Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Reloading the musket: Part 1 - Quarterback play in spotlight

The time to think about the future of the quarterback position for the New England Patriots is now.

Sacrilegious as it seems, and although he does still have a couple of years of high expectations ahead of him, Tom Brady is nearing the end of his run - and if the Patriots are going to be able to hit the ground running with a seamless transition when the time comes, decisions must be made this offseason.

Sadly, that offseason began with Sunday's "Crash landing", as coach Bill Belichick refers to it, losing the AFC Title game to the Denver Broncos - a game that his Patriots were good enough to get to but, as has been the case in big games against stiff competition for the past two years, not good enough to win it.

But one thing that has to be considered with this Patriots' team is that they were the second youngest team in the NFL this season - behind only the St. Louis Rams - so the foundation for future success is present as Belichick has stocked his team with young fire pissers that are only going to get better...

...but there are areas that will need to be addressed to finish the roster overhaul that Belichick started in the 2010 draft, most dire is an offense that has Brady and a nice assortment of running backs, but nothing close to being elite otherwise.

The first thing that the team must do is decide what the identity of the offense is going to be going forward - is this a pass-first unit with an endless supply of speedy and/or monstrous pass catchers or is this a grinding power running offense that is going to wear folks down and stomp on their throats?

Is it too much to ask for both?

But as it stands entering the 2014 offseason, it is neither - at least not enough of either to be playing for the world championship, but it certainly could be with some solid roster moves in free agency and deft usage of draft picks.

A lot depends on the fate of offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, who has fallen out of favor with Patriots' fans with both his impatience with the running game and his seemingly complaisant style.  On the surface, Brady indicates he's happy with McDaniels, but as far as accountability is concerned one has to be concerned with McDaniels throwing Brady under the bus a couple of times this season...

...and on more than on occasion this season Belichick has issued subtle barbs in regard to his play calling style.

However, the question with McDaniels is if he is the victim of just not having the horses to pull the wagon or if he's just not using them properly.

Truthfully, the answer is a combination of both - so unless he has a change of heart in regard to the Cleveland Browns' head coaching vacancy, we are apt to see McDaniels on the Patriots' sideline in 2014 - so the next step in the process is for Belichick to load up this offense with enough long-term weaponry that it leaves no doubt as to an identity...

...and the first step in that process is to evaluate where Brady is physically.

At his best, Brady is, well, the best.  The man has proven time and again that he can do the most with the least - and that's where an evaluation on him becomes ambiguous and futile. Injury, felony and attrition have robbed the team of any chance at consistency, and it seems that the fate of the entire team always comes back to rest on the shoulders of the now 14 year veteran - and when it does, it's usually in desperation, which is a bad way to fly.

That said, and knowing that the team is under intense scrutiny to surround the certain Hall-of-Famer with enough weapons for him to work with, the team also must look to the future of the position and decide who takes over for Brady when he hangs up his cleats.

Unfortunately, the free agent class of 2014 is a collection has-been's and never-will-be's and the draft class looks to be just as weak this season as last, perhaps even weaker - and with current Brady backup Ryan Mallett not inspiring much confidence with his limited (preseason) play, the Patriots are in a poor spot to do much about it this season.

But there is a scenario or two that could work out - and all involve dumping Mallett to a team needy for a fresh-start and with ties to the Patriots, Houston and Cleveland come to mind as well as Oakland, picking up what they can in the way of draft picks for the strong-armed gunslinger and heading into May's draft loaded for bear.

The draft is full of developmental quarterbacks, but questions abound as to whether any of them are ready to shoulder the load of being an NFL quarterback - so spending anything higher than a 3rd rounder in this draft is improbable - so who's out there that could potentially be the Patriots' quarterback of the future?

Belichick prefers big, stoic pocket passers, but with names like Blake Bortles of Central Florida and Derek Carr of Fresno State likely going in the second round, Belichick would have to hope that either one would fall a little, but both come with potential and Carr with an NFL pedigree, the younger brother of former Texans' first round pick David Carr.

LSU's Zack Mettenberger shows great skill, but suffered a devastating knee injury that he likely won't recover from in time to make an impression in camp and Alabama quarterback A.J. McCarron is likely a career backup with not a lot of arm strength to make NFL throws.

Jimmy Garoppolo of Eastern Illinois is intriguing, though there has to be concern with the level of his competition.  Regardless, he is a highly sought after workout with eye-popping numbers and could be available early on the third day of the draft unless he really kills it in college all star games and starts rising up the charts.

Another name that sticks out is Logan Thomas from Virginia Tech - a huge specimen at 6' 6" and 260 pounds, Thomas has a rocket launcher for an arm, though he could use some coaching on foot work and delivery of a touch ball.  A pocket passer first, Thomas is big and fast enough to tuck the ball and pick up tough yardage and is athletic to the point that he was originally recruited to Va Tech as a tight end after playing high school quarterback.

None of these guys are Tom Brady, but it's important to remember that Tom Brady wasn't Tom Brady coming out of college either, at least not the icon that he eventually turned out to be - but someone has to take over in a couple of years, so why not one of those guys?

List of (uninspiring) NFL quarterbacks eleigble for Free Agency in 2014:

1. Michael Vick
2. Josh McCown
3. Josh Freeman
4. Shaun Hill
5. Chad Henne
6. Tarvaris Jackson
7. Colt McCoy
8. Matt Flynn
9. Kellen Clemens
10. Luke McCown
11. Derek Anderson
12. David Garrard
13. Dan Orlovsky
14. Rex Grossman
15. Curtis Painter
16. Tim Tebow
17. Jimmy Clausen
18. Charlie Whitehurst
19. Brady Quinn
20. Rusty Smith

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