FOXBOROUGH – Patriots director of player personnel Nick Caserio explained why his team has taken a deep look at the quarterback class in this year’s NFL Draft. But he sidestepped the real question on the minds of most Patriots fans – is this the year the team drafts Tom Brady’s successor?
“We’re focused on improving our football team in whatever capacity we can do it, and we’ll always consider doing that,” Caserio said Tuesday afternoon at Gillette Stadium in his annual pre-draft press conference. “Right now our focus is just on the draft and trying to improve our team.”
The Patriots have attended workouts and met privately with at least a dozen of the top quarterback prospects this spring in advance of the draft on May 8-10, including expected first-round picks Johnny Manziel, Blake Bortles and Teddy Bridgewater, as well as middle-round prospects such as Jimmy Garoppolo and A.J. McCarron.
The visits of Manziel and Bridgewater to Gillette last month sparked rumors that the Patriots might use their 29th pick on a quarterback to eventually take over for Brady, who turns 37 in August, but Caserio said that the Patriots’ diligence with the quarterbacks is similar to what they do for every position every year.
Brady is under contract through the 2017 season, while a rookie drafted this year would be under contract for at least four seasons, and potentially five if he is a first-round pick, per the rules of the collective bargaining agreement.
It’s also possible that the Patriots are looking at the successor to backup Ryan Mallett, who can be a free agent after the 2014 season and may look to join a team that could give him a better chance of playing.
“This year’s really no different,” Caserio said of examining all of the top quarterbacks. “It’s all with the idea of trying to gain as much information about that position group from top to bottom.”
“You have a good baseline of information so the answer isn’t, ‘I don’t know, we haven’t spent time with him.’ We can’t get everybody, but you try to earmark ‘X’ number of players, and we try to get as much information as we can so that we’re prepared in the event we have to make a decision at some point along the way.”
Caserio said the private visits are used to get to better know a player’s off-field personality, but mostly as a way to test their football aptitude. He said that the Patriots will often go through a player’s college tape to have him explain what happened on certain plays. The Patriots will also teach the player some basic concepts from their playbook and see how well he comprehends it.
“You’re looking more at their method of learning, as opposed to what they are actually learning,” Caserio said.
When asked about this year’s crop of prospects, Caserio highlighted a “proliferation of underclassmen” – an NFL record 103 declared early this year – and noted that the wide receiver, running back and defensive line positions appear to be quite deep.
Caserio said the Patriots have the ability to draft the best player available on their draft board without regard to position. The Patriots’ roster is currently at 65 players, and they can add up to 25 players via the draft and undrafted free agency. They filled most of their glaring holes in free agency with new contracts for Darrelle Revis, Julian Edelman, Brandon Browner, Brandon LaFell and Vince Wilfork.
“If we had to go out there and play a game, we feel that we would field a competitive team,” Caserio said.