With Tom Brady inked through 2017, the Patriots have another half-decade to enjoy the services of one of the most important icons in football history. They also have a pair of talented young slingers, Ryan Mallett and Mike Kafka, sitting right behind Brady on the depth chart.
Let's take the quarterback evaluation one by one, starting with the king.
Brady was phenomenal in 2012. He threw 401 completions for 4,827 yards and 34 touchdowns, with only eight picks. He also completed his 48th straight regular-season game with a touchdown pass against the Dolphins in Week 17.
A few epic victories planted him right in the middle of the MVP race throughout the season. He steamrolled the Rams in London by 38 points, pulled out a meaningful 10-point win against Peyton Manning's Broncos, wrecked the Colts by 35 points, shut out the Dolphins in their second showdown, tore up the Jets by 30 points on Thanksgiving night and smacked down the talented Texans by 28 points. He dismantled Houston for a second time in the divisional round, throwing 344 yards and a trio of touchdowns for a 13-point victory.
He led his team to 6,846 total yards and 427.9 yards per game, with 557 total points and 34.8 points per game, leading the league in those categories. He pushed his offense to score over 40 points on five different occasions (six occasions, including the divisional round of the playoffs). They scored over 50 points twice.
Simply put, Brady was tremendous in 2012.
Brady is elite in the old-fashioned sense of the term. That's a crucial distinction to make because we're living in a time when the definition of "elite" is changing. Joe Flacco's earth-shattering deal is an example, and Tony Romo's huge deal shows that fewer and fewer marks of proven greatness are needed to achieve superstardom in the modern world.
Brady transcends the wishy-washy hoopla of all the changing definitions. He provides a window into the past, a time when elite athletes plugged away for years, a decade or more, getting dirty and bloody, collecting Super Bowl rings and MVP awards, setting records and achieving things that had previously been deemed impossible, staying healthy for crazy stretches of time and proving their superiority over and over again. How many quarterbacks can say they've done that?
Brady is the definition of greatness in any time period. That's the primary reason why New England has a great quarterback recipe cooking right now.
That recipe is sweetened by Brady's extremely intriguing backup, Ryan Mallett.
Reliable information about Mallett is scarce, through no fault of his own, simply because he hasn't played much on the professional stage.
Here's what we know.
In 2010, he threw 3,869 yards and 32 touchdowns at Arkansas. It was his second straight season throwing over 3,500 passing yards and over 30 touchdowns. The Patriots drafted him in the third round of the 2011 NFL Draft, 74th overall. As soon as Mallett's name was announced at the draft podium, NFL Network's Rich Eisen offered his immediate analysis:
[Mallet is] a guy who is rated, just on the x's and o's on the board and also in technique, as the best prospect, pro ready, but obviously, he's not going to be playing in the pros unless something catastrophic happens to Tom Brady.
NFL Network's Draft Analyst Mike Mayock also offered his two cents:
I think the key word with Bill [Belichick] is value...What did [Belichick] do with Matt Cassel? He drafted him in the seventh round, developed him and...dealt him for value. He feels like he got great value here in the third round for a first-round kid. And if he has to develop him and deal him, he will.
We thought there was real good value on the board there with Ryan. He had an excellent college career...won a lot of games in high school, his father was a coach, he's a football guy, comes from a football family, which I think I can relate to...We'll let him compete with our other quarterbacks on the team...and see where it all goes.
Mallett had a strong 2012 camp and a productive preseason, totaling 33 completions, 300 yards, three touchdowns and only one pick. He threw a four-yard touchdown to Jesse Holley, a three-yard touchdown to Jeremy Ebert and a seven-yard touchdown to Alex Silvestro. His performance was strong enough to advance him further up the depth chart, as the Patriots released Brian Hoyer in September and retained Mallett as their lone backup for the season.
In November 2012, Belichick commented on Mallett's progress:
Relative to last year, he's taken all of the scout team reps that last year he was basically splitting with Brian Hoyer. So, that has given him a lot more opportunity there to take snaps and also to have command of that group and run that offense on a weekly basis and the other guys that are used there.
On the opportunities that he's had to work with the regular offense and again, certainly those have been more frequent too because of his role, when he's taken plays in there for Tom [Brady] that it's just given him more experience and more opportunity to run our plays so he’s not always just running the other team’s plays which is the way it was last year.
At least this year he's getting more plays on the scout team and also plays with our offense. I think all those things have helped him. He's been out there every day, he's working hard. I guess fortunately for us he hasn’t had to play but I'm confident that if he had to, he's taken the steps he needs to be ready to go.
That's a huge boost to Mallett's credibility.
Of course, from a contrasting standpoint, there is something to be said for healthy skepticism, at least until there's some proof on the table. This is a semi-regular subject with Patriots analysts Andy Hart, Paul Perillo, Erik Scalavino and Fred Kirsch from Patriots Football Weekly (PFW) at Patriots.com. When recently asked about the post-Brady future, Hart wrote:
Every three weeks when I do the Ask PFW mailbag I'm stunned that there always seems to be at least one question about Brady’s heir/replacement...Right now, I don't believe there is a QB succession plan in place. I don't think Ryan Mallett is the answer. So the future QB is playing in college right now, or for another NFL team.
Paul Perillo, also of the PFW crew, recently fielded a similar question. A fan asked, "I think after just [Mallett's] short time with the team he is already a solid backup...I'd like to see him get real time this year. Close teams out early like Buffalo, and give the kid some time. Am I alone in this one?"
Based on the feedback we receive from fans, I'd say you are pretty much alone. Mallett has never played a meaningful snap so there's no way to know just how good he is. But the Patriots watch him every day in practice and they have an idea of his talent level.
When Brady retires the Patriots will obviously suffer a drop-off at quarterback whether it's Mallett or anyone else. If New England can get a mid-round draft pick for him, I'd say that's a trade they should make.
Picking up on the trade thread Perillo touched on, rumors about Mallett's deal-bait status have been floating around for a few months. A reporter asked Belichick about this subject at the AFC coaches breakfast. Belichick offered one of his quintessential reactions, beginning with his unique combination of pauses and shrugs. Then, in a monotone voice, he said, "I'm not gonna comment on that. I'm glad he plays for our team."
So, that's where we're at with this 24-year-old backup. He could be the future of this franchise, or perhaps he's a develop-and-deal project, as Mayock initially put forward. There simply isn't enough hard data on the table to reach a scientific conclusion.
There are, however, a few reasons to feel good about Mallett.
For one thing, he has an amazing physical makeup. In a great segment of ESPN's Sport Science, it was determined that Mallett's throwing arm is 33 inches long, with a forearm that reaches an angular velocity of 2,306 degrees per second, similar to guys like Drew Brees and Ben Roethlisberger. He also stands tall at 6'6" and gets the ball out an eight-foot release point, throwing at 65.4 miles per hour, which can nail a 20-yard distance in seven-tenths of a second. Good stuff.
It's also worth noting that the Patriots haven't drafted a quarterback since Mallett, despite having a few cracks at some interesting prospects. The implication of their inaction on the quarterback front is that they like what they see in Mallett, and they're pretty confident in their depth at the position.
All of this bodes well for Mallett's future.
The Patriots would be golden at quarterback with just Brady and Mallett on the roster for 2013, but they elected to add security and competition with Mike Kafka. Can't blame them for being smart.
Kafka was selected out of Northwestern in the fourth round of the 2010 draft by the Eagles. He spent most of his rookie season on the inactive list. He completed 11 passes for 107 yards with a pair of picks in 2011 and missed all of 2012 after being released by Philadelphia.
Kafka is 25 years old and projects to be last on the depth chart, behind Mallett. He's the type of player who fits as a very solid third option at quarterback, with sound fundamental skills, good field awareness, nice timing, a speedy release and thick skin. He provides effective insurance at the most important position, which is what you're looking for in a third option.
Overall, the Patriots have a great three-layer structure at quarterback. As far as starters go, you can't get better than Brady. As far as a top backup goes, you can't get more intriguing than Mallett. And, as far as a secondary backup goes, you'll get what you need from Kafka.
Tough to ask for more than that.
Final Evaluation Grade: A