The New England Patriots will begin the 2017 season with expectations similar to those they have had for the last 15-plus years. With Tom Brady still under center and with little signs of drop-off, the Patriots are the favorites to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl once again.
Beyond that, the future gets remarkably cloudier.
It’s almost unthinkable to picture Brady in another uniform. If he captures his sixth Lombardi trophy this year, that will only become more difficult to imagine. But the Patriots have always been an organization focused on the future and the future might just be Jimmy Garoppolo.
Garoppolo, a second-round pick in the 2014 draft, has been impressive when given the chance to perform in actual game-action. While Brady served his four-game suspension at the start of last season, Garoppolo helped guide the Patriots to a 23-21 upset of the Arizona Cardinals in his first career start. Garoppolo threw for 264 yards and a touchdown and no interceptions. Although it was the only full regular season game he has under his belt, Garoppolo has shown flashes of promise in the preseason as well.
With Garoppolo’s rookie deal expiring after this season, the Patriots will find themselves at a crossroads. If the Patriots want to keep Garoppolo, they can either attempt to re-sign him or use the franchise tag. I don’t think either option is likely.
When Garoppolo hits the free agent market, teams will be lining up for his services. In the past two off-seasons, we’ve seen even mediocre and unproven quarterbacks get monster deals. The Bears signed Mike Glennon to a three-year deal for $45 million this season and Brock Osweiler landed a four- year deal for $26 million with Houston last year. In today’s quarterback-driven NFL, teams will be willing to pay through the nose for a quarterback, even those with a small sample size like Osweiler and Garoppolo. As a young quarterback with high upside, Garoppolo would be surrendering a lot of money if he were to return to New England.
The Patriots could force Garopollo back by using the franchise tag, but that is even more unlikely. When a player receives a franchise tag, he is given a fully guaranteed contract based on what the top five highest paid players at the position make. A franchise-tagged quarterback in 2017 was guaranteed a deal worth $21 million. This is only going to increase next season. Kirk Cousins, who signed his franchise tag with Washington this season, is now worth 14 percent of the Redskins’ cap space. If the Patriots keep Brady and bring back Garoppolo through the franchise tag, close to 30 percent of the Patriots’ cap space would be spent on two players. Bill Belichick spends his money too wisely to let so much of his cap space be tied up in two players, let alone in a player who would ideally never see the field.
It’s unlikely that both Brady and Garopollo will be on the Patriots’ roster in 2018− they will have to choose. If Brady is still playing at an elite level at the end of this season, the Patriots could certainly stand pat with Brady, let Garoppolo walk and sign another rookie to serve as Brady’s understudy. However, Brady is now firmly on the wrong side of 40 and Father Time, who, as we hear so often, is undefeated. There is going to be a point in time when Brady loses the magic he has had for the better part of two decades. It could be the very next season. When that happens, the Patriots could be turning over the reins of their franchise to a fresh-faced quarterback just out of college and likely embracing a solid rebuild. But that’s never been the Patriot way.
New England has always been an organization with one eye toward the future. The Patriots have always valued continued excellence over cashing in all their chips. The future will never be mortgaged for the present and Belichick would always rather deal a player a year early than watch him decline and become a bad contract. This line of thinking has been what’s led to departures like Lawyer Milloy, Richard Seymour and Logan Mankins over the years. I believe Belichick when he says that no player is above the team. This includes the five-time Super Bowl winning quarterback.
The Patriots know what they have in Jimmy Garoppolo. He is not a perfect quarterback by any means but he has shown enough for the Patriots to know they can win with him. Keeping Brady makes the future less certain.
If it comes down to a decision between Brady and Garoppolo, don’t be surprised if Belichick chooses to move on from the Brady era and turn over the franchise to Garoppolo next season. The other option is banking on a 41-year-old quarterback to suffer no decline in play while the Patriots search for the next face of the franchise.
When New England takes the field for the first time on Thursday night and number 12 comes running out of the tunnel, Patriots fans should take a moment to appreciate the moment.
You never know how many times you’ll see it again.
Bryan Lambert is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org