With the news that Tom Brady will abandon his federal appeal and accept his four-game suspension, Jimmy Garoppolo will probably be the starting quarterback when the New England Patriots open their season against the Cardinals on Sept. 11. He is one of six projected Week 1 starting quarterbacks who did not start in their first two NFL seasons. Each of the other five players has a winning record as a starter.
Garoppolo will be 24 years and 314 days old on opening day, which would make him the youngest Patriots starting QB in a season opener since Drew Bledsoe, who was 24 years and 200 days old in the Patriots' 1996 season opener at the Dolphins. In the last 30 years, four quarterbacks have made their first start in a season-opening night game, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. Aaron Rodgers was the most recent when he made his first start on Monday Night Football in the Packers' 2008 season opener.
The last Patriots QB to start Week 1 other than Tom Brady was Bledsoe in 2001. The Bengals beat the Patriots 23-17. The Patriots also lost in Week 2 to the Jets, a game in which Jets linebacker Mo Lewis injured Bledsoe on a hit near the sideline. Brady then took over and led the Patriots to the Super Bowl that season.
So what can we expect from Garoppolo and the Patriots' offense? What can we expect Garoppolo to see from those four opponents defensively?
Here are some trends from last season that might hold the key to what happens in these four games to open this season.
WEEK 1 at CARDINALS
Garoppolo could be on the field with a full dose of two-tight end sets. The Patriots ran 589 offensive plays with at least two tight ends last season, the most in the NFL. They scored 29 touchdowns, including 18 by pass, with at least that many on the field, also the most in the NFL. The Cardinals' defense saw at least two tight ends on the field for 234 snaps last season. Only the Lions and Cowboys saw fewer snaps. Coincidentally, those three teams were the among the worst in opponent’s completion percentage in that situation.
Garoppolo can expect to see the blitz early and often. The Cardinals blitzed on 45 percent of dropbacks, the highest rate in the NFL. They have blitzed on at least 42 percent of dropbacks in each of the last four seasons.
Patriots fans are hopeful that Garoppolo will be like Brady against the blitz. Last season, Brady had the second-highest Total QBR in that situation at 84.9, throwing 12 touchdowns and one interception.
WEEK 2 vs DOLPHINS
Garoppolo might benefit from the Patriots going heavy in the 11 package (one running back, one tight end, three wide receivers). The Dolphins ranked 26th in opposing completion percentage in this situation last season (66 percent), despite facing the fifth-fewest pass attempts.
The Patriots benefited from plenty of yards after the catch last season. In their Week 8 matchup against the Dolphins, New England piled up 186 yards after the catch, including 84 from Dion Lewis and 55 from Rob Gronkowski.
WEEK 3 vs TEXANS
Garoppolo will want to watch out for more than just J.J. Watt. Yes, Watt did have 17.5 sacks last season, but Whitney Mercilus added 12.0. The Bengals (Carlos Dunlap and Geno Atkins) were the only other team that had two teammates with double-digit sacks.
How can Garoppolo counter that? With a heavy dose of play action. Opposing quarterbacks had a Total QBR of 87 on play-action passes last season against the Texans. Only the Bears' and Saints' defenses were worse in that regard. The Texans allowed seven passing touchdowns with no interceptions on play-action passes, with five of the touchdowns thrown at least 10 yards downfield.
WEEK 4 vs BILLS
Expect Garoppolo to try to get rid of the ball quickly. In Week 2 at the Bills last season, Brady threw 43 passes, and on each one he took 2.20 seconds or less to throw. That’s the most passes thrown that quickly in any game over the last five seasons. The Bills faced 336 attempts when the passer took no longer than 2.20 seconds to throw, the second-most throws in that situation, ahead of the Steelers.
Have the Bills learned their lesson when sending basic pressure (four or fewer rushers)? In their second meeting, Brady completed 45 percent of his throws when facing basic pressure, the lowest rate of his 2015 regular season. That’s a far cry from their Week 2 matchup, when the Patriots completed 66 percent of the passes on those throws.