Free agency is always a big time of year for the NFL, but this year’s free agency has a potential free agent case unlikely any other, with 6-time Super Bowl winning quarterback Tom Brady set to hit free agency for the first time in two decades in the league ahead of his age 43 season. Unlike when Peyton Manning hit free agency in 2012, Brady is not coming off of a significant injury and, though his age is unprecedented for a top level quarterback, he still played at a relatively high level all things considered in 2019.
Brady originally was set to enter the 2019 season with two years left on his deal, but he and the Patriots re-negotiated a “3-year” deal with automatically voiding years in 2020 and 2021, making him a free agent this off-season, without allowing the Patriots the option of the franchise tag to keep him off the open market. The move was originally seen as a way for the Patriots to free up cap space, as they got an additional 5.5 million in space for 2019 because of the structure of the deal, but they also gave Brady a 8 million dollar raise in 2019 and would incur a 13.5 million dollar cap hit on the first day of free agency if Brady is not re-signed by them, so it doesn’t make a lot of sense that they would give up a controlled year of Brady just for financial reasons.
More likely, the Patriots just wanted to do right by Brady and allow him the opportunity to choose where he wants to play in 2020 and beyond. Under the original structure of his deal, Brady’s future would be completely controlled by the Patriots. If they wanted to find another option in free agency and trade Brady or cut him late in free agency, Brady would have had no control over that. Brady likely did not like that arrangement, especially given the Patriots’ history of doing that kind of thing with veteran players, and asked for a restructured deal that allowed him to hit free agency in 2020 if he wished and the Patriots were willing oblige as an act of good faith towards their long-time franchise quarterback.
Throughout the season, rumors started coming out that Brady would look to leave after the season, even putting his house up for sale, and those rumors didn’t slow down when the Patriots were surprisingly bounced in the wild card round after a 8-0 start. Now about a month before free agency, Brady hitting the open market seems inevitable. The Patriots should still be considered the favorite to keep him, as they offer a competitive football situation with stability and familiarity that no one else can offer, but Brady will at least listen to other options.
Money will be part of it, but Brady likely values a Super Bowl contending situation and long-term stability more than anything. Ultimately, I think the one thing that would entice Brady to leave New England is a Kirk Cousins style fully guaranteed 3-year deal, something the Patriots would be highly unlikely to give to him. Guaranteeing that kind of money to a quarterback for his age 43-45 seasons would be an obvious risk, but it wouldn’t surprise me if a competitive team were willing to give him that kind of stability. Behind the Patriots, I’ve assembled a list of the top-10 teams Brady could be playing for next season.
I’ve eliminated destinations that wouldn’t make sense based on a few factors: any team with a locked in financial commitment to their current quarterback in 2020 (Pittsburgh, Atlanta, Philadelphia, Green Bay, Seattle, LA Rams, Minnesota), any team with a young quarterback who wouldn’t want to give a fully guaranteed 3-year deal to a quarterback over 40 (NY Giants, Buffalo, NY Jets, Houston, Kansas City, Baltimore, Cleveland, Arizona), and any team that is not close to competing for a Super Bowl (Washington, Miami, Cincinnati, Jacksonville, Carolina, and Detroit). That leaves 10 options, which make varying levels of sense. Below is the list in reverse order of likelihood.
10. Chicago Bears
I thought about eliminating the Bears because they have a young quarterback, but the jury is very much still out on former #2 overall pick Mitch Trubisky and it’s not hard to see how the Bears could be interested in upgrading with Brady, even if it means giving up on Trubisky long-term. The bigger issue here is financial, as the Bears have among the least cap space in the league going into this off-season, even before re-signing their own free agents. They don’t seem to have the long-term financial flexibility to make the kind of offer Brady is looking for.
9. Denver Broncos
The Broncos also could have been eliminated because of their young quarterback Drew Lock, a 2019 2nd round pick who went 4-1 in 5 rookie year starts, but the Broncos aren’t as tied to him long-term as they would have been had he gone in the first round. On top of that, John Elway’s propensity to go after older Super Bowl winning quarterbacks is well known, bringing in Peyton Manning back in 2012 and then in a less successful move Joe Flacco last off-season. The Broncos could use more skill position talent, but they have the defense to be a competitive team with good quarterback play and are coming off of a 4-1 stretch to end the season with an up and down rookie under center.
8. New Orleans Saints
The Saints might shoot to the top of the list in the unlikely scenario that Brees decides to hang them up this off-season, but the low likelihood of that scenario keeps the Saints near the bottom of the list. If Brees does decide to retire, Brady would likely give the Saints their best chance of continuing to compete in 2020 and the Saints would give Brady an obvious Super Bowl contending roster around him. With Brees at least considering retirement, file Brady to the Saints under crazy but not completely impossible.
