Life after Tom Brady: Will the Patriots go mobile at quarterback?


It'll flash across the screen at some point this week, you'd have to think: Tom Brady in a baggy white t-shirt tucked into baggy gray shorts, pushing his lanky body as hard as he possibly can to clock a glacial 5.28-second 40-yard dash time.

The video will be a little dark, a little grainy. It was taken 20 years ago, after all. And it'll serve as a sign of just how much has changed at the NFL Scouting Combine since Brady entered the league. 

What happens this week in Indianapolis is now reality TV. It's a show that'll play out on screens in real time across the country. National networks will be camped in Indy for the duration. Football sites great and small will be credentialed to provide every last hundredth of every hand measurement and three-cone time. The on-the-field drills will be shown in prime time, starting Thursday. It will be an event that Brady at 22 years old wouldn't recognize.

Beyond the enormity of the production, there are other differences between the combine then and now that might rattle pre-pliability Brady. The quarterback position itself has a new look. 

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Athletes abound. Several of the top passers in this year's class are in the conversation to be first-round picks because of what they can do on the move: Alabama's Tua Tagovailoa has the ability to excel outside of structure; Oregon's Justin Herbert is 6-foot-6 but the argument could be made that his biggest moments last season came as a runner; Utah State's Jordan Love has drawn some comparisons to Super Bowl MVP Patrick Mahomes for his ability to make strong throws on the move. Even the projected No. 1 overall pick this spring, LSU's Joe Burrow, has shown an ability to scramble with 12 rushing touchdowns over the last two years.


It should come as no surprise that there will be a continued influx of athletes at quarterback in 2020. It's nothing new.

Consider some of the best in the game and their traits: Mahomes, Seattle's Russell Wilson, Baltimore's Lamar Jackson, Houston's Deshaun Watson, Dallas' Dak Prescott and Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers all have the athleticism to buy themselves time behind the line of scrimmage. Though not in the same class athletically as those mentioned above, two more of the game's top-rated quarterbacks in 2019 — Kirk Cousins and Jimmy Garoppolo — play in offensive schemes that ask them to roll outside the pocket and make throws on the move. 

It's worth wondering, then, what's in store for The Pocket Passer? Are those types of quarterbacks — the ones teams coveted back when Brady was working out in Indy — headed for extinction in today's NFL? 

And what about the Patriots, specifically? If they don't have Brady taking snaps behind center in 2020, will they opt for a more mobile option as his replacement? If they do, what will that mean for an offense that has been shaped by Brady and catered to his skills over the last two decades?

"I think what you're seeing now is mobility being just so paramount in acquiring a quarterback," Chiefs general manager Brett Veach told me last month. "Some things like velocity or accuracy, whereas before — depending on how you weighted things — certainly being a lot higher. I think the athletes nowadays and the speed from sideline to sideline is so great that you have to have a quarterback who can create plays. 

"And the defensive lines — the defensive line talent that comes out every year is just ridiculous with the athletes up front so you just have to have a quarterback who can create plays on his own and throw from different platforms. Then if you have one who can create on his own, throw from different platforms and be accurate, good luck. It's hard."

Not every team is going to be lucky enough to land a Mahomes type in the draft. But finding a historically-accurate passer like Brady through the draft is likely just as (if not more) difficult. A quarterback's ability to create with his legs simply allows for a greater margin of error. Executives are starting to realize that at scale and investing accordingly. 

"That's happened," Niners GM John Lynch told me. "Just look at the plays that are being run. That's happened. There are some issues. I was just at the all-star games, and you have a lot of guys who've never taken a snap under center. You have to do that. There are adjustments. But can a guy play or can he not? I think that's what it's become."


And part of the equation of can you play or not now involves another question: Can you move?


It wasn't all that long ago that Brady's praises were sung for reasons beyond his ability to make accurate throws all over the field and make them in critical situations. He was praised for his ability to move, of all things. 

Pro Football Focus tracks every play, and the context of every play, as well as entity with work available for public consumption. Their college data will be referenced on NFL Network throughout the week of the combine, but their NFL quarterbacking work might be the most detailed assessments they offer. Back in 2014, they pegged one significant improvement Brady made to ramp up his game to its height. 

"He specifically made a point: 'I'm not Aaron Rodgers, I'm not Russell Wilson, but I have to make more of those plays outside the pocket.' When he flipped the script in 2014, that was a big part of it," PFF senior analyst Steve Palazzolo said. "He made one or two plays a game, a handful per season that he hadn't made in previous years. Late in the down, extending plays. I really think that was a big part of why that middle part of 2014 through 2017 was the best stretch of his career. I think he added that to his game. 

