At some point, dear reader, Tom Brady is going to retire.
That is quite a way to begin my time here at Pats Pulpit, but outlining that a beloved figure and a force behind six Super Bowl titles is going to one day leave the game behind, but it is a fact that faces the New England Patriots’ front office. Preparing for life after Brady remains a constant part of each off-season, and this year is no different.
Right now the football world is in Indianapolis, for the 2019 NFL Scouting Combine. Over 300 players are undertaking the world’s most confusing job interview, and 17 quarterbacks are in that group, hoping to impress upon prospective employers that they, and they alone, are the person to control the future of their franchise. Is the successor to the Brady Dynasty in that group? Perhaps, and we will likely spend the next two months together trying to identify that person. But as I introduce myself to the readers I want to make a case for another player, one that might not even be available, but one that might fit what the Patriots are looking for in a passer: Nick Mullens.
Mullens took the football world by surprise last season, when he stepped into the starting lineup for the San Francisco 49ers and on a short week threw for three touchdowns against the Oakland Raiders. He started eight games and the 49ers went 3-5 during that stretch, and he completed 64.% percent of his passes for 13 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. Studying him, are their strengths to his game that fit what the Patriots desire in a QB?
When you think about Brady as a quarterback, and you start to piece together what New England values in a passer, you can pull out a list of traits that can guide your analysis: Mental processing. Accuracy. Timing and rhythm as a passer. Manipulation of defenders. These are some of what I call the “non-negotiables,” things that you need as a quarterback to be successful. These traits are a huge reason why Brady has had such a successful career, and why he continues to play at a very high level. His ability to continually display a mastery of these traits enables him to be a dangerous quarterback even north of 40 years of age.
Take, for example, manipulation. The ability of a quarterback to move a defender with his eyes, to get that player out of position, and then exploit that, is critical to playing the position. This is something Brady still excels at, even at this stage of his career. Take, for example, this throw to Chris Hogan against the Kansas City Chiefs:
Brady opens to his left here, and the two-receiver side of the formation. The free safety in the middle of the field knows that the Patriots have three receivers to Brady’s right. However, because the QB uses his eyes so well, he gets the safety to hold in the middle of the field and then break to that side - away from the three receiver side - and then exploits that, on a deep ball to Hogan. It’s that ability, that ability to get a defender out of position and away from what he knows is the more dangerous side of the formation, that separates the good quarterbacks from the great ones.
Now look at this play from Mullens’ first start, against the Raiders. Early in the third quarter the 49ers face a second and 12, and they empty the backfield with Mullens in the shotgun, two receivers to the right and three to the left. Mullens wants to throw a slant to George Kittle, who is the inside receiver in the trips formation on the left, but he’ll need to influence the middle linebacker away from the three-receiver side of the offense, and towards the two-receiver side.
Watch how he uses his eyes to get the defender out of position and create a throwing lane:
Watching this play from the end zone angle shows how Mullens creates the opportunity for Kittle here:
Ball placement is another area that all teams, not just the Patriots, value in their quarterback. Brady’s career is filled with examples of his ability to put the football where it needs to be, given the structure of the play as well as coverage faced by the offense.
These two throws from Mullens’ Week 15 outing against the Seattle Seahawks check the ball placement boxes. First, backed up in his own territory and facing a blitz from the slot cornerback on a third and long situation, Mullens makes a perfectly-placed throw from the left hashmark to the right sideline on an out route to move the sticks:
Later in the game, Mullens shows the ability to drop a throw into the bucket in the vertical passing game:
Mullens combines the ability to manipulate defenders with his eyes with precision ball placement on a variety of route concepts. These two traits will serve him well as his career unfolds. But to be an attractive option to the Patriots, he’ll need to check perhaps the most important box of all: Mental processing.
