Money will reportedly again not be the only deciding factor when it comes to Tom Brady’s first-ever stint as an unrestricted free agent, but also two other things: his supporting cast, as well as an appreciation for both his past achievements as the New England Patriots’ quarterback and his abilities moving forward. The latter will be at the core of a new contract, likely in the form of its length and the guaranteed money included in the deal.
The former will have to be addressed differently by the Patriots, meanwhile, as they need to show a willingness to improve a passing offense that has struggled in 2019 while also convincing Brady that they will indeed do what they were incapable of doing last year: get consistently productive pass catchers on board to help fill the void created when future Hall of Famer Rob Gronkowski decided to announce his retirement last March.
New England did not fail to do that last season because of a lack of trying, though. The team tendered Josh Gordon while suspended, brought in numerous free agents including Demaryius Thomas and Maurice Harris in, drafted N’Keal Harry in the first round, picked up Antonio Brown after his unceremonious release from the Oakland Raiders, and sent a second-round pick to the Atlanta Falcons to acquire Mohamed Sanu via trade.
For one reason or another, however, none of those picks had the desired impact on the offense’s performance and with the exception of Harry and Sanu are either out of the league at the moment or playing elsewhere. That being said, with Harry and Sanu in the fold for 2020 alongside number one wide receiver Julian Edelman, the Patriots might be better off looking at another position to get Brady the desired improvements: tight end.
New England did not find an adequate replacement for the aforementioned Gronkowski last year and as a result had to rely on an oft-injured free agency pickup (Matt LaCosse), a 38-year-old coming out of retirement (Benjamin Watson) and a second-year player coming off a season-long stint on injured reserve (Ryan Izzo) to carry the load at the position. The three men combined to catch only 39 passes in 2019, for just 456 yards and two touchdowns.
If the Patriots are intent on upgrading Brady’s weaponry in order to get him back, the tight end spot is an obvious place to start.
So, what can the team do? Considering that Watson will likely not return and might call it a career (again), and that neither LaCosse nor Izzo have proven to be anything more than depth options, the team’s best chance at upgrading the position is to look at the free agency market. And this market will offer some talented options that will not be able to replace Gronkowski one-for-one, but could still serve as major upgrades over last year’s group.
Three players in particular stand out among them: Hunter Henry, Austin Hooper and Eric Ebron. They will command considerable resources, and given that New England is somewhat limited in this area— the team has 19 free agents to take care of, including Brady and other core members such as Joe Thuney, Kyle Van Noy and Devin McCourty — it will be hard to get them, but the club should at least try to make a run for one of the three.
After all, the Patriots have to find a way to upgrade their tight end position after a disappointing post-Gronkowski season. Henry, Hooper and Ebron might therefore be a part of the solution. If little more, pursuing them might indicate a willingness towards Brady’s camp that New England is actively trying to accomplish what it unsuccessfully did last year: get the quarterback an improved supporting cast to work with.