EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Jimmy Garoppolo is just trying to keep his mouth shut and blend in as he progresses through his rookie training camp with the Patriots.
More and more, though, he’s looking like The Turk, the guy who taps you on the shoulder and tells you to bring your playbook to Bill Belichick’s office. Garoppolo is bad news for the other quarterbacks in the room.
Tom Brady has nothing to worry about now, of course, but he’ll be looking over his shoulder for the next two or three years, needing to stay sharp so the Patriots don’t pull a Logan Mankins and ship him off to another team when his performance no longer matches his contract. Garoppolo was drafted in the second round just in case the Patriots need him to take over in a few years, and Brady knows it.
Ryan Mallett, though, better be worried right now. Garoppolo looked decent enough in the first three preseason games after a shaky start to training camp, and didn’t look overwhelmed starting and playing the whole game in a 16-13 loss in the preseason finale against the Giants. Garoppolo only completed 52.4 percent of his passes (22 for 42), but threw for 284 yards, a touchdown, and an interception.
It’s impossible to get inside Belichick’s head, but Garoppolo’s performance Thursday night may have put the final nail in Mallett’s coffin. Mallett played all of seven snaps in last week’s preseason game against the Panthers, and didn’t play at all against the Giants. Is that how you prepare your backup quarterback to get ready to play this season in case Brady gets hurt?
Through the first two weeks of camp, it looked as if Garoppolo needed a redshirt year, and the Patriots needed a veteran such as Mallett to back up Brady in case the unthinkable happens. But now that thinking has been flipped upside down.
The reality is Garoppolo has played well enough to win the No. 2 job, and Mallett’s roster spot would be better used at any number of positions that need better depth on the back end — offensive line, defensive line, tight end, linebacker, and defensive back.
If last season proved anything, it’s that the Patriots need to keep as many position players as possible. You might need a Chris Jones or Sealver Siliga or Matthew Mulligan to play significant snaps in the AFC Championship game. The No. 3 quarterback, though, won’t get a whiff of action and will just occupy a roster spot all season.
The Patriots haven’t carried a third quarterback since 2011, Mallett’s rookie season, and probably shouldn’t again this year, given the way Garoppolo and Mallett have played. Garoppolo has been far from perfect — he’s gotten away with a few poor passes that slipped through the defender’s hands this preseason, and his accuracy on Thursday was spotty — but the second-round pick has shown enough poise, confidence, and skill that he can probably handle the backup job this season.
He has certainly played just as well as Mallett, if not better. A tie should go to the rookie, and to a position player who can better utilize Mallett’s roster spot.
Mallett only completed 14 of 26 passes this preseason with one touchdown, and doesn’t look like he has improved that much in his four years in Foxborough. Forget the stats though, because this is the preseason. Matt Cassel didn’t look so hot in the 2008 preseason, then he went out and won 11 games.
Mallett just doesn’t look like he has developed much confidence or poise in the pocket. He has a big arm, but isn’t very decisive, and is too inconsistent with his touch on short passes.
There was a lot to like about Garoppolo’s performance Thursday, beyond the stats. He started the game on the right foot, showing good anticipation and zip on a sideline pass to convert a third-and-9. He showed his lightning-quick release by stepping up in the pocket and getting rid of the ball just before getting crushed by the Giants’ Jason Pierre-Paul.
Garoppolo showcased his pinpoint accuracy on short and medium throws with an impressive slant pass to Steve Maneri between two defenders for 19 yards, and again with an 18-yard pass to Aaron Dobson to convert a third-and-8. And there was his piece de resistance, the gorgeous 33-yard fade to Dobson down the left sideline for a touchdown. Dobson, seeing his first preseason action, made a heck of a play to fight for the ball over the cornerback, but Garoppolo deserved a lot of credit for throwing a pretty pass, too.
Most impressive, though, was Garoppolo’s awareness, which is always the toughest facet to gauge with a rookie quarterback. Remember Dan Orlovsky absent-mindedly stepping out of the back of the end zone with the Lions for a safety? The Patriots probably don’t have to worry about that with Garoppolo, who started for four years in college and has a ton of game reps on his résumé.
Garoppolo avoids the rush well for a kid who played small-time college football. His most impressive play came in the first quarter. He scrambled away from defenders, pulled up just short of the line of scrimmage, and flipped a pass to Jeremy Gallon, which the receiver snagged from a defender and turned into a 19-yard gain. That’s just good football intuition.
The cerebral part of the game is where Mallett trails Brady and Garoppolo in a big way. He wasn’t known as a Rhodes Scholar when he came out of Arkansas, but he just doesn’t process information as quickly as necessary to thrive in New England’s offense.
Mallett has a place in the NFL. If the Patriots set him free, he’ll be snapped up by another team to come in as a No. 2 or 3 quarterback.
It shouldn’t be in New England, though. That’s now Garoppolo’s turf.Ben Volin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin.