For four years, Ryan Mallett’s value and potential have been hotly debated by Patriots fans and others around the league. He’s been one giant enigma ever since the Patriots took him in the third round in 2011, an unused commodity who has twiddled his thumbs on the sideline for three seasons while Tom Brady took almost every snap.
Was he a starting-caliber quarterback, as one NFL analyst suggested this training camp? Was he a rocket-armed gunslinger just waiting for his chance like Aaron Rodgers did, as most Patriots fans had hoped? Was he worth a high draft pick after learning at the foot of Bill Belichick, Josh McDaniels, and Brady for three years?
Sunday, we finally got our answer. The Patriots did the inevitable by shipping Mallett to the quarterback-desperate Houston Texans, the team that hired Bill O’Brien as coach and made the most sense as a landing spot for Mallett all along. And the Patriots’ haul in return tells us everything we need to know about how Mallett is viewed across the NFL.
The Patriots got the equivalent of a bag of footballs and 20 rolls of athletic tape from the Texans — a conditional seventh-round draft pick in 2016 that can turn into a sixth-rounder if Mallett plays 40 percent of snaps, according to reports.
The NFL doesn’t view Mallett as anything more than Just A Guy. He might be a good quarterback, but no team in the league is willing to look at him and say, “That’s our answer!” Not until he puts together a body of work in the regular season, at least.
As we see now, the Patriots were ready to dump Mallett altogether, despite initially keeping him on the roster Saturday. Instead Belichick was able to convince his buddy O’Brien to send him a late-round pick just to make sure they got him. And it makes sense for the Patriots, too – they chose Mallett’s landing spot, and they picked a team that isn’t on their 2014 schedule. This trade was almost completed at the draft, and the Patriots were able to get it done now after the Texans had a shaky preseason with their quarterback situation.
Nothing against Mallett, who was a good soldier for three-plus years in New England, never complaining about not getting a shot to play. We’re glad that he landed in a place with an easier path to the field — the Texans cut Case Keenum to make room for Mallett on the roster, and if Ryan Fitzpatrick doesn’t start well this season, Mallett could be on the field before long. Despite the Patriots only getting a measly seventh-round pick, Mallett is still mostly an unknown, and the Texans may have just landed themselves a major steal.
That said, the Patriots have been ready to dump Mallett ever since they took Jimmy Garoppolo in the second round in May’s draft. If Belichick had any confidence in Mallett developing into a legitimate quarterback, he wouldn’t have drafted Garoppolo, and he would’ve made a concerted effort to keep Mallett in the fold after his contract expires at the end of this season.
Mallett was worth keeping around this offseason and training camp in case Garoppolo couldn’t handle the jump from Eastern Illinois to the NFL. But after a shaky couple of weeks to start camp, Garoppolo ultimately aced the exam, gaining confidence throughout the preseason and playing just as well as, if not better than, Mallett.
This is as much about Garoppolo winning the backup job as it is getting something in return for Mallett instead of cutting him loose for nothing. Mallett had to have seen this coming when he only played seven snaps in the third preseason game, and none in the fourth. That’s not how you prepare someone to be the backup.
So there really was no point in keeping three quarterbacks on the roster. Mallett’s spot is much better used by a position player who actually would get off the bench and into a game this season. Instead, they signed young journeyman quarterback McLeod Bethel-Thompson to the practice squad to help simulate the other team in practices. And if Brady goes down this year, the Patriots always can sign a Brady Quinn or a Ricky Stanzi off the street.
Other thoughts on the Patriots’ roster after the weekend’s cuts and additions:
■ The roster is still unbalanced — although they have 25 players on each side of the ball, the Patriots have 11 defensive linemen after claiming two more off waivers on Sunday (Bruce Gaston, Kelcy Quarles), 10 offensive linemen, only four linebackers, and no long-snapper. Expect the Patriots to search heavily for backup linebackers and to eventually settle on a long-snapper.
■ It will be very interesting to see the offensive line combination next Sunday at Miami. A league source told the Globe that Belichick met with his veteran offensive linemen Friday and informed Sebastian Vollmer to get ready for a move to Logan Mankins’s vacated spot at left guard, and Marcus Cannon to prepare to play right tackle. The Patriots always have liked Cannon’s skill set better at tackle than guard, and moving Vollmer inside could be smart given that he’s coming off a broken leg and might not have the same speed to block guys coming off the edge. And don’t be shocked if the Patriots still have a surprise move up their sleeve on the offensive line, particularly with veterans Dan Connolly and Ryan Wendell.
■ While the Patriots kept four running backs and a fullback, they never really replaced the heavy, power-back role filled by LeGarrette Blount last year. Brandon Bolden made the team initially, but he probably shouldn’t rest easy.Ben Volin can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin.