In a year with moderate buzz surrounding the New England Patriots and the NFL draft, one of the more intriguing questions is this: QB or not QB?
Or in other words, is it time to start thinking about Tom Brady's successor?
This naturally takes us back to early April when the club brought top quarterbacks Johnny Manziel, Teddy Bridgewater and later Jimmy Garoppolo to town for pre-draft visits, an unusual step for the team in terms of that position. That created some talk-radio sparks, especially because the public perception of Bridgewater was much different at the time; he's since slipped to the point that some believe he won't be selected in the first round.
So if you're the Patriots at pick 29 and Bridgewater or Garoppolo is on the board, do you make the pick with the end of Brady's career in mind, sort of like the Green Bay Packers taking Aaron Rodgers in 2005 with Brett Favre's retirement not far away?
Our emphatic answer: No!
Maybe it's more of a New England thing, where issues tend to trend negative and worst-case scenario, but it seems to me like we often want to write the ending before it's necessary. This is one of those cases, sort of similar to the "Patriots dynasty is over" storyline that I feel like we heard year after year not too long ago.
The focus shouldn't be on using a top pick for Brady's successor; it should be on surrounding the soon-to-be-37-year-old with more talent (offensively and defensively) to maximize the time he has left -- at least three seasons and possibly more.
Odds are that's the way the Patriots see it as well and the reason they've been spending so much time meeting with quarterbacks at all levels of the draft is that they will be eyeing them a bit later with the backup spot in mind, and have been attempting to get the best possible top-to-bottom snapshot of the position so they know the right time to pounce.
This has been a tricky year to evaluate quarterbacks.
"If we were to go back in December where the board was based entirely on how they performed as players ... all of these quarterbacks would have been in the middle to the bottom third of the first round to start with. They were not top-10 guys to begin with."
Even if they were, it's hard to imagine the Patriots being in the market to draft them. This isn't about the first round -- unless a quarterback-needy team wants to trade a bevy of picks for the No. 29 selection to get ahead of other QB-seeking clubs atop the second round, which the Patriots likely would oblige -- as much as a bit later in the draft.
Picking a quarterback in the mid-to-late rounds would follow a noticeable drafting pattern we've seen from the Patriots at the position:
2005 -- Matt Cassel (seventh round)
2008 -- Kevin O'Connell (third round)
2011 -- Ryan Mallett (third round)
It isn't a coincidence that the team has drafted a mid- to late-round signal-caller every three years to work behind Brady, a decision tied in part to economics and managing the salary cap. When the starting quarterback is earning a top wage as Brady is, it helps when the backup is closer to the minimum level, and that's why the Patriots have trended younger behind Brady. Top backups with starting experience are now commanding $4 million per year.
Mallett enters the final year of his contract in 2014 and the Patriots would be wise to carry a third developmental quarterback this year to prepare for Mallett's likely departure in 2015.
It would be the same line of thinking as they had in 2011 when they picked Mallett and devoted a roster spot to him behind Brady and top backup Brian Hoyer so he could develop behind the scenes with little pressure. When Hoyer was scheduled to earn a pay increase to $1.9 million in 2012, he was let go and Mallett (then earning $508,992) was bumped up to No. 2.
It just so happens that this is a good year for teams looking for developmental quarterbacks.
ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper said as many as 15-20 quarterbacks have draftable grades, which is significantly higher than the norm. NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock added that as many as 10 quarterbacks have grades within the first three rounds, which is about double the typical total.
As for who might fit for the Patriots, Pittsburgh's Tom Savage (third/fourth round), Georgia's Aaron Murray (third/fourth round), San Jose State's David Fales (fourth/fifth round), Ball State's Keith Wenning (fifth/sixth round), Miami's Stephen Morris (fifth/sixth round) and Cornell's Jeff Mathews (late rounds) all could warrant consideration as part of the second tier at the position.
So we'd almost expect the Patriots to come out of the 2014 draft with a quarterback.
But it won't be with Brady's successor in mind as much as once again feeding the pipeline behind him.