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On football

Jimmy Garoppolo signals plan for end of Tom Brady era

Could Jimmy Garoppolo, who starred in college at Eastern Illinois, be the Patriots’ next starting quarterback?

Paul Newton/Southern Illinoisian/AP/File 2013

Could Jimmy Garoppolo, who starred in college at Eastern Illinois, be the Patriots’ next starting quarterback?

FOXBOROUGH — It’s time to start thinking about Tom Brady’s football mortality. Clearly, the Patriots are.

They could have taken any number of players with the 62d overall pick at the back end of the second round. This is a team that needs depth at tight end, safety, running back, linebacker, and pass rusher.

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Instead, they made the most notable pick of Day 2 of the NFL Draft by taking Eastern Illinois quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo.

Yes, a quarterback.

This wasn’t a “He was the best player on our draft board” pick. This was the Patriots publicly acknowledging that they don’t know how much time they have left with Brady.

“The situation we have at quarterback, we felt like as an organization that we needed to address that to some degree in the future,” coach Bill Belichick said. “You’re better off being early rather than late at that position.”

Brady didn’t show any obvious signs of slippage last year at 36. He still threw for 4,343 yards, led some incredible fourth-quarter comebacks, and looked like the 2007 version of himself when Rob Gronkowski was healthy for seven games.

But the cold truth is that Brady’s stats took a dip across the board last year. He had his lowest completion percentage since 2003 (60.5), lowest touchdown total since 2006 (25), the lowest yards per attempt since 2002 (6.9), and the most sacks since 2001 (40).

Was it the kind of statistical slippage that happens when you take away Wes Welker and Gronkowski and give Brady an entire new cast of young, inconsistent players? Possibly.

Or was it the first sign that Brady, who will be 37 in August, is starting to decline? Not even the Patriots know the answer, so they’re preparing for the worst and hoping for the best.

Brady jokes that he wants to play until he’s 50, and if he can stay healthy and maintain his level of play, the Patriots would be happy to have him for another decade. And Belichick would be thrilled to not have to use Garoppolo over the course of his four-year deal, much like the Patriots haven’t gotten any use out of Ryan Mallett, their third-round pick in 2011.

We’ll see if the Patriots trade Mallett for a late-round pick in this draft, or keep him for one more year and let Garoppolo red-shirt as the third quarterback in 2014. That’s certainly the more prudent move, rather than having Garoppolo serve as the No. 2. There’s a big gap between playing against Morehead State and the New York Jets.

The Patriots aren’t ushering Brady out the door. But the Garoppolo pick clearly shows that they’re preparing for The Afterlife. They’d be doing a disservice to themselves and their fans if they didn’t.

Brady can’t be ecstatic that they’re thinking about his replacement, but at least he and Garoppolo share the same agent, who can broker the peace.

The reality is Brady is entering the unknown phase of his career. Will his body be able to absorb the hits at 37 and 38 like it did at 30 and 31? Can he avoid injury like he has done so well throughout his career, except in 2008?

There is no certain answer, of course. But they better be prepared for Brady to decline quickly, because it can happen.

Brady’s idol, Joe Montana, won the MVP at 34, got hurt at 35, and lasted two more seasons with the Chiefs before running out of gas at 38. Dan Marino led the Dolphins to a 10-6 record and threw 23 touchdowns at age 37, then fell off the cliff at 38, throwing 12 touchdowns against 17 interceptions and crawling away from the game with a knee injury and damaged pride. Brett Favre was a Pro Bowler until age 40, then became a decrepit old man at 41, throwing 11 touchdowns and 19 interceptions in a last-gasp season with the Vikings.

But the late 30s aren’t a death sentence in the NFL, either. Favre tossed 33 touchdowns with seven interceptions at age 40. Warren Moon made the Pro Bowl at 38, 39, and 41 and played until he was 44. Kurt Warner lit it up for more than 4,500 passing yards and led the Cardinals to the Super Bowl at 37.

There’s no guidebook for navigating the end of a quarterback’s career. The Patriots just want to make sure they’re not caught unprepared.

Garoppolo is a little undersized at 6 feet 2 inches, doesn’t have the biggest hands, and didn’t play the best competition at Eastern Illinois, a Football Championship Subdivision school. He also has a lightning quick throwing motion, good athleticism, and a great work ethic.

“They’re a very blue-collar organization,” Garoppolo said Friday night of the Patriots. “It seemed like all business, and they get to work. That’s what I’m excited about. I’m one of those guys.”

That attitude was enough to convince Belichick to eschew his most glaring roster needs and snag Garoppolo with the 62d pick. It’s the highest Belichick has ever drafted a quarterback in his 15 years in New England.

I don’t think they see Garoppolo as The Guy to eventually replace Brady. They’re not thinking that linearly, and if Brady can maintain his health and performance, there’s no reason he can’t play until his contract runs out in 2017, and perhaps beyond.

But they want a backup who could fill in for four games if Brady rolls his ankle or sprains a knee ligament. They want a young talent they can trust to win ballgames if, God forbid, Brady goes down for an extended period of time.

Mallett obviously isn’t that answer, or there would be buzz about a Mallett contract extension instead of a trade with Houston.

Garoppolo, though, is a player that many experts thought would be drafted by a quarterback-needy team like Jacksonville or Houston and perhaps start as a rookie. Garoppolo didn’t play the same level of competition as the other prospects, but he was considered just as good, if not better than, Johnny Manziel or Teddy Bridgewater.

Garoppolo won’t be a Day 1 starter with the Patriots. But the team views him as a lot more than just a clipboard holder.

Garoppolo might be The Future. Brady’s health and performance will determine that.

Related:

A closer look at Dominique Easley

Q&A on Dominique Easley

Video: Patriots take Garoppolo but still have needs

Ben Volin can be reached at ben.volin@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin.
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