The future came quickly for the New England Patriots. This time last year, Bill Belichick and Tom Brady were celebrating another Super Bowl victory. Brady hadn’t posted big numbers in the Super Bowl, and Rob Gronkowski was weeks away from retiring, but there was little to be concerned about in New England. As long as the Patriots had the ageless Brady at quarterback and the peerless Belichick planning out what was to come, the future seemed bright for the greatest sports dynasty of this century.
Things have changed. Brady, 42, struggled mightily after a hot start to the 2019 season, and while he was left with a middling offensive line and an injury-hit group of receivers, he looked old for the first time in years. Despite a dominant defense, the Patriots blew their first-round bye with a loss to the lowly Dolphins in Week 17 and then fell out of the playoffs with a wild-card loss to the Titans at home the following week.
What happens next is uncertain. Brady’s contract voids in two weeks, and the Patriots are not allowed to use the franchise tag on him. For the first time since he took over as the Patriots’ starter in 2001, there’s a realistic chance he will play somewhere else. Belichick has signed veteran backups and drafted guys who might have eventually taken over for Brady if the timing had been right, but this is another animal altogether.
How do you replace the greatest football player of all time? Let’s run through why the Patriots are left with limited options and whom they can choose from, starting with the move they made to reward Brady last August that might have backfired:
The Brady deadline
OK, deadline might be a strong word, but the Patriots would greatly prefer to get any Brady deal done by 4 p.m. ET on March 18. Do you remember when the Pats handed Brady a “two-year, $70 million extension” last August? Well, the deal Brady signed wasn’t for two years, wasn’t going to net $70 million and wasn’t an extension. Beyond that, the deal was exactly as you heard.
The real purpose of the Brady extension was to give the star quarterback a raise while simultaneously lowering his cap hold. Before the deal, Brady was going to take home $15 million in cash while counting for $27 million on the New England cap. After he signed his new contract, though, he took home $23 million in cash and was responsible for only $21.5 million on the New England cap, freeing up $5.5 million in additional cap room for the Patriots to add somebody like Antonio Brown. (If you’re one of the truthers who insist that Brady has always taken less money to do right by the team, don’t ask why he needed to get a raise before last season.)
To somehow pay Brady more and be responsible for less in 2019, the Patriots added what are known as voidable years to Brady’s deal. They reduced his $14 million base salary in 2019 from the old deal to $1 million but added a $20.25 million signing bonus. They paid Brady that money up front but spread the money over three years (the year left on Brady’s old deal and the two-year “extension”) for cap purposes. Brady has $30 million and $32 million base salaries in 2021 and 2022 to get to that average of $35 million per year, but he’ll never see those seasons.
We know this for sure because Brady’s contract is set to explode on the first day of the league year, which voids the remainder of the deal. The Saints have pursued a similar track with Drew Brees, and the Patriots followed in kind with Brady’s deal. Once Brady’s deal voids, the Pats will be responsible for $13.5 million in dead money for Brady on their 2020 cap, regardless of what happens. Even if they re-sign Brady after March 18, they would be on the hook for both the $13.5 million in dead money and whatever his new deal looks like in 2020.
On the other hand, if the Patriots re-sign Brady before the new league year begins, the dead money will get folded back into his new deal. The team would still owe $6.75 million on its cap for his old contract in both 2020 and 2021, but that’s a far more manageable sum with which to work.
Is $13.5 million an insurmountable sum? Not in a league in which the salary cap is likely to rise north of $200 million. The Patriots, who are projected to have $44 million in cap room, would find a way to pay a starting quarterback and field a competitive team in 2020 with that dead money on their cap. It’s also enough to potentially keep them from retaining someone like Devin McCourty or adding a key player like Austin Hooper to their roster. Without the ability to use the franchise tag on Brady and with this $13.5 million time bomb looming on their cap, they are going to feel significant pressure to re-sign Brady before the league year begins. It’s no surprise that Brady’s camp has repeatedly leaked its interest in exploring its options in free agency. It’s exactly what the Patriots don’t want and precisely what is likely to generate the best offer for the future Hall of Famer.
