Michael Lombardi has a unique perspective on how things may operate behind the scenes at Gillette Stadium. He spent two years with the Patriots as an assistant to the coaching staff before agreeing to part ways with the team earlier this offseason.
Now a analyst for Fox Sports, Lombardi joined Kirk Minihane, Gerry Callahan and Gary Tanguay on WEEI's Dennis and Callahan Show on Friday and had an interesting take on the future of the quarterback position in New England.
Since the Patriots drafted Jacoby Brissett in the third round, one popular line of thinking has been that if Jimmy Garoppolo can play well in the first four games of the regular season as Tom Brady's replacement, he'll become a candidate to be traded. His value in a quarterback-hungry league will be so high that the Patriots -- who have Brady under contract through 2019 -- won't be able to resist dealing him and moving forward with Brissett as Brady's backup.
Not so fast, Lombardi said.
"I don’t think [the Patriots] have to do anything," he explained. "Certainly there will be a lot of offers for Jimmy if that situation plays out the way you described it. Quarterbacks are the most important thing to have in football. There are franchises all over that don’t have one and are searching for one.
"[But] if you happen to have two good ones, you better keep them and find a way to keep them. I think that is the secret to the Patriots. If Jimmy has a chance to be really good, and he can be the player everyone in the building thinks he can be, they need to keep him because Tom is 39 years old, he’s not going to play until he’s 50. You have to have a quarterback, and they have spent a lot of time developing Jimmy and a lot of time working on him. I would be very cognizant of that and I wouldn’t rush to judgment on that."
Garoppolo's rookie contract expires in 2017, and should he show that he has the ability to be a good starting quarterback early this season, he will be extended lucrative contract offers if he were to hit free agency.
Would the Patriots be willing to pay Garoppolo as a starter even if he were to continue to be Brady's backup until Brady's play wanes? Would the they be able to offer Garoppolo a competing offer with several young and talented defensive players in line to receiver new deals in the near future? And would Garoppolo be willing to take an incentive-laden deal in New England to be the quarterback-in-waiting even if he's offered a large sum of guaranteed money elsewhere?
Lombardi suggested that the incentive-laden route could be one way to lock up the Eastern Illinois product.
"There are a lot of ways to work around that," Lombardi said. "You can sign him to a contract with incentives to build into a starter, and what is the market value for him? . . . Brock Osweiler got . . . over $16 million a year and he started very few games. We know the quarterback market is going to be really lucrative. Kirk Cousins couldn’t even get a deal with the Redskins. He had to sign the franchise tender. We know the deals are going to lucrative if he plays well. If Jimmy plays well, he controls a lot of this situation. If he doesn’t play well, the Patriots control it."
If Garoppolo does play well, it will be in an offense that has been tailored to his skills. The Patriots offense is one of the most involved in the league -- it's been built by Bill Belichick, Brady and others over the course of their nearly 17 years in New England -- and Garoppolo can't be expected to execute it the same way Brady would. Plus, they're different players: Brady is two inches taller; Garoppolo is quicker; Brady is very accurate in the short-to-intermediate passing game; Garoppolo looks like a quarterback who can have success throwing on the run.
Lombardi liked what he saw from Garoppolo in terms of how he handled what was asked of him in Thursday's preseason win over the Bears.
"I think he certainly looked like he's making progress," Lombardi said. "He only had five incompletions. He threw a couple of balls he would like to have back that the Bears had the opportunity to intercept, but they didn’t make the play on. I think it’s a growing process for Jimmy. Jimmy has to get comfortable and there is going to be an evolution of the offense around Jimmy. It’s not going to be the Tom Brady offense because only Tom Brady is going to run that offense. Jimmy Garoppolo is going to run an offense that suits his skill set.
"That’s what makes the Patriots so successful, is to be able to take what a player can do and utilize their skill set at the best that they can. I think Jimmy will do that. Jimmy is going to keep getting better and better as the year goes along. I think he was very confident last night. You could see when the ball is in his hands, and he knows where he’s going with the football -- he’s very confident and a quick-decison thinker. That's the most important thing for quarterbacks. They have to be quick-minded. It's one thing to have a great arm. It's another to be quick-minded."
They also need to be leaders, and Lombardi, who was the general manager of the Browns in 2013 but was with the Patriots during the 2014 draft, believes Garoppolo has the qualities necessary to become one.
"The one year in Cleveland, we were desperately looking for a franchise quarterback," Lombardi said. "We spent a lot of time. I think Jimmy had the right make-up and demeanor that is going to fit in perfectly. He came in here in New England, he didn't try to buck the system. He was very hard-working. The offensive linemen love him. He's kind of got a quality that quarterbacks need to have; they gravitate towards him.
"He's worked hard at his game and takes a lot of pride in it. He has toughness. He's athletic. I think it's just going to come down to him playing in an offense that will fit his skill set, which is completely different than what Tom's skill set would be, because Tom is an intellectual player -- he's got great skills and can run an entire offense. Jimmy is not going to come in and run this entire offense because Tom's been doing it for so long."
Lombardi added that he believes Garoppolo will play deep into New England's third preseason game -- usually the exhibition game that serves as a dress rehearsal for starters -- but he also said he thinks Brady needs game reps before his suspension.
Even though Brady won't take the field for more than a month after the Patriots-Panthers preseason game, Lombardi made it clear he thinks some snaps for Brady would be beneficial.
"I think Tom needs game reps," Lombardi said. "Game reps are important even though it’s the preseason. The speed of the game changes. You have practices against the Bears, but it’s kind of simulated and controlled. I think Tom wants to get the flow of the game.
"Next week, because it’s the third preseason game, Jimmy is probably going to play as much into the third quarter as possible, and then you don’t want to put Tom out there with a lot of other guys that perhaps won’t make the team. The second game was kind of a game where he should have played a little bit to get his feet wet. He’s not going to play the fourth game against the New York Giants. That’s going to be Jacoby Brissett’s game.
"I think [the Bears game] was the time, and that’s why [Brady] was going to play. Obviously something happened with the injury and that’s why he didn’t play . . . I know Tom needs to play in the preseason. He’s not just going to go waltz onto the field and feel the game is going to come right to him."