NEPD Editor: Oliver Thomas
By the time other positions are addressed, it’s often too late to handle the most important one.
Head coach Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots acknowledged that on Friday night, selecting Eastern Illinois quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo with the 62nd overall pick in the 2014 NFL draft.
To some, it was a great reach.
Alternatives in Iowa tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz and outside linebacker Christian Kirksey were waiting, as was USC center Marcus Martin, Oregon State defensive end Scott Crichton, and Notre Dame nose tackle Louis Nix III. Each had their merit as a top-tier available player; each had the potential to become a Patriot. But the Patriots’ draft board was assembled differently.
To them, it was a great find.
Garoppolo, a 6’2”, 226-pound 22-year-old by way of the Ohio Valley Conference, earned the starting job for final eight games of his freshman season in 2010 and didn’t relinquish it, amassing 37 more though 2013.
Along the way, he broke school records held by current Dallas Cowboy Tony Romo, tallying 13,156 career passing yards, 118 touchdowns and 51 interceptions over 45 contests.
And by the time his FCS career was over – after a 61-total touchdown, nine-interception senior year – Garoppolo was recognized as the Walter Payton Award winner and the College Football Performance FCS National Quarterback of the Year.
He helped turn a 2-9 football program into a 12-2 one.
From there, Garoppolo excelled at the East-West Shrine Game and was subsequently called up to the Senior Bowl, then the NFL Scouting Combine. Even so, there was a significant variance in his draft projection leading up to May.
He was gauged as high as an early second-round pick or as low as a third-day pick. He wasn’t Alabama’s A.J. McCarron or Georgia’s Aaron Murray, yet he was a lightly recruited prospect the Patriots felt comfortable placing near the top the board.
New England’s war room identified with his traits more than his production. New England’s war room identified with the importance of depth at the quarterback position.
With the athleticism and active footwork to negotiate the pocket, as well as the quick and compact three-quarters delivery to hit open windows downfield, it’s understandable why.
Garoppolo impresses on play-action fakes and sells the pump fake in sync with double-move routes. He has the mobility to aid deep throws on rollouts. He unveils good anticipation and zip in effortlessly throwing his receivers open. He sees all levels, and he has the mechanics, decisiveness and touch to flick accurate passes over defenders into each one.
“He’s got a lot of qualities we admire in a quarterback,” Belichick said in his press conference after Day 2. “With the situation we have at quarterback,” he added, “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 but I think you’re better off being early than late at that position.”
With Tom Brady turning 37 years old in August and under contract through 2017, the situation at quarterback is far from a desperate one. It’s an ideal one.
Drafting a potential successor to Brady has long been in the discussion. It wasn’t a matter of if so much as it was when.
So when that came to fruition early on Friday night, it furthered the sentiment that the Patriots draft for the future, well beyond 2014. And with 25-year-old backup Ryan Mallett entering the final year of his deal, the future could be near.
For now, though, Garoppolo finds himself in a position to learn.
Under the helmet, he’s garnered praise for his intelligence, leadership and competitiveness. It is believed that those attributes shined through during his pre-draft visit to Foxborough.
However, as a high-volume shotgun passer from an up-tempo spread attack, he’s garnered concern when it comes to working past his first read. Although he has proven adept in diagnosing progressions post-snap, incorporating three-, five-, and seven-step drops while keeping his eyes downfield will be key for him.
He has, after all, garnered criticism for his stability under pass rush. While he has some elusiveness in his pocket presence, Garoppolo has instances of overreaction to ghost pressure. As a result, he will drop his eye level and try to scramble. And when he does get the ball out under duress, there is some inconsistency stepping into throws and driving off his back foot.
Those features, combined with a unique release point, have netted some side effects.
Before throwing an improved nine interceptions as a senior, Garoppolo had 13, 14, and 15 interceptions during his first three campaigns. He was also sacked 94 times over his four-year Panthers career.
Sensing pass rush, and taking care of the football despite it, will be invaluable for him moving forward. Nonetheless, there will inevitably be lapses as Garoppolo transitions to the next level.
That is expected. How he responds to those lapses is the independent variable.
His learning curve remains to be seen.
“I would say his level of competition is less than, certainly, he’s not playing at the level of competition in the SEC, but that’s not his fault,” said Belichick. “He’s playing against the guys out there. I think it will be an adjustment for him, he’ll see guys that are a lot bigger, a lot faster, a lot more athletic than guys he saw on the field the last couple of years. It doesn’t mean they can’t adjust to it.”
The Patriots are hoping he can adjust and develop into an efficient NFL passer, perhaps even an NFL starter.
He has time to.
Providing the Patriots retain Mallett for the duration of the 2014 season, Garoppolo would figure to be the No. 3 quarterback on the roster. That was the same capacity in which the 6’6”, 245-pound Mallett spent his rookie year after being the 74th overall pick in the 2011 draft.
Mallett took over as Brady’s lone understudy for the following two seasons, attempting four regular-season pass attempts in 2012 before manning the sidelines for all of 2013.
Much like Mallett, Garoppolo currently may not be the sum of his parts. There is no guarantee that he will ever be. But the Patriots invested in him with the confidence that he one day could be.