One of the most interesting players on the 2017 NFL quarterback market is a man who has made only two starts in his pro career. Patriots backup Jimmy Garoppolo has thrown just 94 passes in his three years as a professional, but may just be the most desirable young building block available this spring.
Garoppolo showed off strong decision-making and accurate passing as the team’s starting quarterback to begin 2016. In the first real action of his NFL career, the former Eastern Illinois star threw for 496 yards, four touchdowns, and zero interceptions in fewer than six quarters of play. Though a shoulder injury cost him the chance to play out the entirety of Tom Brady’s Deflategate suspension, the 25-year-old left an indelible impression with his ability to find open targets, make the correct decisions downfield, and lead a Rob Gronkowski-less offense to a pair of big performances.
Only one thing stands in the way of his ascension to starting quarterback: the G.O.A.T. The quarterback with five Super Bowl rings is a stout roadblock between a young passer and playing time. While Brady will be 40 next season, his combination of elite play and advanced age are something the league has never seen before. When he says he’d like to play well into his fifth decade on the planet, it somehow seems reasonable.
That leaves Garoppolo’s status in limbo. The Patriots have never been shy about trading away homegrown talent, and the return for a potential franchise quarterback may be too much for head coach and director of player personnel Bill Belichick to pass up. To his credit, the young QB is taking a healthy approach to dealing with the speculation.
"For the most part I’m just trying to stay level-headed, try not to over think it too much," Garoppolo told ESPN’s Adam Schefter. "Because at the end of the day I’m still under contract. It’s not my decision if I get traded or if I don’t. So you try to take it all in stride.
"When you really start thinking about it, your head will start spinning."
Why the Patriots may trade Garoppolo
Most teams would be looking to develop a quarterback of the future to spell their 40-year-old mainstay.
Scratch that. Most teams don’t have a single quadragenarian on their roster, let alone starting behind center.
Of course, the Patriots are different, and their oldest player isn’t just a member of the team, he’s the face of the franchise. Brady posted the second-highest quarterback rating of his career in 2016 and led New England to a 14-1 record and his fifth NFL title in the process. The ageless veteran cast off a 25-point deficit in what may be the greatest NFL game of all time to notch his fourth Super Bowl MVP award.
That’s not the kind of player for whom franchises rush contingency plans. That makes Garoppolo expendable.
Several other factors are working against his longevity in Foxborough. The Patriots have a track record of trading away young talent before it becomes too costly, especially in recent years. In 2016, New England discarded Pro Bowlers Chandler Jones and Jamie Collins in deals centered on early-round draft picks. A look into the franchise’s history shows the departure of standouts like Richard Seymour (traded for a first-rounder in 2009) and, more notably, Drew Bledsoe (traded for a first-rounder in 2002).
While moving Garoppolo would cost the team its backup, the cupboard wouldn’t be bare. Jacoby Brissett started a pair of games last fall and was capable in relief, going 1-1 against the Texans and Bills. While he failed to throw a touchdown pass, the rookie third-round draft pick is someone the team wants to develop, and could instead be the Patriots’ insurance plan behind Brady.
Why the Patriots could keep Garoppolo
Brady’s longevity has been a thing of legend, but he’s reaching uncharted territory when it comes to a quarterback playing this well for this long. Schefter suggested this as a reason for why the Patriots won’t trade Garoppolo.
Garoppolo is under contract with the team through the 2017 season at an affordable cap hit of just over $1.1 million. From there, the Patriots could retain him using the franchise tag to ensure he remains on the roster -- though that would bump his salary up to over $20 million.
That’s not ideal, but it would give New England two years to assess Brady’s future and decide whether or not Garoppolo’s services will be needed. However, the longer the team waits to trade its backup quarterback, the less it’ll receive in return; the whole idea of shipping him out now is because he’s under team control. That would give whoever holds his contract leverage when it comes to signing a lucrative extension for 2018 and beyond.
Who would be willing to give up the assets needed to acquire Garoppolo?
The most common team to come up in speculation is the Browns, a franchise dedicated to stripping quarterbacks down to their respective parts and selling them off wholesale to various junkyards. However, several other bidders could emerge, including a pair of divisional rivals.
New England may have extra incentive to deal Garoppolo after trading a first- and third-round pick for Brandin Cooks.
The Patriots have sold a starting quarterback to an AFC East foe in the past — see Bledsoe above — but that scenario involved a 30-year-old quarterback with plenty of miles on his odometer. Garoppolo is only going to be 26 next fall, and New England may not want to have to face him twice a season for the next decade — especially if he lives up to the potential he displayed in 2016.
Draft assets: 1(1), 1(12), 2(33), 2(52), 3(65) and three fourth-round picks between 2017 and 2018
Cleveland wouldn’t be the worst place the young passer could end up. Garoppolo would have some legitimate targets in new wide receiver Kenny Britt, emerging deep threat Corey Coleman, and tight end Gary Barnidge. All-Pro Josh Gordon is still technically under contract as well, though relying on him may be a fool’s errand. That, and the fact the team’s theoretical wins peg it at 2.5 games better than its actual record, is reason for optimism.
2.5 extra wins would stick the Browns at 3.5 for 2016, which is pretty good reason for pessimism. Garoppolo would be the latest caretaker of Cleveland’s quarterback graveyard, though he’d have to compete with rising sophomore Cody Kessler for the team’s top spot. Kessler played well enough last fall to give the franchise hope — and a reason not to get desperate and shell out top dollar for the New England backup. Even so, the team’s 11 picks in the upcoming draft could be enough to convince GM Sashi Brown to make a move.