With that in mind, March 18 will serve as a de facto deadline for the Patriots. Their offer isn’t suddenly going to get better after they’re forced to deal with the dead money, and the teams competing for Brady are likely to increase their own proposals. He and his camp also know the best thing for New England is to sign a deal before March 18, and if he’s returning, he’s going to want the Pats to have that extra cap space for someone like Hooper. If the clock strikes 4 p.m. in New York that Wednesday and Brady hasn’t reupped with the Patriots, my best guess is that he’ll be leaving for a new team.
Bill Belichick & Co. have to be considering what life might be like without their star quarterback. Let’s start by evaluating what the Patriots currently have to replace Brady.
The incumbent to replace Brady
If Brady leaves, New England will be left with former Browns starter Cody Kessler and 2019 fourth-round pick Jarrett Stidham on the roster. Kessler posted competent numbers while going 0-8 for the 1-15 Browns in 2016, but he posted a passer rating of 72.8 on 154 pass attempts for his 2017-18 time with the Browns and Jaguars. He was signed in September and is regarded by the league as something close to a replacement-level quarterback.
Before adding anybody else to their roster, the Patriots would be moving forward with Stidham as their starting quarterback. Nobody would have expected a sixth-round pick to turn into the greatest player ever, of course, but the recent track record for fourth-round picks isn’t particularly exciting. Thirty-one quarterbacks were taken in the fourth round between 1995 and 2015, and just two of them have made it to the Pro Bowl. Kirk Cousins has two trips under his belt, and David Garrard made a lone visit during his time starting for the Jaguars. Only eight of the 31 passers even completed a season as their team’s starting quarterback, and just four of the 31 quarterbacks started more than two campaigns: Cousins, Garrard, Aaron Brooks and Kyle Orton.
I chose 2015 as an end point because I wanted to work with a 20-year window and give the passers some time to develop, but if we expanded the sample by a year, we’d pick up another starter in Dak Prescott (plus Connor Cook and Cardale Jones). Whether you want to use four out of 31 or five out of 34 as your estimate, it’s clear that the league didn’t evaluate Stidham as a future starter at the NFL level.
Of course, the NFL is notoriously bad at evaluating quarterbacks. Players such as Jimmy Garoppolo (second-rounder), Jacoby Brissett (third-rounder), Matt Cassel (seventh-rounder), and Brian Hoyer (undrafted free agent) have all gone on to start at least one season after leaving New England. Whether it’s learning under Brady or merely getting extra opportunities by virtue of graduating from Belichick University, the Patriots’ quarterback picks have enjoyed longer and more meaningful careers than we would have expected by their draft status.
Stidham represents a particularly unusual case. Most quarterbacks improve steadily during their college career and post their best campaign in their final year before turning pro. That was decidedly not the case for Baylor transfer Stidham, who regressed badly between 2017 and 2018. After completing 66.5% of his passes and averaging 8.5 yards per attempt in 2017 for Auburn, he fell to a 60.7% completion rate and 7.6 yards per attempt in 2018.
Stidham returned leading wideouts Ryan Davis and Darius Slayton in 2018 but lost running back Kerryon Johnson and offensive lineman Braden Smith. It’s easy to imagine a scenario in which Stidham was under colossal pressure in his final season, and there were certainly games when that was the case, but his pressure rate and sack rate actually dropped between 2017 and 2018. It was disconcerting to see his completion percentage fall off dramatically while his air yards per attempt fell from 8.3 AY/A to just 7.1 in 2018.
The Patriots probably believe that the quarterback who appeared to be ascending before 2018 is truer to Stidham’s future than the guy who stumbled in his final year with the Tigers. They haven’t typically targeted passers like that in the past — passers like Garoppolo and Ryan Mallett had their best seasons just before leaving school — but Hoyer is an example of someone who took a step backward in his final year as an amateur and then looked better after studying behind Brady. New England will obviously hope Stidham’s lone year of matriculation behind the team’s longtime starter will pay off in the years to come.
Even if the Patriots are optimistic about Stidham, it’s incredibly unlikely that they’ll go into 2020 without adding at least one viable starter to their quarterback room.
