If anyone is to blame for Tebowmania arriving in New England, it’s Ryan Mallett.
“Blame” might be too harsh, but Mallett, the Patriots’ enigmatic third-year quarterback, is a big reason why the Patriots are willing to take a gamble on Tim Tebow.
Obviously, the presence of Tom Brady quashes any conversation about Tebow getting on the field this year. But Mallett’s performance this spring, and development as the clear No. 2, also allows the Patriots to take a long-term approach with Tebow. Heaven forbid Brady goes down this year, the Patriots can roll with the strong-armed Mallett instead of having to change the whole offense for Tebow.
“I just felt like I’ve continued to improve, get my body in shape better,” Mallett said after Wednesday’s minicamp practice. “I’m learning how to be the consummate pro. I’ve got some of the best guys to learn from. Just trying to work hard every day and get better.”
Tebow was the one garnering the attention and headlines last week, but Mallett, who turned 25 this month, was arguably the most intriguing player on the Patriots’ practice field this spring.
The offense has become second nature, and Mallett is his harshest critic, often yelling at himself for a poor throw or missed read.
But the great unknown with Mallett, just how much has he developed over the last two years?
He has thrown all of four passes in regular-season action, and two years behind Brady and out of the spotlight have made Mallett almost a forgotten man in NFL quarterback talk.
But don’t forget, this is the same guy who many believed would be a first-round pick if not for a poor running performance at the combine and rumors of off-field issues. The same guy whom Michael Lombardi, then with NFL Network and now the Browns’ general manager, had rated as his top quarterback of 2011 — ahead of Cam Newton. The same guy who is the son of a football coach, can throw the ball 80-plus yards, and threw for almost 7,500 yards in two years at Arkansas.
Bill Belichick gushed about Mallett — at least by Belichick standards — when asked about his spring performance, calling him “good, solid. He’s improved every year he’s been here. He’s done a good job.”
Sitting on the bench hasn’t been easy for Mallett, a former five-star high school prospect and the 2006 Gatorade Player of the Year for the state of Texas. But he has developed a mature perspective about his situation.
“Of course I would’ve loved to play when I came in,” he said. “But just seeing how the game works, just the small nicks and knacks you might not get when coming in to play your first year, is something that’s really helped me.”
Mallett was humble about how he has performed during spring workouts, but spoke with confidence about being ready to play.
“I’m a work in progress, but I feel good, I feel comfortable,” Mallett said. “I feel if my number is called right now I’m ready to go in.”
Of course, looking good in shorts during the middle of June is one thing, and doing it in the fall is another.
He has looked good in spots during the preseason, but that, too, is a tough barometer, as teams rarely show anything but their most vanilla offensive and defensive packages.
But the Patriots clearly have an appreciating asset in Mallett, who is under contract through the 2014 season. And if he plays well this preseason, Mallett’s name will be one of the hottest on the trade market next offseason.
Lombardi and the Browns will likely be No. 1 on the list, but several other teams — Jacksonville, Minnesota, Tennessee, Philadelphia, and Arizona — could be looking for quarterbacks next year. And Mallett offers an intriguing option for teams that might want more of a finished product than a draft prospect.
Mallett, obviously, has heard about the Patriots eventually trading him since he was drafted in 2011, but Wednesday deflected all talk of playing elsewhere.
“I’m a Patriot,” Mallett said. “All this other stuff that keeps getting talked about, I don’t have anything to do with it. I come to work as a Patriot every day and try to get better. I’m happy being a Patriot.”
The time to consider trading Mallett for 2013 has come and gone — the Patriots obviously didn’t feel comfortable with keeping Mike Kafka as the No. 2 option, and can’t possibly consider Tebow a No. 2 at this point, either.
But Mallett’s mysterious progress might help the Patriots when it comes time to consider dealing him next spring.
Mallett hasn’t shown anything on the field, but he has spent two years germinating under the eyes of Belichick, Brady, and now Josh McDaniels.
“That’s like being let loose in Fort Knox, and they let you steal all the money you can and no one’s going to stop you,” said NFL.com’s Gil Brandt, formerly the longtime personnel director of Tom Landry’s Dallas Cowboys. “All you know is he’s been in a very good system for two years, and I’m sure with the coaching he gets up there that he’s improved.”
BACK TO SCHOOL
Kuechly hits books at BC
Two weeks after wrapping up an outstanding rookie season, in which he led the NFL in tackles and was named Defensive Rookie of the Year, Panthers middle linebacker Luke Kuechly hit the books.
Kuechly, a former Boston College star, lived the dorm life again in Chestnut Hill this winter, returning to school in January to take classes and get closer to his degree after he left school in 2012 to be a first-round pick.
He took five business classes — applied marketing, marketing research, operations management, social media marketing, and independent study — and now is three electives away from graduating, which he hopes to accomplish next year.
He wasn’t exactly eating Ramen noodles and buying cheap beer with a fake ID, but Kuechly enjoyed returning to the low-key environment for three months at BC.
“It was kind of fun to be back around those guys,” Kuechly said by telephone. “I think I fit in well. BC is a small school, everybody already knows each other, so it wasn’t a big deal.”
Kuechly, who turned 22 in April, is a much bigger deal in Charlotte, N.C. He started all 16 games his rookie year, and his move to middle linebacker when Jon Beason went down with an injury in Week 4 improved the Panthers’ run defense immediately. The Panthers held opponents to fewer than 100 yards rushing in eight of their final 12 games, and finished the season on a four-game win streak.
Kuechly led all NFL players with 164 tackles, and also had a sack, two interceptions, and eight passes defended to beat out several worthy candidates for Rookie of the Year.