"If there's a decline in Brady, it's a little bit of the off-platform stuff, feet aren't set, he's on the run outside the pocket. It's not this cliff-worthy [thing where] he goes from throwing 60 mph to 40 mph. It's just not enough on the ball, it's a little off when he's off-platform or a little bit uncomfortable. That, I think, is where we've seen the decline from Brady in 2018 and especially in 2019. I think the rest of the NFL has more athletic guys that are able to do stuff like that. Brady even did it for a few years, but that's where I think he might be a little bit behind some of those other guys."

Though still among the game's most accurate throwers when given protection, something Brady made clear even in a down statistical season, the ability to avoid the first wave of rushers to buy himself time and strike was more hit-or-miss than previous seasons. Was that because of his age? Something he was dealing with physically? Or because he had backups at two of the most important offensive line positions — left tackle and center — for most of the season? 


Whatever the reason, it showed up to NFL Films and ESPN all-22 guru Greg Cosell, too. 

"I think two things in particular with his skill set have slightly diminished, two things that have made him Brady," Cosell said. "One, I don't think he's quite the same pocket-mover that he used to be. One of the things about Brady, despite the fact that he's not a fast guy or a second-reaction quarterback, there's few quarterbacks in the history of the game who've navigated in the pocket as well as Tom Brady. I think that that has diminished just a little bit. To me he was not quite the same. 

"The other thing is he wasn't quite as precisely accurate as he's been in his career. I think those two traits were two of the traits that made him so special, traits that people probably don't think about a lot. I always believe, particularly for quarterbacks that are not great athletes, that pocket movement is an absolutely essential trait. Because you are going to get pressure. And how do you respond to that? Some guys don't respond at all. Brady was a master of being able to move in an area, not as big as a boxing ring, but a confined space, without losing his mechanics. A lot of guys can move, but they lose their mechanics and their vision. Brady was a master at being able to move within a small space, not lose his mechanics, and keep his vision. Maybe one of the best ever. I think that trait has diminished maybe just a little."

A few of Brady's roll-out passes in the red zone — an end-zone interception against Buffalo, a pass that should've been picked in the end zone by Cleveland — would help to serve illustrate that point.

"His outside the pocket stuff," Palazzolo said, "was bad . . . There was just a handful of plays where outside of structure, things weren't great. There was a point in his career in '14, '15, '16, '17 where it was like, 'Wow. He's made it a point to make these plays and take a Hall of Fame career and make it better for about three-and-a-half years.' "

Will the Patriots look at those types of plays and say to themselves they want more efficiency in those moments? Or will they roll with pocket precision as their next quarterback's defining trait?

Neither is necessarily easy to come by. But if it's the former they're after, perhaps the draft will be the way for them to go. If it's the latter, perhaps they'll be inclined to figure out a new deal with the most successful pocket passer in the history of the sport. 

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There's a sense that the proliferation of upper-tier athletes at the quarterback position in the NFL is because those are the types of players coaches want. Of course, there's a desire for those types of players at that spot — especially after other teams have success with them. But that's only part of it.

There are simply more elite-level athletes than ever before playing quarterback into their high school and college careers, evaluators have noted.  

"We, the NFL, are going to take what comes up, OK? If a Lamar Jackson, if five of them come up in a year? Well they're going to scatter around the league and we're going to play a little more like that," NFL Network's Steve Mariucci said. "If some great drop-back guys come in — I don't think Joe Burrow is a zone read guy. He's an athletic guy and a mobile quarterback, but he's not a Lamar Jackson type. That's what we're going to take and develop it that way. 

"The reason more of these athletic quarterbacks are now in the league — the Kyler Murrays — is because that's what we're being fed. That's what's coming up through the ranks. So you take what's given you and you adjust your offense accordingly. That's what the high school kids are doing and the colleges are doing more and more now. The drop-back guy, the Tom Brady, the Philip Rivers, isn't the kind of offense colleges are playing much any more. Even Nick Saban has changed his pro style attack into all the other stuff."

It's not that The Pocket Passer is dead, necessarily. It's that The Mobile Quarterback is available. 

Chiefs defensive line coach Brendan Daly, who held the same position with the Patriots for three Super Bowl runs, has had his job fundamentally altered by the speed at quarterback week after week. His players don't only have to track down quarterbacks when they escape, they have to prevent those quarterbacks from escaping in the first place. 

"I would say there's certainly a lot more mobile and athletic quarterbacks coming out of the high school and college ranks," Daly said. "It seems like that years ago, you'd put your best athlete at quarterback, but that guy didn't necessarily continue to play quarterback all the way through his football career. More of those guys are continuing to play the quarterback position, and it's lending itself to the type of guys you're seeing at the quarterback position. 