The free-agent options to replace Brady
Let’s take a look at the players the Patriots will be able to target in free agency. Some of these players would take over as the immediate starter in New England, while others would merely be competing for backup work alongside Stidham. I’ve included pros and cons for each passer from the Patriots’ perspective:
2019 team: Saints | Age entering the 2020 season: 27
Pros: Bridgewater’s accuracy and ability to work through his progressions in the pocket make him arguably the closest comp for Brady’s biggest on-field strengths. Bridgewater has also followed in Brady’s footsteps and done a solid job of protecting the football; after his rookie season, he has thrown just 13 interceptions on 668 pass attempts for an interception rate of 1.9%. The Louisville product threw just two picks on 196 pass attempts filling in for Drew Brees last season, with Bridgewater completing nearly 68% of his passes while winning all five of his starts.
What might make Bridgewater most appealing to the Patriots, though, is his age. At 27, Bridgewater still has the bulk of his career to come. While passers such as Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota are in the same age range, Bridgewater has the highest floor of the younger signal-callers. If he can re-create his 2019 form with the Patriots, he would give the Pats a quarterback they can win with in 2020 and beyond.
Cons: Any team has to be concerned about the catastrophic knee injury Bridgewater suffered during the 2016 preseason. The injury happened during practice, and Bridgewater has generally done a good job of avoiding hits as a pro, but he has thrown only 221 pass attempts over the past four seasons. At the very least, New England would need to give Bridgewater’s knee a thorough look before committing to him on a long-term deal.
With that in mind, the Patriots might hold reservations about Bridgewater’s size. It’s worth remembering that they famously chose 6-foot-4, 225-pound Brady over 6-foot, 200-pound Louisiana Tech quarterback Tim Rattay, in part, because Brady was the bigger passer. Belichick has drafted 11 quarterbacks during his time in New England, and 6-2, 215-pound Bridgewater is smaller by height, weight or both than each of those 11. Belichick might not pass up a franchise quarterback for the want of an inch or 10 pounds, but the Patriots would likely prefer a bigger quarterback if all else was equal.
2019 team: Chargers | Age: 38
Pros: Rivers offers the Patriots a plug-and-play solution like no one else in this class. The veteran’s experience and meticulous preparation allow him to handle just about everything from the moment the play is called to the moment the ball is out of his hands. Rivers’ ability to set and reset protections would come in handy for a Patriots team that is likely to lose left guard Joe Thuney and fill-in center Ted Karras to free agency, while center David Andrews‘ future remains uncertain after he missed all of 2019 with a pulmonary embolism.
Although the Pats’ line struggled in 2019, the upside with players such as Isaiah Wynn and Marcus Cannon when healthy should make Rivers look much better than he did in Los Angeles. And although Rivers did throw 20 interceptions, a league-leading seven of those picks came in the final five minutes of the game while his team was trailing. He was forced to make desperate throws to try to push the Chargers back into the game. With a better defense, Rivers wouldn’t be put in a position to make those sort of passes. In 2018, for example, he threw 12 interceptions in 16 games and just one pick while trailing during the final five minutes.
Cons: The Patriots have long prided themselves on Brady’s ability to move the ball steadily down the field without turning it over. Rivers is much more of a boom-or-bust quarterback, and New England would have to change its offense to account for that. While you can imagine a scenario in which Julian Edelman serves as the new Keenan Allen for Rivers, the Patriots don’t yet have anything at tight end and would need N’Keal Harry to step up as a downfield threat in the vein of Mike Williams.
Rivers would also be one of the most expensive options on the market — he would likely expect to take home something at or in excess of $30 million per season. The Patriots can use voidable years to try to reduce his short-term cap hit, but that would only create a future dead money mark down the line for Belichick, just like the one he’s dealing with now for Brady. At 38, Rivers would also be only a short-term solution for the Patriots.
There’s also a chance Rivers’ decline in 2019 could end up as a permanent problem. It’s fair to note that he was affected by a dismal offensive line, but even when you take out the plays on which he was pressured, he ranked 21st in QBR and 25th in passer rating. Joe Flacco, who will likely be available for a few million dollars on a one-year deal after he’s cut by the Broncos, posted a nearly identical passer rating and a better QBR when teams didn’t pressure him in Denver. I would almost certainly rather have Rivers than Flacco, but if Rivers is a below-average starter even with improved pass protection, the Patriots would probably regret paying him $30 million per season.
2019 team: Buccaneers | Age: 26
Pros: Winston still has tantalizing upside. When he gets hot, there are few quarterbacks in the league who have the 2015 first overall pick’s ability to threaten defenses at every level. Winston is also a quietly adept scrambler for his size and has been able to play through injuries. He has missed just three games to injury in five years.
