FOXBOROUGH — On the Patriots quarterback depth chart, Brian Hoyer’s on top of Ryan Mallett. Otherwise, they’re right beside each other.
As much as they’re competing for the job as Tom Brady’s backup, Hoyer and Mallett are friends off the field, largely because no one can understand the position they are in like they can.
“I remember being the young guy,” said Hoyer, who’s all of 26 years old. “Not that I’m an aged veteran. But I’ve been in his shoes before. You just want to do what’s best for the team, especially at the quarterback position. So we’re always helping each other out.”
For all intents and purposes, Hoyer and Mallett are playing behind an immovable object.
Not counting when his knee was shredded in 2008, Brady’s started every game for the Patriots since 2002.
It doesn’t stop the backups from competing, though, not just with each other but also with Brady.
“Ryan and I are both trying to compete with Tom,” Hoyer said. “That’s how you get better is chasing the guy in front of you. Competition is healthy. We all get along great, we all help each other out, and we can all learn from each other, too.
“When you’re chasing the guy in front of you and that’s Tom Brady, that’s a pretty high standard. So when I get out there, I’m trying to outperform him, which for me, that’s a level that is up there. So you always try to be the best, and having the best in front of you, that gives you a good goal line for that.”
The Hoyer-Mallett competition has caught the eye of both coach Bill Belichick and director of player personnel Nick Caserio, and they’ll be able to see more of both once the team begins its preseason schedule this Thursday against the Saints at Gillette Stadium.
“I think they’re going to have ample opportunity here in the preseason so we’ll get a good gauge,” Caserio said. “Really, until you’re out there playing live in the preseason, practice is important, it’s critical, and that’s what we have to go on, but once we get into the preseason games, they’re going to have ample opportunity and then we’ll see what they can do.”
For Hoyer, who has been Brady’s backup the past three seasons, there’s a clear urgency about the preseason that makes sense when one realizes he threw just one pass last season (it was, however, the 22-yarder that gave Rob Gronkowski the record for receiving yards in a season by a tight end).
When the Patriots tagged Hoyer with the second-round tender as he headed into the offseason as a restricted free agent, it was almost a compliment, setting a high value for a quarterback whose résumé was his numbers in three preseasons, when he completed 60 percent of his passes for 1,121 yards and five touchdowns.
“This is like the regular season for me,” Hoyer said. “You never know how things are going to go. When it gets to the regular season and whoever’s the backup you prepare like you’re the starter but you may never get in the game for the whole year.
“I had one pass attempt last year. But the preseason games, you know you’re going to get in there, so when you get in there you want to show what you can do and take advantage of every rep that you get because once that last preseason game’s over you don’t know when you’re playing again.”
For Mallett, being able to go through a training camp without everything feeling like it’s moving at warp speed is the biggest difference between this year and last.
Because of the lockout, the Patriots opened camp last season on July 27. Mallet didn’t sign his four-year contract until July 29. For a rookie — especially a quarterback — even those two days could leave you light years behind.
“I was lost sometimes last year because I wasn’t here for Day 1 of the camp,” Mallett said. “It’s hard to catch up once you get behind. It’s hard to play catchup in this offense. I’ve learned a lot since last year.”
This year, he was able to get both organized team activities and minicamp under his belt, so when he entered his second training camp his comfort level was dramatically higher. Mentally, he’s got a better handle on the playbook, which Belichick has noticed.
“He’s way ahead of where he was last year,” Belichick said. “Knows more about what we’re doing, I think has a better understanding of what the defense is doing and has run the plays – he’s actually run them.
“Last year, we were putting them in and he had never done them before. This year, he had the benefit of last season and the entire spring. Anybody’s execution normally gets better with repetition and that’s definitely the case for him, too. The more he’s had the chance to execute the plays, the more confident and better he’s gotten with them.”
Mallett has slimmed down, changed his diet, and gotten into better shape, saying he feels quicker than he has in the past.
“I’ve had a whole spring, so it’s starting to pick up some more,” he said. “To me, it’s just about getting better every day. You come out here, you’re going to meetings, you learn in the meetings, you come out here and you apply it on the practice field. You work on all the little things and overall all the big things when you get to the team drills and stuff like that. So I think every day’s a process of getting better.”