NEPD Staff Writer: Oliver Thomas
There’s a No. 15 slinging spirals in a New England Patriots practice jersey, and his name is not Tim Tebow.
It’s Ryan Mallett.
An Arkansas Razorback by way of the Michigan Wolverines, Mallett was a Patriots third-round pick back in 2011. Selected 74th overall, the Razorback was New England’s highest quarterback draft investment since Drew Bledsoe in 1993. And according to then-NFL Network analyst and current Cleveland Browns general manager Michael Lombardi, the 6’6”, 245-pounder was ranked atop the team’s QB board that April.
Many saw “Big Tex” as a possible heir to Tom Brady’s throne. He too spent time under Lloyd Carr during his short time in Ann Arbor, and he too fit the prototype of a drop-back pocket negotiator.
But as we know, comparisons and expectations are the shingles on the roof of prospect disappointment. Mallett had to learn to be an NFL passer before he could become an NFL passer.
As a rookie in 2011, Mallett held a clipboard as the third-string quarterback behind Brian Hoyer. Yet in 2012, he flashed enough to convince Bill Belichick he could be second-in-command. Hoyer was subsequently released, and New England opted to go just two-deep at the game’s most pivotal position. Belichick showed trust in a second-year player who hadn’t played a professional snap under center.
Mallett went on to make appearances in four games as the lone understudy last year. He took eight kneel-downs for a loss of nine yards, finishing the campaign with just one completion for 17 yards on four pass attempts. He also threw one interception.
With a very small sample size to choose from, the jury is still out on Mallett. He may develop into a starting-caliber field general. But will Foxboro ever be the venue for him to do so?
In late February, Brady signed an extension through the 2017 season, and in turn, that possibility became more of a pipedream for Mallett. After all, the 25-year-old would be 30 and on his second NFL contract by the time that plan were to come to fruition.
So what does 2013 mean for Mallett?
It means another year for progression, another year of an apprenticeship. If he impresses enough, the howitzer-armed QB will get his chance to be a starter. Don’t expect that chance to come in New England, but do expect it to come somewhere.
There are still concerns when it comes to Mallett’s accuracy and decision-making. Lots of zip on the ball will keep you around, but those two aforementioned facets are what separate talent from skill.
Can he improve with experience? Let’s take a look at where he stands in those areas.
Mallett’s not tailored for the rapid-fire offensive attack the Patriots run with Brady on the field. Getting the ball out quickly on short and intermediate underneath routes puts his target-hitting and footwork under the microscope.
His most extended looks in the offense have come during the preseason, where he has accumulated a 57 percent completion percentage in 2011 and a 49 percent completion percentage in 2012. But in Week 8 of last season, Mallett got his first regular season action against the St. Louis Rams. Although he completed just one of three attempts — a check-down to running back Shane Vereen in the flats — he certainly did put some pep on his attempts.
On a 2nd-and-5 in the fourth quarter, Mallett dropped back in the pocket after a play-action fake to Vereen. He surveyed his sights and zeroed in on Julian Edelman running a slant across the field.
After three seconds, three Rams pass-rushers swarmed Mallett. He felt the heat, but saw Edelman running free over the middle with the dropped-down safety sagging off. Edelman had at least five yards to spare in all four directions.
Mallett released the pass. His throwing motion was hurried and his legs were bent in anticipation of the St. Louis line. As a result, he missed Edelman by a couple strides and got clobbered in a “welcome to the NFL” moment.
Fine-tuning something as natural as touch is easier said than done, but it has been one of Mallett’s inconsistencies. If a slight blitz is all it takes to break down a thrower’s mechanics, then it’s all it takes to turn an on-target throw into an off-target one.
Mallett has shown he can convert the tough passes, so it wouldn’t be a shock to see him start completing more of the simple passes.
Reading the defense isn’t like reading a book. Well, unless you’re reading William Faulkner. Instead, it’s a land of deception. And from time to time, like any young quarterback, Mallett has been deceived into seeing something that’s not there.
In his prolonged preseason appearances, Mallett was relatively judicious with the ball. He threw one touchdown and one pick in 2011. Then in 2012, he threw three touchdowns and one pick. That said, preseason defenses are known for being more vanilla than usual. His exposure to regular season defenses yielded different results.
In Mallett’s final appearance of 2012 against the Houston Texans in Week 14, he made a questionable decision on 2nd-and-18 with the clock winding in the final frame.
The Patriots lined up in “13” personnel with one tailback behind Mallett and three tight ends flanked by right tackle Marcus Cannon. Meanwhile, the Texans bunched a total of four linebackers and defensive backs off the line of scrimmage on the strong side.
Tight end Visanthe Shiancoe lined up off-line and was assigned a corner route. Meanwhile, Matthew Slater posted up outside and was assigned a curl route. Off the play-action fake, Mallett turned to his first option, Shiancoe. But with two linebackers dropping back into coverage, that may not have been the best read.
Cornerback Brandon Harris got a hand in front of Shiancoe and the ball jarred up into the air. Safety Shiloh Keo was in the right place to intercept the flailing football. The play netted Mallett’s first career turnover.
Mallett saw a small window in the defense, but he relied a little too much on his eyes and his arm strength to make a throw in a situation where he didn’t need to down inside the Patriots’ own red zone.
Flashing Forward to 2013
It’s all about being consistent for Mallett. His accuracy and his in-game choices are essentially at the roots of his ultimate goal: being a starting NFL quarterback.
On paper, Mallett is one of the most viable backups in the league. He has the tools in his favor. And he’s also sponging up the knowledge from some of the very best in the sport. His miscues from last season were likely a byproduct of his lack of game-speed situations. Though side from preseason, how else is he going to get a feel for the nuances of the offense?
Brady is not one to relinquish many reps; Mallett did play just 24 snaps last season. And barring the unthinkable, he probably won’t play much more than that number again in this upcoming season.
Yet if Mallett is showing signs of advancement with the downs he is given, then it will be because he’s rifling the ball to his playmakers and minimizing his turnovers. And if he does those two things, he’ll be one step closer to playing every down.
Mallett may not be an unrestricted free agent until 2015, but don’t think other teams are writing him off until then.