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Patriots free agency outlook: New England’s quarterback position hinges entirely on Tom Brady

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Dallas Cowboys v New England Patriots Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

The New England Patriots’ 2019 season came to a premature end when the team was eliminated in the wild card round of the playoffs. In order to return to the top of the NFL mountain, the organization will therefore have to turn the page and build a competitive roster to get back into a position again to compete for the Vince Lombardi Trophy. A big part of building that roster is successfully maneuvering through free agency.

If judged by the list of free agents to be, New England’s front office will be busy over the next few days before the new league year and free agency are officially kicked off on March 18. Also over the next few days, we will take a look at each individual position on the Patriots’ current roster to find out which players are headed for the open market, whether or not they should be expected back, and who might be brought in from the outside.

Today, we’ll kick off the series with the quarterback position and the most successful passer in league history.

Current position group

Under contract: Jarrett Stidham, Cody Kessler

Free agents: Tom Brady (UFA)

Free agency profile: Tom Brady

Opening day age: 43

2019 salary cap hit: $21.5 million

2019 statistics: 17 games; 650 passing attempts, 393 completions (60.5%), 4,266 passing yards, 24 passing touchdown, 9 interceptions; 26 rushing attempts, 34 rushing yards, 3 rushing touchdowns

Experience: Brady joined the Patriots as a sixth-round draft pick in 2000 and has since developed into the greatest quarterback the league has ever seen. A six-time Super Bowl winner and future first-ballot Hall of Famer, Brady is entering free agency for the first time while coming off one of the statistically worst seasons of his career. That being said, his supporting cast was not up to par for much of 2019 due to a mix of inexperience and injury in combination with considerable issues both on and off the field.

Contract status: Brady’s contract is set to void on March 18. He will have a $13.5 million dead salary cap hit in 2020 if not re-signed at that point, a number that would be brought down to $6.75 million in both 2020 and 2021 if a new deal is reached before free agency begins.

11 days before the start of the NFL’s legal tampering period, there has been little movement on the Brady front. While the two sides have reportedly been in touch already — even though the tenor of reported conversations is very much disputed at this point in time — any concrete negotiations have not yet taken place. The unresolved labor situation between the NFL and the NFLPA plays a part in this, though, and could alter the picture if resolved.

What we do know is that the Patriots cannot use the franchise tag to keep Brady from the open market: the two sides negotiated this into the contract when it was re-worked last summer. This, in turn, gives the 42-year-old quarterback considerable flexibility and also generates a much more natural market for him since teams do not automatically think that New England will tag him anyway in order to keep him for at least one more year.

That being said, the Patriots still have exclusive negotiation rights until the NFL’s so-called legal tampering window opens on March 16. Whether they are able to re-sign Brady before that happens is a different story, but from the team’s perspective letting him go — or even test the market — would be risky business: not only is the team facing a scenario in which the quarterback depth chart consists of Jarrett Stidham and Cody Kessler, it would also have to swallow Brady’s full $13.5 million signing bonus proration.

Outside free agents

Drew Brees, New Orleans Saints (UFA): Next to Brady, the Saints’ long-time quarterback is the biggest passer to enter unrestricted free agency this year. However, Brees has already stated that he would return to New Orleans for at least another year. No deal has been negotiated just yet — presumably also because of the lack of a new CBA — but it seems only like a matter of when not if.

Teddy Bridgewater, New Orleans Saints (UFA): With Brees staying put, Teddy Bridgewater becomes an intriguing addition to the open market. A former first-round draft pick that struggled with injury early on in his career, the 27-year-old has looked good filling in for Brees in the past. He will likely get a shot at a starting position somewhere, and leave the Saints as a result.

Case Keenum, Washington Redskins (UFA): Keenum has spent time with five different teams since joining the NFL as an undrafted rookie in 2012. He had his heights — like when he led the Minnesota Vikings to the NFC Championship Game in 2017 — but has not proven himself capable of finding sustained success in the league. The 32-year-old is a depth option with starter experience at best.

Marcus Mariota, Tennessee Titans (UFA): The former first-round draft pick lost his starting position in Tennessee during the 2019 season and is therefore expected to leave the team later this month. Where he lands is anyone’s guess at this point in time, but he has the physical skill set plus the experience to turn into a serviceable starting quarterback.

Philip Rivers, Los Angeles Chargers (UFA): After 16 seasons with the Chargers, the team and its long time franchise quarterback have decided to part ways this offseason. Rivers will not hit the market until March 18, but he projects to be a sought-after option in case the bigger-name veterans — Brady and Brees — stay put. At 38 years and coming off a disappointing 2019 campaign, however, he is no long-term solution for any team.

Ryan Tannehill, Tennessee Titans (UFA): There is a chance that the Titans put the franchise tag on Tannehill before the March 12 deadline. If they do that, two things seem certain: 1.) Tannehill will stay in Tennessee for at least another year; 2.) The Titans are no longer in the race for a quarterback like Tom Brady. An argument can be made for keeping the 31-year-old after he played a solid season for the Titans in 2019, but he is no lock to return.

Jameis Winston, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (UFA): Coming off a season in which he threw 33 touchdown passes and 30 interceptions, Winston has the physical tools to develop into a high-end starter but has lacked consistency in his first five years while making head-scratching plays on a nearly weekly basis. His raw athletic talent cannot be denied, though.

Verdict

The Patriots and Tom Brady are facing a big decision this offseason: whether or not to keep the most successful stretch in NFL history alive. The best-case scenario for both parties appears to be a continuation of their relationship, though. From the team’s perspective, no better options are available — either in-house, or through the draft or free agency — while bringing the 42-year-old back into the fold before March 18 essentially saves $6.75 million against the cap. From Brady’s perspective, New England and its offense under coordinator Josh McDaniels still gives him the best chance to add to his already legendary résumé.

The situation is not as black-and-white, however, and further talks between the two parties will create a clearer picture as free agency nears. If Brady does leave New England after 20 years, the Patriots’ best course of action appears to be handing the keys over to second-year man Jarrett Stidham while simultaneously adding a veteran backup such as Case Keenum or current Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton — if the price is right (i.e. low), that is.

At this point in time and despite some recent reports leaning in another direction, however, it seems reasonable to think that the Patriots are still the front-runners for Brady’s services. Either way, the biggest story in football will see some more chapters added between now and the start of the legal tampering period on March 16. And whatever the final one will be, it will have an enormous impact on New England’s 2020 season — both from a financial perspective, and in terms of building an offensive unit around whoever the quarterback will be.