The New England Patriots’ biggest question this offseason is what they will do with backup quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, and by all reports, the organization intends to trade him to the highest bidder. While this is risky on the Patriots’ part—history says Tom Brady likely has one, maybe two good seasons left in his tank—if the market values the backup QB highly, Bill Belichick is looking to gain multiple draft assets.
If Garoppolo is that good, the Patriots should seriously consider keeping him and even franchise tagging him next offseason. It would put the team in a salary cap bind for the 2018 season, but considering that Brady will be 41 years old that season, and no QB in NFL history has had any success starting a season at that age or older (Warren Moon turned 41 late in his final Pro Bowl season before his play declined sharply), the short-term, uncomfortable cap situation would be a long-term benefit. That is, of course, if New England believes Jimmy Garoppolo is of franchise-QB caliber.
No one knows his backup quarterback better than Belichick, but what we have at Pro Football Focus are six quarters of meaningful data on Garoppolo. He struggled in his starting debut, as he was the 25th-graded QB in Week 1 versus Arizona this past season, earning a game grade of 67.1. In that outing, he fumbled once, connected on just four of eight passes over 10 yards (one being a wide open WR Chris Hogan on a busted coverage for a touchdown), and posted a passer rating of just 78.3 under pressure. Week 2 against Miami was a breakout game of sorts, as he graded as the sixth-best passer of the week with a game grade of 85.5—even more impressively, he reached that mark in just two quarters, leaving the game due to injury. Garoppolo performed better in basically every statistical and grading category in his second start, as he posted a passer rating of 125.4 under pressure and connected on 6 of 11 passes for 107 yards and two TDs.
One of Garoppolo’s intriguing traits is his ability to deliver the ball quickly and accurately. With an average time to throw of 2.27—70.3 percent of his passes were out in under 2.5 seconds—Garoppolo was able to read defenses, make quick decisions, and deliver passes in rhythm. Everything Garoppolo does is fast-paced, from his dropback and his foot movement to his delivery and zip on the ball. While going back over his two games, the only concerns in his game are his durability and whether or not his initial success was due to either the Patriots’ system or the lack of real pro game film on Garoppolo.
All that being said, if the Patriots do ship the former Eastern Illinois standout this offseason, there are three likely destinations he’ll end up: Cleveland, San Francisco, or Chicago. Those three teams are currently set to draft first, second, and third respectively, and have a chance to select a quarterback with their first pick come late April. Considering the perceived weak QB class, however, taking one of the current front-runners is a risk. While we’re still two and half months away from the draft and still have plenty of evaluating to do on this class, I’m going to assume here that each team will pursue Garoppolo, and determine what it would likely take for them to acquire the quarterback without sacrificing their first-first round pick in the process.
The Browns’ analytical approach can actually be pretty easily determined (besides what value they place on Garoppolo), because their current Director of Research and Strategy, Kevin Meers, wrote an article several years ago that took Jimmy Johnson’s famous draft trade value chart and made some much needed updates. He uses Pro Football Reference’s Career Approximate Values (CAV) to determine what each pick’s true value is, and while that’s not a perfect way to determine player value, it gives us insight as to how the Browns approach the draft and this potential trade.
Jimmy Garoppolo was the 62nd pick in the 2014 draft, and in this year’s draft, the Browns hold the first, 12th, 33rd, 50th, and 65th picks, while the Patriots have the 32nd, 64th, and 96th picks in the first three rounds (the Patriots potentially have a compensatory third-round pick acquired in the Jamie Collins trade). Initial reports/sources stated the Patriots wanted compensation similar to what the Eagles received in the Sam Bradford trade—a first and fourth-round pick. Considering the Browns have two first-round picks, they have the ammunition to make this happen, and also considering that the Patriots don’t have a fourth-round pick in the 2018 draft, the 12th overall pick and a fourth-round pick next year is in line with what New England wants.
However, I don’t see this scenario happening, as the Browns’ analytical approach covets draft picks, and if that fourth-round pick Cleveland trades is near the top of the round, that package is the equivalent of the fourth overall pick in the draft, based on the chart. Simply put, increasing the value of Garoppolo 58 spots in the draft based on six quarters of play is unlikely. A more likely scenario of the first- and fourth-round picks playing out is if the teams swap first-round picks, which places Garoppolo’s value at the No. 33 pick. Any conversation that starts with a straight first and fourth for Garoppolo won’t have legs when it comes to the Browns.
Another popular trade scenario is trading two second-round picks for Garoppolo. If the Browns trade both of their later second-round picks in 2017 (pick 50) and in 2018 (not set, but assume 50 again), that’s valuing Garoppolo as the 10th overall pick—another unlikely trade scenario. If the Patriots were to throw in their third-round pick (perhaps the compensatory pick they got in the Collins trade), that puts the value of Garoppolo as a late first-round pick, and closer to that No. 33 slot, like in the previous scenario.
