Patriots

Hindsight 2020: What if Patriots had traded Jimmy Garoppolo sooner?

Hindsight 2020: What if Patriots had traded Jimmy Garoppolo sooner?

Moving on from Drew Bledsoe in favor of Tom Brady. Bringing in Mike Vrabel and Rodney Harrison. Cutting ties with Lawyer Milloy. Taking shots on Randy Moss and Corey Dillon. Drafting Rob Gronkowski, back problems and all.

The Patriots have maintained their level for the better part of the last 20 years in large part because of Bill Belichick's foresight as the team's general manager.

Still, in two decades, as there would be with any personnel czar with that kind of tenure, there are of course moves (or non-moves) that in hindsight prompt us to wonder what might've been.

In this edition of our Hindsight 2020 series, we're focused on the Patriots front office — Belichick's office — to pick out the decision that stands above the rest as the one that could've drastically altered the post-Brady course of the franchise: Not trading Jimmy Garoppolo prior to the 2017 season.

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At the NFL's annual meeting in Phoenix that year, Browns head coach Hue Jackson wasn't evasive. He wasn't playing coy. His team had the No. 1 and 12 overall picks in the draft. The top choice — earmarked for defensive end Myles Garrett — was not up for grabs. No. 12, though? Different story.

"We'll exhaust every opportunity" to find a quarterback, Jackson told a horde of reporters at the AFC coaches breakfast. Though he would not comment on Garoppolo specifically, citing tampering rules, the message was clear: If the Patriots wanted that No. 12 overall selection in exchange for Brady's backup, there was a conversation to be had.

On its face, making that move made sense for both sides. The Browns were desperate for a competent quarterback. They were flush with picks. The Patriots, meanwhile, didn't have a first or a second-rounder that spring. For them, trading Garoppolo with a year left on his contract represented an opportunity to bolster their 2017 rookie haul with a top-15 talent.

The decision wasn't that simple, of course. 

To pull the trigger, the Patriots would have to be willing to bail on Brady's insurance plan for that season — he hadn't missed significant time since 2008, but he was going into his 40-year-old season — as well as his long-term successor.

If Garoppolo remained on the roster, the benefit was that he would provide the Patriots a capable break-glass-in-case-of-emergency passer for a Super Bowl contender. Plus, it gave Belichick and Garoppolo's representatives time to try to finagle a long-term deal to keep Garoppolo in New England for the foreseeable future. 

If they could iron something out contractually, Belichick would be pulling off the near-impossible — something only the Niners and Packers had pulled off in the modern era. Riding into life after a Hall of Fame quarterback almost seamlessly, with a legitimate franchise guy ready to step in.

How likely was it, though, that holding onto Garoppolo for as long as possible would yield the Patriots the maximum possible benefit?

For that to happen, it seems, Brady would have either had to drop off the proverbial "cliff" performance-wise or suffer a serious injury. Again, we have the benefit of hindsight here, but there's an argument to be made that neither seemed imminent at the time. 

Brady was coming off of his fifth Super Bowl win and an MVP-caliber season in 2016. (The MVP went to Matt Ryan, in part, because Brady missed the first four games of that year suspended for Deflategate). Then, at 40, Brady went on to win the award for the third time in his career, and he threw for over 500 yards in a Super Bowl loss to the Eagles. It was unprecedented stuff for a quarterback his age, and yet not at all shocking given his performance the previous year.

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Garoppolo remained on the sidelines for the first eight weeks of 2017 as Brady played some of the best football of his career. There was no Bledsoevian moment where Garoppolo was able step in because of injury. And there was no reason for him to bite on a long-term contract extension if it meant sitting for another season (or more) behind a guy who at the time was playing better than anyone else on the planet.

We know what happened at that point: At the trade deadline, opting to get something for Garoppolo rather than holding onto him and letting him hit free agency after the season, Belichick dealt his No. 2 to the Niners in exchange for a second-round pick in 2018.

You can point to the team's unwillingness to invest real capital in a young tight end toward the end of Gronkowski's career — how did George Kittle slip to the fifth round in 2017, again? — as a front-office "what if?" 

You can point to any number of swings-and-misses in the draft's first couple of rounds — Dominique Easley, Jordan Richards, Cyrus Jones, Duke Dawson, Aaron Dobson, Ras-I Dowling, Ron Brace — as easy fixes in hindsight.

