After first being reported by Ian Rapoport of NFL.com and confirmed multiple places since, now-former New England Patriots quarterback Ryan Mallett has been traded to the Houston Texans. This shouldn’t come as a major shock to any, as Mallett seemed to be on the trading block for the entire off-season.
As he was entering the final year of his rookie contract and after the team selected Jimmy Garoppolo in the second round, the writing was on the wall that Mallett was on his way out in New England. Add in that Bill O’Brien advocated for drafting him while in New England in 2011 and the Texans currently boast a lackluster set of passers on the roster, trading a conditional 2016 7th rounder for Mallett made sense.
While his playing time in Houston will be the basis for the discussion for the 2014 season, I think it’s much more curious to evaluate the Patriots side of things. Was he worth a 2010 third-round pick in hindsight? Was it a mistake to invest in a high-ceiling passer when they had no intention for him to be a long-term future starter? And what does it mean for future “quarterback stashing”?
Why it Made Sense
1.) Inexpensive Backup
One of the biggest values Mallett provided that likely will go unnoticed is his value as a backup quarterback. While the Patriots never wanted to use him unless of an emergency (see number two), they needed to have a backup on the roster. And for the last two years, Mallett was the team’s QB2 (third string behind Brian Hoyer in 2011). His four year contract (ending after this season) is an average salary of $736,000 (per SpocTrac.com).
By comparison, some “top-end” backups make upwards of four million per year (Matt Moore). Other talented yet career-inconsistent ones make solid money. Drew Stanton averages $2.73 million per year, Mark Sanchez averages $2.25 million per year and Jason Campbell averages $1.5 million per year.Finally, less talented “journeyman” backups are on the same level of pay structure as Mallett despite clearly possessing less arm talent and upside. Guys like Luke McCown ($925K per year), Joe Webb ($795K) and Josh Johnson ($730K) have a little more in-game experience, but don’t have near the same talent level.
While Mallett never had to play, the Patriots still had to pay SOMEONE to be Brady’s backup, and they would have been hard pressed to find a backup with Mallett’s talent level and time in the system at Mallett’s salary level.
2.) High-Ceiling “Emergency Plan”
As noted early, Mallett rarely played during his time in New England. To be exact, he was 1-for-4 for 17 yards and an interception as his final stat sheet from his New England days over the course of three years. But just because Brady didn’t miss substantial time doesn’t make having Mallett any less valuable.
To compare, look no farther than New England’s own recent history. The Patriots lost Tom Brady for the season in 2008, forcing Matt Cassel into the starting lineup. After three years in New England as a backup, in the system as a cheap roster requirement, Cassel was forced into action, played all 16 games, kept the Patriots afloat in a 10 win season, and proved to be one of wisest 7th round picks in the past 10 years.
While it’s impossible to say that Mallett could have done the same things as Cassel, the point is that Mallett was experienced in the offense through practice and prepared as if he was ready to take over when emergency struck. With Mallett’s clear talent (he was likely a top-50 pick if not for drug issue concerns), there’s no reason he couldn’t have been at least on Cassel’s level of a passer in the Patriots offense.
3.) Tradable Asset in Uncertain Market
Sure, looking at it now, the Patriots got just a conditional 7th round pick for a former third-rounder. But keep in mind two key points.
One, in draft history, trading a pick in the current year for one in the following year usually leads to a one round drop in value (a 2014 1st equals a 2015 2nd, for example, in theory). Therefore, a 2011 3rd rounder is a 2015 7th round pick, based on that present value theory of draft picks. Though not exact and never seen in long-term practice to that extent, it works similarly to present value functions in business: a dollar today is worth a lot more than a dollar tomorrow because you can invest that dollar now.
Two, there’s no telling what could’ve happened to a team that was in desperate need of a quarterback. While Mallett didn’t get traded, he’s been linked to trade rumors for the past two years, and not by accident. His talent level is clear and he was coveted by more than a few teams in the fourth round had he lasted there. There was interest, but not the desperation that was required to force a Mallett trade and potentially see the Patriots get fantastic value on their investment.
Why it Was NOT a Worthwhile Investment
1.) Low Return on Investment
Despite what I listed earlier, getting just a 7th round pick for Ryan Mallett can’t be what the Patriots had hoped. But by drafting Jimmy Garoppolo as early as they did and rarely keeping three quarterbacks over the past eight seasons, the writing was on the wall that Mallett, in the final year of his deal, wasn’t in the long-term plans, killing any leverage they had with a team in need of a quarterback.
Had they been able to grab a 4th or a 5th rounder last season or during the 2014 NFL Draft, the strategy would’ve been a major win. But only receiving a “conditional” 7th rounder in 2016 (basically, the lowest they could have gotten without being waived) certainly won’t deem this investment worthwhile if the Patriots plan all along was to recoup a future draft pick. It’s unclear what their long-term plan was with Mallett, however, and this may have never been the immediate plan.
2.) Minimal Use on the Field
The value of a backup quarterback is always tough to quantify. The value of a backup quarterback who threw only 4 times in a three year stint is near impossible to quantify. While not needing to “use” Mallett in game action is a great thing (meaning Brady was healthy), it doesn’t look ideal when reviewing the 2011 draft when a top-100 pick limps past the 20 snap line in his three year stint with the team.
3.) Wasted Draft Pick
This is the least of concerns when looking back, as the hindsight game of “who a team should have taken” is always an unfair one. However, with the Patriots likely not ever playing Mallett for the short or long-term and having him (ideally) be a backup with limited snaps, it’s at least interesting to note the players they could have had instead of taking a “luxury” pick at quarterback.
Players like Jurrell Casey (77th overall), Chris Culliver (80th overall), Mason Foster (84th overall) and Kendrick Ellis (94th overall) were all expected to be in the 3rd-4th round range and all fit the Patriots defense in some capacity that season.
Will Teams Continue to Do it?
The Patriots haven’t been the only team to utilize the “quarterback stashing” philosophy. The Packers drafted Brian Brohm in 2007 in round two just two years after taking Aaron Rodgers in the first, and have been rumored to consider doing it again if the right quarterbacks fell to them in recent years. The Eagles drafted Mike Kafka in 2010 despite having Donovan McNabb entrenched as the starter and Michael Vick behind him. In 2012 alone, the Broncos took Brock Osweiler in the second round while the Redskins now infamously took Kirk Cousins in the fourth after taking RG3 a few rounds earlier.
Despite Mallett’s perceived “investment” not realizing what many expected, I certainly don’t expect this practice to go away. Outside of the Redskins, the other teams that took part in “quarterback stashing” were playoff caliber teams hoping to scoop up what they perceived as tremendous values despite not having a need. It’s similar to a team a standout offensive weapon or pass-rusher despite the player having an injury, not fitting the system or falling because of character concerns.
This practice, in my opinion, won’t fade anytime soon, especially with so much talent combined with many question marks that will begin to be the norm with college quarterbacks going to the NFL. Finding the Andrew Luck’s are few and far between, but investing in quarterbacks who have some starter characteristics but fall for differing reasons (Logan Thomas, Russell Wilson, Ryan Mallett) is a strategy that will remain regardless of the draft class.
Ryan Mallett wasn’t a poor investment, despite the current backlash. And the future may tell a similar story on Kirk Cousins and Logan Thomas. “Quarterback stashing” isn’t going to be a fad, but a less risky gamble for a team hoping to strike gold at the most important position in football.