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Patriots only team with established starter to keep investing draft picks on quarterbacks

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Even though the Patriots have Tom Brady, Bill Belichick will continue to add quarterbacks to the roster.

The New England Patriots have forged their own path when it comes to addressing the quarterback position over the years. Despite have a future Hall of Famer in Tom Brady playing at the highest level in league history, the team has invested four early draft picks in possible successors to Brady over the past decade.

The Patriots drafted Kevin O’Connell in the third round of the 2008 draft, Ryan Mallett in the third round of the 2011 draft, Jimmy Garoppolo in the second round of the 2014 draft, and Jacoby Brissett in the third round of the 2016 draft.

These draft picks were generally questioned at the time as a waste of draft capital- wouldn’t it be better to invest in a wide receiver or offensive lineman for Brady?- but it paid off when Brady was suspended for the first four games of 2016 and Garoppolo and Brissett had to come in to save the day.

There’s also a difference in investing a day two draft pick versus a first round pick based on the expectation of contributions. A first round quarterback will be expected to take over the starting job as soon as possible, while later picks can simply wait until their number is called- if they ever play at all.

And while Garoppolo and Brissett were added with the future in mind, O’Connell and Mallett were simply added with the intention of serving as high-quality back-ups.

“I think you have to look at the situation of how high you can take on at that position,” Belichick said after the selection of Mallett back in 2011. “You get into the situation like San Diego did a few years ago where they took [Philip] Rivers and had to get rid of [Drew] Brees or had to get rid of somebody. I think when you do that [draft a quarterback] in the first round, it’s a little bit of a different scenario. Once you get past that first round, I think it changes a little bit.

“I mean, look, I don’t think you can have too much depth at that position. We’ve all seen what can happen there. We got by last year or really the last two years with basically just two guys. And you put your whole team at risk if you don’t have a quarterback that can run it, so it’s good to have depth at that position. We’ll see how it goes.”

This past draft, the Kansas City Chiefs used a first round pick on QB Patrick Mahomes, who is already expected to replace Alex Smith as early as 2018; they will have that Rivers/Brees scenario that Belichick mentioned. The Patriots back-ups aren’t expected to grow on such a short-term time line.

Over the past decade, most teams with an established starter avoided drafting a back-up quarterback in the first three rounds. Only the Saints (Garrett Grayson, 2015 third round) had an established starter (Drew Brees) still playing at a high level; the Giants just spent a 2017 third round pick on Davis Webb, but Eli Manning is playing his worst football and Webb could be considered the heir and not a back-up.

The Packers spent a second round pick on Brian Brohm in 2008, the same year that Aaron Rodgers ascended to the starting job and replaced Brett Favre, but Rodgers was far from a certain asset at that point in his career.

All other picks in the first three rounds were taken by teams without an incumbent in place.

Teams have typically felt comfortable investing a fourth round pick on the back-up position. The Cowboys (Stephen McGee, 2011 fourth round), Giants (Ryan Nassib, 2014 fourth round), Steelers (Landry Jones, 2013 fourth round; Joshua Dobbs, 2017 fourth round), and Washington (Kirk Cousins, 2012 fourth round) all invested fourth round picks on back-up quarterbacks in recent years.

But the Patriots stand alone as the only team consistently willing to invest a top draft pick at the most important position in the sport. After the successes of Garoppolo and Brissett in 2016, it will be interesting to see if teams start to follow suit.