Could the Patriots Draft a Quarterback?

This week it was reported that the New England Patriots met with QB Johnny Manziel and had scheduled some visits with other draft hopefuls at the QB position. The immediate reaction seemed to be that Patriots coach Bill Belichick was either scouting future opposition or trying to gauge the interest in the players so that he can negotiate a trade on draft day because there would be no need to draft a QB with Tom Brady on board. I’d like to take the opposite approach and see why, if the right player fell down the draft, it would make sense for the Patriots to consider the QB option.

While everyone recognizes Brady as one of the top two QB’s of his generation, he will be 37 in 2014. He is certainly still very productive but I think most people are beginning to see the decline in his play over the last two years. In 2013 he seemed to struggle with nagging injuries and that helped to lead, along with a decimated receiver corps, to what was arguably his worst full season since 2006. While his worst is still pretty good, the expectation at this stage of his career is to probably maintain his current production or slightly fall.  If the nagging injuries become something worse there is no real answer sitting on the Patriots bench.

For the last three seasons New England has been in a position to basically cruise into the playoffs due to a poor division that has not seen another team post a winning record in that timeframe. In general the competition in the AFC has eroded so badly that Brady, even on a bad day, should easily lead his team to the playoffs. But Brady does have a finite life and at some point New England has to prepare for life without Brady.

While I doubt anyone thinks too highly of the QB’s currently in the AFC East the three teams do now have in place two first round selections and a high second round selection to potentially hit their primes starting in 2014 and 2015 if they pan out. Andrew Luck should improve in Indianapolis while teams like the Browns and Texans are in position to draft highly rated prospects.   What the Patriots do not want to be at any point over the last 4 years of Brady’s career the 2010 Minnesota Vikings where the 41 year old Brett Favre broke down and the team fell apart with him.

When the Patriots signed Tom Brady to his three year contract extension in February of 2013 they signed him to a contract that had an eye looking toward the future rather than the past. This was very different than the contract the Denver Broncos signed with Peyton Manning in 2012. The contract with Brady represented the possibility of a dropoff in play with low salaries and cap charges. The team put in a slight failsafe in the event of a catastrophic event in 2013 or 2014 in which they could release Brady before the end of the 2014 season and prevent $24 million of late career guarantees from kicking in.

Quite frankly the contract easily allows the possibility of bringing in a first round draft pick to sit and learn behind Brady and then hit the ground running whenever the time to pass the torch arises.

The low salaries taken by Brady have dropped the Patriots salary cap allocations to the position into average or below ranges. The Patriots salary cap spending on QB ranks as follows among teams with a QB under contract the next four seasons:

2014-13/32

2015-14/31

2016-9/16

2017-7/7

If the Patriots added a QB with the 29th pick in the draft it would add about $1.4 million to their cap  this year, $1.7 in 2015, $2.1 in 2016, and $2.5 in 2017. They would also control the players’ rights at a modest salary in 2018 when Brady’s contract would be finished.  Adding these salaries would bump the Patriots up in the rankings by about 1 team in each year, still allowing them to be middle of the pack while employing Tom Brady and a first round draft pick. They could move up in the draft and still be very cost competitive at the position.

I don’t think the Patriots have to make the move for a QB by any means right now, but the smart thing for them to do is to begin the process of identifying potential successors to Tom Brady so they don’t hit the struggle period many team do when they lose the once in a generation QB. It’s no different than when the Green Bay Packers wisely grabbed Aaron Rodgers in 2005 so that they had a successor to a then 36 year old Favre. That is a far better strategic move than picking the brains of a college QB to consider future matchups with the late 30s QB.  The team has contractually set themselves up to make this move and it should surprise no one if they do actually make that move on draft day for a name QB that falls down the draft board.