FOXBORO -- When it comes to planning for the future at the quarterback position, the struggles of Indianapolis’ transition from Peyton Manning to Andrew Luck weren’t lost on Bill Belichick.
At the tail end of Manning’s career with the Colts, he missed the entirety of the 2011 season because of neck surgery and Indy tumbled all the way from a 10-6 mark and a spot in the playoffs to an embarrassing 2-14 finish. Along the way, they ran a sad and sorrowful collection of signal-callers out under center, a group that bottomed out with the immortal Curtis Painter.
Light broke through at the end of the season in the form of Andrew Luck, the reward for a generations worth of neglect at the backup quarterback spot.
But when it comes to the post-Tom Brady era in New England, there will be no “Suck for Luck” style campaign. Instead, Indy’s failings serve a cautionary tale for Belichick and the Patriots. And regardless of what you think about the wisdom of spending a second-round pick on a quarterback -- when they were larger, more immediate needs looming -- Indy’s bumpy transition was clearly part of New England’s thinking when it decided to go after Jimmy Garoppolo.
“I don’t think we would put together a team the way Indianapolis did it when they lost (Peyton) Manning and they go (2-14),” Belichick said. “I don’t think that’s really what we’re looking for. Fortunately, when we lost Tom (Brady) in 2008, we had a player that could step in and we won 11 games.
“We want to be competitive, even if something happens to a player at any position. I think depth is always important. You never know when you’re going to need it. But I don’t think we’d be happy going 1-15 if we had an injury at one position,” he added. “But other people have different philosophies. I’m just saying that the contrast to that example. I don’t think that’s really what we’re trying to do.”
This is not to suggest that Garoppolo is going to be the next Luck -- the young Colts quarterback has already become one of the best young signal-callers in the league. Instead, making a sizable investment in the backup quarterback spot gives you a better chance to be ready if the career of your thirtysomething franchise quarterback crashes to a halt.
“With the situation we have at quarterback, I think that we felt as an organization that we needed to address that to some degree in the future, so we’ll see how all that works out,” Belichick said. “I think you’re better off being early than late at that position.”
Here are four other things we learned about the Patriots this weekend:
This year’s draft is geared toward 2015 and beyond.
As Nick Caserio hinted at during his pre-draft press conference, and as we wrote last month, even without benefit of the draft, New England has a deep roster that doesn’t appear to have a lot of room for positional competition. You can make a case there are some depth areas that still need to be addressed like backup linebacker and tight end. (In addition, the team still needs helps at strong safety.) But faced with the idea of going with what might be considered more immediate prospects, they appeared to focus instead on needs they might have to address down the road as opposed to more pressing concerns.
This is not to suggest that Garoppolo, first-round pick Dominique Easley, running back James White or offensive tackle Cameron Fleming couldn’t make some sort of impact in 2014. But if Easley is playing significant snaps this coming season, that likely means Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly are struggling with injury. If Garoppolo is taking meaningful snaps for the Patriots this coming season, then something has happened to Brady. White is entering a crowded depth chart at running back, and will likely have to sit behind Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen and Brandon Bolden. And while Fleming is a well-regarded prospect, with Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer, Patriots have to feel pretty good about their tackle position.
This is not to suggest the Patriots are looking at a similar situation to the 2007 team -- which had virtually no input from its rookie class -- but it was clear that most of the picks that were made over the three-day draft process were made with an eye toward paying off in 2015, 2016 and beyond. As a result, it might be wise to manage the expectations for the 2014 class, which will face an uphill battle for playing time across the board.
“Well, we’ll see. I don’t know,” Belichick said when he was asked if there was some leeway to take a few players who might not necessarily be ready to play regularly in 2014. “I mean, my crystal ball isn’t any clearer than yours is, so I don’t know what going to happen this year. We’ll see when they get on the field, we’ll see what they can produce and contribute. That will be up to them and the people they’re competing against. I can’t control (if they can contribute immediately).”
The offensive line will really bear watching in 2014.
With the pickup up Fleming, center Bryan Stork and guard Jon Halapio, it marked the first time since 2007 the Patriots selected at least three offensive linemen in one draft. It’s interesting to see the addition of three offensive linemen at one time, especially when you consider the fact that in 2014, New England figures to be able to run the same starting five offensive linemen (Solder, Connolly, Wendell, Mankins and Vollmer) out there it did over the last two years. In addition, that will all play out against the backdrop of a new offensive line coach in Dave DeGuglielmo, who will be taking over for Dante Scarnecchia.
