to take away from teams concentrating on the diminutive but speedy Wes Welker in the slot.
The Patriots rely heavily on Welker and up-and-coming tight end's Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez to stretch the field and create space for the running game to thrive. All of this is predicated upon Brady's ability to make tight throws in space and keep the running game involved to set up the play-action pass. In other worlds, only a quarterback with the prodigal skills of Brady can make it all work,
This is where Mallett comes in.
Mallett's immense arm strength allows him the ability to make the throws downfield to Gronkowski and Hernandez. In addition, his accuracy (proven by his 60.3 completion percentage and 158 quarterback efficiency rating) will be vital in distributing the ball to Welker in his crossing routes over the middle of the defense.
Yet, the most important factor in determining Mallett's ability to fit into the Patriot offense is the system he just came from in Arkansas. The Razorbacks run a pro-style offense that shares many similarities with the Patriots (a balanced run/pass attack that requires the quarterback to keep the run game involved while also executing the passing game). Mallett ran the Razorbacks offense with great precision the past two seasons, and the similarities between the two offenses give the Patriots hope that Mallett will (after a few years of riding the pine) be able to do the same in a New England uniform.
Yet, as Razorback fans saw in their comeback win against Georgia in 2010, Mallett sure knows how to run the play-action pass. And, as Patriot fans know, that's a good start.
Patriot fans I'm sure won't be happy to bring even the thought of this to the forefront of the conversation. They don't need another horrifying moment like what they witnessed in Week 1 of the 2008 season against the Kansas City Chiefs. However, in the unfortunate event that Brady goes down with another terrible injury that will cause him to miss significant playing time, the Patriots mass panic needs to be quieted by an individual who can step in and give the team a chance to win. All of this points to the most important reason why Ryan Mallett can be an invaluable addition to the Patriots roster.
He's the most NFL-ready rookie to play immediately.
Cam Newton, Jake Locker, Blaine Gabbert and Christian Ponder were all QB's who were drafted among the top 12 picks in the first round of the 2011 NFL draft. Yet, each of them have one huge fundamental flaw that limits their effectiveness in their first season in the NFL.
For Newton, his accuracy in the 2011 BCS National Championship against Oregon and in his combine workout worries many scouts in how he will be able to translate to the NFL.
Even though Newton has accuracy concerns, they pale in comparison to the next quarterback selected after him, former Washington Husky Jake Locker. Going into the 2010 season, Locker was the clear choice to be the No. 1 overall pick. However, after a beyond-ugly 56-21 home loss to Nebraska in which Locker went 4-20 passing for only 71 yards, what once was a sure-fire No. 1 pick began to be seriously doubted. Those doubts became much louder as Locker finished 2010 with a porous 55.4 completion percentage and a pedestrian 124 quarterback efficiency rating.
In the case of Blaine Gabbert, his tendency to force passes that lead to turnovers were costly for his Missouri Tigers. This was on display in the 2010 Insight Bowl against Iowa where, despite throwing for 434 yards, he threw two interceptions in the fourth quarter, the second one being returned for a touchdown to seal a 27-24 Missouri loss. This game served as a microcosm for Gabbert's 2010 season as he threw only 16 touchdowns in comparison to nine interceptions, a subpar touchdown-to-interception ratio compared to other elite QB's in the 2011 Draft.
For Christian Ponder, his leadership abilities were called into question, as he put up solid numbers, but his team faltered late in the season all three years he was the full-time starter.
Although Mallett certainly has some flaws on his own resume (forcing passes that cost the Razorbacks dearly against Alabama and Ohio State in the Sugar Bowl is the main one), his playing career at Arkansas is indicative of a skill set that translates (as of right now) much better to the NFL.
As argued earlier, Mallett far-and-away has the strongest arm of any QB in the 2011 draft. In addition, his passing yards and touchdowns thrown in his two years at Arkansas (an astounding 7,492 yards and 62 touchdowns) blow away any of the four first rounders taken before him. And, where Newton and Locker fight accuracy concerns, Mallett solidified his accuracy by jumping from 55.8 completion percentage in 2009 to an excellent 64.7 completion percentage in 2010.
And, although Mallett has a tendency to force passes, his touchdown-to-interception (62-19 in two years) is far less worrisome than Gabbert's. In addition, unlike Ponder, no one has ever questioned Mallett's leadership as he led fourth quarter/overtime winning drives in the 2009 Liberty Bowl and in the 2010 regular season against Georgia and Mississippi State.
What does all of this mean?
If you are a Patriots fan, it means that you can feel good about 2011 NFL draft, because your front office pulled some real thievery in drafting Ryan Mallett.