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Ranking 12 potential destinations for Tom Brady

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NFL: JAN 04 AFC Wild Card - Titans at Patriots Photo by Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

They say Tom Brady is going to be a free agent. The media says it, the New England Patriots say it, and Brady says it. Okay, his contract says it too. Brady’s deal is going to expire, therefore he needs a new one or he needs to retire at age 42 and 195 days. Brady’s so aware of this fact that he knows he can exploit his near-1 million twitter followers with messages like this one...

That then become ads for Hulu. And that does a nice job of summing up how I feel about Tom Brady’s “impending free agency.” Quotes intended.

They say that Philip Rivers is going to be a free agent. They mean it.

In the other corner of the country, Rivers and the LA Chargers have been much more clear in their announcement of a separation. While a reunion after testing free agency has not officially been ruled out, that doesn’t seem to be the best fit for either party and I think we can safely say that the Chargers are looking for a new quarterback.

Some say that quarterback should be Brady.

About that.

I wanted to take the time to break down all of Brady’s options for myself and then decide where LA fits in there. I had to start with the option that made the most sense, even if it carries the least amount of excitement and change around the league. I then laid out the least-to-most likely secondary, thirdary, fourthary, and so on options. (Thirdary sounds like it would be a good name for an ultra-wealthy baby. Thirdary Howell De Vanderbilt III.)

What do I think Brady’s priorities are in his search:

  • What’s best for his family
  • His best odds of winning another Super Bowl before retiring
  • Coaching that he respects as much as the coaching he’s had for the last 20 years
  • A strong offensive line
  • Reliable weapons

New England may rank #1 out of 32 in all three of his top three priorities. They’re not doing bad in category four and they have a clear objective to improve category five. That’s why I start with them, then count down the remaining 11, including the Chargers.

New England Patriots

My most likely destination for Brady because it’s a staycation. I don’t buy that Brady wants money. I don’t buy that he feels the need to prove something without Bill Belichick. Doesn’t that mean that Brady would have to actually choose to play for a lesser coach? How does that make sense? If he goes and tries to win a title with Matt Nagy, does that mean that Brady thinks Nagy is going to be more of a challenge for him to win a Super Bowl? Why would he want additional challenges at age 43?

So I don’t think Brady has any motivation to “prove” anything without Belichick. If they stick together and win the Super Bowl next season, nobody’s going to laugh off their SEVENTH CHAMPIONSHIP together and worry about who was responsible for what. Seven championships. That’s what Brady would be going for with Belichick and it’s the place that gives him the absolute best shot to get back there.

This isn’t commentary on New England’s overall strength, only that there isn’t a more favorable division in the NFL and we all know it. You could argue for the Bills and Jets as playoff teams, maybe even Miami, but every other division in the NFL has at least one team that’s a threat to win the championship next season. Brady’s goal in choosing a destination isn’t money, it isn’t proving something, and it isn’t even about getting more wins. He’s been getting plenty of those over the last 20 years. His goal is ring seven. Unless Belichick believes that Brady held them back last season because of his age and does not give Belichick the best opportunity to win, then I expect Brady to return.

That’s possible. And I even expect Belichick to be excited to test out this crop of free agent quarterbacks, and to be involved in those types of negotiations for literally the first time in his Patriots career. He inherited Drew Bledsoe, extended him to a record contract, then started the Brady era barely into his second year. We know that Tom Brady was willing to take a massive paycut to win Super Bowls, so what will Belichick learn of every other QB out there? Maybe he finds that after six Super Bowl wins and nine appearances, any QB will be willing to take the New England paycut. And this is going to be the best crop of free agent QBs and trade block QBs ever. Ever.

And Bill Belichick is involved. Are you kidding? This is like the biggest boxing match of your life. We all remember those small handful of times that boxing pierced through the mainstream in the last 30 or 40 years. The modern day equivalent being UFC. For me, this is Tyson (Belichick) vs Holyfield (The most interesting QB market in history).

What could he get Rivers to agree to?

If Jameis Winston can agree to get lasers in his eyes to help his game, what’s he willing to agree to in order to get Belichick to make him the highest-paid QB in the NFL...in two years?

Pound your fist on the table and demand to be traded to New England, if you’re really desperate for a shot at a championship. That being said, I still expect Brady to be Belichick’s first option. There’s nothing that Belichick has to teach Brady. And there’s going to be a lot of moving parts in trying to fix this offense for next season, including needed upgrades at receiver. Brady’s old for a QB? Belichick’s old for a coach! He’s not here to start a new dynasty, as far as I can imagine.

Brady wasn’t his usual self but there were a number of problems on that offense. They won 12 games. Why haven’t they just agreed to something already then? There’s plenty of time for that — about a month — and because of the way Brady’s contract is written, it makes it likely that he won’t actually test free agency. Per Mike Reiss at ESPN:

If Brady is committed to visiting other teams, which can happen only once the 2020 league year begins, it puts the Patriots in a tough financial spot and decreases the likelihood of his return. That would mean the Patriots would have to absorb a $13.5 million cap charge regardless.