But deciding to keep Garoppolo prior to the 2017 season is fascinating to revisit precisely because of where the Patriots stand at the moment, without a clear-and-obvious long-term solution at the game's most important position. And because of what happened with that No. 12 overall selection.

The Browns did end up trading their second first-rounder three years ago, you might remember. It landed in Houston. 

That's right. In an alternate universe, a universe in which the Browns and Patriots had been willing and able to work out a deal for Garoppolo, the Patriots are rolling into next season with a seasoned backup oozing with talent, the No. 12 pick in the 2017 draft: Deshaun Watson.

Browns better than Patriots in 2020? Former NFL player makes bold claim

Browns better than Patriots in 2020? Former NFL player makes bold claim

The New England Patriots have spent much of the last 20 years at the summit of the NFL -- the most successful franchise of this century. Over that same time, the Cleveland Browns have been one of the league's worst teams, with only a single postseason appearance since 2000.

Could these teams begin to switch places in 2020?

Last season was supposed to be the Browns' return to the spotlight, and the playoffs. Expectations were high for quarterback Baker Mayfield, star wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. and an up-and-coming defense. Instead, Cleveland got off to a horrible start in 2019, losing six of their first eight games, including a Week 7 loss to the Patriots at Gillette Stadium. 

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Despite all that unfolded in Cleveland last season, many experts are still high on the Browns' chances in 2020. In fact, one of them is even willing to predict the Patriots will be worse than the Browns.

“When you look at those two teams and the difference in the trajectory of what we feel they’ll be, I believe that the Browns will be a better football team than the New England Patriots this year," ESPN NFL analyst Ryan Clark said on the "Get Up" morning show earlier this week. 

"I believe that the Browns young quarterback (Baker Mayfield) will play better than the young quarterback in New England. And when you put all of these things together, that leaves Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots on the outside of the playoff picture and (Browns coach) Kevin Stefanski and the Cleveland Browns in.”

Oddsmakers don't agree with Clark. 

The Browns are underdogs to reach the playoffs with +137 odds at the DraftKings Sportsbook, while the Patriots are expected to make the postseason at -177 odds.

It's also hard to trust the Browns until they show the mental toughness required to play football into January. Bad penalties, turnovers, poor coaching and other avoidable mistakes have plagued the Browns for many years, and last season was no different.

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Another factor working against the Browns is their division. The AFC North is not a joke.

The reigning division champion Baltimore Ravens went 14-2 last year and should again be a top Super Bowl contender. The Pittsburgh Steelers have been a playoff team for much of the last two decades, and they'll be aided by the healthy return of veteran quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who missed most of 2019 due to injury. The Cincinnati Bengals are the worst team in the division, but selecting Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Joe Burrow with the No. 1 pick in the 2020 draft has renewed hope in Cincy.

It's not inconceivable for the Browns to be better than the Patriots in 2020. The Patriots will have plenty of challenges, too, most notably adjusting to a new starting quarterback. New England's schedule also is among the toughest in the league, and the defense lost several key players in free agency.

Still, it's hard to bet against a Belichick team, especially when the other team in the conversation is the Browns. The smart money in this debate is with the Patriots.

Patriots' Stephon Gilmore hard at work in new offseason training video

Patriots' Stephon Gilmore hard at work in new offseason training video

NFL teams have not been able to conduct normal offseason workouts, rookie camps and other activities due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but players are still finding ways to stay in shape and prepare for the 2020 season.

That includes New England Patriots cornerback Stephon Gilmore, who recently worked out with former NFL defensive back Dre Bly, who's currently the cornerbacks coach for the University of North Carolina football team.

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Check out some footage of Gilmore's workout in the tweet below:

Gilmore arguably is the Patriots' best player following quarterback Tom Brady's departure in free agency. In Pro Football Focus' recent ranking of the top 50 players gonig into the 2020 season, Gilmore was the only Patriot to make the list.

The veteran cornerback is coming off back-to-back seasons of first team All-Pro selections, and in February he was named the AP Defensive Player of the Year Award winner for the 2019 campaign.

The Patriots saw a lot of veteran players from their defense leave as free agents this offseason. Luckily for New England, its secondary remains one of the best groups in the league, and Gilmore's presence as the sport's premier shutdown cornerback is the primary reason for that.