When it came to the decision to draft three offensive linemen, Belichick was asked if that was just how the board unfolded or if offensive line was just a specific position the Patriots targeted over the course of Day 3. He said that was just how things played out.
“Halapio has been a real good player at Florida, so we were probably a little surprised to see him where he was,” Belichick said. “Fleming’s a tackle and it felt like good value there. Stork has been a good center for Florida State. We visited him and he was an impressive kid. So it just kind of turned out that way.”
Later on Saturday, Belichick provided a more detailed breakdown of the three.
On Stork: “He’s been a very good player for Florida State; center. He’s played some guard earlier in his career, but has played center down there. Obviously a very good program and good football team. He’s done a good job for them.
On Fleming: “A three year starter for Stanford, (he’s a) right tackle. Big kid that played against a lot of good competition out there and played against a lot of good players on a good football team. They run the ball a lot. They run a very conventional offense compared to what some of the offenses are in college football, so you can kind of see him do a lot of the things that we see in the National Football League.
On Halapio: “Jon’s been a real good player for Florida. Played guard, has been pretty much exclusively a guard down there. Big, physical, very strong guy, powerful player.”
Zach Moore and Jemea Thomas might be the two more intriguing prospects for the Patriots in this draft.
Moore, the first player ever drafted out of Concordia, is a big, rangy defensive end who was taken with one of three sixth round picks. The 6-foot-6, 285-pounder is the first play in the history of Concordia to be drafted. A finalist for the Cliff Harris Division II Player of the Year Award, Moore is a two-time captain who had 33 sacks in 39 college games.
“I think Zach has a real interesting skillset,” Belichick said. “He’s a hardworking guy, and he’s played very well at the level of (competition) that he was at. Obviously its going way up, but I think he definitely has the skills to move up. As he gains experience and technique and all that -- I mean, he’s long, he’s got good quickness, he’s good burst, get off the ball – but he needs a lot of work.
“But I think if he works hard and can develop the skills that he has, I definitely think he can be a productive player for us, sure. We’re excited to work with all the guys, but I think Zach has a real good set of skills.”
As for Thomas, he’s shown an ability to play safety, nickel corner and on the perimeter. He’s got a unique physical skillset -- he’s solidly built at 195 pounds, but at 5-foot-9, is a little undersized. Regardless, he has a knack for being around the ball as a playmaker (he led the Yellow Jackets in tackles and pass break-ups as a senior after picking off a team-high four passes in his junior season). That, combined with his versatility, make him someone to watch when the pads go on.
“Based on our experience with him, our workouts, watching him play, I think he has the ability to work at all three spots,” Belichick said of the possibility of Thomas at safety, nickel corner and on the perimeter. “I think he has some versatility, he’s smart, he runs well, he’s a tough kid, he’s a good tackler. I think that there’s definitely a place defensively to have a player like that.
“It’s good to have a couple players that are versatile and can move around and handle different responsibilities like that. We’ll see how much Jemea can do there. He’s done all those things in the past plus he’s been a good special teams player. We’ll see exactly what that role is. Maybe he becomes very good at one thing or maybe he becomes a versatile player that is able to do multiple things. We’ll have to see but it looks like he’s got the ability to compete at all three of those spots – safety, nickel corner and on the perimeter. He’s an interesting guy.”
The rookies don’t have much time to catch their breath.
In year’s past, the rookies would get a chance to get their feet wet with a rookie camp, and then go home before getting their first exposure to the rest of the veterans later in the spring. Now, the rookies will get into town on Sunday, and then start work with the rest of the veterans on Monday.
“They’ll come in tomorrow and we’ll start work with them Monday. We’ll put them in with our veteran players and just move right along,” Belichick said. “Now the draft’s so late, we’ll just bring them in and keep them here. They’ll go all the way through the veteran mini-camp in June. It will be just one straight shot.
“They’re going to have to come in and get oriented to living in a new area, getting transportation, finding their way around, becoming acclimated to New England. Along with the pro football part of it and all that, that’ll just be part of the whole next five or six weeks or whatever it is. It’ll be part of that whole process, and we’ll start Monday.”