Update 3/18/2020: Ex-Patriots quarterback Tom Brady signing with the Buccaneers is not crazy
This story was originally published before the NFL’s legal tampering period opened on Monday, and before Tom Brady made his announcement to leave the Patriots. With him reportedly agreeing to a contract with the Buccaneers now, it is time to revisit it and why his decision to join the team makes sense from a football perspective.
Original story 3/16/2020: Chief Thoughts: The idea of Patriots quarterback Tom Brady signing with the Buccaneers in free agency is not crazy
Historically, the offseason has been a quiet time for the New England Patriots — an opportunity for franchises bereft of talent to spend wads of cash on free agents that will never live up to their contracts. Meanwhile, the Patriots lay silent in the weeds ready to strike on value-based signings that will ensure their domination of the league for years to come.
This year is different.
This year, the franchise legend and greatest player of all time is on the market. The Patriots lack of talent was brutally exposed during the playoffs, and unlike previous seasons the organization is entering 2020 with minimal cap space and draft capital. Simply, put the Patriot dynasty is facing an existential challenge.
Let’s get started.
Why TB to TB makes sense
Team A was ranked fifth in defensive DVOA in 2019. It was ranked 21st in offensive DVOA but it’s existing quarterback threw 30 interceptions. This team has two All-Pro wide receivers, two slightly above average running backs, and two slightly above average tight ends. This team has slightly above average to above average players at left tackle, left guard and center. Its right guard is average and its right tackle is bad (read: terrible). This team has $84 million in salary cap space and picks 14th overall in the draft. It has three major free agents on defense. It has a top 10 offensive coordinator and a decent head coach.
Team B was ranked first in defensive DVOA in 2019. It was ranked 11th in offensive DVOA and its existing quarterback threw eight interceptions. This team has a very good slot receiver, a very good receiving back, two slightly above average running backs, two above average but injury-prone tackles, and an above average guard. This team has unproven to bad players at center and left guard. This team has no tight ends and no outside receivers. This team has five major free agents. This team has $25 million in cap space and picks 23rd overall. This team has no second round pick. They have a top 10 offensive coordinator and the best head coach ever.
Imagine a world where you take a clone of the quarterback on Team B and place him on Team A for 2020: Which team does better?
I would contend that Tom Brady going to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (Team A) could be as competitive for a championship as Brady would be if he stayed in New England (Team B). More importantly, even if the Patriots have slightly better odds of winning a championship, Tampa Bay has a much higher probability of supporting Brady on offense.
In order to explain that case we need to compare the the two teams in terms of offensive and defensive personnel, coaching, and offseason resources available to the respective teams.
Tampa Bay defense
Let’s start with the fifth-ranked defense in the NFL last season. Tampa Bay traded for Shaquil Barrett who exploded for 19.5 sacks, becoming the league’s leading sack artist. The Buccaneers also got production from four picks in the latest draft. Devin White had his struggles as the fifth overall selection but also proved himself capable of making the big splash plays you would expect from a top-five pick. Perhaps more exciting was the play from the team’s rookie corners in the second and third round. Both graded out above average by Pro Football Focus, shoring up one of the biggest weaknesses on Tampa’s defense.
Tampa has three big free agents and all are on the defensive side. Barrett is expected to get the franchise tag unless a long-term deal can be worked out, and he has already agreed to play on it. The second major piece is Jason Pierre-Paul. I haven’t seen any indication the Buccaneers will or will not resign him after he has struggled with injuries but was still second on the team in sacks. The final major piece is Ndamukong Suh, a familiar foe of the Patriots. Suh reportedly wants to turn but his production declined last year. Tampa already has a good defensive tackle in Vita Vea, and he fills a similar role to Suh. The mercenary Suh can probably make more playing for his fifth team so I would not assume he comes back.
To round out the Buccaneers defense, we have their defensive coordinator, and former New York Jets head coach, Todd Bowles. Bowles specializes is coverage schemes and I think his influence was really evident at the end of the season. Tampa Bay’s secondary has a ton of youth and got pummeled early in the season. In the second half they made huge strides, however, grading out above average by PFF’s metrics. This is indicative of Bowles’ influence: he has always done well with defensive backs.
