Bill Belichick is known for a lot of things. Sweatshirt enthusiast, hater of injury reports, defensive mastermind, all tied together with the bow that is his infamously stoic personality.
What’s lost on most about the longtime New England Patriots head coach, however, is his unique business savvy. A student of the old school, Belichick believes in acquiring talent before it blossoms, and shipping it out after its prime.
You saw it in 2003, just days before the regular season began, when the Patriots surprisingly cut ties with four-time Pro Bowl safety Lawyer Malloy. You’ve seen Belichick’s penchant for stockpiling draft picks, often trading down in the early rounds to take more players throughout the draft. It worked out pretty well in 2000 with their sixth-round pick, some guy named Tom Brady.
More recently, in 2009, Belichick pulled off a heist, moving backup-turned-starting quarterback Matt Cassel to the Chiefs for the 34th overall pick in the 2009 draft. At the time, Cassel had just come off a solid season filling in for the injured Brady, leading New England to an improbable 11-win campaign.
Cassel went on to have a solid if unspectacular career with the Chiefs, while Brady returned to being … well, Brady.
Five years later, history is repeating itself. The next Brady-groomed backup is emerging as trade bait, and that man is Ryan Mallett.
Mallett, a fourth-year pro, has only attempted four career passes, but has every tangible you look for in a quarterback. At 6-foot-6, 245 pounds, with a strong arm and above-average accuracy, he’s straight out of central casting. Easy to see why the Pats burned a third-round selection on him in 2011.
The subject of various trade rumors in recent years, Mallett has been kept close to the vest by Belichick, who refuses to part ways with his investment.
“Fortunately for our team, maybe unfortunately for Ryan, he hasn’t really had any playing time in the last three years,” Belichick said, via MassLive.com. “He’s improved tremendously as a quarterback and as a football player. We have a lot of confidence in him. At the same time, he’s in the last year of a contract.”
The most rampant speculation came in May, prior to the draft, when the Houston Texans — coached by former Patriots offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien — reportedly had a deal in place to acquire Mallett. It ultimately fell through, but the move made a ton of sense. The Texans are going into the season with journeyman Ryan Fitzpatrick under center, and rookie Tom Savage backing him up. Between Mallett’s untapped potential and O’Brien’s prowess, it made almost too much sense.
Alas, however, nothing came of it. The trade winds have quieted down throughout preseason, with rookie signal-caller Jimmy Garoppolo, who’s performed ably in practice, receiving more media attention than Mallett. But that doesn’t mean Mallett is locked into another season in New England. Just the opposite, in fact.
In their preseason opener, Brady was declared inactive, thrusting Mallett into the spotlight. Beat writers assumed he was being showcased for a trade, as a solid performance against first-stringers would significantly increase his stock.
It didn’t exactly go according to plan. Mallett, appearing jittery in the pocket, completed just 5-of-12 passes for 55 yards against the Washington Redskins. He overthrew receivers. He underthrew receivers. Basically, he displayed little, if any chemistry with his targets. Suffice it to say, it was not the type of outing Mallett and the Pats expected.
Despite the poor showing, Mallett remained optimistic.
“I feel good, I feel comfortable,” he said, via the Providence Journal. “Everything slowed down. Went through my reads. There were throws I could have made better, but I felt alright.”
Belichick? Not so much.
“We obviously have a long way to go,” he said.
Fortunately, Mallett will continue to see extensive exhibition action, and can do himself a big favor by upping his game. Knowing Belichick’s conservative ways, Brady is unlikely to see much action over the remaining three preseason contests, so Mallett can only be Mallett’s worst enemy. Not surprisingly, he’s locked into a fierce competition with Garoppolo for the right to back up Brady — and perhaps save his roster spot.
Belichick should continue giving the 26-year-old Mallett as much limelight as possible, for it can only benefit his team in the end. He gambled on Mallett in the draft; not as Brady’s eventual successor, but another bargaining chip for the future.
The NFL, perhaps now more than ever, is a quarterback-centric league. It’s the most position in all of sports, the engine that drives each respective club. Mallett won’t need to do much — just better than his first preseason outing — to spark up interest.
If (or when) that happens, and Belichick eventually trades him for a high- to mid-round draft pick, it will only reinforce that the Pats’ head man is as savvy as ever.