FOXBOROUGH — After fortifying his football team and engaging in an acquisition arms race with the Denver Broncos, this was a Google Earth-view NFL Draft for Bill Belichick with clear directions for Life After Tom Brady.
With a microscope on the 2014 offseason, the Patriots took the 10,000-foot aerial view in the 2014 draft. They hovered above the hysteria about Brady’s championship biological clock and ignored the clamoring below to make every move designed to maximize their franchise quarterback. They looked at the big picture, the one that won’t have Brady in it one day.
The ultimate judgment of this draft rides on one selection, quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo in the second round. It was a bold statement and gambit by Belichick on Friday to choose his next franchise quarterback at the potential expense of his current one, to take the long-term view when he has a team built to win in the short term.
The Patriots made nine picks in the draft and eschewed needs at tight end and safety. They passed on a pass rusher until the sixth round. They made the unsexy selections of three offensive linemen on Saturday, the third and final day of the draft. In the first draft since the Aaron Hernandez imbroglio, they steered clear of character-risk players. They selected intriguing running back James White in the fourth round.
But the Hoodie Headliner of the draft is Belichick anointing Brady’s heir/air apparent.
Belichick drafted a quarterback higher than one of his NFL acolytes, former Patriots offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien, who is now the head coach of the quarterback-hungry Houston Texans. The Texans waited until the fourth round (No. 135 overall) to take the well-traveled Tom Savage.
Part of what drove Belichick’s decision to try to find a suitable replacement for Brady now was watching the Indianapolis Colts completely crash and burn in 2011, when Peyton Manning was sidelined for the season with a nerve issue in his neck. The Colts found their successor on the other side of that debacle with Andrew Luck. But they had to endure a dismal 2-14 season to do so.
“Organizationally, I don’t think we would put together a team the way Indianapolis did when they lost Manning, and they go 1-15 or whatever it was,” said Belichick. “I don’t think that’s really what we’re looking for.
“Unfortunately, we lost Tom in 2008 and we had a player [Matt Cassel] who stepped in and won 11 games. We want to be competitive even if something happens to a player at any position. I think depth is always important. You never know when you’re going to need it. But I don’t think we would be happy going 1-15, if we had an injury at one position. But other people have different philosophies.”
That is sound thinking, but Garoppolo, a quick-trigger passer out of Eastern Illinois who won the Walter Payton Award, the Football Championship Subdivision equivalent of the Heisman Trophy, wasn’t merely drafted as a Brady insurance policy. He’s not just here to replace Ryan Mallett as Brady’s backup.
That will be his first job, but it’s not his ultimate purpose as a Patriot. You draft players in the second round to eventually be starters, period, and Garoppolo is no exception.
If Garoppolo does not turn into a starting quarterback for the Patriots or become coveted by other teams to be a starter the Patriots can flip for a first- or second-round pick, then the Garoppolo selection was a failure.
The highest-drafted quarterback in the Belichick era, Garoppolo is different from previous Brady understudies. He is from the draft’s high-rent district. Previously, the Patriots invested in signal-callers like house flippers, buying low on a piece of property and hoping that they could fix it up and sell it for a higher price.
Cassel was a seventh-round pick in 2005. Brian Hoyer was undrafted. Kevin O’Connell (2008) and Mallett (2011) were both third-round picks
Belichick was right when he said Friday night that at the quarterback position you’re better off trying to look for one now rather than later.
History dictates that teams trying to find a successor for their elite quarterbacks usually don’t get it right on the first try. Smooth — from a team standpoint — transitions such as going from Joe Montana to Steve Young in San Francisco and Brett Favre to Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay are the exception, not the rule.
Just ask the folks in Buffalo and Miami how long it can take to find another upper-echelon passer. Those teams are still trying to find someone to take the baton from Jim Kelly and Dan Marino, respectively. Denver had not identified a viable, long-term replacement for John Elway until Elway, acting as the Broncos general manager, convinced Peyton Manning to come to Colorado in 2012.
The selection of Garappolo is not the same as the Broncos taking Brock Osweiler with a second-round pick in 2012. The Broncos had to do that to protect themselves in case Manning’s neck injury ended his career.
Brady, who is owed $26 million over the next four years, will turn 37 in August. He has no chronic, potentially career-threatening ailment and repeatedly has said he plans to play into his 40s.
Adding to the intrigue is that the contracts of Brady and Garoppolo will run through 2017, and they have the same agents, Don Yee and Steve Dubin.
These transitions of power usually don’t take place without getting messy. Brady knows that. He got his job by unseating and usurping an incumbent face of the franchise quarterback, Drew Bledsoe.
That’s the circle of life in the NFL and the Patriot Way. Everyone is replaceable.
In the rarefied air the Patriots occupy, they can look down dismissively on the win-now-or-else theory and look beyond Brady.