There are obvious negatives with Winston, and I’ll get to them in a moment, but the argument would be that the Patriots could acquire a quarterback in the prime of his career who might be able to turn the corner with better coaching and more stability in Foxborough, Massachusetts. The Patriots have taken shots on players with off-field issues when Belichick felt the upside was worth the risk. A 26-year-old starting quarterback to replace Brady would be more valuable than any risk Belichick has taken with the Patriots before.
Cons: To start, there are the turnovers. Winston has 88 interceptions and 50 fumbles in 72 games. For context, Brady has 36 interceptions and 26 fumbles over that same five-season time frame. There’s always a chance that Josh McDaniels & Co. could fix those issues, but we have a sample of more than 2,500 pass attempts in which Winston has made inexplicable decisions with the football.
Last season was supposed to be when Winston got an upgrade by swapping out coach Dirk Koetter for Bruce Arians. Instead, Winston threw 30 picks and posted a career-high interception rate of 4.8%. After adjusting for era, he posted the fifth-worst interception rate for a quarterback with 300 passes or more since the merger. If the Patriots sign Winston, every television network will be waiting for him to throw a first-quarter pick-six before cutting to an unamused Belichick.
And while the Patriots have taken risks in the past, Winston’s off-field baggage is considerable. He has been accused in multiple sexual assault cases and already has one NFL suspension in his past. It’s possible that the market simply won’t develop for Winston and the Patriots would bring him in as a low-cost option, but it’s difficult to see a scenario in which the Pats are excited to sign him.
2019 team: Titans | Age: 32
Pros: With the Titans rumored to be going after Brady, one way to get back at former Patriot Mike Vrabel would be to sign Tennessee’s breakout passer. Tannehill didn’t have much of a market when the Dolphins were looking to trade their longtime starter, but Tannehill flourished in the play-action-heavy scheme of first-year offensive coordinator Arthur Smith.
Across 12 games last season, Tannehill led the league in passer rating (117.5) and yards per attempt (9.6), was third in completion percentage (70.3%), and finished ninth in Total QBR (62.2). He was much better than Brady over the same time frame, and Tannehill should still have several years of above-average play remaining.
Cons: Before 2019, Tannehill had completed 62.8% of his passes, averaged 7.0 yards per attempt and posted a passer rating of 87.0. What we saw from him in Tennessee was a massive leap unsupported by his level of play over nearly 3,200 pass attempts in Miami. History is littered with quarterbacks who looked decent, pieced together a dominant season, and then returned to earth for the remainder of their careers, with guys such as Andy Dalton and Case Keenum as examples.
The Miami version of Tannehill is still a competent starter, but he is going to be expensive. It wouldn’t be shocking to see him hit $30 million per season with two guaranteed years on his new contract if the Titans let him leave. You would pay that much for the Tannehill from 2019, but the guy who was competent in Miami wouldn’t excite the Patriots. Injuries have also been a problem for Tannehill, who tore his ACL in 2016 and in 2017 before missing five games in 2018 with a nerve problem.
2019 team: Titans | Age: 26
Pros: Mariota will likely come cheap and won’t require any sort of long-term deal if the Patriots are willing to give the former Heisman Trophy winner a shot at their starting job. Mariota’s numbers and style of play are reminiscent of Tannehill’s performance in Miami, with the Oregon product coming in right around league average when he has been on the field with the Titans. He would likely be looking at a one-year deal in the $8 million range, and the Patriots could tack on several years as a team option at a reasonable salary if Mariota excels.
It’s reasonable to think Mariota might benefit from stability, given that he famously cycled through five offensive coordinators in five seasons with the Titans. Guys such as Jason Michael and Terry Robiskie haven’t been coordinators since leaving Tennessee, either. McDaniels & Co. would bring another new scheme, but they could get the most out of Mariota.
Cons: It’s just as easy to note that coordinator after coordinator wasn’t able to unlock the potential Mariota seemed to hold at Oregon or in small spurts at the professional level. The Titans ranked 30th in the NFL in points per possession during Mariota’s six weeks as a starter in 2019 and then fourth in the NFL once Tannehill took over. Injuries also cost Mariota time in each of his first four seasons. The Patriots once flirted with the extreme tempo of the Chip Kelly offense Mariota ran in Oregon, but would they really risk upsetting their offense and exposing their defense to do so again with Mariota?
