RICHMOND — If Ryan Mallett is bothered by his situation, he won’t let it show.
The Patriots’ backup quarterback said Wednesday he believes he is a starting-caliber NFL quarterback, but also said he loves his situation in New England.
“I was dealt the hand I was dealt, so I’m playing cards now,” Mallett said.
Drafted in the third round out of Arkansas in 2011, Mallett is in the final year of his rookie contract. There have been rumors for well over a year that the Patriots were trying to trade him, and those rumors intensified during this year’s draft — with his former offensive coordinator, Bill O’Brien, now the coach in Houston without a true starter, and with New England drafting Jimmy Garoppolo in the second round.
Privately, word is the Patriots are happy with how Mallett performed in the spring and the early part of training camp, and on Tuesday, Bill Belichick and Tom Brady spoke highly of his progress.
That was on the heels of comments from NFL Network’s Mike Mayock, who said Mallett “popped” in practice against Washington and that what he saw was a starting QB.
“I haven’t [heard Mayock’s assessment], but I’ve always felt that way about myself because I’m confident in myself,” Mallett said. “I appreciate his nice words but I’ve always felt that way.”
Mallett and Brady have become tight and have a lot of fun working together.
“After four years of having to sit next to that crazy guy . . . you’ve got to put up with him,” Mallett cracked. “Tom’s great. I tell people all the time I feel like he’s my older brother. We joke around, mess around and then we know when it’s time to be serious. It’s a lot of fun.”
During the offseason, Mallett spent some time in Minnesota, invited by Cardinals All-Pro receiver Larry Fitzgerald, with whom he has maintained a relationship for a few years. Fitzgerald had gathered some other receivers, including Washington’s Andre Roberts, for workouts, and they needed an arm.
Mallett jumped at the opportunity.
Considered one of the more talented quarterbacks among his draft class, a player with a huge arm, there were concerns about Mallett’s off-field behavior that led to him dropping down the board. To this point, he has been a model citizen. There have been no negative stories and he’s one of the Patriots most willing to do charitable events.
Though he has no children, Mallett loves playing with teammates’ kids after practices. A particular favorite for the smaller ones is when he grabs them by the belly in one of his big hands and lifts them high over his head.
All of the quarterbacks taken before him in 2011 — Cam Newton, Jake Locker, Blaine Gabbert, Christian Ponder, Andy Dalton, and Colin Kaepernick — have gotten a chance to start, and in some cases, have already been replaced.
But Mallett didn’t even take a snap during the regular season in 2013, as Tom Brady never came off the field.
So this preseason is important for Mallett, not just as he continues to prove that he should remain as Brady’s top backup, but also for him to show the rest of the teams in the league that he deserves a shot to become a starter.
“I’m very excited about the opportunity to play a lot. I haven’t really gotten too many chances during the regular season obviously because I have a pretty good guy in front of me, so anytime I get the chance to play, I look forward to it,” he said.
With three full seasons under his belt, Mallett has seen progress.
“I feel really good right now. I’m seeing stuff pretty well. It’s definitely slowed down. It happens over time, so I’m happy it’s finally doing that,” he said. “I’m seeing stuff a lot better, I’m picking it up a lot better, so I’m ready to go.”
On Tuesday, Belichick said Mallett knows New England’s playbook “from A to Z.” How long did it take for him to get to that point?
“How many days are in four years?” Mallett said, smiling. “A lot of days, a lot of hours.”
Now 26, he was asked if he ever thinks about where he’ll be in a couple of years.
“I don’t. I live day to day, man. I’m happy where I’m at right now. I’m having a blast, I’m on a great team, I’ve got a great organization around me, my teammates are awesome, so that doesn’t cross my mind,” Mallett said. “I’m just trying to do whatever I can to help the team every day.”
Still, the conundrum remains: how do you mesh the desire to be a starter with the reality of being a backup?
“You can’t control what you can’t control,” Mallett said. “It’s the uncontrollable — deal with it.”Shalise Manza Young can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @shalisemyoung.