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New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12) catches a ball in front of New England Patriots quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo (10) during training camp at Gillette Stadium. (Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports)

Patriots will rely on Garoppolo while Brady sits 4 games


FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — He probably didn’t visualize it happening like this, but he’ll take it nonetheless.

No one plays this game to sit on the bench. Not even when you’re backing up Tom Brady. That’s the way it was even when the Patriots drafted Jimmy Garoppolo in the second round in 2014. The young quarterback never walked into Gillette Stadium hoping he would stay idle on the sidelines.

He’s in the game to play, and to start. This season, he’ll get his chance.

The Patriots opened training camp practice on Thursday and it was like none other in recent seasons. It’s been a long time since another quarterback was scheduled to open the season as the Patriots’ starter. Thanks to Deflategate, the Patriots will rely on a 24-year-old gunslinger from Eastern Illinois for their first four games.

“However you want to look at it, I’ve been preparing to be the starter ever since the first day I walked in here,” Garoppolo said after practice. “That’s just the mindset (I have). Every competitor has that mindset. It’s a good thing to have.”

Practice on Thursday started with a rowdy crowd, full of pro-Brady and anti-Roger Goodell signs, chanting Brady’s name at 9:22 a.m. — seven minutes after the session started. For the first two hours, Brady took the lead like he always does. The future Hall of Famer was first in drills and playing with the starters.

It’s been like that since Brady took over for Drew Bledsoe in 2001. But after two hours, everything changed. As the full-team offense and defense took the field, it was Garoppolo under center, with the third-year quarterback throwing to Rob Gronkowski, Martellus Bennett and Chris Hogan.

Even though he knows he’ll become the Patriots’ backup once Week Five rolls around, Garoppolo also realizes what’s at stake. With his contract expiring in 2018, this is his time to show everyone he has what it takes to make it in the NFL.

“Yeah, it’s a great opportunity. You’ve got to go out there, take advantage of it,” Garoppolo said. “You don’t get many opportunities in this league. You might only get one. You’ve got to make the best of it... “(I’m) very excited. That’s why you play the game. You play to get out there and get your opportunity. When it comes, you’ve got to be ready for it.”

On Thursday, Garoppolo outperformed Brady, completing 91 percent of his passes in full-team drills. Brady completed 74 percent. Of course, training camp stats rarely mean anything come the regular season. If anything, Thursday was a good opportunity for Garoppolo to get on the same page with a group of receivers who typically would’ve been working with Brady.

Gronkowski said he’s been impressed.

“Just his power of the ball, his accuracy going out there. The way he moves the pocket; I like how he can scramble out and keep it going if everything’s not going right,” Gronkowski said. “He’s just a competitor, a hard worker, which is always great, which always goes good with the team when you have someone that wants it and goes out there and competes.”

“It makes my job a whole lot easier that’s for sure,” Garoppolo added. “Some big-bodied guys out there. Martellus, he had a nice catch today. Gronk had a couple nice ones. When you have guys like that, it always makes throwing it a lot easier.”

When practice ended, Garoppolo spent some one-on-one time with offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. The two worked together at one end zone while other players walked off the field and headed inside for the day.

Garoppolo has shown ample improvements from his first training camp and that’s one reason why the Patriots can head into the start of this season optimistic.

“Compared to last year and rookie year? Compared to rookie year, it’s not even close,” Garoppolo said. “That just comes with experience though. Three years with the same offense, same team, same organization — you just get used to things and things come more naturally.”

The Patriots hope it comes naturally in Arizona on Sept. 11.

Garoppolo can’t wait.

“Excited, man,” he said. “I’m excited for Week One.”
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