Tom Brady has been a New England Patriot for the past 20 years. He may not stick around for a 21st.
The two-time MVP and six-time Super Bowl champion is set to hit free agency for the first time in his career. That means he could be the most sought-after player in the league, even if the Patriots are willing to throw upwards of $30 million annually to keep him in Foxborough.
If 2019 is any indication, 2020 Brady will be a slightly above-average passer who mostly avoids risks, beats the teams he’s supposed to, and wins games with a heavy assist from his defense. There’s a chance that could change with a better supporting cast. There’s a similar chance that, at age 43, his inevitable decline is finally upon him.
He’s made it clear there’s gas left in his tank, though. And it’s possible he spends 2020 somewhere other than New England. The Raiders are reportedly planning a dogged pursuit, and they may not even be a top-seven destination for his services.
So which teams could provide the softest landing spot? Let’s look at the early standouts, broken down by best fits for Touchdown Tom.
The best fit for Brady’s passing game (and Chris Ballard’s revenge): Indianapolis Colts
It’s not a perfect fit, but it makes some sense.
The Colts could give Brady an offensive line Pro Football Focus ranked third-best in the NFL. Jack Doyle won’t be confused for Rob Gronkowski, but he’s a Pro Bowl tight end with a 73.4 career catch percentage. Nyheim Hines, electric as a punt returner, has 107 catches in his two seasons as a situational back. When Brady looks to air it out, he’ll have T.Y. Hilton as his top option.
This would all be a delightful turn of events for Indianapolis general manager Chris Ballard. Back in February 2018, Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels agreed to become head coach of the Colts. But before he could sign that deal — and, famously, after the Colts had tweeted it out — McDaniels reneged on his agreement and decided to keep his old job in New England.
Convincing Brady to finish out his career wearing Peyton Manning’s old shoulder stripes would be a pretty good heckle on New England. It’s not completely out of the realm of possibility, either.
Indianapolis may be in the market for a quarterback. Jacoby Brissett struggled late in the season after suffering a knee injury in Week 8. That turned a 5-2 start into a 7-9 finish and a spot outside the playoffs.
Bringing Brady to the AFC South would also unite him with his former backups in Brissett and Brian Hoyer. The Colts have a limited receiving corps, but also have more than $86 million in salary cap space to spend this offseason. They could throw money at A.J. Green to join Hilton in an all-initials receiving corps or use their solid draft position to take a crack at one of the deepest influxes of wideout talent in years.
If Ballard wants to make Brady a priority, there’s a lot he could offer.
Chance it happens: 1/10
Indianapolis Colts QB Brady seems like the fastest way to piss off two different fanbases. It also sounds like a credible threat to force the Patriots into investing heavily in their veteran quarterback and his wide receivers and tight ends this spring.
The best team that can give him big-play wideouts: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Brady still wants to throw deep balls. The question is, should he? He’s only completed 37 percent of passes of at least 20+ yards over the last three seasons. While some of those incompletions can be explained away by an underwhelming receiving corps, the truth is that Brady misses a lot of deep throws.
He probably wouldn’t have anyone like Randy Moss or Gronkowski if he returned to the Patriots, but there’s one QB-needy team that can bolster him with a top wideout tandem. The Buccaneers are currently in the market for a quarterback with Jameis Winston set to hit free agency. A move to Tampa would pair Brady with field stretcher Mike Evans and budding star Chris Godwin, whose 1,333 receiving yards were third-most in the NFL in 2019.
These dynamos could help fill in the gap between any waning accuracy and Brady’s traditionally solid numbers. Instead of putting a ball in a tight window for Gronkowski to innately snatch, he could turn to the 6’5 Evans, who is similarly masterful at using his size and length to shield the ball from defensive backs. If he needs a sure-handed target at the sticks on third down, he’d have Godwin, who dropped just one of the 88 catchable passes thrown his way.
The Buccaneers operate behind an explosive passing game and a head coach (Bruce Arians) known for getting the most out of his quarterbacks. Brady would provide Tampa Bay with a prolific, if diminished, passer who can show what the Bucs are capable of behind a quarterback who doesn’t turn the ball over twice per game.
Chance it happens: 2/10
Brady would get two good receivers and a coach who could help restore his brilliance in Tampa. He’d also have a defense that ranked 29th in points allowed thanks to an awful turnover differential but fifth in Football Outsiders’ defensive efficiency metric. Factor in nearly $85 million in cap space this offseason and there’s a lot to like from Brady’s vantage point. As far as suitors go, though, the Bucs may not measure up.
