With Tom Brady suspended for the first four games of the 2015 season, this question has come to the forefront. More specifically, what kind of player is the second-year quarterback out of Eastern Illinois?
Given some time to review my scouting notes from before the 2014 NFL Draft (where Garoppolo was selected in the second round) and assess the All-22 Coaches Film from Garoppolo's rookie season, I've come up with a detailed guide on the quarterback's game and how it will fit into the New England Patriots' system. So, let's dive in:
What's the scouting report on Jimmy Garoppolo?
When the Patriots selected Garoppolo with the 62nd overall pick in the 2014 draft, the move was lauded in NFL circles as a perfect match between prospect and scheme. Garoppolo shined at Eastern Illinois as a quick-rhythm passer with exceptional accuracy, ball placement and timing. In addition, he displayed outstanding arm talent and a high football IQ while directing the Panthers' warp-speed attack against FCS competition. He quickly got the ball out of his hands on an assortment of catch-and-throw plays designed to distribute the ball to his playmakers at short and intermediate ranges. Although the dink-and-dunk nature of Eastern Illinois' offense led to questions about Garoppolo's arm strength and range, the small-school standout eliminated these concerns with a pair of strong performances at the East-West Shrine Game and Senior Bowl.
Watching Garoppolo play throughout the preseason last year, I believed his skills translated well to the pro game, as evidenced by his 99.0 passer rating and 5:1 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Garoppolo displayed outstanding poise, confidence and leadership skills while moving the Patriots' offense against the second- and third-team defenses in exhibition games. He looked razor-sharp delivering passes to playmakers working free against tight coverage on the perimeter; his accuracy and ball placement was impressive for a young player acclimating to the pro game. Based on his impressive preseason performance, the Patriots elevated Garoppolo to the No. 2 position on the depth chart and entered the season with a rookie as Tom Brady's backup.
In the regular season, Garoppolo only saw legit action in three games (at Kansas City in Week 4, vs. Chicago in Week 8 and vs. Buffalo in Week 17), but continued to impress. The rookie repeatedly delivered the ball on time on quick-rhythm throws to the perimeter. He not only routinely put the ball right in the receiver's strike zone, but also flashed the ability to throw guys open with anticipation tosses through traffic. Given the importance of accuracy and decision-making when it comes to winning quarterback play, Garoppolo's pinpoint placement and sound judgment should serve him well as the director of the Patriots' offense during Brady's suspension. Granted, the sample size is small, but Garoppolo certainly looks like he has the tools to be an effective starter in the short term.
In terms of concerns with Garoppolo's game, I would point out that he took five sacks in mop-up duty, including three in the second half against Buffalo. He failed to get the ball out of his hands quickly against pressure, leading to negative plays in the passing game. Of course, it is not necessarily Garoppolo's fault that the offensive line failed to effectively pick up some of the five-man pressures that collapsed the pocket, but he must show the necessary awareness to toss the ball away or alter the play call when he senses blitz prior to the snap. Although blitz recognition is something that takes a while for some young quarterbacks to grasp, it is imperative he understands the importance of avoiding negative plays as the signal-caller.
How will the Patriots' offense operate with Garoppolo at the helm?
Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels is one of the best in the business at crafting a game plan around the talents of his quarterback. He played an integral role in Matt Cassel's strong performance as New England's fill-in QB in 2008 (when Brady tore his ACL in the season opener). McDaniels definitely will tweak the Patriots' offensive emphasis to ensure Garoppolo's success as the team's starter during the opening month of the season.
First, the Patriots will lean on the power running game to alleviate some of the pressure on Garoppolo. New England will align in an assortment of run-heavy sets and bludgeon opponents with the combination of LeGarrette Blount, Jonas Gray and Travaris Cadet. (Blount's actually suspended for the season opener, so Gray, Cadet and possibly Brandon Bolden/James White will be tasked with carrying the load.) The threat of pounding the ball out of "12" (1 RB, 2 TEs, 2 WRs), "13" (1 RB, 3 TEs, 1 WR) and "22" (2 RBs, 2 TEs, 1 WR) formations will force opponents to employ more single-high-safety looks, creating one-on-one opportunities on the outside. This will help Garoppolo rack up completions on high-percentage throws on early downs. Most importantly, the presence of a strong running game will help the Patriots stay ahead of the chains and keep the young quarterback from facing the exotic blitzes that accompany long-yardage situations.
From a passing perspective, I would expect the Patriots to continue with the diverse aerial attack used when Brady is under center. Granted, McDaniels probably will scale down the volume of plays in the game plan, but he will still rely on the basic concepts that have helped New England systematically pick apart defenses for years. The Pats use an assortment of quick-rhythm passes to form the foundation of the playbook. These plays successfully counter blitzes while helping the quarterback get into a rhythm from the pocket. Also, these are the kind of plays Garoppolo executed in college, and in the NFL, familiarity breeds confidence.
Let's take a closer look at some of the specific tactics I imagine the Pats will employ:
WIDE RECEIVER SCREENS
The Patriots are one of the few teams in the NFL to prominently feature the WR screen. Last season, Brady routinely tossed the ball to Brandon LaFell, Danny Amendola and Julian Edelman on an assortment of "now" screens designed to let them take advantage of soft coverage and lumbering defenders in space. The catch-and-throw concept is familiar to Garoppolo, based on his experience directing a spread attack at Eastern Illinois.
