As it currently stands, the New England Patriots cannot rely on the availability of quarterback Tom Brady for the first four games of the 2016 season. Instead, back-up quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo is the presumed starter.
Garoppolo was the Patriots 2nd round pick in 2014 and is largely untested. Back-up quarterbacks are generally regarded as Human Victory Cigars because they rarely take the field unless asked to kneel down the football at the end of games. This past year, Garoppolo was asked to pass the ball a whopping four times- and that's not very helpful when trying to paint a picture of his promise in 2016.
So I took to the tape to watch his preseason snaps, as well as his second half performance against the Buffalo Bills in the 2014 season finale to try and determine where Garoppolo currently stands as a quarterback- and whether the Patriots offense will be in good hands to start the 2016 season.
It's clear right out of the gate that the Patriots offense is entirely different with Garoppolo at the helm and that shouldn't come as a surprise. Brady has far more freedom over the offense and is asked to throw the ball down the field. A high percentage of Garoppolo's plays involved screen passes and slip screens to running backs, as well as angle routes to get receivers inside of the defenders in the middle of the field.
It also doesn't hurt Brady's statistics to play with the likes of Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman instead of Jonathan Krause and Jimmay Mundine. Gronkowski and Edelman are far more reliable options to pick up yards after the catch and it's clear that Garoppolo's passes to receivers bear far less fruit.
In the 2014 week 17 game against the Buffalo Bills, Garoppolo posted a statline of 10/17 (58.8%), for 90 yards, 0 touchdowns, and 0 interceptions. He was also sacked three times. Delving into the tape, we find that three of Garoppolo incompletions were actually thrown away intentionally.
Of the four inaccurate passes, two were underthrown to tight ends (Tim Wright and Michael Hoomanawanui), one was an overthrown pass on a Danny Amendola wheel route, that Amendola admittedly didn't run at 100%, and the fourth was ahead of Amendola across the middle with a defender engaging in contact that probably deserved a penalty flag.
Garoppolo's accuracy takes a hit because of the throwaways since he really only aimed 14 passes at targets; the other three were savvy decisions to avoid sacks.
Sacks seemed to be an issue for Garoppolo as he struggled to keep his awareness in the pocket. His first instinct was the scramble in the face of pressure and would often run right into the clutches of a Bills defender. This habit lasted through the first preseason game of 2015 against the Packers, when Garoppolo was sacked an astounding seven times.
But that was the end of it. Garoppolo seemed to turn a corner late in that game against Green Bay and he became much more decisive with his passes. After getting sacked 10 times in his 57 drop backs against the Bills and Packers, he was sacked zero times in his 50 against the Saints and Panthers.
Garoppolo was 20/30 (66.7%), for 159 yards, 0 touchdowns, and 1 interception against the Packers, but he played far better than his statline projects. He threw two passes away and saw two drops. Of his six other incomplete passes, all of them were towards Josh Boyce.
Seriously. Garoppolo underthrew Boyce four times, Boyce failed to track a well thrown deep ball once, and then Boyce had a pass bounce out of his hands and into the clutches of a Packers defender. Boyce was also guilty of one of those dropped passes.
The next two weeks, Garoppolo faced the Saints and Panthers- defenses on the opposite ends of the spectrum. He combined for 41/50 (82%), 395 yards, 2 touchdowns, and 1 interception. He saw zero sacks, zero throwaways, zero drops, and only one batted pass. His yards per attempt of 7.90 would have ranked 6th over the course of a full season, between Tyrod Taylor and Drew Brees.
While Garoppolo seemed to make quicker decisions, they might not have always been the best ones. Of his eight incomplete passes, one was actually intercepted when his technique evaporated under pressure (below) and two more were dropped by Panthers defenders. Garoppolo was so set on targeting Chris Harper that he threw the ball right into a defender's back, perhaps hoping that the ball would phase through the cornerback.
There's no denying that Garoppolo's an extremely accurate quarterback, but he needs to find that comfort zone that allows him to make both the quick and the correct pass.
If I had to project Garoppolo's level of play, I would put him at some sort of mix of the Vikings Teddy Bridgewater and free agent quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick. Bridgewater shows an uncanny ability to deliver the ball on target, no matter the circumstance, while Fitzpatrick has a magician's skill at escaping pressure and getting rid of the ball with the occasional bonehead play. That sums up where Garoppolo currently stands.
That might not be enough to defeat the Cardinals, but it will certainly give the Patriots a fighting chance.
Garoppolo hasn't played with Julian Edelman and Rob Gronkowski, and his snaps behind offensive linemen Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer are extremely limited. I'm intrigued to see how he performs with higher caliber teammates surrounding him.
Additionally, keep in mind that Garoppolo will hopefully be even better this summer and fall than he was at the beginning of last season. His growth from his first preseason to his snaps against the Bills and Packers was considerable, as was his develop from the Packers game to his time against the Saints and Panthers. Another year and summer in the Patriots system should have him feeling more comfortable than ever before.