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Are the Patriots smarter than the Cowboys and Steelers to use their premium draft picks on back-up quarterbacks?

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Why are the Patriots alone in their investment of back-up quarterbacks?

ESPN ran an article about how the Patriots are alone in addressing a possible contingency plan for an aging quarterback. Six other teams have quarterbacks over the age of 34- historically the age of quarterback decline- without a viable replacement strategy, per the report.

The Patriots invested a 2nd round pick in Jimmy Garoppolo and a 3rd rounder in Jacoby Brissett, just in case Tom Brady falls off a cliff as he heads towards his 40s. The Saints used a 3rd rounder on Garrett Grayson as a back-up for Drew Brees.

But other teams haven't followed. The Steelers, with Ben Roethlisberger; the Chargers, with Philip Rivers; the Giants, with Eli Manning; the Cowboys, with Tony Romo; and the Cardinals, with Carson Palmer have avoided grabbing an heir in the first three rounds.

"We're going to ride the horse we have," said Senior Bowl president Phil Savage, the former Browns general manager. "That's the mentality."

And these teams are willing to ride these horses to pasture- unlike the wise and savvy Patriots that are always planning for the future.

"With the situation we have at quarterback," Patriots head coach Belichick said in 2014 after drafting QB Jimmy Garoppolo, "I think that we felt as an organization that we needed to address that to some degree in the future, so we'll see how all that works out but I think you're better off being early than late at that position."

"We know what [Ryan Mallett's] contract situation is," Belichick continued. "We know what [Tom Brady's] age and contract situation is. I don't think you want to have one quarterback on your team. I don't think that's responsible to the entire team or the organization."

And so the Patriots have drafted nine quarterbacks since Bill Belichick took over in 2000, the 5th highest number behind the Jets (11), and the 49ers, Broncos, and Washington (10). That's more than once every other season- and it doesn't include players like the undrafted Brian Hoyer.

But teams find ways to justify dismissing the back-up quarterback position with a simple truth:

"The thought process is if your guy gets hurt, you're not going to win anyway," said one NFL executive from a team with an established quarterback. "You don't think you'll get the franchise guy in the second or third round. There's not a lot there, even for teams at the top."

That's possibly true. If Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers goes down for the season with an injury, then the year is pretty much ruined. Cases like last season's Broncos squad, where Peyton Manning was the worst starting quarterback in the league and his midseason hiatus didn't impact the team, are rare.

But this logic ignores the issue of short-term injuries, of which there are many, and even suspensions! But Belichick has this covered, with a little bit of shade directed towards the Colts.

"In our organization I don't think we would put together a team the way Indianapolis did it when they lost [Peyton Manning] and they go 0-16, 1-15 or whatever it was [2-14]," Belichick said in May of 2014. "I don't think that's really what we're looking for. Unfortunately when we lost Tom [Brady] in 2008 - we had a player that could step in and we won 11 games. We want to be competitive even if something happens to a player at any position.

"I think depth is always important. You never know when you're going to need it. But I don't think we'd be happy going 1-15 if we had an injury at one position. But other people have different philosophies."

And so we understand why the Patriots invest so heavily into the back-up quarterback position. Even if Ryan Mallett, or Jimmy Garoppolo, or Jacoby Brissett don't serve as the eventual replacement for Brady, they are a cheap alternative to a veteran option and could help keep the franchise afloat if Brady misses any time.

Perhaps we need to shift our interpretation of what Mallett and Garoppolo and Brissett bring to the team; while they might eventually be the replacement for Brady, their primary function is to serve as a back-up.

This explains why the Patriots rarely use a top pick on a quarterback. All nine of the Patriots quarterbacks came after the 60th overall pick; the Seahawks, Saints, and Chiefs are the only other teams to avoid using a top 60 pick on a quarterback since 2000. The Jets have picked five.

It makes sense that quarterbacks drafted earlier have a higher success rate and a higher ceiling; the executive earlier in the article even said that franchise quarterbacks aren't assumed to be available in the 2nd or 3rd rounds. The results support that assumption.

We can look at Pro Football Reference's database to evaluate the success and failures of every quarterback drafted since 2000. I've eliminated players drafted after the 2012 season in order to allow rookie contracts to expire. I've also removed Brady because he totally skews the data.

When we factor in draft position, we see that players taken outside of the first round rarely exceed their draft position, and that players selected in rounds two through four generally have the quality of career, on average. The graph shows that players selected in the third and four round offer the best bang for their buck.

So the ESPN article shouldn't dismiss players taken in the fourth round- the Steelers have Landry Jones (2013 4th), the Giants have Ryan Nassib (2013 4th), and the Cowboys have Dak Prescott (2016 4th). Their projected success isn't too different from Brissett's.

The reality is that teams can't expect to find a franchise quarterback outside of the first round, the Patriots included. The expectations heaped upon the likes of Garoppolo and Brissett need to be tempered because they are expected to perform at the level of Kyle Orton or Josh McCown- career journeymen- instead of fill Brady's shoes.

And if using a 2nd or 3rd round pick on a back-up quarterback doesn't sit well with you, and the idea of adding Mallett instead of defensive tackle Jurell Casey, or Garoppolo instead of wide receiver Jarvis Landry makes you sick (how many Super Bowls would they have won if they invested in the offensive line?), then just remember you're using hindsight.

Imagine if Brady had been hurt for any period of time over the past five seasons. Aren't you a little relieved that Garoppolo has had multiple years in the system in case Brady's suspension isn't overturned?

The Patriots plan deserves some degree of credit because it follows Belichick's "spaghetti model" that he uses in both drafting and free agency. Belichick is going to keep adding talent to the quarterback position in the hopes that one of the players will stick, or turn into a valuable asset- either for the Patriots or in a trade.

If Garoppolo and Brissett play up to their draft pedigree as a viable back-up, that's great. Hopefully they won't be called upon to play. But that's their role. They're here to prevent the Patriots from becoming the 2011 Colts. Anything more is a bonus.