"Listen, there's still some great drop-back passers coming out of the college game. Carson Wentz, the Drew Brees' of the world. Jared Goffs. Guys that aren't necessarily crazy athletic type of quarterbacks . . . [But] I do know in the NFL now we are dealing with more mobile quarterbacks, if you look at all 32 teams week in and week out, there's a definitely athleticism element at that position."



Despite the athleticism that'll be found at the quarterback position at the top of this year's draft, despite some of the best young NFL talents at the position using their athleticism to confound coordinators on a weekly basis, there's a staunch cross section of football minds that believe reports of the Pocket Passer's demise have been greatly exaggerated. 

"I don't believe so," Hall of Fame quarterback Kurt Warner said when asked if his style of quarterback was headed for extinction. 

"I still believe you have to play in the pocket and win in the pocket the majority of the time. You gotta make the layups that you're supposed to make. Any time you have a greater margin of error, meaning there's more things you can do to be successful, yeah it's always better that way. We'd all love to have every skill set to do everything. But no, I don't think it's dying. If you know the game, see the game, can play the game inside the pocket, you can still win and guys will still win Super Bowls that way. 

What's nice is a Patrick Mahomes or a Lamar Jackson, they don't have to be finished products in Year 2. They can do these other things and win MVPs not even close to being finished products. That's the beauty of it. They can grow into the position while still having success.

"Guys that are one-dimensional or pocket passers, there's gotta be a lot of stuff going on around that's really good. Or you have to accelerate your game really fast to survive because it's the only way that you can do it. But I do not believe in any way shape or form that we will not see pocket passers thrive in this league for a long time and win in this league for a long time."

Though that may sound like an old-school tightly-held belief, the numbers back up Warner's side of the argument. Pro Football Focus data scientists conducted a study in 2017 that showed quarterback performance under pressure was relatively unstable when compared to performance from a clean pocket. Five Thirty Eight analyst Josh Hermsmeyer found just last season that even though teams that operated efficiently outside the pocket were near the top of the league in wins, outside-the-pocket performance was volatile. 

In other words, performance outside the pocket matters. It's just unpredictable. It's performance from inside the pocket that is the best gauge for future success.

Players like Mahomes and Wilson, of course, have the ability to make game-changing plays under duress. But the reason they rank among the best players in the world right now is not simply because of what they can do on the move. It's because of their effectiveness in those repeatable moments when they are supposed to be effective. 


So if performance from a clean pocket is truly what matters, and if the majority of snaps across the NFL do not occur under pressure, then how critical is it for quarterbacks to have the ability to buy themselves time with their legs? 

"It's a fascinating question because defenses are getting faster, better, there's more pressure packages," Cosell said. "There's more six defensive backs [packages] and more speed that pressures your quarterback. You start getting into third-down situations, and many people would argue then that defenses have a tactical and speed advantage so quarterbacks have to be able to make plays that are not structured. You could make that argument. 

"But then you could make the argument that quarterbacks who are tremendous like Brady or [Drew] Brees, that they can still be perfectly great. There's not a lot of guys like that, now you're getting into the greats. I think there'll be a few quarterbacks, one quarterback in particular in this year's draft that could test that theory, that's Jacob Eason from the University of Washington. Big-armed kid. Big kid. Not a statue, but he's not going to make his living by moving around. So we'll see. We'll see how the league looks at that."

We'll see how the Patriots look at it, too, considering the transition they face if Brady isn't back. They drafted an athletic quarterback in the fourth round last year in Jarrett Stidham. He's not anywhere near Jackson or Wilson's plane when it comes to movement skills, but the Auburn product proved last preseason that he could scramble to pick up yards. He also had plays where he made throws on the run that showed off his coordination and arm strength. 

Is he due to be the heir apparent? Or will it be worth going after someone with even greater physical traits?

Drafting Herbert would require the Patriots to make a Chiefs-like trade — Kansas City moved from No. 27 to No. 10 to draft Mahomes in 2017 — up the board. Love's tantalizing traits could be available at No. 23, but he comes with plenty of questions about his decision-making after an interception-happy final collegiate season.

Or will the Patriots be perfectly happy with the predictability of The Pocket Passer in their system? Eason would fall into that category. Georgia's Jake Fromm would as well. Free agent Teddy Bridgewater would represent a continuation of The Pocket Passer's reign in New England, whereas fellow free-agent Marcus Mariota would provide a new measure of mobility behind center. 

In due time we'll find out what the Patriots value at the most important position on their roster.

Accuracy and decision-making figure to remain atop the list. But based on what's available, and based on the intriguing possibilities made apparent by offenses with athletic passers lately, what's valued across the league is a tad different than 20 years ago when baggy t-shirts and five-second 40 times weren't the turn-offs they might be today.