COMMENTARY | The New England Patriots quarterback position runs three deep -- a personnel rarity given the vast 90-man roster limit that comes along with the NFL offseason. Only five of the 32 NFL teams are currently carrying less than four passers, and of that group, the Patriots are the only team doing so in the AFC East.
At the top of New England's depth chart is eight-time Pro Bowler and two time NFL MVP Tom Brady. His understudy is last year's No. 2 QB Ryan Mallett. And rounding out the position is newcomer Mike Kafka.
While all three are on different career paths, all three are in Foxboro playing the same position.
Divvying Up the Numbers
Between the three of them, 3,810 completions, 44,930 passing yards, 334 passing touchdowns and 126 interceptions have been accumulated on the NFL playing field. Yet when you subtract Brady's prolific resume from that list, you are left with the following stat line: 12 completions, 124 passing yards, zero passing touchdowns and three interceptions.
New England's average quarterback age may be the oldest in the division at 28, but that number hinges on the 35-year-old Brady. Both Mallett and Kafka, ages 24 and 25 respectively, are wet behind the ears in terms of both age and game experience.
Mallett, a 6'6", 245-pound third-round Patriots draft pick out of Arkansas in 2011, was the third-string quarterback as a rookie. Then in 2012, he won the camp battle for second-string responsibilities. The big, strong-armed Texas native has played in four career games and thrown four passes.
Kafka, a 6'3", 225-pound fourth-round Philadelphia Eagles draft pick out of Northwestern in 2010, also spent his first NFL season as a third-stringer. He spent part of the 2011 season as Michael Vick's backup, appeared in four contests and threw 16 passes. Then during the 2012 preseason, Kafka broke his left hand and was subsequently released. He spent the rest of 2012 out of football before being signed by the Patriots to a reserve/future contract in January.
Two backups. Eight NFL games combined.
Trust in No. 12
Head coach Bill Belichick -- who kept just two quarterbacks on the 53-man roster for all of last season -- is not afraid to go thin at the game's most important position.
Brady's lack of decline has made such a space-saving luxury possible.
Aside from his 50-touchdown season of 2007, Brady's numbers over the last three go-arounds have been the best of his career. Since 2010, he has posted his two lowest interception percentages, his second highest quarterback rating and even his highest passing yardage output.
He's not showing any signs of regression physically, either.
In May, Brady told Sports Illustrated's Peter King that he's "never felt better throwing the football." The organization probably wouldn't have given him a contract extension through 2017, when he will turn 40 years old, if his best days were entirely behind him.
Less is More
With Mallett and Kafka as the only backups under contract with the Patriots, both should expect to see significant reps in OTAs, minicamp and training camp. So in many ways, New England's approach for 2013 is shaping up to be quality over quantity.
After all, Brady has not been one to spare his stand-ins many snaps.
According to Elizabeth Merrill of ESPN.com and the Elias Sports Bureau, Brady's backups have thrown a mere 76 passes over his 11 seasons as starter -- with the exception to 2008 when he suffered a season-ending knee injury in Week 1.
That rang true during the 2012 regular season as well. Brady logged 1,213 offensive plays, as cited by FootballOutsiders.com, and Mallett logged just 24 in contrast.
It wouldn't be any easier for Mallett and Kafka to gain valuable experience if a fourth man was in the mix taking reps.
A Change in Tides
The job description for a Patriots backup quarterback is not what it once was. And the shift in direction has been dictated by Brady.
Between 2001 and 2005, the second or third QB in New England was a veteran influence. Drew Bledsoe, Damon Huard, Jim Miller and Doug Flutie all spent time walking the sidelines with a clipboard and headset as Brady stood under center. All of whom served as a line of communication for Brady. They served as a seasoned set of eyes. And most importantly, they served as peer mentors -- not coaches.
But in 2006, a then-29-year-old Brady was at a different point in his football life. He was no longer the protégé; he was the mentor. That was evident when an unproven upstart named Matt Cassel became second-in-command and learned under the Super Bowl MVP's tutelage. The trend continued in 2009, when Brady aided the development of undrafted rookie Brian Hoyer. And now, he's doing the same for Mallett.
New England's quarterback position will continue to undergo turnover. New faces will jump into the fold, just as old faces will depart. Although for the immediate future, it's a youthful nucleus. It consists of three men, and it all runs through Brady.
You can follow Oliver on Twitter@OliverBThomas.
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