Ever since Tom Brady became Tom Brady, the Patriots have offered nothing more than a passing glance at the top quarterbacks in the NFL Draft each year. There was a better chance of Bill Belichick posting the MRIs of an injured player on his Facebook page than the Patriots using an early-round draft pick to take a quarterback.
But Brady is now chronologically closer to the end of his storybook career than the beginning. It is nearing time for New England to begin thinking about the long-term succession plan under center. It's an unpleasant thought, but also an undeniable eventuality. Ted Williams, Bill Russell, Bobby Orr and Larry Bird all signed off and so will Brady someday.
That's why coming off a 14-2 season it wouldn't be outlandish if the Patriots, armed with six picks in the first three rounds of the NFL Draft, used one of them to bring aboard Brady's air apparent.
The team has taken a closer look at the top quarterbacks in the last two drafts, bringing in Tim Tebow last year and Jake Locker and Ryan Mallett this season for visits to Fort Foxborough. Patriots director of college scouting Jon Robinson said on the team's website that quarterback is among the strengths of this year's draft, which starts Thursday night with the first round.
Before you panic Patriots fans, the Patriots are not interested enough in Locker or Mallett to draft either with one of their two first-round picks (Nos. 17 or 28). The visits serve more as posturing for Belichick's draft-day wheeling and dealing. His Hoodiness knows he can extract a 2012 pick from some quarterback-starved team willing to trade back into the first round.
But Belichick also has to make certain he's not passing up a player that could do for him what Steve Young did for the San Francisco 49ers or Aaron Rodgers did for the Green Bay Packers.
Generally, I'm a proponent of the theory that the Patriots should do everything possible to maximize Brady's career, even if it means mortgaging the future because how often are you going to have a Hall of Fame QB? If there is an impact player that can help the team win a fourth Super Bowl during Brady's window of greatness then package three picks to move up and get him. Forget about 2014 second-round picks.
Obviously, the Patriots have more pressing needs -- -- pass rusher, defensive end, offensive line and running back -- right now than someone who in an ideal scenario will be a QB caddie for the next four years, minimum. Plus, Brady's backup, Brian Hoyer, has shown promise.
However, the NFL is a copycat and a quarterback league. Green Bay has become the model for quarterback succession. Rodgers went from a peculiar first-round pick in 2005, to Brett Favre's backup for three seasons to a Super Bowl-winning QB in his third season as a starter. Favre was 35 when the Packers picked Rodgers. Brady, entering the first year of a four-year, $72-million extension agreed to in September, will be 34 in August.
Quarterback is one of those positions that you usually have to invest in early or you pay the price later, which is why if Belichick deemed someone in this quarterback class worthy of a high-round pick it would be tough to argue his logic.
Brady, who went from sixth-round pick to three-time Super Bowl-winner, is the outlier. Look at all the other top QBs in the NFL -- Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, Rodgers, Philip Rivers, Matt Ryan, Michael Vick. All except Brees were first-round picks, and Brees, who joined New Orleans as a free agent, was drafted by San Diego with the first pick of the second round in 2001, No. 32 overall, now the final pick of the first round.
No coach has had better luck with late-round QBs than BB. Besides Brady there was Matt Cassel, a 2005 seventh-round pick who won 10 games in 2008, when Brady was out with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his knee. Cassel, traded to Kansas City for a second-round pick in 2009, led the Chiefs to the playoffs last season and made the Pro Bowl, replacing an injured Brady in the thankless exhibition.
What are the odds of lightning striking thrice for the Patriots with Hoyer, an undrafted free agent, becoming the quarterback of future in Foxborough?
The Patriots haven't drafted a quarterback in the first two rounds since taking Drew Bledsoe with the No. 1 overall pick in 1993. The only other teams that have gone that long are the Seattle Seahawks, who drafted Rick Mirer one pick after Bledsoe; the Chiefs, who haven't taken a quarterback in the first two rounds since 1992 and the New Orleans Saints, who last took a quarterback in the top two rounds 40 years ago, when they drafted Archie Manning, No. 2 overall.
Right now, Brady is at the peak of his powers as a quarterback. He's coming off a season in which he was the first unanimous MVP in league history, led the NFL in touchdowns passes with 36 and set a record for most attempts without an interception, going 335 attempts without a pick. He is the best quarterback on the planet (sorry, Peyton).
But No. 12 is heading into his 12th NFL season and has the scars to prove it. He is coming off another season where he suffered a major injury. In 2008, it was the ACL in his left knee. In 2009 he suffered fractured ribs and a broken finger. This off-season he underwent surgery to repair a stress fracture in his right foot.
Brady has stated he wants to play until he's 40 -- that's seven more seasons -- but you wonder if his body will cooperate that long.
Like any dynasty, the Patriots' one is dependent upon a line of succession -- instead of inheriting a throne, it's a huddle. So drafting a quarterback this year wouldn't be entirely out of line.
...That's what the Patriots have when it comes to picks in the 2013 NFL Draft, which starts Thursday. After all those years of stockpiling picks the way a survivalist does non-perishables the Patriots have just five picks in this year's draft, thanks to Band-aid trades for Albert Haynesworth, Chad Ochocinco and Aqib Talib. Five picks would be the fewest draft picks in franchise history. (Part of that is attributable to the trimming of the draft to just seven rounds in 1994). Further complicating matters is that two of the Patriots' greatest needs are at wide receiver and cornerback, positions where they have sustained draft droughts. With that in mind, I'm convinced the Patriots are going trade back out of the first round of a quanity-over-quality draft where you're just as likely to pick a Pro Bowl player in the second and third round as you are in the first round.