Alright, before I get started, let me try and curtail whatever fury the title of this article may provoke by saying this:
Tom Brady is one of the five greatest quarterbacks of all time.
This past season did nothing to change that status. While Peyton Manning put up record-breaking numbers in one of the most prolific offenses in NFL history, Brady defined what, in my mind, Most Valuable Player means. If you took Brady off the roster, the team wouldn’t have made it to .500.
Tom Brady is in no danger of losing his job. He will retire (whenever he so chooses) as the starting quarterback of the New England Patriots.
All that out of the way? Good.
The Patriots are in the market for a backup QB, and, ideally, one who could be groomed as Tom Brady’s eventual successor.
Ryan Mallett is entering the final season of his rookie contract. A rumored trade chip basically since his first snap in the NFL, the Patriots are hoping to cash in on the developed prospect via trade, but they may just let him walk instead, as an extension is unlikely. Either way, New England could look to the draft for a prospect to groom for a year before being installed as top backup.
For the purpose of this exercise, Johnny Manziel, Teddy Bridgewater, and Blake Bortles are all, for obvious reasons, off the table. Same goes for Derek Carr, who hugely impressed at the Combine (not just off the field, but in interviews), and will be almost certainly taken in the first round. I will also throw in Jimmy Garoppolo. There’s always one big-talent/small-school QB who soars up draft boards in March/April, and the Eastern Illinois grad fits that mold.
That being said, here are six prospects who the Patriots could (and should) take a look at, with the full intention of grooming him for a few years before giving him the reins, somewhat in the Aaron Rodgers mold. There are plenty of more pressing needs for the Patriots to pursue on Draft Day, but a QB in Day 2/3 could be an option.
Here we go…
The Arm – Zach Mettenberger, LSU
Zach Mettenberger has a rocket of an arm, and this past year he finally figured out how to use it.
After a rough 2012, the huge (6-5, 224) Georgia native showed immense improvement, constantly showing up under pressure and racking up 22 TDS, with 3,082 yards and a 64.9 completion percentage (up from 58.8 the year before).
There are issues: namely his torn ACL in December and a multitude of character issues that sparked before arriving at LSU, including alcohol/drug issues and a sexual battery arrest in March 2010. Mettenberger has been vocal in his contrition and has been clean for two years, but that could lead him to slip a bit on draft boards. If he makes it to the third round, though, the Patriots should absolutely think of taking him. His on-the-field flaws (some accuracy, read development) can easily be solved, and a few years under Tom Brady’s tutelage could make him a stud quarterback.
The Golden Boy – AJ McCarron, Alabama
First off, let’s all take a moment to imagine a Gisele Bundchen/Tom Brady/Katherine Webb/AJ McCarron double date. Yeesh.
But back to what’s more important. There would be no worries about how McCarron would feel about being a backup for the Patriots, because he seems eager to be just that. Per NESN’s Doug Kyed:
“I love the Patriots organization…if I had the chance to go there and sit behind Brady for however long and learn from one of the best to ever play the game, that would be an awesome experience.”
In the same interview, he compared himself to the likewise-underrated Brady coming out of college, and called New England the “Alabama of pro football.” We get it, AJ. You love the Patriots. (And rightly so.)
McCarron didn’t succeed as much as he did at Alabama because of his athleticism or huge arm, and therefore he doesn’t have the upside as other QB prospects. What he does have is an extremely high game IQ and the ability to execute a pro-style offense with high efficiency. The arguments against him will be that his flaws were hidden by a supreme supporting cast and the prestigious Crimson Tide system in general. And yes, McCarron’s ceiling isn’t all that high. But his floor is a whole lot higher than a lot of his counterparts. It’s weird to call a three-time National Championship participant and Hesiman candidate an un-sexy pick, but that’s what he is: a boringly consistent, mistake-free quarterback who would be a steady backup from Day 1.
The College Stud – Aaron Murray, Georgia
I go to a school with an FCS football team, and, as such, don’t have a consistent horse in the college football race. But for four years, the one constant has been that I unabashedly love to watch Aaron Murray play football.
Playing in the toughest division in college football, in a pro-style offense, Aaron Murray positively thrived. His numbers speak for themselves: 62.3% career completion percentage, throwing for 13,166 yards and 121 touchdowns. Murray just does everything right, down to the details. He has an effortless delivery, can throw a good deep ball with great touch, and has superb mobility in the pocket.
Most impressive are all the intangibles. He’s a locker-room leader, a film room junkie, and an exemplary student. Though he was criticized early in his career for not coming in through the clutch, he shined there as the years went on, including three wins against Florida and one each against LSU and South Carolina in 2013. He’s a guy who’ll undoubtedly impress in every interview.
The problem? Well, he’s 6-0, 207. There have been incredibly successful smaller quarterbacks in the NFL, notably Drew Brees and Russell Wilson, but they are by far the minority. Murray’s stature and his season-ending ACL tear will raise constant questions about his durability. He seems eager to participate in Georgia’s Pro Day, and there scouts will get a better idea of how fit he is, but there are worries.