With that analysis in mind, let’s look to the defensive outlook for 2020. It is possible the Buccaneers resign Pierre-Paul, but it is going to cost them to do so. Suh wants a ring, that’s a part of the reason he joined the Los Angeles Rams in 2018. If Brady joins Tampa Bay in free agency, however, there is a decent chance he comes back. There is also a very good chance that Shaq Barrett will regress, 19.5 sacks would be an absurd number even for a future Hall of Fame pass rusher. Furthermore, the defense does not have a lot of proven star players so assuming the unit will be just as good last year is not a guarantee.
To contrast this, Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston threw 24 interceptions on his side of the field in 2019. The Tampa defense had to play damage control on 24 picks behind its own 50-yard line and still ranked fifth in defensive DVOA. That’s not even counting the team’s fumbles or the six other interceptions thrown by Winston. With Brady at the helm, their offense will benefit from a player who can move the chains and keep them out of disadvantageous situations. I expect the Buccaneers offense would catapult with Brady at the helm which would do a ton to protect the defense.
Speaking of which, the Tampa defense is very young. They may not have the reliability of veterans but they do have the upside of youth. There is a good chance some of these young guys play better next year. They have significant resources to sign defensive additions, or re-sign defensive players they want to keep. The combination of Brady and Florida lacking an income tax might even garner them a few minor deals in free agency.
In summation, it’s difficult to project exactly where Tampa Bay will land do the massive metamorphosis the team is likely to undergo in 2020 inc case they signed Brady. In the end, I am expecting them to regress but remain a top 10 defense by DVOA. It’s not impossible they maintain or grow in 2020, though.
New England defense
The New England defense was absolute fire at the beginning of the season but began to regress as the season went on. One issue was that the Patriots were not playing complementary football. For those of you who rolled your eyes at the idea that having not having Jameis Winston at quarterback could improve the Buccaneers defense, just consider how much harder it was for New England’s own defense when the offense stopped being able to get drives past midfield. At least with Brady at the helm they got to punt instead of turning the ball over.
Yes, the Patriots’ statistical ranking was buoyed by their historic early season but they were still one of the best defenses in the NFL. That is despite carrying the putrid, wretched corpse of the New England offense game after game until the bloated flesh became so heavy with bile that even they couldn’t lift it anymore. If the Patriots offense improved, the defense will look even better in 2020.
The Patriots have the best secondary in the NFL par none. Their front seven has more holes, which we will get too, but was solid last season. The Patriots also benefit from a Hall of Fame de facto defensive coordinator in Bill Belichick. Enough said. If all the Patriots had to do was re-sign Brady, the Patriots would be primed for a deep championship run. All they would need to do is use their remaining cap and draft capital to invest in the offense.
Unfortunately, that’s not the case.
The Patriots’ top two pass rushers are on the market. Devin McCourty, the leader of the secondary and a good free safety in his own right, was also set to hit free agency before returning on a two-year, $23 million deal. Replacing pass rushers is one of the most expensive things to do in the NFL. The good news is that the Patriots generate a lot of pressure through scheme, they probably would not be looking for a big name pass rusher even if they had more cap space than they do. But even scheme-dependent pass rushes require players to execute them and the Patriots’ best two executors are free agents: Kyle Van Noy and Jamie Collins.
Like any NFL team, projecting the Patriots into 2020 is somewhat difficult. The Patriots defense has the opposite problem of the Buccaneers, they have a load of reliable veterans but they are older and more prone to injury and regression. Just like Tampa, New England has a star player primed for regression in cornerback Stephon Gilmore. However, the floor for Gilmore is far higher than the floor for Barrett. We see young pass rushers rise and fall all the time. We rarely see corners with multiple first team All-Pro selections to their name fall off a cliff before they turn 30.
