Analysis  

 

New England Patriots, Denver Broncos planning QB succession

There's resolve in Dino Babers' voice, as sacrilegious as his idea -- that Tom Brady might be on the clock -- seems to be.

Excuse him for that. The new head man at Bowling Green coached Jimmy Garoppolo at Eastern Illinois the past two years. And his belief in the young signal-caller -- where Garoppolo's place is and will be over the next few years -- is deeply rooted in what his eyes have told him.

"Jimmy is a competitor," Babers said last week. "He has no problem sitting behind a Hall of Famer, but he's not gonna stay stagnant. It may be obvious that (Brady is the guy) the first year or two. But after that, watch out. The more you watch the guy, the more you'll like him."

From the outside looking in, the predicament Babers is predicting would be called a quarterback controversy.

On the inside, though, NFL decision-makers would refer to it as a high-class problem.

The New England Patriots took Garoppolo with the 62nd overall pick of the 2014 NFL Draft. Two years ago, the Denver Broncos selected Brock Osweiler five slots higher than that. Each club had ancillary reasons: New England's backup QB, Ryan Mallett, is very available via trade and entering a contract year; Denver, meanwhile, wasn't sure, at that point, where Peyton Manning was physically.

And yet, here's how Broncos general manager John Elway described Osweiler's place on the team two weeks ago: "Our plan is that Brock is going to be that next guy. That's why we drafted him two years ago, and we're thrilled with his progress up to this point. Fortunately, Peyton has been Peyton for the past two years, so that's been a pleasant surprise -- but so has Brock." Shortly after that, Bill Belichick referenced Brady's age for the first time in a public setting, just after snagging Garoppolo.

Here's a simple truth to keep in mind: Clubs draft players in the second round with the thought that they'll develop into starters. Maybe not right away, but certainly at some point.

So those are two quarterbacks who should, eventually, have a shot at succeeding legends.

* * * * *

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Ron Wolf presided over 10 drafts as the Green Bay Packers' general manager. In seven of them, the Pack selected a quarterback. Those seven quarterbacks started a total of zero games for the club. Holdover Don Majkowski started the first three games of Wolf's first full season in charge. Brett Favre, acquired via trade, started the rest of Wolf's tenure. And yet, Wolf's yield on the QB binge was fairly outstanding. The highest pick he spent was 118th overall. And while he wound up with a few washouts, like Ron McAda, Jay Barker and Kyle Wachholtz, Wolf landed a third-rounder and a fifth-rounder for Mark Brunell and a third-rounder for Aaron Brooks, and he moved up seven first-round spots in dealing off Matt Hasselbeck.

For Wolf, the lesson came in Minneapolis, back in early November of 1995. Favre went down against the Minnesota Vikings. So did Ty Detmer. And then, third-stringer T.J. Rubley blew the game. Wolf signed Jim McMahon and resolved to not let depth issues sneak up on him at the position again.

"I always felt like, to compete and be successful in the NFL, you better have a quarterback -- and more than just a quarterback, you better have a guy that can go in and play," Wolf said. "That was my mantra, to always make sure we had at least two guys, one of whom could come in and win a game, not get you taken out of a game. A lot of people don't subscribe to that, but that was my philosophy."

And that was the idea, too, for former San Francisco 49ers executive John McVay, when he and Bill Walsh dealt second- and fourth-round picks to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 1987 to acquire Steve Young. At one point, talks stalled, but the trade was important enough for owner Eddie DeBartolo Jr. to step in and close the deal. Joe Montana was nearing his 31st birthday and had back issues. The Niners needed insurance. Young gave it to them.

So part of it was building depth. Another was protecting long-term interests.

"You better have the next guy. And we thought, better yet, you should have the next guy on the team already," McVay said. "You don't want to cause turmoil, saying you're gonna trade a superstar. You want to hang on to them as long as you can, as long as they're playing like they're playing. But you don't know what hand fate will deal you. And if, all of a sudden, you have a serious injury, and you haven't prepared for it, it's tough to do it on the run."

Young largely bided his time for four years before that moment arrived, courtesy of New York Giants defensive lineman Leonard Marshall, who delivered a crushing hit that put Montana on the shelf with a serious elbow injury. The backup in whom San Francisco had sunk a second- and fourth-round pick was suddenly pressed into service -- and went on to make seven Pro Bowls, win two MVPs and pilot the Niners to a championship.


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In the cases of both the Niners and Packers, the idea was to continually pour resources into the game's most important position. If you get a player who can really play, but must be traded to do it, then that's a pretty good issue to have.

"Let's face it, there's luck involved," Wolf said. "It's hard to imagine Brunell dropping to the fifth round, or Hasselbeck to the sixth, now. We ask guys (to go to the bathroom) these days, so we can see what they had for lunch. But let's reverse that -- which is what makes it so exciting. You don't know. The best quarterback in the game is a sixth-round pick, and he was the (199th overall) pick. That's the thrilling part."

And that's part of why Wolf kept taking shots. Never stop seeking improvement under center. It's a strategy one of his old lieutenants -- John Schneider -- employed in Seattle, going through a series of quarterbacks (including Tarvaris Jackson, Charlie Whitehurst and Matt Flynn) before hitting it big with a third-round pick in 2012: Russell Wilson. It's also the mindset that allowed another one of Wolf's ex-assistants, Ted Thompson, to eventually replace Favre.