I swear I mean this as a compliment, but Murray seems to me like Chase Daniel with a bit more upside. Like Murray, Daniel flourished at the college level, but has played as a backup in the NFL (including a hugely impressive game against San Diego in December), mostly because of his smaller stature. That being said, if you told me that I could draft Chase Daniel right now in the middle rounds, I’d do it in a heartbeat. Same goes for Aaron Murray. He was the most prolific quarterback in the most competitive division in college football. There’s no reason to think he won’t be an excellent backup, and perhaps successor, to Tom Brady.
The Shoulder-Chip Guy – Brett Smith, Wyoming
I mean this in the best way possible: Brett Smith plays football like an a**hole.
The Wyoming product has been compared to Johnny Manziel, and the comp is somewhat true. Smith is one of the better dual-threat QBs in this draft class, with great mobility and quick feet. He has a good arm and became much more accurate as his college career went on. Most notably, Smith is a true gunslinger. He’s supremely confident on the field, often to a fault. He tries to test tight coverages too much and overthrows on a lot of deep balls. He has a fiery attitude that sometimes gets in the way of things.
Brett Smith’s story up to this point explains the gigantic chip on his shoulder. After breaking Oregon state records in high school, Smith garnered almost no attention from major programs, and ended up playing for the Wyoming Cowboys, where he was successful. However, critics will point to his poor competition as a reason for his success (though 29 passing TDs and 573 yards rushing is nothing to sneer at no matter the level). Somewhat shockingly, Smith was not invited to the NFL Combine and will have to prove himself at his Pro Day (making that chip even bigger).
There are other concerns. His leaving Wyoming after his junior year raised a lot of eyebrows. And while he’s not short exactly, his 6-2, 206 frame screams out for bulking up, though not at the expense of his scrambling ability. And his technique and decision making are a bit rough around the edges. But he could still be an interesting developmental project for the Patriots. A read-option threat would be a different change of pace for the Patriots offense, to be sure, but Josh McDaniels can help ease him into things. Also a few years under Tom Brady, the master of turning being slighted into motivation for tremendous NFL success, will be a huge boon to Smith. With the right team, Brett Smith might be the steal of this draft.
The Sleeper – Tom Savage, Pittsburgh
I tend to trust NFL.com senior analyst Gil Brandt implicitly. But when he said Tom Savage reminded him of Troy Aikman, I could imagine plenty of analysts throwing their heads back and laughing.
While we shouldn’t hold the Pitt grad to that standard perhaps, Savage does impress on tape. At 6-5, 230, Savage is a big, strong quarterback, with great mechanics and a gigantic arm. In his final season at Pitt, he threw for 2,958 yards with 21 TDs, completing 61.9 percent of his passes.
The concerns surrounding Savage are his distressing lack of mobility and troubles under pressure. Give him a clean pocket and he’ll make every throw. But when the breaks down, his decision-making can suffer. Luckily, decision-making is something that can improve, especially with a team like the Patriots. And I’m not sure if you’ve watched Tom Brady the last ten years, but a lack of mobility isn’t a death sentence. Because of the depth of the quarterback class, and because of his less-than-flashy athleticism, Savage could fall to Day 3, where he would be an easy pick for New England to make.
The Square Peg – Jordan Lynch, Northern Illinois
In terms of opinion of Jordan Lynch’s future in the NFL, I fall pretty much smack dab in the middle. I think his arm is a lot better than it’s reputed to be. But I also think it’d be an uphill battle for Lynch to ever see significant snaps at quarterback in the NFL.
Jordan Lynch’s best assets are his legs, which helped him to a bonkers 1,920 yards and 23 rushing TDs in his final season, but his 2,892 yards and 24 TDs in the air aren’t all that shabby either. He did show that he has the arm strength to put the ball deep, just not consistently with enough zip, allowing them to wobble on occasion. Adding to concerns are his 6’0, 216 frame.
Because of his athleticism, there has been rampant speculation about Lynch switching positions, and the obvious precedent for New England is Julian Edleman. But Lynch doesn’t have nearly the same agility that makes Edelman such a dangerous wide receiver. A better option may be as a safety, but that’s a big switch for a former quarterback to make.
Lynch does seem determined to make it to the NFL one way or another, and I wish him all the best. But unless he puts in some serious work on fixing his mechanics, his future as a QB is questionable. He is a winner, he’s hard-working, and he’s developed an acute vision and understanding of the field, which is worth something. Would I spend a draft pick on him? Probably not. Would I give him a workout and stash him on the practice squad should he go undrafted? Absolutely. Lynch, as much as he seems like a square peg in a league full of round holes, could end up being a nice low-risk/high-reward pickup next season.
Third and lastly. I don’t know if everyone’s seen Fanspeak’s Mock Draft Simulator. If you’re a nerd, you’ll love it. Try it out here and post your favorite mocks in the comments section or email them to me, and I’ll put together a “Best of” fan-created Patriots mocks article in a few weeks.