The best team to offer him something he truly hasn’t had: Carolina Panthers
David Tepper assumed ownership of the Panthers in 2018 and oversaw a quiet transition … until 2019. That’s when he fired longtime head coach Ron Rivera, released veteran tight end Greg Olsen, and threw oodles of money at college sideline standouts Matt Rhule and Joe Brady.
Tepper’s next splash could be to hire a man whose work he knows well. As a native of Pittsburgh and former minority owner of the Steelers, Tepper’s seen the Patriots end his hometown team’s postseason hopes in the AFC title game three separate times. Transplanting Brady from New England to Carolina would be his biggest move yet.
The main factor that could swing Brady south — besides a big chunk of cash made possible by the $20 million in salary cap savings the Panthers would gain by releasing Cam Newton — would be Christian McCaffrey. The All-Pro runner/receiver would be the most complete tailback Brady’s ever played with in his 20+ years in the NFL.
McCaffrey is James White and an upgraded rookie-year Sony Michel all in one. Having him on the field for all three downs would create a new level of flexibility to the QB’s playbook, and his play-action passing would branch out into more options than ever before.
Chance it happens: 2/10
The Panthers’ offensive line and its 8.4 percent sack rate aren’t exactly conducive to a 43-year-old quarterback. Carolina would have to make other upgrades to make Charlotte one of Brady’s preferred destinations.
The best place to take one more swipe at Philip Rivers’ legacy: Los Angeles Chargers
Brady could take the reins for a team just one year removed from a 12-win season. He’d have one of the league’s top receiving backs should the club retain restricted free agent Austin Ekeler, as well as a dynamite deep threat in Keenan Allen. The Chargers could also use the franchise tag to keep tight end Hunter Henry in town to be Gronk Lite for the quadragenarian QB. While Los Angeles’ offensive line hasn’t earned much hype, it allowed Rivers — a player roughly as mobile as Brady — to be sacked on just 5.4 percent of his dropbacks in 2019.
A move across the AFC wouldn’t just give the Chargers a headliner to open their new, shared stadium in LA. It would also bring Brady back to his California roots. He grew up in San Mateo, some 360 miles north of Los Angeles, but Hollywood could make a lot of sense for the world’s most recognizable football player, his supermodel wife, and the children he threw into a Facebook reality show in 2018.
Actually, you know what? Hold that thought.
Chance it happens: 3/10
This feels less dirty than seeing Brady in a Colts helmet, but the Chargers’ limited defense and recent failures could be a problem.
The best hometown option: San Francisco 49ers
If general manager John Lynch thinks he’s seen the best of Jimmy Garoppolo already, he can trade away his quarterback while eating just $4.2 million in dead cap space this offseason. That would clear more than $22 million in room to bring Brady to the franchise he grew up cheering for. Want to get weird? THIS would be weird.
And probably pretty stupid from the Niners.
Chance it happens: 0.25/10
Garoppolo was 10 minutes away from a Super Bowl MVP. Brady is no guaranteed upgrade at age 43. This would be one hell of a swing from Lynch, who has mostly made the right moves after graduating to the Niners’ front office in 2017. There’s almost no way this happens, but dear god, imagine if it did.
The best fit because, come on, what are we even doing here?: New England Patriots
The storybook ending is for Bill Belichick and Brady to go out together, holding ring-clad hands (metaphorically) and turning into the sunset. That’s always been the plan.
If New England is willing to pay, free agency should just be a formality for Brady — a brief Rumspringa before returning to his hardworking, strawberry-free roots. Here’s what the Patriots can offer him:
- his best shot at winning a Super Bowl in 2021
- the best head coach in the game
- an offensive line that’s allowed him to be sacked only 49 times the past two seasons (36 games, including the playoffs) — and one that should get center David Andrews back in the lineup after missing all of 2019 due to blood clots
- the league’s top defense, even if several key pieces (Kyle Van Noy, Devin McCourty, etc.) are set to be free agents
- the chance to finish out his career having played for only one NFL franchise.
Re-signing Brady may make it difficult to carve out the room needed to get receiver and tight end help, but that group could be improved with the growth of 2019 first-round pick N’Keal Harry and midseason addition Mohamed Sanu’s increased familiarity with the Patriot offense. Even if there are still plenty of questions to answer in New England, there’s a lot the Pats have going for them that other teams do not.
Chance it happens: 8/10
There’s only one place Brady belongs, and it’s in the warm, Twisted Tea-smelling bosom of screaming Boston fans.