Entering his fourth year with the Patriots, backup quarterback Ryan Mallett is facing pressure from all sides.
On one side, there’s the presence of rookie quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, who was taken 62nd overall in May -- the highest draft pick Bill Belichick has ever utilized on a quarterback.
On the other, there’s the specter of someone like Brady Quinn -- or any one of the half a billion free agent quarterbacks -- who could be brought in to take his place with the Patriots.
And then there’s the fact that he’s heading into the final season of a four-year deal he signed as a rookie. Provided there’s no magic extension looming at the end of the preseason, the quarterback very likely faces an uncertain future for the first time in his professional career.
Against that backdrop, Mallett is ready for what is shaping up to be the signature moment of his relatively young NFL life: If he’s able to go out this preseason and take advantage of his opportunities, he can not only help out his own situation, he can spike interest in a possible trade between now and the start of the regular season. If he struggles, well, there’s the possibility Garoppolo, Quinn or any number of quarterbacks could replace him as the backup to Tom Brady.
Mallett is an intriguing puzzle piece. While he’s struggled with his opportunities over the course of camp, there still are some selling points there, at least as it relates to the 2014 season. He threw for 8,385 yards and 69 touchdowns in three seasons as a collegian with Michigan and Arkansas. Anyone who has watched him play over the years knows he has terrific arm strength. He’s cheap, as he’s in the final year of a contract that will pay him $776,976 for the upcoming year. And there’s no injury history.
It’s also worth mentioning that Mallett also has some of that Patriots cologne on him. He hasn’t played a significant snap with New England in his three seasons in the league, but the fact that the Patriots thought enough of him to keep him in their system as the primary backup to Brady is enough for other teams to at least consider the possibility of picking him up. Several former New England players have indicated that their association with the Patriots frequently has been used as a way to open doors and gain playing opportunities with other teams throughout the league. “If Belichick saw something in him,” the thinking goes, “it’s at least worth taking a chance on him if he's available.”
But when it comes to on-field work, there still are plenty of questions, particularly when it comes to throwing with touch. Over the course of the summer he’s appeared to have issues when it comes to getting the ball out quickly, as well as finding targets like running backs and tight ends with short and intermediate passes. That’s why it was such a surprise to hear NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock gush about Mallett on Monday.
“This was a guy drafted in the third round out of Arkansas with first-round arm talent,” Mayock said of Mallett, who was taken with the 74th overall pick in the 2011 draft. “His issues were off the field. In the last three years, we haven’t heard a peep out of him.
“I was blown away today. I saw a legitimate NFL starting quarterback today backing up Tom Brady. As the season progresses and we get closer to draft time and what the Patriots can and can’t do with him, I think they drafted Garoppolo for a reason as an insurance policy. But trust me, Ryan Mallett is a starting quarterback in this league, and he popped today.”
As Mayock noted, you can’t talk about Mallett without touching on his past, as well as the fact that he’s seemingly made a 180-degree turn when it comes to character issues. As a collegian, he was dogged by whispers leading up to the draft. Those, compounded with an awkward interaction with the media at the combine as a collegian, likely were the causes behind his precipitous tumble down draft boards.
But since he has been with the Patriots, he’s been a model teammate and good citizen. On and off the record, the people around the franchise say that he’s done everything that’s been asked of him, praising his attitude, work ethic and approach to the game.
“Ryan has good poise in the huddle, good presence on the field, handles the team well and absolutely knows the offense from A to Z, and can make the adjustments and whatever changes, communications [or] checks we need to make,” Belichick said when asked about Mallett on Tuesday. “He’s shown good ability to do that. He has a lot of physical talent.
“He really hasn’t had an opportunity to play in a regular-season game in three years,” added Belichick, “so he’ll get a lot of playing time this year in preseason and hopefully continue to improve.”
Said Brady: “He’s done a great job. He’s just grown and become a great quarterback. You see it when he has these opportunities out here like he’s been getting. He really hasn’t gotten many over the years. But I think the whole team is confident that he can go out there and do the job.”
But can that translate to on-field success, and create some sort of security down the road? Given the fact that Brady usually plays between 20-30 snaps over the course of the first two preseason games, Mallett should get another chance to prove himself Thursday against the Redskins, as well as the following Friday at home against the Eagles. If he can create something out of those opportunities, there’s a chance he can create a sharper future for himself when it comes to 2014 and beyond.
(Of course, using the preseason to try to gauge the overall fitness of a backup quarterback in New England can be a foolish exercise. Matt Cassel looked wildly overwhelmed at various times over the course of the 2008 preseason -- so much so, it was a shock he wasn’t released come Labor Day. But Brady went down in the first half of the opener against the Chiefs, and Cassel ended up leading New England to an 11-5 mark. He never put up the same sort of numbers again, but he has managed to carve out a relatively successful career as a backup and occasional starter in Kansas City and Minnesota, and heads into the 2014 season with the Vikings as the guy who is going to serve as a mentor to rookie Teddy Bridgewater.)
Ultimately -- fair or not -- it's all going to be on Mallett over the next two-plus weeks. Three years ago, we asked what the eventual endgame was between Mallett and the Patriots. It looks like this summer will provide us with the answer.