2019 team: Saints | Age: 30
Pros: While it’s unlikely that the Patriots would turn their offense over to Hill as a full-time starter, the Saints’ gadget passer could take some of the focus off whomever they start and serve as a weapon on trick plays and in the red zone. New England could transition to more of a run-focused attack after Brady, and Hill can serve as an effective runner and can help create running lanes for Sony Michel and the rest of the Patriots’ backs.
Cons: Although Saints coach Sean Payton has said all the right things about Hill, it’s telling that New Orleans barely used Hill when Brees went down; he played just 49 offensive snaps during Bridgewater’s five starts. Acquiring Hill would likely cost the Patriots a second-round pick, assuming the Saints tender Hill, the only restricted free agent on this list, as such. It also wouldn’t give the Patriots a short- or long-term solution for handling the majority of their dropbacks.
2019 team: Washington | Age: 32
Pros: Keenum was excellent during the 2017 season with the Vikings, when he completed nearly 68% of his passes and posted a passer rating of 98.3 while helping push the Vikings to the NFC Championship Game. He hasn’t been quite as impressive in subsequent stints with the Broncos and Washington, but even in 2019, he posted a passer rating of 91.3 for a hopeless team when Dwayne Haskins and Colt McCoy combined to hit a mark of just 74.3. Keenum is likely to nab a two-year deal in the $14 million range, which would be cheap for New England.
Cons: Keenum rarely had to carry the Vikings when they were trailing in the second half during that 2017 season, and outside of that one campaign, he has looked more like a solid No. 2 quarterback than somebody to trust with a starting job. Size is even more of a concern for 6-1 Keenum than it is for Bridgewater; the only quarterback under 6-2 to throw passes for the Patriots in the Belichick era is Doug Flutie, who tossed 10 as a 43-year-old backup for Brady in 2005.
2019 team: Rams | Age: 28
Pros: Bortles’ size (6-5, 236 pounds) and athleticism are still pluses. The Patriots’ most recent run-in with Bortles also didn’t go well, as the former third overall pick threw for 376 yards and four touchdowns in a 31-20 win over the Patriots in Week 2 of the 2018 season. Nobody is expecting that the Patriots will happily turn things over to Bortles, but after spending a year learning under Sean McVay, he would be looking at a one-year deal for not much more than the league minimum.
Cons: Even when Bortles was posting the best numbers of his career, they were often a product of garbage-time performance and the magic of Allen Robinson. Bortles’ accuracy and decision-making were below-average in Jacksonville, and his mechanics were wildly inconsistent.
The idea of the Patriots signing Bortles on a one-year deal to compete as a backup could make some sense, but anything more than that might be seen as a cry for help.
2019 team: Broncos | Age: 35
Pros: With the Broncos likely to release Flacco, the Patriots could add a veteran who always seemed to exceed expectations against New England in the postseason. Flacco won two of his four battles with Brady, and while he was 4-of-10 for 34 yards in one of those, the 35-year-old could plausibly be 4-0 against the Pats in the postseason.
Flacco threw four touchdown passes in the 35-31 loss to New England during the 2014 playoffs, when the Patriots used an unbalanced line to trick the Ravens with a tactic that was outlawed after the season. In the other loss, Flacco drove the Ravens into the red zone late in the fourth quarter down 23-20, only for Lee Evans to drop a would-be touchdown catch and Billy Cundiff to miss a 32-yard field goal that would have forced overtime. If the NFL had already banned the reporting tactic or if kicker Justin Tucker had arrived a year earlier, Baltimore might have made two additional Super Bowl trips with Flacco.
Cons: What I wrote above is a generous interpretation of events, and Flacco has been a below-average quarterback since his Super Bowl XLVII run during the 2012 playoffs. While Flacco once held the sort of arm strength that scared opposing safeties, he has turned into a quarterback who almost always seeks out an easy checkdown without ever threatening to create bigger gains. Brady was also comfortable taking the easy completions, of course, but he combined that accuracy with an infinitesimal interception rate, something Flacco doesn’t have. Injuries in recent years also make Flacco little more than a last-gasp option for the Pats.
