Bill Belichick is well established as the best coach and the best GM in the NFL today. The now five-time Super Bowl winner in New England may be the best poker player, too. Because he’s sure doing a good job of bluffing on his Jimmy Garoppolo trade intentions.
The public posturing out of Foxboro via media reports is that the Patriots’ No. 2 quarterback is too valuable to be traded, given that Tom Brady will be 40 years old when the 2017 season opens. Don’t buy into such proclamations, as it’s pretty obvious to me, as a former GM who made plenty of trades in my career, that the Patriots are just trying to drive up the price.
I can assure you that GMs at quarterback-starved locales such as Cleveland, San Francisco and Chicago are keeping a finger on the Garoppolo pulse through conversations with Belichick and player personnel director Nick Caserio.
For the Patriots, a Garoppolo trade simply makes too much sense for it not to happen once a team offers a combination of draft picks that includes at least one first rounder (which is likely to occur between the start of free agency this week and next month’s draft).
First of all, it’s a quarterback-driven league and Garoppolo was very impressive in his two relief starts for the suspended Brady, with wins over Arizona (the league’s second-ranked defense in 2016) and Miami at the beginning of last season. In those two games, he completed 42 of 60 passes (70 percent) for 498 yards and four touchdowns with no interceptions.
It remains to be seen whether Garoppolo can become an elite quarterback away from the New England cocoon with its great supporting cast of players and coaches, but from what we’ve seen (and heard from impressed opposing coaches such as Bruce Arians and Vance Joseph), he’s certainly got a decent chance.
Then there’s Garoppolo’s contract status — going into his fourth and final year of his rookie deal. He can hit the unrestricted free-agent market next offseason unless the Patriots franchise him at $21 million-plus and then try to trade him. The trade part would be a given if Brady is still a top quarterback, which will surely be the case barring injury. No team wants to carry two quarterbacks at starter-level price tags, especially an astute team in salary cap management such as New England. And the last thing the Patriots want to see is Garoppolo ever hitting free agency where the division rival Jets or Bills could snap him up.
This year’s draft class also may impact the thinking of NFL GMs and coaches in regard to Garoppolo. While there are some talented quarterbacks available, it appears there are no sure-fire franchise quarterbacks, such as Cam Newton, Andrew Luck, Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota were at the top of recent drafts. That can change, of course, as players such as Brady, Joe Montana and Russell Wilson have shown as later-round picks who blossomed into Pro Bowlers and Super Bowl winners.
Finally, there’s the ageless Brady, who says he wants to play four or five more years — and why would we question his sincerity or ability to accomplish such a feat? The man is driven to be the best ever and to constantly remind the entire NFL that he never should have lasted until the sixth round of the 2000 draft. And he has the conditioning and nutrition regimen, along with the aforementioned supporting cast, to stay at the top of his game for several more years.
So there sits Belichick in the catbird seat with a young quarterback in demand. As Vikings GM, I was fortunate to be in that position in 1999. Brad Johnson was our proven starter at the beginning of the 1998 season after leading us to the playoffs in 1996 and 1997, but he sprained his ankle in Week 2 of the 1998 season. Randall Cunningham replaced Johnson and played so well in a 15-1, MVP season that Johnson became the odd man out.
In the following offseason, we decided to trade Johnson if we could get the right deal. One of the keys to getting a big return in a trade is to have at least two teams in competitive bidding, which I was able to do with Washington and Baltimore. With the Ravens offering a first- and second-round pick, the Redskins added a third-rounder and the deal was done.
Belichick and the Patriots will be looking to create a similar bidding battle in order to up the ante on a Garoppolo deal. They won’t get an offer as good as the Titans received from the Rams for the top overall pick in the Jared Goff deal last year (six draft picks in the first three rounds, including two No. 1s), but they will expect to do as well or better than the Eagles did in receiving a first- and fourth-round pick for the oft-injured Sam Bradford from the desperate Vikings after Teddy Bridgewater’s season-ending injury.
If the Patriots can’t get close to their asking price pre-draft (now reported as two first-rounders), they can keep Garoppolo and his $820,000 base salary and hope for a playoff-caliber team to lose their starter early in the 2017 preseason or regular season and capitalize as occurred in the Bradford trade last August.
As a last resort, they can retain Garoppolo as Brady’s backup in 2017 and then franchise and try to trade him next offseason. But that’s a risky route if the trade market doesn’t deliver a good deal because teams know that former second-round pick would be released before the Patriots allowed him to play under the franchise tender.
A team may still trade for Garoppolo in that scenario in order to avoid a free-agent bidding situation, but the bounty for the Patriots would probably be less than they can get now, and the new team would have the difficult task of negotiating a long-term deal with a player who has limited starting experience. Garoppolo and his agent would make the floor of that negotiation the franchise tag amount.
It will be fascinating to watch it all play out. For Belichick and the Patriots, it’s to their advantage that they are in the great position of being Super Bowl champs with no pressure on them to have to make a deal in order to acquire high draft picks so they can improve.
Belichick obviously would love to acquire one of the top three overall picks in next month’s draft that are held by Cleveland, San Francisco and Chicago. But a nice alternative package could include the Browns’ second first-rounder in this draft (No. 12 overall that the Browns are reportedly willing to part with in a potential Garoppolo deal) plus one of two second-rounders held by Cleveland (No. 33 or No. 52 overall).
Belichick and the Patriots will continue to work the suitors for Garoppolo under the guise that they’re happy to keep him. And as usual with a kingpin such as Belichick, the eventual and inevitable trade will be on his terms when it happens.