The problem for the Patriots is resources. They don’t have very many. McCourty’s return solidifies the elite secondary, but the front seven is a huge question mark. Seeing Van Noy, Collins, Elandon Roberts and Danny Shelton all walk in free agency would not surprise me in the slightest. That would be a lot to lose for a team that also has massive holes on the offensive side of the ball. That being said, I still prefer Belichick and the Patriots defense over Tampa any day. No hesitation there. Sure, the offseason might change that assessment but for right now the Patriots earned their selection.
I expect the Patriot defense to be good next year.
Tampa Bay offense
This is the part where Brady gets excited. Two names. Chris Godwin. Mike Evans. What’s better than playing with one All-Pro wide receiver? Playing with two All-Pro wide receivers. Godwin and Evans are arguably the most compelling wide receiver tandem in the NFL, the only one that could take the crown would be Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs in Minnesota. Both can win in different ways, and contrary to some early comments here, would absolutely jive with Brady.
Let’s start with Mike Evans. Evans lacks straight-line speed but is generally known for being a deeper threat. He excels at boxing out defensive backs, runs crisp routes, and is very good at tracking and adjusting for the ball. However, Evans can win in a lot of different ways because his skill set translates in a lot of different ways. Last year, you saw Buccaneers head coach Bruce Arians incorporate more short routes for Evans, making use of his tight end-caliber size. How many cornerbacks are going to be able to stop Evans on a slant? Not many as it turns out, and I would expect to see more of those plays if Brady went to Tampa. Size, routes, adjusting to the ball and tough to bring down. These are skills that translate all over the field. This isn’t a case of a player like Brandin Cooks, who has to rely on deep speed to win. Evans is pretty slow for a receiver. He doesn’t need to be running go routes to dominate.
Now, let’s examine Chris Godwin. Godwin actually outproduced his teammate last year which was a surprise for many given Evans’ pedigree. Godwin is smaller and faster than the veteran, though running a 4.42 at 6-foot-1, 210 pounds certainly does not make him the same mold as small burners like T.Y. Hilton or Tyreek Hill. Unlike Evans, whose strength and size tends to devour press-man coverage, Godwin is far more comfortable in zone. That complements one of his best traits which is how effective he is after the catch. While I would describe Evans as difficult to bring down, Godwin is downright elusive. His feel for space, ability to slip out of tackles, and speed make him a real threat after the catch. Godwin wins predominantly on intermediate routes but you saw examples of him in that Deebo Samuel role out of the backfield.
One more thing. Godwin is about as reliable as you can possibly be without being named Michael Thomas. He’s off back-to-back seasons with only one drop on the year, a contrast to the sometimes heavy-handed Evans. It’s that speed, YAC abilities, and reliable hands that lead me to understand why Godwin may have risen as the favorite target over Evans, despite the latter’s pedigree and superiority against press-man coverage.
Simply put both players are excellent and any argument that Brady would not be able to mesh with their skill set because he doesn’t like to throw the deep ball a lot is nonsense.
Tampa Bay also has two above average tight ends in O.J. Howard and Cameron Brate. Brate you may not know, but Howard should be a familiar name to all the Pulpit faithful. After all, there were a lot of rumors that the Patriots were going to trade for him (manufactured rumors or otherwise) in the past. Brate, meanwhile, is your poor man’s Austin Hooper — the kind of tight end the Patriots would have killed for last year but only above average and likely protected by his superior supporting cast. At $6 million he’s a borderline bargain, though. Howard, on the other hand, struggled last year which is one of the reasons he was rumored for a trade. Arians would much rather build an offense around his All-Pro wideouts than his developing tight ends. However, I personally think Howard has a lot to offer and some modification to the scheme could do wonders for him.
Next we have the Buccaneers running backs. Dare Ogunbowale and T.J. Logan are a yawn, every running back on the Patriots roster is better than them. Ronald Jones is a different story, however. After a horrible first season, he produced 4.2 yards per a carry and over 300 yards through the air for a combined 1,033 yards from scrimmage.
The big problem with the Buccaneers offense, however, is that the line cannot run block. That is especially egregious considering the unit fields two competent in-line tight ends. In theory, this is a major issue for the team and a notable reason Brady would not want to go there.