The trade options to replace Brady
The Patriots could also pursue a number of options via trade. One logical candidate is Andy Dalton, who has been linked to the Bears and would be available on what amounts to a one-year deal for $17.5 million. New England could try to get Dalton to restructure that deal as part of a trade, and wouldn’t need to give up much more than a late-round pick to acquire the longtime Bengals starter.
I wouldn’t be too optimistic about Dalton, however. He isn’t much bigger than Bridgewater, and the Red Rifle has struggled with his accuracy. Over the past three seasons, Dalton has completed just 60.3% of his passes despite averaging just over 7.9 air yards per target. The latter figure ranks 22nd among 41 qualifying passers, but the former mark is 36th in the league. Dalton would make sense at about half of his current price.
It appears the Panthers are likely to keep Cam Newton and the Lions intend to hold on to Matthew Stafford, but both veterans could come available if their teams fall in love with young passers in the 2020 NFL draft. Newton is on a one-year, $18.6 million contract, and Stafford’s contract might be more dealable than it seems; the Lions would owe anywhere from $18.8 million to $32 million in dead money, depending on when Stafford would be traded and how the league executes rarely seen cap rules for the final year of the collective bargaining agreement. Neither veteran is likely to hit the market.
On the other hand, the Patriots could take fliers on a pair of players who should be extremely available. Josh Rosen, the No. 10 pick in the 2018 draft, has now failed to impress with both the Cardinals and Dolphins and should qualify as deeply distressed goods after posting a passer rating of 63.5 on 502 pass attempts. The Patriots could offer him a far superior offensive infrastructure. Although Miami might be reticent to deal its backup within the division, Rosen is likely about to become the third-stringer and has no future there. A late-round pick could get the job done, and Rosen has less than $5 million left on his rookie deal, which would include offsets if the Patriots moved on.
At the other end of the financial spectrum is Nick Foles, who famously upset the Patriots in Super Bowl LII just over two years ago. Foles’ first season with the Jaguars was a disaster, as he fractured his collarbone in the first quarter of Week 1, missed 10 games, then lost his job back to Gardner Minshew after just three starts. Foles’ upside is clear, but the former Eagles and Rams starter has more than $21 million in guarantees remaining on his deal. A new CBA would give the two teams more options, but Jacksonville would need to pay some of Foles’ guarantees and/or attach a draft pick to shed his contract onto the Patriots. His injury issues would make him a dangerous long-term option for Belichick & Co., though he could offer a short-term solution.
The best quarterback at least adjacent to the market is Dallas starter Dak Prescott, who is likely to attract the franchise tag from the Cowboys in the coming days. This isn’t really the place for a lengthy Prescott analysis, but the 26-year-old just finished 10th in passer rating and fourth in QBR for a Cowboys team that ended the season second in offensive DVOA. Prescott isn’t peak Brady, but he’s better than anybody else New England could plausibly add in free agency or via trade this offseason.
Understandably for a player who was vastly underpaid during his rookie deal, Prescott is looking to approach the top of the market with his new contract, which would come in around $35 million per season. The Cowboys can keep Prescott with one of two franchise tags. The exclusive franchise tag would cost $33 million and ensure that no team can negotiate with him. Crucially for a team that might need to franchise Prescott again in 2021, though, the Cowboys can hand Prescott the non-exclusive franchise tag and pay him somewhere closer to $28 million.
The non-exclusive tag would allow teams to negotiate with Prescott and offer him a contract; the Cowboys would have the right to match and receive two first-round picks if they decide against keeping their starting quarterback. While there’s a scenario in which the Patriots could go after Prescott and send away what are likely to be two late first-round picks, I’m not sure Belichick would be willing to outlay a top-of-the-market deal and two first-rounders for Prescott. And despite their protests, the Cowboys might match any offer sheet for Prescott anyway.
If Brady did sign with the 49ers, there’s also the small matter of one Jimmy Garoppolo, who would then be up for trade on what amounts to a three-year, $76.3 million deal with no guarantees. The Patriots require no introductions to their former second-round pick, although their feelings toward Garoppolo might have changed after seeing him start 24 games with the 49ers. With both teams missing second-round picks, New England might need to send its first-rounder to get a deal done. Of course, the chances of what would amount to a Brady-Garoppolo swap are remarkably slim.
