2014 NFL Draft: Bill Belichick's Search for Tom Brady's Heir Apparent is Underway

Mark L. Baer-USA TODAY Sports

The Patriots could very well already be searching for Tom Brady's heir apparent, even if Brady plays through 2017.

Over the last few weeks, the Patriots have paid a curious amount of attention to some of the top quarterbacks in the 2014 draft class. The Patriots haven’t necessarily been shy in the past when it comes to showing interest in some of the top quarterback prospects – the team’s pre-draft visit with Tim Tebow in 2010 comes to mind as an example.

However, since Tom Brady took the reigns of the offense, never have the Patriots showed this much widespread interest, publicly at least, in the top arms a draft class has to offer.

That has led media pundits and fans alike to ponder: what the heck are the Patriots doing, looking at all these guys expected to go in rounds one and two of next month’s draft?

Speculation has centered on:

1. The Patriots are doing their due diligence on these quarterbacks since the team will likely be facing some of them on a regular basis with so many quarterback-needy AFC teams at the top of the draft.

2. The Patriots are trying to get a better idea of what the trade market would be like if one of the top four quarterbacks (Bridgewater, Bortles, Manziel, Carr) fell to them at 29.

3. The Patriots are looking for a future replacement for back-up quarterback Ryan Mallett, whose contract is set to expire after 2014.

Of course, what I haven’t listed here is the conclusion that a lot of casual fans probably came to when they first heard that the Patriots were visiting with Johnny Football: the team is obviously looking to replace that Tom Brady guy.

That answer just seemed too simple, too un-Belichick. I mean come on, if Belichick is showing interest in a bunch of quarterbacks, there’s no way he’s actually interested in one of them, right? Taking a step back, however, it may just be the answer we’re looking for.

Tom Brady has four years remaining on his contract. And although he’ll be 37 in August, I still expect him to be playing at a near-elite level at his age 40 season. While I could certainly envision him playing past that age, there is at least a decent chance that this contract will be his last in the NFL. I will never doubt Brady’s toughness, but as with any player at age 37, he’s playing on borrowed time.

Patriots head coach Bill Belichick is usually well ahead of the curve. He starts trends, he is constantly shifting his schemes, he builds a team to fit his brand of football better than anyone in the game and he is always operating with both the present and future in mind. That being said, the one constant he’s always had during his New England era has been quarterback Tom Brady.

Perhaps Belichick can win a Super Bowl with wide receiver converts and undrafted rookies as his top defensive backs, but trying to win it all without Brady will be a different story. Belichick knows this, which is why I believe he is beginning the search for Brady’s heir apparent now.

If the Patriots wait until 2017 or even 2018 to find Brady’s eventual replacement, they could be backing themselves into a corner. What if the stars don’t align and the Patriots don’t find a prospect they like or their guy isn’t available to be selected?

If we speculate under the pretense that Brady will play four more seasons, that allows for a defined and extended window in which the Patriots can evaluate prospects and know that if they drafted one of them, that player would spent at least a year under Brady’s tutelage.

By starting the search for Brady’s eventual replacement now, Bill Belichick hypothetically has four years in which he can evaluate, analyze, and project different quarterback prospects. In the likely scenario that the team doesn’t select a top quarterback this year, they can see how their projections stack up against the player’s performance at the pro level.

Giving Bill Belichick four years to find Tom Brady’s eventual replacement gives him a decided advantage over the typical quarterback needy team in today’s NFL. Many teams are pressured into selecting a quarterback in the top ten even if the fit isn’t perfect.

If Tom Brady does indeed play through 2017, that gives Bill Belichick four years to find the right prospect at the right spot. Four years to sift through the best college football has to offer, whilst many other teams are scrambling to set themselves up for both the present and the future at the position.

In reality, I don’t think it’s likely that the team selects a quarterback in the first two rounds of this year’s draft. Four years is a heck of a long time to ride the bench, and you’d be crazy to think a draft pick would usurp Tom Brady as the starter. Nonetheless, I think there’s a very strong chance the Patriots have begun their search for their next starting quarterback.

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