Bruce Arians is a very successful coordinator but it’s hard to see how he would be an upgrade over the Patriots’ Josh McDaniels, who has tended to a system designed around Brady for over a decade. My research has indicated Arians is an extremely quarterback-friendly coordinator who will tailor his offense to meet his quarterback’s needs, though. Remember that he successfully coached Peyton Manning, who outside of Drew Brees, is the only cerebral/quick release comparison to Tom Brady. That means I am less worried about Arians going full Rex Grossman on Brady as the play caller. He has had a ton of high-powered offenses over the years, after all. The idea that there should be a massive drop-off due to a potential shift in scheme rings hollow to me.
Finally, one (hundred and forty) more word(s) on the offensive line. As noted above, the Buccaneers are solid in pass protection at left tackle, left guard and center. There is also a legitimate argument to be made they would look more than solid if Jameis Winston did not hold unto the ball so long on a consistent basis. That being said, I also saw Winston wiped out a few times without getting a chance to do anything, almost always from the right side, so it is definitely a potential issue. You could survive with the Buccaneers’ right guard with an above average right tackle but theirs — Demar Dotson — is mediocre and regressing. He is also an unrestricted free agent. Brady can make an average offensive line look good with his quick release but he doesn’t have the mobility to make a bad one look average. I’d be pretty worried about the right side of the Tampa O-line with or without Dotson in the lineup, albeit it is not nearly as bad as I had thought going into the research on it.
New England offense
New England’s offense was pathetic last year and it’s difficult to see exactly how to fix that.
In theory, the Patriots are set with bookend tackles Isaiah Wynn and Marcus Cannon. The problem is the loss of veteran offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia. Cannon was bad before Scarneccia returned from his short-lived retirement in 2016, and Wynn has hardly had the snaps to establish the high point he left last season on. Both players are also injury prone. Can Brady rely on them in 2020? It is hard to know. Furthermore, the Patriots might lose both their starting center and left guard from a year ago: Ted Karras could be back but Joe Thuney is as good as gone for sure.
They may have a replacement for Thuney in Jermaine Eluemunor, a restricted free agent who was tendered at the original fifth-round level on Sunday, but we literally have no idea because we never saw him play in a Patriots uniform. Even if he does fill that expected void, Eluemunor will likely be a downgrade. David Andrews might come back and upgrade the center position but that is a question mark despite some recent positive reports. Shaq Mason is a stud at right guard despite some issues last season. I expect him to be better in 2020.
On paper the Patriots have a much better offensive line than the Buccaneers because they can pass- and run-block at an above average level when healthy. But between injuries, the loss of Scarnecchia, and two massive questions on the interior, New England’s line is not nearly the carrot stick fans want to believe it is.
The Patriots’ backfield, meanwhile, is very solid. It may lack the star power of a Ezekiel Elliott or an Austin Ekeler, but it probably has the best running back committee in the NFL. Sony Michel is not a dual threat but an above average runner, James White is a good receiving back who can run too. Rex Burkhead is a jack-of-all-trades capable of making an impact on all four downs. Damien Harris may or may not be good but at minimum he provides depth. The Patriots have a good backfield heading into 2020.
Receivers are where it gets really ugly for New England, though. They have no tight ends and no quality wide receivers outside stalwart slot receiver Julian Edelman. Edelman plays a vicious brand of football, but he will be 34 in 2020 and was suspended for the first four games in 2018 for allegedly using performance enhancing drugs to recover from an injury. He ended 2019 a shell of himself, in part due to numerous injuries. I love Edelman. A Patriot legend. But he’s got some question marks. Phillip Dorsett, meanwhile, is a free agent likely to move on. N’Keal Harry and Mohamed Sanu both probably wish they could play in the slot but they can’t because Edelman is better than both and that’s where he plays. Simply put, the receiver situation looks bad on paper heading into 2020 and it does not appear likely it will improve a lot given the Patriots’ limited resources.
