Starter: Tom Brady (15th season)
Backup: Ryan Mallett (4th season)
Although it seems like we've been talking about the proverbial window closing on Tom Brady's career for years now, there's no denying that the end is closer than the beginning. With four years remaining on his current contract, it would be no surprise to suggest this is the final deal for Brady, who will be 37 at the start of the 2014 season.
The question is: Is it time to draft his potential heir apparent, or is Ryan Mallett worthy of such status? That's one of the interesting storylines to follow in the coming months leading up to May's draft.
First, we'll deal with Brady, who is coming off a solid if unspectacular season working with a variety of new personnel. Having to go without Aaron Hernandez and Wes Welker and with Rob Gronkowski limited to just six-plus games, Brady struggled with his consistency at times and wound up basically throwing almost exclusively to Julian Edelman by season's end.
With no other options, the offense fell flat in Denver in the AFC Championship Game and Brady was unable to generate much production. Still, he was far from the problem in 2013 and once again displayed tremendous leadership amidst several potentially crippling injuries and did enough to allow the Patriots to post 12 wins, another division title and their third straight trip to the conference title game.
Brady finished with 25 touchdowns against 11 picks and threw for 4,343 yards, numbers that translated to an 87.3 passer rating, which is below his career mark of 95.7. When Gronkowski was on the field the offense resembled the high-powered attacks of recent vintage, but obviously the tight end wasn't there often enough.
Thanks to the extension he signed last year, Brady is under contract through 2017. But the final three years of that deal are for modest salaries ($7 million, $8 million and $9 million, respectively) so if the Patriots wanted to move on at some point they certainly would have the ability to do so if they felt Brady's play was falling off.
That brings us to Mallett, who remains the lone backup and is entering the final year of his rookie deal. It's unclear how the coaching staff views his long-term viability to one day step into the large shoes Brady will eventually leave. Some believe he holds significant trade value but with literally no regular-season experience of consequence to point toward it's hard to imagine a team surrendering much to garner his services.
During the preseason Mallett showed signs of promise but also lacked consistency. It will be interesting to watch the draft to see if Bill Belichick looks to use a mid-round pick (LSU's Zach Mettenberger, Alabama's A.J. McCarron) with the idea of replacing Mallett, or even looking to the future for Brady's eventual replacement.