Again, we have no idea how the Browns value Garoppolo, and a trade between the two teams will heavily rely on that, but expect the value of the Patriots’ backup to be closer to No. 33 than No. 12, and therefore a package deal that ends up with the Browns holding both their first-round picks and parting with some second-round picks in exchange for Garoppolo and another later-round pick.
In this scenario, we have no past experience to look at to determine what new GM John Lynch and head coach Kyle Shanahan will give up to acquire their franchise QB. One reason that the new duo might opt to heavily pursue Garoppolo is the fact that they are five weeks behind every team in the NFL when it comes to scouting and evaluating this class. While a new GM will keep scouts from the previous regime in his first offseason with a team, he still needs to learn about his scouts, and obviously has to do the due diligence himself.
Fortunately for Lynch and the 49ers, they’ll have a bevy of draft picks at their disposal. With a projected 11 picks in the 2017 draft (assuming a fourth-round compensatory pick), San Francisco will have an extra selection in each round of Day 3. While they don’t have extra top-of-the-draft picks like the Browns do, if Lynch and Shanahan feel Garoppolo is their guy and like him over the QBs in this draft class, acquiring him makes sense. Shanahan liked Garoppolo coming out of college, and pushed for drafting him when he was the offensive coordinator with the Browns. If he wanted him in 2014, Garoppolo hasn’t shown anything that would shy Shanahan away now.
The 49ers have arguably a worse QB situation (at the moment) than the Browns. Expect Lynch to try and trade Colin Kaepernick (and fail) before cutting him, as he’s due $19.3 million in 2017 if on the roster after April 1, but just $4.9 million if cut before then. Kaepernick has seen his play drastically decline over the past three seasons without the tutelage of former San Francisco head coach Jim Harbaugh, and will be hard pressed to see starting action in 2017. With Blaine Gabbert set to hit free agency, the 49ers won’t have a QB on the roster.
With such a big need at the position, a 2018 first-round pick isn’t out of the question. While the Browns actually have QBs on their roster, and at the bare minimum, a good backup in Cody Kessler, the 49ers have zilch. With the QBs in this class all likely needing time on the bench to develop, being aggressive in acquiring Garoppolo by trading a first-round pick in next year’s draft allows the team to draft the best player available at No. 2, and then select a developmental QB later in the 2017 draft. With Garoppolo leading the team in 2017, a full season as a starter would allow the 49ers to assess what they have with Garoppolo, and if he’s as advertised, they’re set.
Of course, a first-round pick is a steep price (as mentioned earlier), but like I said, there is no track history to determine what Lynch and Shanahan will do, what they will covet, and what they prioritize. If a first-round pick in next year’s draft is out of the question, similar scenarios come into play as with the Browns—they’ll just not have the extra picks accumulated to not take the hit. With several later-round picks able to deal, a package of their second, fourth, and fifth-round picks for Garoppolo is a likely scenario. Belichick covets those mid-round picks, and is one of the best at using them to acquire talent.
GM Ryan Pace went to Eastern Illinois, and Jimmy Garoppolo is a Chicago native. While playing for his hometown team would be a nice story, there is an actual chance of this becoming reality. What really matters with this is the history of trades that the Bears and Patriots have had over the past two years involving Martellus Bennett, Jon Bostic, and Ryan Groy. This past August, the teams had three days of joint practices before a preseason game, and Pace saw Garoppolo up-close-and-personal during that time. That viewing is extremely important, and considering that Pace and Garoppolo had a long chat after one of the practices, the connection becomes real.
The Bears, though, have a Jay Cutler problem to deal with in the event they trade for Garoppolo. Cutler is due $16 million in 2017, but if cut, will only result in $2 million in dead cap. Ideally the Bears will be able to trade Cutler, but considering his long-standing locker-room issues and inconsistencies on the field, he might not field any offers. Cutler will find a home in 2017, but at this point, it’s unlikely to be in Chicago. Even if the Bears fail to land Garoppolo, Brian Hoyer and Matt Barkley played well in spot starts this past season, and the team has the third-overall pick to draft the top QB, if they choose to.
With the Bears holding just seven picks in the 2017 draft—but with two in the fourth—a scenario involving a 2018 second-rounder and a 2017 fourth-rounder isn’t out of the question. Hypotheticals involving the Bears trading back with their third-overall pick are feasible, but considering that the roster isn’t that bad, and suffered mainly from some bad injury luck, getting elite talent might be the best route for the team. Of course, if a QB-needy team wants to trade up, and the Bears get numerous picks in return, by all means, pull the trigger, as it will set them up for future success in drafts.
So, who makes the move?
Of all the teams vying for Jimmy Garoppolo, the Browns have the most ammunition to make it happen. Both the Browns and the Bears have made several trades with the Patriots over the past two years, so the line of communication is open with the relationships positive. As promising as Garoppolo looked in limited action, he’s arguably a bigger risk than drafting one of the top QBs, since the team acquiring him will need to give him a big extension and commit a large sum of money to an unproven player. If Garoppolo is that good and Belichick trades him, expect him to most likely land in Chicago where he won’t contend with New England for the AFC title.