Finally, New England has Josh McDaniels — a criminally underrated play-caller who basically spent the last 10 years mind-melding with Brady. It’s hard to imagine any offensive coordinator outside of Kyle Shannahan being a better fit for the future Hall of Fame quarterabck.
Tampa Bay coaching
Bruce Arians is a very successful head coach, but he’s neither a Hall of Famer nor is he the greatest coach of all time. Arians honestly comes across like a poor man’s Andy Reid: a player-first coach who schemes some great offenses but just doesn’t have what it takes to get over the hump as a head coach. Todd Bowles is an accomplished defensive coordinator but he is hardly the best defensive coordinator in the NFL.
New England coaching
The Patriots have an offensive coordinator with three rings to his name (at least in this position) and he also helped Tom Brady put up some ridiculous numbers against one of the league’s best defenses in a Super Bowl he lost.
Bill Belichick is the greatest coach of all time. Enough said.
Tampa Bay resources
Tampa Bay has $84.03 million in cap space per Spotrac. They are picking 14th overall in the draft.
New England resources
The Patriots have $19.52 million available after this weekend’s moves, according to Miguel Benzan. They are picking 23rd overall in the draft but lack a second-round selection. They do have two compensatory picks and an extra fourth rounder for a total of 12 selections — with four coming inside the top-100.
Projected 2020 performance
My contention for the Buccaneers is simple: they can realistically be as competitive as New England in 2020, but more importantly they have a much better chance of giving Brady a good offense to operate for twilight of his career.
In 2019, the Patriots held had an edge with their defense, quarterback, running game, offensive line, and coaching. The Buccaneers held a significant advantage at the skill positions. It’s not difficult to discern why the Patriots made the playoffs and why the Buccaneers did not. The Patriots were an overall superior team.
Going into 2020 both teams have important free agents but the Patriots have more talent in free agency and vastly fewer resources to replace them. The Buccaneers have the 16th overall draft capital compared to the Patriots 23rd overall. The Patriots have roughly $15 million in cap space to the Buccaneers’ $84 million.
As any Patriots fan knows smart football decisions cannot be based on past performances, they must be based on projected future results.
Let us therefore review which teams can expect to have the edge in 2020.
In terms of defense, the Patriots could still have the edge but the Buccaneers were only a few spots behind them in 2019. Both teams have equitable free agent losses on defense but unlike the Patriots, Tampa has the means to reload and even upgrade their talent. New England does not. Remember, Tampa was hamstrung by a quarterback who was a turnover machine, over 75% of Winston’s turnovers came on his own team’s side of the field. Furthermore, Todd Bowles is a good defensive coordinator. That’s how he won the position as a head coach in the first place. Between New England’s losses on defense, Tampa Bay’s potential gains, and exchanging Winston for Brady it is realistic that Tampa could have a better defense in 2020. I am still going to give the defensive edge to the Patriots, though, because of Bill Belichick and the proven players that remain on the roster but I expect they will eventually be close in the rankings.
The Buccaneers had a worse offensive line in 2019 but there is a very good chance they could put a comparable one around Brady in 2020. In fact, it’s reasonable they could field an even better offensive line than the one the Patriots may have this year. We are entering the best draft for tackles in years, after all. Tampa Bay has the ammunition to draft a new right tackle or the money to sign one. The team can also upgrade the interior offensive line. Imagine if Tampa drafts a right tackle at the top of the draft and then signs another interior lineman in free agency. Joe Thuney would make plenty of sense given that he has a proven relationship with Brady, the Buccaneers can afford him, and their above average left guard only converted to the left out of need. Right guard was his natural position and he could go back if they sign a new left guard. There is no reason to believe Tampa cannot field one of the better O-lines in the NFL next season.
In terms of the backfields, I think the Patriots will have the edge in 2020. Jones is more versatile than Michel but it’s hard to imagine the Buccaneers can find an equivalent to James White. It’s not impossible of course, late round running backs are the most common diamond in the rough in the NFL. There is also talk Tampa could draft a running back as early as the second round. I am still giving the edge to New England, though.