7. Dallas Cowboys
By all indications, the Cowboys view Dak Prescott as a franchise quarterback, but with Prescott set to hit free agency this off-season and reportedly seeking $35-$40 million annually and Brady available as a short-term replacement, it wouldn’t be the craziest thing to see the Cowboys get in the mix for Brady. Jerry Jones loves the star power Brady would bring to the organization and the Cowboys are one of the more talented teams Brady could go to. Ultimately they may just not want to part ways with a quarterback in the prime of his career for one at the tailend of his. Brady may also have concerns about the coaching staff and the structure of the Cowboys’ organization. For those reasons, the Cowboys are relatively low on the list.
6. San Francisco 49ers
The 49ers just made the Super Bowl with Jimmy Garoppolo, but Garoppolo is in the non-guaranteed portion of his contract and can be let go without any money owed in 2020 and with only 4.2 million in deap cap and he may be a bit of a weak link on an otherwise dominant roster. With Brady going into his age 43 season, it would be risky for the 49ers to cut ties with Garoppolo, who is certainly a capable starter in the prime of his career, but they may view that as a worthwhile risk to make while their championship window is open.
5. Indianapolis Colts
The Colts do have some guaranteed money owed to current starter Jacoby Brissett in 2020, but just 8.875 million out of 15.875 million total, so they have the leverage to ask him to take a pay cut, either as part of a trade to compete for a job elsewhere or to stay in Indianapolis and reclaim his old role as Tom Brady’s backup. As crazy as it would be to see Brady in a Colts uniform after all his memorable matchups against them, the Colts do have a solid roster on both sides of the ball, one that was considered a pre-season Super Bowl contender before Andrew Luck’s surprise retirement, and they have the cap space to sign Brady to a top of the market deal and still have money leftover to make other additions in free agency.
4. Las Vegas Raiders
Derek Carr isn’t a bad quarterback, but his 19 million dollar salary for 2020 is non-guaranteed and the Raiders can move on from him with just 7.9 million in dead cap, so they’re widely expected to pursue Brady as a short-term upgrade over Carr this off-season, as they look to make a splash in their first season in Las Vegas. The Raiders have a strong offensive line and running game and you can imagine Brady making heavy use of a shifty slot receiver in Hunter Renfrow and a pass catching tight end in Darren Waller, but their defense still has a lot of problems, so adding Brady wouldn’t make them instant contenders. Brady would have a better chance to win with any of the three teams above the Raiders on this list.
3. Los Angeles Chargers
The Chargers were the first team linked to Brady when it was rumored that he might leave the Patriots. The Chargers went just 5-11 last season, but they were in most of their games despite serious injury absences and they’re looking to upgrade on likely departing quarterback Philip Rivers, who is coming off of a down year and heading into free agency ahead of his age 39 season. Brady also grew up in California, albeit 400 miles north, and owns property in Los Angeles where he has spent long stretches of previous off-seasons, so many have been connecting dots between Brady and the Chargers for months.
The Chargers have obvious talent on both sides of the ball, but they would need to significantly improve their offensive line this off-season for Brady not to suffer the same fate as Philip Rivers did last season and the Chargers organizational dysfunction can’t be ignored when evaluating the Chargers as an option either. Dean Spanos is widely viewed as one of the worst owners in football and, while Brady’s addition would undoubtedly draw more fans to the stadium, Brady would still be dealing with the possibility of playing in front of crowds that favor the opposite team every week if he were to go to the Chargers. After two decades with the most stable organization in the league, that might not be something Brady wants to deal with.
2. Tennessee Titans
The Titans ended Brady’s season and possibly his career with the Patriots with their upset victory over them in the post-season earlier this year and they would make sense as a destination for Brady if he were to leave New England. The Titans won 9 of 13 games including playoffs with journeyman Ryan Tannehill under center last season, en route to a surprise AFC Championship appearance, but Tannehill is a free agent this off-season and the Titans, who have plenty of New England connections already, including head coach Mike Vrabel and GM Jon Robinson, may see Brady as a higher upside option than Tannehill, even in his age 43 season.
The Titans have the cap space to sign Brady and keep both running back Derrick Henry and right tackle Jack Conklin, to ensure Brady is supported by the same offensive line and running game as Tannehill was. The Titans might give Brady his best chance to win a Super Bowl. The only reason they’re 2nd on this list is because, even with all of their New England connections, they may prefer to bring back Ryan Tannehill instead given how well he played down the stretch and Brady’s age. The Titans were widely expected to retain Tannehill on the franchise tag according to reports a couple months ago and it’s unclear if that’s changed even with the possibility of acquiring Brady seemingly on the table.
1. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
While the Titans may prefer to bring back Tannehill rather than sign Brady, the Buccaneers are highly unlikely to prefer their incumbent quarterback to Brady. They’ve been linked to basically every available quarterback this off-season as they look for an upgrade over Jameis Winston, who led the NFL with 5,109 passing yards and finished 2nd with 33 passing touchdowns last season, but also threw 30 interceptions, most by a quarterback in a season since 1988. Winston was widely considered to be a great fit for Arians’ downfield scheme, but he cost them at least a couple wins with costly interceptions and, even only going into his age 26 season, Arians may feel he’s gotten the most he can get out of Winston.
Given that the Buccaneers are obviously in the market for an upgrade, Brady going to Tampa Bay would make a lot of sense. He’d get to work with a respected head coach and offensive mind in Bruce Arians, he’d get to throw to arguably the top wide receiver duo in the NFL in Mike Evans and Chris Godwin, and he’d be supported by an up and coming young defense. The Buccaneers could have been a playoff team with competent quarterback play in 2019. In 2020, they could be Super Bowl contenders if they can find the right signal caller and, even going into his age 43 season, Brady should be at the top of their list.
If Brady does leave, the question then becomes who would replace him in New England. The Patriots like backup Jarrett Stidham, but there are no indications they believe the 2019 4th round pick could start in 2020. On top of that, the Patriots would have many more veteran options available to them this off-season than they would in a normal off-season, as this is shaping up to be a big off-season for quarterback movement, so they’re likely to go that route. Below are the top-3 most likely replacements if Brady were to sign elsewhere this off-season.
3. Andy Dalton
Dalton is unlikely to be back in Cincinnati unless he’s willing to take a significantly reduced rate to be a veteran backup for likely #1 overall pick Joe Burrow, but he hasn’t been a bad quarterback throughout 133 starts in 9 seasons with the Bengals and could have at least some trade value on essentially a one-year, 17.7 million dollar deal, which makes him just the 17th highest paid quarterback in the NFL in average annual salary. He may also be willing to take a pay cut for the right situation. Dalton has never been one to carry a weak roster, but he’d have a strong defense supporting him in New England and the Patriots could bring along his long-time #1 option AJ Green with the savings from replacing Brady with Dalton.
2. Philip Rivers
Rivers is all but out with the Chargers, even if they don’t sign Brady, as their plan B seems to be veteran incumbent backup Tyrod Taylor and a rookie. Rivers is strongly rumored to be interested in signing with the Buccaneers and he just relocated his family to Florida, but if Brady goes there instead, Rivers could be very intrigued by the opportunity to go north and compete for a Super Bowl in New England. A Super Bowl win is the one thing missing from an otherwise Hall-of-Fame career and the Patriots would provide the kind of organizational stability he rarely had with the Chargers. He’s coming off of a down year and going into his age 39 season, but he had a strong season in 2018 and has as much upside as any quarterback available this off-season.
1. Teddy Bridgewater
Bridgewater could potentially be Drew Brees’ eventual replacement in New Orleans, but if Brady leaves New England, don’t be surprised if Bridgewater ends up as Brady’s replacement instead. Unlike Dalton and Rivers, who would be one or two year stop gaps, Bridgewater is still only going into his age 28 season and could be a long-term franchise quarterback. The 2014 first round pick looked on his way towards doing so in the first 2 seasons of his career, but he suffered a horrific knee injury before the 2016 season that put his career on hold. It’s been a long road back for Bridgewater, but he showed a lot of promise in a 5 and a half game stretch in place of an injured Brees last season and is reportedly willing to leave the Saints for a guaranteed starting job elsewhere. Bridgewater, who excels in the short to intermediate part of the field where the Patriots love to attack, could be a great fit in Foxborough.
Not so honorable mentions: Marcus Mariota, Jameis Winston
Neither one would make sense as a reclamation project for a team that would have Super Bowl ambitions even without Brady. Winston is the most turnover prone quarterback in the league, which wouldn’t fly with coach Bill Belichick, while Mariota has shown few signs of being an above average starting quarterback in 61 career starts. The Patriots figure to have better options available even in a worst case scenario. They could also look at quarterbacks early in the draft depending on what happens.
On top of that, the Patriots list of options could change in a fluid quarterback market. With some of the aforementioned possible destinations, Brady’s arrival would make the incumbent starter available. Brady going to Tennessee would make Ryan Tannehill an option. Derek Carr would be an option if Brady were to go to Oakland. Former Brady backups Jimmy Garroppolo and Jacoby Brissett could become available if Brady were to replace either of them.
Dak Prescott would be an unrestricted free agent if Jerry Jones went with Brady instead, though the Patriots are unlikely to be his highest bidder on the open market. Veterans like Cam Newton and Nick Foles could also become available depending on what their current teams want to do long-term, as crazy as it would be to see either of those guys in a Patriots uniform. While Brady is likely to stay put, this is shaping up to be an exciting off-season at the quarterback position around the league.