Similar to Josh McDaniels, Kyle Shanahan uses motion and pre-snap movement to give his quarterback additional information before the snap. This play from Week 10 against the New York Giants is a prime example of how Shanahan helps his quarterback. Late in the first half the 49ers face a third and 5 in their own territory, and put Mullens in the shotgun. Here is what Shanahan dials up:
Before the play the Giants show a Cover 2 look in the secondary, with both safeties deep. But when Kittle crosses the formation in motion, a defender trails him. This pre-snap motion tells Mullens that the Giants are in man coverage, and when the defense blitzes, he knows exactly where to go with the football to exploit the pressure scheme:
Now, a quarterback cannot rely on pre-snap motion all the time to aid his mental processing. Sometimes the defense still disguises their intentions. So that is why a play like this from Mullens’ Week 17 outing against the Los Angeles Rams is a good play to study as well:
On this play the 49ers use pre-snap motion, but it is difficult to get a read on the defense. The linebackers flip and a safety rolls down into the box, indicators that man coverage may be in play. But at the snap the Rams drop into zone coverage, and Mullens immediately deciphers it, and throws to his fullback in the flat.
While Mullens checks many boxes that the Patriots value at the quarterback position, there are some areas that he would need to improve whether he stays in San Francisco or finds a new team in the future.
First off, there is a question of velocity. Mullens might lack the upper-end velocity of other quarterbacks. Some of his throws in the deeper passing game tend to hang a bit, forcing his targets to slow and wait for the football. In addition, some of his deeper throws require more touch. Now, this gets more to a scheme fit, and given that the Patriots are not a vertical-based passing attack, this might not be a complete bar to Mullens fitting into New England’s offense.
Mullens also has a hitch to his upper body mechanics. If you watch him on tape, even on some of the throws highlighted here, you will see him “burp the baby.” A pre-throw hitch in his motion where he pats the football before starting his throwing motion. Now, this is not fatal, but as we will see in a moment, it can lead to trouble for him. In the NFL every second matters, and when you can give players in the secondary a pre-snap cue that the ball is coming out, you are leading them to the football.
Next, Mullens also has a tendency to force some throws into coverage. Many of these, such as a Week 17 interception on a play in the red zone, were forced into the direction of George Kittle. That is a tendency that he will need to clean up as he develops as a passer.
Finally, we can return to processing speed. Mullens is quick and decisive at times, but when he is forced to get to his “second concept” on a play, his decision-making is slower than it should be. A lot of Shanahan’s offensive concepts in the passing game are dual-concept, half-field read designs. These plays ask the quarterback to first read one side of the field, and then the other if necessary. On these plays, you can see Mullens be slower with his decisions, and it can get him into trouble:
Here, Mullens is trying to read the crossing concept in the middle of the field, which features Kittle on a dig route over the middle. But with that covered the QB is forced to come off that and turn his field of vision to the left, and a two-receiver combination with a comeback route and a flat route. His decision to come off the first concept and two the second is slow, and the resulting pass is intercepted.
Compounding matters is the fact that he burps the baby, giving the cornerback one extra step towards driving down on the receiver and breaking up the throw, creating the deflection and interception:
The Ultimate Question
Despite all of the strengths and weaknesses with Mullens, the ultimate question might be this: Is he even available? The 49ers currently have three quarterbacks under contract for 2019: Mullens, Jimmy Garoppolo and C.J. Beathard. With Garoppolo expected to be back as their starter for next season - and healthy - San Francisco might be in a position to part with one of these other quarterbacks. Now, with the success of Mullens last season, one might believe that Shanahan and general manager John Lynch would view Mullens as the better option behind Garoppolo, but there are as always other considerations. First, while Beathard is under contract through 2020, Mullens has just one more year on his two-year deal. Might the 49ers look to move him now, and get something back, rather than let him walk in free agency? In addition, his trade value is probably at its highest right now. In a dream scenario situation for the 49ers, Garoppolo starts all 16 games next season, and with Mullens riding the bench for a season his trade value might diminish. San Francisco might be wise to strike now, rather than run the risk of either losing him to free agency, or getting less value in return.
There will be time to debate the merits of whether anyone from the 2019 crop of draft quarterbacks makes sense for New England. But for now, maybe do not write off a young quarterback with eight career starts under his belt, who checks some of the boxes the Patriots value at the position.