In terms of passing weapons there is no contest. The Buccaneers could upgrade but they could stand pat too. They have four slightly above average to elite weapons ready to go and they will vastly outstrip anything New England can put together for Brady unless the Patriots just get stupid lucky. They might but it’s just as likely Tampa gets stupid lucky with one of its own signings. You cannot include that variable when making these sort of projections.
The quarterback advantage will obviously go to Tampa Bay if Brady leaves.
Finally, we have coaching. There is zero doubt that the Patriots have a superior staff compared to Tampa Bay. They have multiple championship rings and Tampa Bay can’t even win their division. The experiential gap between the two franchises is enormous.
But as Bill Clinton would say, experience matters, but it doesn’t count for everything. Experience would tell us that Belichick’s defense would wipe the floor with Doug “Cheesecake Menu” Pederson. Instead he and back-up quarterback Nick Foles punched Belichick’s defense in the mouth, took his call sheet, peed on it, and live-streamed it to the entire country. Pederson’s pedigree in 2017 was far less than Arians’ is today but that did not stop him from humiliating the greatest coach of all time.
These other guys get paid to coach too. Tampa Bay already improved substantially under Arians in 2019. Is it fair to assume a drop-off between Tampa and New England? Heck yeah. But is it really going to be that steep of a difference on offense? I’m not convinced. Arians has been credited with getting the most out of a lot of successful quarterbacks from Peyton Manning, to Ben Roethlisberger, to late-career Carson Palmer. Josh McDaniels might be superior to Arians, but he’s not superior to Arians with the horses he could put around Brady.
Putting it all together
I am predicting that if Tampa Bay signs Brady they will put a superior offensive line in front of him compared to New England. They will absolutely put better weapons in front of him.
New England will offer a better running game, better defensive coordinator and head coach, while offering a slightly better defense, and better offensive coaching.
That analysis seems to favor New England, but we have a bit more work to do. It’s not just a question of better — it’s a question of how much better and which things being better Brady will value the most.
The offensive coordinator is only going to be slightly better in New England. There is not a substantial difference between McDaniels and Arians. New England will also have a better running game but I don’t think that will be a substantial difference either. The Buccaneers might field slightly superior offensive line Brady. It’s possible they put a markedly better one in front of him, but that’s far from certain. Tampa Bay will also put utterly superior weapons on his plate.
New England will put a better defense together for Brady but there will not be a substantial difference with Tampa’s in terms of personnel. There will be a substantial difference in terms of the head coach and defensive coordinator.
In this projection Brady will have to choose between a slightly better offensive line and far superior weapons or having slightly better coordinator, slightly better defense, a better running game, and a markedly better defensive coordinator and head coach.
The ceiling for the Buccaneers will be higher. They have the money, the draft capital and the youth.
The floor for the Patriots will be higher. They have the veterans, the proven system, and better coaching.
So what does Brady care about the most? I’m sure he would prefer Tampa Bay had a stronger running game but I bet he is far more happy that he would get elite weapons to throw too. These would be the best receivers Brady has had since the days of Wes Welker and Randy Moss. Brady also wants to be protected, and I strongly believe Tampa could do as good or better job than New England in this area. Sure, Brady cares about coaching and the defense. He wants to win championships. He knows how important those things are. But if Brady has a choice between a very good chance of being seen as a top quarterback over the next two years versus struggling against the tide in New England it’s not hard to see why he would think long and hard about it — especially if he doesn’t think there is a really substantial difference in terms of championship odds.
Brady looked as miserable as I have ever seen him in his entire career in 2019. Putting everything on Bill Belichick’s defense to win games, being called over the hill, I guarantee that eats at Brady. It is one thing to win games in different ways. Shootouts in the AFC Championship Game and defensive grinds in the Super Bowl. That’s fine. Brady will do that all day. But getting carried by the defense week after week because your offensive cast sucks only to lose in the wild card? That burns.
I’m not saying Brady shouldn’t stay in New England. I hope he does. I’m not saying he will leave. What I am saying is that if Brady chooses Tampa Bay we should not think the choice was ridiculous. It’s not. It makes a lot of sense.