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What does the future hold for Jimmy Garoppolo?

Tom Brady’s backup is in his last year of his contract with the Patriots.

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Divisional Round - Houston Texans v New England Patriots Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Jimmy Garoppolo looked like a capable starter last season when he filled in during Tom Brady’s Deflategate suspension. Then Brady came back, and Garoppolo faded into the background again. With Brady under center, the Patriots lost just one game all season and brought home their fifth Super Bowl ring.

This offseason, there was trade interest in Garoppolo, enough that a late-night Instagram hack early in free agency fooled everyone into thinking that he was headed to the Browns. But even though they have the best quarterback in the game and another young viable backup in Jacoby Brissett, the Patriots held on to Garoppolo.

Now Garoppolo is in the final year of his contract with New England. What’s next for him after 2017?

Garoppolo could join a new team in free agency

Garoppolo has made it clear he doesn’t want to be on the sideline.

“Obviously, I want to play,” Garoppolo said in June, via Lorenzo Reyes of USA Today. “That’s just the competitor in me. I think everyone out here wants to play. And we come out here and compete every day for that opportunity. If you go out and earn it, it’s yours.”

But he’s playing behind one of the best to ever take the field, and there’s no chance Garoppolo is beating out a healthy Brady for the Patriots’ starting job. Unless Brady gets hurt or the Patriots run up the score on a bunch of opponents, Garoppolo won’t see the field much this season — in 2016, he attempted only four passes total after Brady returned.

His future is going to hinge on his performance in limited starts last season.

In his two starts last year, Garoppolo completed 71.2 percent of his passes for 496 yards, four touchdowns, and zero interceptions. That completion percentage, if he’d sustained it over an entire season, would have put him near the top of the league, just below Sam Bradford’s record-setting 71.6 percent mark.

If he wants to play, he should have plenty of options in free agency.

Kirk Cousins will probably set the quarterback market pretty high in 2018. He’ll likely earn more than the $25 million per year Derek Carr currently makes as the highest-paid player in the NFL. Garoppolo won’t approach those numbers, but considering the small sample size of his experience, he should be cheaper and more appealing to any team that needs a quarterback and doesn’t have the cap space to lock in Cousins.

Garoppolo’s cap hit in this final year of his rookie deal is just over $1.1 million, so even if he’s not in line to make Cousins money, he’s due a hefty pay raise.

Garoppolo could re-sign with the Patriots

Some think Belichick is committed to keeping Garoppolo around. CSNNE’s Mike Giardi talked to scouts, a former Patriots player, and an AFC front office staffer, and the consensus was that Belichick probably thinks Garoppolo is the Patriots quarterback of the future.

“Bill thinks he's got the next great one,” an AFC scout said. “I watched his snaps. I think he can be that. [Garoppolo] has a great base, and his mechanics are close enough to [Brady] that you appreciate his willingness to learn and the coaching he's gotten there."

If the Patriots do want to keep Garoppolo beyond 2017, it’s not going to be easy. They could use their franchise tag on him, but that’s going to carry a price tag of around $24 million in 2018. That’s an unreasonable amount of cash to shell out for a backup quarterback who has no shot of starting until Brady’s career is over.

So even if Belichick does want to keep Garoppolo around to develop behind Brady in an Aaron Rodgers-Brett Favre situation, it’s not financially feasible.

The other option is for the team to extend Garoppolo, but that’s a scenario Garoppolo may not be willing to agree to considering his potential for a sizable payday in free agency.

Garoppolo could unexpectedly take over for Brady

Look, it’s unlikely. But we have to explore every possibility here.

Brady hasn’t shown any signs of decline, but it’s possible that — despite his obnoxiously healthful diet and fitness regimen — 40 won’t be kind to him. Maybe Brady actually does start to lose a step. Or he shocks the world and decides to retire after this season even though he keeps insisting he wants to play for another five years. Then it will be Garoppolo’s time to shine in New England.

Brady hasn’t missed a game due to injury since 2008. But if Brady were to get hurt, who knows? Maybe the young quarterback would outshine the veteran signal caller. It’s not like it’s never happened before. Perhaps you remember Drew Bledsoe. In 2001, Brady took over at quarterback after a brutal hit landed Bledsoe in the hospital, and Brady has been ingrained as the starter ever since.

Garoppolo probably won’t get many opportunities to prove his worth on the field this season, but he did enough last year to show the Patriots that he’s an asset. The problem for the Patriots is that he proved it to every other team that needs a starting quarterback, too.