The name Jimmy Garoppolo, the New England Patriots' 2014 second-round pick, rang out last offseason. As Tom Brady's backup, the quarterback was slated to begin the 2015 regular season as the New England Patriots' starter, as the Deflategate scandal led to the suspension of the team's four-time Super Bowl champion.
But just before the season kicked off, the ruling of Brady's four-game ban was overturned in New York, allowing the passer to suit up in the season opener against the Pittsburgh Steelers, a game the Patriots would win by a score of 28-21.
This didn't end the legal drama, though. The U.S Second Court of Appeals overturned the ruling this past April, mere days before the 2016 NFL draft. What does that mean? The four-game stretch we expected out of Garoppolo in 2015 didn't vanish, it was just pushed to a later date.
The question now is the same as one year ago: Does Garoppolo have what it takes to weather the storm as a spot starter in Brady's absence?
Garoppolo is a very young prospect. Despite being drafted in the 2014 draft, now two classes removed, at 24 years old, he is younger than some of the athletes selected in this past draft. For reference, Leonard Floyd, the pass-rusher from Georgia who was just drafted ninth overall by the Chicago Bears, will turn 24 years old before his first regular-season game in the NFL.
The biggest issue with Garoppolo wasn't showing up to the NFL overaged, but his athletic upside. An FCS quarterback, he measured in at the combine in the 19th percentile of quarterbacks in terms of height at 6'2", according to Mock Draftable, and he didn't flash in any explosion drill. At Eastern Illinois, he was labeled as a "system quarterback."
For example, Bryce Petty, who played in the same type of Art Briles-Dino Babers scheme in college, insinuated to Darryl Slater of NJ Advance Media that he only recently learned what an under front was. In 2016, educated NFL fanbases, who never played a down of major college football, can recognize fronts and personnel packages. It seems nearly impossible that fans would be more qualified than college quarterbacks to diagnose NFL defenses, but that's how ill-prepared these passers are coming out of "gimmick" systems.
To truly get a feel on how Garoppolo may transition to starting in the NFL, we need to take a look at all of his regular-season dropback attempts since he entered the league. As they say, the eye in the sky doesn't lie.
Including the passes which were called back for offensive holding, Garoppolo has thrown 33 balls in his two years as a professional. A shocking amount of them, 22, have come within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage. Seven of them were either screens or bubble passes thrown to the perimeter behind the line of scrimmage. In many ways, he's still functioning as a "system quarterback," even in garbage time as a professional.
Of his 15 short passes, throws between the line of scrimmage and 10 yards past the line of scrimmage, he was on target for 13 of them. Unfortunately, his two misses were in make-or-break situations. One was on a 4th-and-3 attempt against the Buffalo Bills in Week 17 of 2014, while his other was a 3rd-and-4 with the game on the line against the Miami Dolphins in Week 17 of 2015. In both games, Garoppolo was trying to make up for a late deficit.
In two seasons, he's only thrown eight intermediate throws—between 11 and 19 yards past the line of scrimmage. That's an area of the field which many would argue is what separates those quarterbacks who will establish themselves with franchises and those who are simply renting a roster spot. Of the eight passes, five of them would be considered on target, or within a reasonable range of his target to make a play.
That's a fairly good mark, but when you look at the circumstances of how he was able to execute those plays, he wasn't just dropping back and converting through tight windows. Of those five on-target throws, three came off of play action, one was called back for offensive holding and the other was on a third-down attempt of over 30 yards, which while completed, fell well short of the chains.
Usually, I'd consider a play that involved offensive holding to have no fault from the quarterback, but it occurred when Garoppolo was floating around the pocket, giving him more time than he will likely ever see again in a dropback to make a layup throw against a secondary bust. Even then, the completion fell short of a conversion on a 3rd-and-26.
The other three balls came on two missed deep attempts, his only throws of 20 air yards or longer, and one throw away.
Statistically, his skill set alone paints a picture, and it's of the stereotype of a college "spread" passer. He has quick-strike ability to make passes underneath, but he rarely tests deep, and he's not very successful when he does. Over 10 air yards, he needs the assist of the defense buying into action in the backfield or his teammates overcoming one-on-one matchups to get a quality ball off, even if at times those players aren't winning certain matchups within the rules of the sport.
What should be most worrisome is his intermediate ability, as his misses stood out more than his completions.
Last year, the Green Bay Packers couldn't get a deep or intermediate passing game going. After the St. Louis Rams (now Los Angeles) and San Diego Chargers tested Aaron Rodgers' pass-catchers, a group missing Jordy Nelson, the whole league knew how to play them.
The jig was up. Without a deep or intermediate game, the Packers finished the year 23rd in yards, their worst mark since 1991, when the team went 4-12 with Mike Tomczak, Don Majkowski and Blair Kiel as its starting quarterbacks.
Their offensive points scored fell to 15th after leading the league in 2014. The last time the Packers had ranked so low in that category, Mike McCarthy, the third-longest tenured coach in the NFL, was in his first year as Green Bay's head coach. While we like to believe that short, efficient passes act as a run game in today's NFL, if you can't throw the deep ball, defenses will constrict low passing games and running games.
Just based on how teams have schemed against quarterbacks of the same mold in the past, defenses will test Garoppolo with press-blitzes early and often in 2016, should the Brady ruling stand in court. He's not Brady in terms of intermediate efficiency, and he's not Ryan Mallett in terms of arm strength and overall potential.
As of now, he's a decently mobile passer who can take what defenses give him, but unless a strong run game develops in New England, teams will simply give him deep and intermediate one-on-one matchups, which he hasn't been able to take advantage of as a simple dropback passer. Pressure should also rattle the quarterback who has a little bit of Johnny Manziel in him on the field.
Ideally, if you're scheming Garoppolo to success, you play him like a true spread quarterback. You allow him to run zone-read options, which he has had some success with, and allow him to make plays with run-pass options, packaged plays which are also known as "RPOs."
With an RPO, the former Panther passer would be able to take advantage of his quick-strike ability and his mobility to put his teammates in more "open" positions, even in a crowded tackle box. The Manziel scrambling would have to stop, though. RPOs are a play on the numbers game that runs the NFL, but they will only be executed if the quarterback in charge is willing to take a hit on the play and if he is willing to stick to the script.
It's within the realm of possibility that Garoppolo could be considered an Alex Smith or Andy Dalton-like quarterback by October, should he indeed get the opportunity to start the season as the Patriots' quarterback. There are elements of his game he needs to work on, like his decisiveness and wasted movement, but he has the talent to be a baseline passer as a new-age spread quarterback.
Based on his ability coming out of college and what he's done in two years of competitive play in the league, that's exactly what his goal should be. No more, no less. The question is if New England is willing to accept his physical limitations, which might be why it drafted Jacoby Brissett, a former Florida and North Carolina State quarterback, on Day 2 of the draft less than a week after Brady was announced to be suspended to start 2016.