In the play depicted just below, the Patriots call a receiver screen with Garoppolo in the game at Kansas City in garbage time, to help the rookie discover his rhythm from the pocket. The Patriots align in a trips bunch formation with LaFell positioned on the outside. On the snap, the big-bodied receiver quickly retreats, while his fellow wideouts work up the field to double team the force defender. LaFell quickly snatches the pass and weaves through traffic for a 37-yard gain:
The Patriots earned raved reviews for their game plan against the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XLIX, with the slant/flat combination featured prominently on the call sheet. The concept is a staple of New England's game plan and one that I expect McDaniels to use frequently with Garoppolo on the field. The second-year pro is a quick decision-maker with a compact delivery, which allows him to quickly get the ball to pass catchers in tight windows. With the slant/flat combo working off a designated defender in the flat, Garoppolo can register easy completions on a variety of one-read plays.
In the following play breakdown, Garoppolo works the slant-flat combination to perfection to record his first NFL touchdown. The Patriots are aligned in a dubs formation with Rob Gronkowski positioned on the outside to the right. The All-Pro tight end runs a slant with the slot WR (Amendola) executing a flat route. Garoppolo simply reads the flat defender and targets the open receiver when the picture clears up. With Chiefs OLB Justin Houston intent on jamming Amendola early in the route, Garoppolo hits Gronkowski in the open window for an easy completion. Gronk eventually rumbles into the end zone after breaking a few tackles, but it was Garoppolo's quick decision and accurate throw that put him in position to score:
The Patriots will use a variety of run-heavy sets and jumbo personnel groupings to fuel a power running game -- and set up big-play opportunities off play action. Brady is one of the best in the business at carrying out play fakes in the backfield before setting up to take a deep shot down the field. The clever use of play action, which lures defenders to the line of scrimmage, allows a quarterback to take advantage of one-on-one coverage on the perimeter or exploit overaggressive linebackers between the hashes. These concepts are not only easy for young quarterbacks to read, but they allow the offensive coordinator to utilize max protection to neutralize pressure tactics.
Garoppolo didn't have a lot of experience executing play action as a collegian, but he already has shown signs of becoming an effective play-action passer with the Patriots. He makes strong play fakes in the backfield, yet quickly gets his eyes to the target and delivers accurate strikes.
In the next play, taken from the Bills game in late December, Garoppolo effectively uses play action to connect with LaFell on a skinny post. The Patriots originally align in an open I-formation with a "YOZ" look ("Y" outside of "Z" or tight end outside of flanker). The tight end motions inside of LaFell, creating a run-heavy look. Garoppolo takes the snap and executes a quick play fake to lure the second-level defenders to the line of scrimmage before rifling a dart to LaFell for a 14-yard gain:
The Patriots rarely use movement passes with Brady under center, due to his limited mobility, but Garoppolo is a solid athlete capable of making pinpoint throws on the run. To take advantage of his athleticism, the Patriots incorporate bootleg passes into the playbook. This allows New England to feature some half-field reads for the young quarterback while tricking the defense with misdirection action in the backfield. In addition, it provides Garoppolo with the option to take off downfield if the primary and secondary receivers are covered in the route.
Against the Chicago Bears last October, the Patriots executed the bootleg pass flawlessly with Garoppolo in the game. In the play depiction just below, the rookie passer uses a hard fake to the left to set up the "slide" pass to Tim Wright on the right. With the Bears overreacting to the fake, Garoppolo is able to get to the perimeter and hit Wright on a dump-off pass in the flat for a 17-yard gain:
This kind of concept offers little risk, but generates big gains and allows a young passer to develop confidence from the pocket.
Garoppolo is not considered a dual-threat quarterback, but his athleticism and mobility could allow the Patriots to utilize some zone-read schemes to take advantage of an overaggressive defense. Garoppolo is sturdy enough to execute the concept as a surprise tactic in short-yardage situations. Against the Bills, New England sprinkled in some read option. In the next play breakdown, the Pats align in a dubs formation with Garoppolo in the shotgun. The offset "Y" starts short motion before the snap. The rookie fakes an outside-zone handoff to the left before executing a "dart" to the right, through the "B" gap and behind a slip block from the Y on the edge. The run nets four yards and a first down on a play rarely used by the Patriots with Brady at the helm:
How will opponents attack Garoppolo as an inexperienced starter?
Whenever a quarterback with limited game experience steps onto the field, defensive coordinators attempt to rattle the youngster with aggressive tactics designed to create confusion and hesitation. Garoppolo's moderate success in mop-up duty will prompt defensive play callers to take away his fastball (quick passes and screens) and force him outside of his comfort zone. Opponents will use a host of pre-snap disguises and late shifts to mess up his protection calls. In addition, the defensive movement could force misreads on passing plays, leading to errant throws or turnovers from the pocket.
From a coverage standpoint, opponents likely will blanket the Patriots' receivers with various man-to-man tactics complemented by blitz pressure. The man coverage will position defenders closer on quick throws, with the blitz producing negative plays if Garoppolo is uncertain about his "hot reads" or sight adjustments against pressure. These tactics were effective against the youngster in Year 1, particularly in the Bills game.
In our last play breakdown, the Bills move into an odd front with the nickel back sneaking into position at the line of scrimmage. On the snap, the nickel back blitzes off the edge to immediately harass Garoppolo in the pocket. The young quarterback failed to recognize the blitz during the pre-snap phase, so he is unprepared to deliver a quick throw to the tight end in the flat. Consequently, he takes a sack and forces the Patriots into a long-yardage situation:
I expect the Patriots' early-season opponents to ratchet up the pressure and really get after Garoppolo.