Brown sent a jolt through the league by absorbing Brock Osweiler’s contract on the first official day of free agency. However, a look at the GM’s post-trade quotes show just how much faith he’s got in his newest passer. Landing Osweiler will do nothing to dissuade the team from pursuing Garoppolo.
San Francisco 49ers
Draft assets: 1(2), 2(34), 3(66)
The roster most in need of offensive playmakers is now under former Atlanta offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan’s control; adding Garoppolo could be the big splash that kicks off his tenure on the West Coast. San Francisco fielded the league’s No. 31 offense last season, vacillating between Blaine Gabbert and Colin Kaepernick at quarterback and generally treating its fans to 3.5 hours of water torture every Sunday. The team currently only has two players under contract for the position this fall — veteran journeyman Brian Hoyer, and former Chicago Bear Matt Barkley.
The 49ers have a reasonably talented tailback in Carlos Hyde, but their receiving corps — led by Jets castoff Jeremy Kerley — looked like Dresden circa 1946 before adding Pierre Garcon in free agency. While there will be several talented receivers available in the 2017 NFL Draft, acquiring Garoppolo to have someone to throw them the ball would cost a premier pick. Combine that with the myriad holes the team faces on its No. 32-ranked defense, and the team may have too many pressing issues to ship its limited assets east for a quarterback.
Draft assets: 1(3), 2(36), two early fourth-round picks
The Bears ended the Jay Cutler era this spring, as cutting the longtime fixture will only cost the team $2 million in dead cap space. Tampa Bay backup Mike Glennon will earn nearly $15 million per year to take his place, but is no guarantee to be even a league-average quarterback after throwing only 11 passes the past two seasons. Bringing in Garoppolo would give the team a trio of young building blocks at the skill positions, including tailback Jordan Howard and emerging wideout Cameron Meredith.
That’s an intriguing combination that could compete in an offense-heavy NFC North. Chicago fielded a competent offensive line last season whose sack percentage was statistically similar to the Patriots. Keeping Garoppolo upright and adding a few more offensive weapons could be the key to a resurgence for the Bears, though they’d need a major defensive overhaul before returning to the postseason.
New York Jets
Draft assets: 1(6), 2(39), 3(70)
Head coach Todd Bowles is unlikely to get a fourth year at the helm unless he can show marked improvement in 2017, and no position was worse for the Jets than quarterback. Geno Smith, with an 81.3 rating over two games, was the team’s most efficient passer. Ryan Fitzpatrick’s quest to lead the league in interceptions was hampered only by his benching, and second-year player Bryce Petty looked every bit a former NCAA system quarterback when pressed into action.
Garoppolo would be an improvement by default, and his ability to protect the ball would help New York’s efficiency by leaps and bounds. The team could keep last year’s second-round pick Christian Hackenberg around as insurance behind him. While an aging group of skill players and an ever-expanding black hole at tight end would continue to hamstring the Jets’ offense, simply adding a quarterback with a positive TD:INT ratio would be a win for the franchise — though the Patriots may be inclined to let them wallow further.
Draft assets: 1(10), 2(44), 3(75)
The Bills kept Tyrod Taylor in the fold after restructuring his contract this offseason, diminishing their need for a passer like Garoppolo. Taylor is a two-time Pro Bowler, but that’s more a condemnation of the all-star game’s pathetic participation rate than his overall level of play. He’s an even 14-14 as a starting quarterback, but gives the Bills a dual-threat athlete behind center who doesn’t throw many interceptions and generally makes the most of a limited receiving corps upstate.
Adding Garoppolo doesn’t make much sense right now, but if Taylor struggles in 2017, the franchise could turn back to the Patriot backup as an early November trade target. The Bills could pair him with LeSean McCoy and Sammy Watkins to provide an explosive big three on offense. It’s unlikely for several reasons — the team’s rivalry with New England and the presence of Taylor standing as items 1A and 1B against — but it can’t be ruled out just yet.
Draft assets: 1(25), 2(57), 3(89)
The Texans hit reset on their quarterback depth chart this offseason, shipping Brock Osweiler and his onerous contract to Cleveland for the low, low price of their own second-round pick in 2018 (and other considerations). That leaves Tom Savage and Brandon Weeden as the only quarterbacks on the Houston roster, a situation that almost certainly won’t last into the summer.
Bringing in Garoppolo would add another unproven passer to the mix, but the question that remains is whether the club has the assets to land the Patriots’ backup. New England is reportedly requesting Cleveland’s No. 1 overall pick in exchange for the quarterback, and the Texans don’t pick until late in the first round. The team’s front office would likely have to get creative to find a way to land the young QB.
Houston’s roster situation would allow the softest landing spot for Garoppolo. He’d have legitimate receiving threats in DeAndre Hopkins and Will Fuller, a competent tailback platoon led by Lamar Miller, and an offensive line that ranked in the top 10 when it came to sack rate. Factor in a defense so dominant he wouldn’t have to produce fireworks to win games, and it’s easy to see the opportunity the Texans could create.
The question is whether Houston would want to gamble big money — and now, draft assets — on another quarterback who’s more potential than passer.