The scary part for opponents in 2013 — Kuechly says he feels much more comfortable now than he did as a rookie.
“The thing I’ve noticed the most is all that first-year stuff is behind you,” he said. “You’ve got to find a spot to live, figure out the city, meet the guys, meet the coaches, learn the playbook. Now this year I don’t have to do any of that. Now it’s concentrating on the little details of the defense, the little ins and outs we can do in certain situations.”
The Panthers aren’t getting much hype after going 7-9 last year, but do have two recent Rookies of the Year in Kuechly and Cam Newton, two young stars who play important positions.
“A lot of people aren’t going to be talking about us,” Kuechly said. “But it’s up to us. If we can get started on the right foot, win a couple of games early, people are going to be talking about us.”
PIECES OF PIE
How Patriots slice their cap
The Patriots have 88 players on the roster (maximum is 90) and approximately $8.3 million in salary cap space, which they can use to add help at receiver or defensive line, or roll over into next year’s cap.
A look at the Patriots’ top-51 spending — in the offseason, only the top 51 contracts count against the cap — reveals the realities of today’s NFL.
The offensive line takes up the biggest chunk, with nine players accounting for 18.5 percent of the spending (more than $22 million). The defensive line is next at 15.8 percent ($19 million). The secondary is third at 13.5 percent (more than $16.2 million), although the cornerbacks account for two-thirds of the spending. And quarterbacks are fourth at 12.6 percent (more than $15 million), with Tom Brady obviously accounting for most of it.
At the bottom are running backs (3 percent of spending), specialists (3.95 percent), and wide receivers (8 percent).
Broken down by per-player spending, quarterback is clearly the top priority, with the Patriots averaging more than $5 million per quarterback. Defensive line is next at $3.18 million per player, and offensive line is third at $2.48 million per player. At running back, where players are most prone to injuries, the Patriots are spending just $907,362 on each of four.
League-wide, the Patriots are among the top 10 teams in spending on quarterbacks (seventh), tight ends (fifth), and offensive line (10th), but near the bottom for running backs (29th) and wide receivers (20th), according to OverTheCap.com.
On defense, they are near the league average at many positions — linebacker (18th), cornerback (19th), and safety (17th) — but spend high at defensive tackle (sixth) and not enough at defensive end (24th).
The lesson from all of this? The Patriots obviously value four skills the most: throwing the football, pass-blocking, covering receivers, and clogging the middle of the defense. They find running backs and wide receivers to be mostly interchangeable. And the pass defense, which ranked 29th in yards allowed and 15th in sacks last season, isn’t going to improve until they focus more resources at pass rusher.
Favre decides to play nice
Another legend may be close to reconciling with his old team, like Jim Brown and Mike Ditka have done this offseason. Brett Favre seems to be almost begging the Packers to welcome him back into the family.
Favre held the Packers hostage for a couple of years with his wishy-washy stance on retirement, had an icy relationship with Aaron Rodgers, his heir apparent, and gave a proverbial middle finger to the fan base by signing with the archrival Vikings prior to the 2009 season.
But appearing last week in Buffalo at a Jim Kelly charity event, Favre told a local radio station, “It’s over and done with. I was at fault . . . Obviously there was, if you want to call it, bad blood or whatever. I just think that people started picking sides. And really I’m over that, and have been over it.”
Thursday on SiriusXM, Favre said, “The way it went down was not the best of ways . . . I left them in limbo, as we all know, and I didn’t want to make a decision until I got right up to training camp, and that’s probably where I was at fault.”
And of Rodgers, Favre told Sirius: “Barring any injury he’ll shatter everything I ever did there, except for maybe consecutive games. But the guy has been tremendous; great move on their part.”
The Patriots are waiting on one last rookie to sign, second-round pick Aaron Dobson. When Dobson does sign — the pick before him, Broncos running back Montee Ball, just signed his contract on Thursday — he’ll get a signing bonus of $873,360 and will have a 2013 salary cap number of $623,340 . . . Patriots defensive end/outside linebacker Rob Ninkovich on rookie second-round pick Jamie Collins, the team’s top draft choice and the same type of player as Ninkovich: “Jamie’s a very athletic kid. He’s come in and is just trying to be that quiet guy, just trying to absorb and learn everything. He’s done a good job in just coming in and doing his best.” . . . A source close to former Colts wide receiver Austin Collie, who had a private workout for the Patriots before their Tuesday minicamp practice, said Collie’s goal was to get a couple of workouts in last week before teams leave for six weeks of summer vacation (he also worked out for the 49ers). Collie, who was cleared by doctors after tearing his meniscus last September, hopes to sign with a team around the start of training camp in late July, and the Patriots are still in play . . . The NFL’s new policy regarding bags allowed in stadiums has many fans upset. The only bags allowed now are: bags that are clear (see-through) plastic, vinyl, or PVC and do not exceed 12 inches by 6 inches by 12 inches; one-gallon clear (see-through) plastic freezer bag; small clutch bags, not to exceed 7 inches by 4 inches by 2 inches (approximately the size of a hand). Safety is the No. 1 reason behind the new rules, although this should make it tougher for fans to sneak food and alcohol into stadiums. The irony — the Patriots, like many teams, sell a purse on their official online team store that is now prohibited inside the stadium . . . Patriots tight end Jake Ballard said on Twitter that he hit a deer on his drive home to Ohio. “The score stands as follows . . . Jake = 1 Deer = 0 Car = 0 #nothappyaboutit,” he tweeted . . . Bills defensive end Mario Williams, on the team’s website, about the six-week break players have before the start of training camp: “This is not vacation time. You can’t just go home and eat Doritos.”Ben Volin can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.