* * * * *

To study the position, and how legends are supplanted, we identified a group we believe to be the best six quarterbacks of the 1990s (in alphabetical order): Troy Aikman, John Elway, Favre, Jim Kelly, Dan Marino, Steve Young. Then we looked at the draft-pick resources sunk into the position by each franchise in a five-year period ending just after each quarterback retired.

Here are the results ...

QB
Final season
Quarterbacks drafted (year, round/overall pick)
Jim Kelly
1996
By Buffalo, from 1993 to '97: Todd Collins ('95, 2/45).
John Elway
1998
By Denver, from 1995 to '99: Jeff Lewis ('96, 4/100); Brian Griese ('98, 3/91).
Dan Marino
1999
By Miami, from 1996 to 2000: John Dutton ('98, 6/172).
Steve Young
1999
By San Francisco, from 1996 to 2000: Jim Druckenmiller ('97, 1/26); Giovanni Carmazzi ('00, 3/65); Tim Rattay ('00, 7/212).
Troy Aikman
2000
By Dallas, from 1997 to 2001: Quincy Carter ('01, 2/53).
Brett Favre
2007 *
By Green Bay, from 2004 to '08: Aaron Rodgers ('05, 1/24); Ingle Martin ('06, 5/148); Brian Brohm ('08, 2/56); Matt Flynn ('08, 7/209).
* Favre's final season in Green Bay.

The Broncos and Packers were the only two teams that spent multiple picks on the position prior to parting ways with their respective iconic QBs. The Bills, Dolphins and 49ers each spent one in this time period, while the Cowboys didn't spend any.

The Packers are the only above-listed team that found a long-term answer with one of those picks -- and, true to Wolf's philosophy, they started taking shots early and kept taking shots later.

Conversely, Dallas was boxed into a single draft class -- like Minnesota was in 2011 after Favre's retirement, when the Vikings took Christian Ponder. And while Carter wasn't the answer, the Cowboys weren't exactly flush with options. The 53rd pick, which they used on the Georgia quarterback, was their first, so they didn't have a shot at Michael Vick or Drew Brees. The other QBs drafted that year: Marques Tuiasosopo, Chris Weinke, Sage Rosenfels, Jesse Palmer, Mike McMahon, A.J. Feeley, Josh Booty and Josh Heupel.

In the four years following Aikman's retirement, the Cowboys went 26-38. Dallas started four quarterbacks in 2001. In the years that followed, the Cowboys gave shots to Carter, Chad Hutchinson, Vinny Testaverde and Drew Bledsoe -- before turning to former undrafted free agent Tony Romo in 2006.

Meanwhile, the Bills and Dolphins are hoping that now, in 2014, they finally have their Kelly/Marino replacements in EJ Manuel and Ryan Tannehill. Those were the other two clubs that only took one quarterback in the originally specified time frame.

* * * * *

The Packers didn't stop pouring numbers into the position after controversially halting Rodgers' 2005 draft-day free fall. They spent another pick the next year, then two more in 2008, after Favre initially retired. As Wolf said, you trust your evaluation, take the guy and figure it out when you get him in games.

"The Patriots probably felt like (Garoppolo) was the best player on their board, so they just took him," Wolf said. "I applaud that. That was my philosophy. You can't have enough of those."

Indeed, Wolf says, the two highest picks he spent on quarterbacks were a result of Brunell ('93 draft, 118th overall) and Brooks ('99, 131) each being the best player left.

So when is it time to start planning?

There's no question that it's hard for a club to guess when it has entered the home stretch. Signs of age are less defined at quarterback. Sometimes, as was the case with Montana, an injury can lead to declining arm strength. Other times, as was the case with Favre, a loss in mobility means a guy has a harder time protecting himself in the pocket, which can change a passer's game completely.

Even when you know you're in the home stretch, it's still a difficult judgment when it comes to special talents. As one NFC pro scouting director said of Brady and Manning, "They both have such rare football instincts to the point where it's hard to tell. It could keep them around longer."

But a look at the raw numbers tells us the end is near. Aikman was just 34 when concussions drove him from the game. A battered Kelly was 36. Elway, Marino and Young were 38. Favre made it to 41.

Brady turns 37 in August. Manning is 38.

And that's where the words of Belichick from May 9 ring true: "I think you're better off being early than late at that position."

Babers likes to call Garoppolo "the William Tell of college football" -- a nod (that I had to have explained to me) to his accuracy, decisiveness and confidence. "Jimmy hits everything that he's throwing at," Babers said.

Then, the coach delves deeper into the Brady connection -- which is fueled, in part, by Garoppolo's personal coach, Jeff Christensen, using Brady as a model for the Eastern Illinois product.

"Sitting behind Brady is a blessing," Babers said. "It's not like he's sitting behind some JAG. He can learn as much on headsets -- listening -- as you can by playing. And to go through an organization like the one run by Belichick ..."

At this point, Babers explains the genius of Belichick in keeping the ball moving forward schematically.

And this, of course, would be the Patriots coach doing that from a roster standpoint -- something Sean Payton might have to do soon in New Orleans (Drew Brees is 35) and something Jerry Jones must consider in the near future in Dallas (Romo is 34).

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Maybe Brady will fulfill his stated desire and still be at the top of his game in 2017, when he turns 40 years old and his and Garoppolo's contracts expire. Maybe, when Osweiler's deal runs out after 2015, the Broncos will still be all-in with Manning as he approaches 40.

Maybe the Patriots and Broncos will indeed have some nice problems to deal with.

There's no question that would be better than the alternative.

Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @AlbertBreer.

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