Hackett: Clues on how Patriots will approach QB of future

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Photo credit Brian Fluharty/USA Today Sports

Much has been made of the future of the Patriots at the quarterback position since Jimmy Garoppolo was drafted in the second round of the 2014 NFL Draft.

For most of this offseason, on the heels of a tough Super Bowl loss and the closing chapter of the popular and provocative “Tom vs. Time” documentary, this story was a big talker in New England, including right in this very column back in June. Now that the regular season is nearly upon us and emotions have tempered, a sober look at how to approach this problem is becoming clearer. For the Patriots, they should simply do what they always do, capitalize on every other teams impatience and stupid mistakes.

The Patriots have been pulling chunks of silver and more than occasionally, gold nuggets out of the NFL’s discount dollar store since 2001 and no team in any sport has had more success doing it. It’s not even close. Plenty of teams operate with modest success on a budget or in seeking value -- baseball’s Oakland Athletics and Tampa Bay Rays come to mind, but no team in any league does this and consistently competes for championships and wins them like the Patriots. It doesn’t happen.

So as far as bargain shoppers go, nobody beats the Pats. Although quarterback is different and unquestionably the most important position in American sports, the thinking that has given the Patriots nearly two decades of sustained championship level success can still apply and help solve this problem at least in the shorter term.

NFL teams outside of New England don’t value players like the Patriots. As my Fantasy Football show co-host Pete Davidson often says, most NFL GM’s see the weaknesses in players, while Bill Belichick sees the strengths and value in what a player can bring to his teams. See Cordarrelle Patterson for example. There are some quarterbacks out there to be had that have been cast off like the talented Teddy Bridgewater whom they Jets traded to New Orleans on Wednesday. Bridgewater is signed only through this season. He came out of that same 2014 draft class as Garoppolo, so there are options. By the end of this week rosters all across the NFL will be blown up to some degree and more values will be out there to comb through at every position.

If you need evidence of the Patriots acumen in finding great value in others trash, there is ample evidence available. Exhibit A would be in 2001 which featured free agent acquisitions like David Patten who was a fifth receiving option for the New York Giants the year prior and ended up being a top two wide receiver target on a Super Bowl Championship team; making a pretty catch in that Super Bowl victory by the way. In fact, that 2001 free agent class was loaded with key contributors that included guys like, Mike Vrabel, Roman Phifer, Brian Cox and Antowain Smith to name just a few. Vrabel was a cast-off from Pittsburgh, known for their historical list of impact linebackers, but they missed on him and Belichick scooped him right up.

The rest is history. 

Throughout this incomparable run of Patriots success the list of those left behind by other organizations that made major contributions here is a long and impressive one. Corey Dillon, Wes Welker and Randy Moss all came in for way underneath what their market value should have been. Moss is a Hall of Famer whose renaissance in New England was literally record breaking after the wildly mismanaged Oakland Raiders couldn’t crack the code. Welker was a solid not spectacular slot receiver with some special teams chops in Miami. After his first year in New England Welker redefined the value and importance of the slot receiver position forever. Dillon was the most impactful running back New England had since Curtis Martin left town and before him, probably since Sam ‘Bam’ Cunningham in the late 70’s.

The list goes on and on.

Just in case you think Belichick may have lost his touch at this stage of his career and need more recent examples as proof, here’s a list of cast-offs that have been integral contributors that he pulled out of the scrap heap the last few years:

Brandon LaFell – His stint in Carolina was pedestrian, his route running in New England helped win a championship. Like Patten, another cast-off wide receiver before him, he caught a touchdown on the game’s biggest stage, just one of many big grabs in 2014 from LaFell.

Dion Lewis – Left for dead by the Philadelphia Eagles and Cleveland Browns after years of challenging injuries, Lewis impacted every part of the Patriots offense including running between the tackles, off tackle, catching passes out of the backfield, lining up in the slot, catching screens, gaining big yards on punt returns and even displayed skill in pass protection despite is size. Lewis showed skill with his feet we literally never saw here before and yet, both Philadelphia and Cleveland cast that talent aside. Belichick put those feet to use and gained another Super Bowl Championship in doing so.

Rex Burkhead – In 2016 he was fourth on the Cincinnati Bengals running back depth chart. That’s right, fourth. Burkhead sat behind then rookie Joe Mixon, Gio Bernard and yes… Jeremy Hill. In a four week period last year Burkhead scored six touchdowns and showed ability to be an every down runner when needed, a reliable pass-protector, a reliable pass catcher that can excel in the slot and when split out wide. When given the chance Burkhead is a bull at the goal line too.

Finding a long-term and reliable solution at quarterback won’t be easy, but all you have to do is examine the Patriots process of the last 17 years to trust that they will find a path.

Losing Garoppolo was tough. I felt like a toddler who had a lollipop ripped out of my hands. Had I never tasted the lollipop it wouldn’t have been a problem, but I did and it was. However, the Patriots' knack for getting whom they want is an unparalleled skill. I imagine the Patriots looking at their draft boards when players they covet get drafted by another team and can almost hear Belichick say, "We’ll pick him up in four years after they mess it up."

It’s uncanny.

Now it’s unlikely that New Orleans traded for Bridgewater and won’t attempt to sign him as the Saints have an aging quarterback in Drew Brees too. There are other suitors though. Buffalo’s AJ McCarron comes to mind. He’s got one more year on his contract after this year, but he’s down with a shoulder/collarbone injury.

Hmm, sounds like a Patriots kind of guy…