Likewise, if the Raiders end up signing Brady, the Patriots could respond with a move for Derek Carr. Carr had a solid season in 2019, finishing ninth in the NFL in passer rating and 10th in QBR for an Oakland team that didn’t have much to work with at wide receiver. He won’t excite Patriots fans, but he’s a reasonably high-floor option and would come on a three-year, $58.5 million deal with no remaining guaranteed money. There are worse moves New England could make for a late-round pick, especially if guys like Rivers and Bridgewater get snapped up early in free agency.
The draft options to replace Brady
New England could also add to Stidham and Kessler by using a draft pick on a quarterback. The Pats pick 23rd, which means they have no realistic shot of ending up with someone like LSU’s Joe Burrow or Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa. It would be a major surprise if Oregon’s Justin Herbert or Utah State’s Jordan Love fell all the way to 23, and Georgia’s Jake Fromm and Washington’s Jacob Eason might not be worthy of a first-round pick.
It’s possible that Belichick could try to move up from No. 23 to grab someone like Love if he falls out of the top 10, but I’m skeptical. While Belichick trades up more frequently than most observers think, there’s nothing in his draft history suggesting he’s likely to package multiple first-round picks to move up. The Patriots don’t have a second-round pick after using it to acquire Mohamed Sanu, which also costs them a significant draft asset.
They are projected to get a pair of compensatory picks at the end of the third round for losing Trey Flowers and Trent Brown, but I don’t see the sort of haul they can offer to compete with teams like the Colts or Jaguars in moving up to grab a passer. It’s more likely that New England would trade down and draft someone like Fromm in the second round as opposed to moving up for a quarterback.
I don’t know how much we can realistically suss out from Belichick’s history with quarterbacks to try to figure out which player the Patriots might target in the draft. They seem to value size, although not at the sort of level a team like the Broncos does. They’ve gone after four-year starters like Garoppolo yet also drafted and promoted Cassel, who threw 33 college passes. Brady’s accuracy has kept the Patriots going on offense for years, but Belichick has drafted quarterbacks such as Brissett and Mallett, who weren’t particularly accurate at the college level. About the only thing I can rule out, unfortunately for Pats fans, is the idea that they’re somehow going to trick the Bengals into letting them draft Burrow.
The Brady replacement, and the one I’d pick
After all that, the most likely starting quarterback for the Patriots in Week 1 of the 2020 season is still Tom Brady. Of the available options, the Pats give Brady the best chance of winning another Super Bowl, let alone whatever comfort he enjoys from playing his first 20 seasons in New England. And while players such as Carr and Tannehill produced better numbers in 2019, there’s not a quarterback who projects as a clearly superior choice with the Patriots’ roster in 2020 than Brady. It still makes the most sense for both sides to reunite on a deal.
If Brady does leave, though, the Patriots could look toward acquiring his replacement from the team that adds him. If the Titans sign him, New England would target Tannehill. If the Raiders sign him, the Pats would be in line to go after Carr. If the 49ers somehow pull off a Brady move, New England would be the best landing spot for Garoppolo. The Chargers have already moved on from Rivers, but if Brady ends up in Los Angeles, the status quo elsewhere in the league could leave Rivers as the best option remaining for the Patriots.
Adam Schefter, Louis Riddick and Mike Tannenbaum speculate where Tom Brady will land and how it will affect other quarterbacks in the league.
It’s not up to me, but of the available options, I’d choose Bridgewater. The knee is obviously a concern, and Bridgewater played well behind one of the league’s best offensive lines and with a brilliant mind calling plays in 2019, but nobody in this group offers his combination of youth, accuracy, intelligence and possible upside. I’m not sure Bridgewater will be the best passer in this group in 2020, but he’s likely to produce the most value over the next five seasons if he can stay healthy.
What happens next could define the decade for the Patriots. Teams such as the 49ers and Packers have managed to swap out one Hall of Famer for another, but ask Bills, Broncos and Dolphins fans about what has happened to their franchises after Jim Kelly, John Elway and Dan Marino left town. They’ve combined to win one Super Bowl and cycled through quarterback after quarterback, with Peyton Manning‘s free-agent stint in Denver one of the rare exciting runs. Fail to replace a legend the first time and you might spend the better part of 20 years trying over and over again to solve the same problem. Unless they can persuade Brady to return, the Patriots are two weeks away from facing the most difficult question of the Belichick era in New England.