So taking that $13.5 million hit, and then signing Brady to a different deal that would add more charges to the cap, would not be a favorable scenario for the Patriots.

Some view Brady’s decision to put a provision in his last contract not to be franchise-tagged as an indication he’d like to visit other teams. Others view it as a vehicle for him to create leverage/urgency in discussions with the Patriots, something he didn’t have on his side in the past two negotiations.

One other key point as it relates to free-agent visits: Brady’s agents can negotiate with other teams in the legal tampering period, which begins on March 16 at 4 p.m. ET. So Brady can still get a sense of the free-agent market for 48 hours before the 2020 league year begins without taking an official visit with another club.

Expect this to go up to the final hour ... and then the Patriots and Brady announce a new two-year deal, which Brady can opt out of in 2021. That’s my prediction.

That being said, I’m going to repeat myself: I am picking the Patriots. That is my pick. The next 11 teams listed are just me organizing other options in my brain and now on the internet. So if you read it and go, “Oh brother, the Panthers?! C’mon, man! Clickbait!” realize that I am not picking Carolina. I am not picking any of these teams. And therefore, it requires a little bit of stretchy dot-connecting in many cases. There are a few decent candidates to woo Brady away from New England, and I’m evaluating all my cursory options, but I am still picking the Patriots for Brady.

I’ll now go least likely to most likely after New England:

12. Carolina Panthers

Going to be some Cam Newton rumors and I wouldn’t disagree if they made a move at that position, but I don’t think they’ll rock the boat. Cam is a valuable commodity beyond the field, I don’t think they’ll end the relationship on this note.

11. Tennessee Titans

This is probably considered to be low by many because the Titans were good last year and seemed to be trending upwards. Ryan Tannehill is a free agent, there’s an obvious opportunity there to reunite Brady with former teammate Mike Vrabel and former New England defensive coordinator Dean Pees, plus others he’s familiar with. However, I do not expect Tannehill to go anywhere, even if I don’t expect him to repeat as the NFL leader in Y/A and passer rating.

But if you do like overreactions to any little report in order to build a bigger story that is very unlikely, here you go:

10. Dallas Cowboys

You can make the rumors go about maybe not re-signing Dak Prescott or franchise tagging and trading him, but why do people not like Dak? He’s great. He just had a great season.

The only way I could see this as a potentially brilliant move is if they had a revolutionary idea to avoid the $140 million QB deals — as no team has with “franchise QBs” at this level, though $140 million is just the most recent number — with a QB and to invest that at other positions. We’ve seen the value of a rookie contract QB (Patrick Mahomes, Carson Wentz, Jared Goff, Russell Wilson, Cam Newton) and if Brady agrees to a low number, then he provides similar value. It could be a bridge option: plan to start Brady for two years, give yourself two years to find his replacement. I kind of like the idea of a team finally doing this.

Could you tag Dak, trade him for two first round picks, sign Brady, and use one of those firsts on a QB? I mean....could you?! I am not trying to be a hot taker, but don’t teams need hot takes — like trading up 17 spots for Patrick Mahomes when you have a Pro Bowl QB — to move ahead of the competition sometimes? It could also be idiotic to trade Dak. He’s very good!

9. LA Rams

Theoretically they could make the money work if they found a way to trade Goff (saving $16 million) and Brady still agreed to a below-average starting salary. It gives him the LA market, a brand new $5 billion stadium, and puts him on a great team that might win the Super Bowl. But I don’t see all these blockbuster parts moving around and LA had one of the worst offensive lines in the NFL.

8. LA Chargers

If they wanted to, the Chargers could present a case centered around money, weapons on offense, a shiny new stadium experience, the LA market, and even potentially a wild card spot. Then there are many knocks against the idea of coming to play for the Chargers, specifically around the offensive line and question marks around coaching and the front office. But either way, I don’t think Brady is the direction the Chargers need to go in right now, nor do I think it is the direction they want to go in.

They’re parting with a veteran. They have many options to weigh on the free agent market, younger options. They have options in the draft. They can’t focus on getting to the Super Bowl until they focus on not only beating the Chiefs, but not falling behind the Raiders or Broncos. The only real logic here is “Los Angeles” and “star” but that’s not going to work for the Chargers like it has for the Lakers and the NBA. The NFL, as we’ve seen time and time again, has struggled to ground itself in Los Angeles.

Brady going to a 5-11 team, or a 5-11 team going after Brady, doesn’t make sense. (And yes, I expect and hope that the Chargers improve over five wins next season regardless.)

7. Chicago Bears

I would do this in a heartbeat if I could get rid of Mitchell Trubisky. I have the Bears winning the NFC North right now but any upgrade at QB could make that prediction look a lot stronger. I’m not sure Brady has that kind of confidence in Matt Nagy. I do think Chicago is in a position to present a case as a Super Bowl contender with a better QB, but you could argue that they’re not going to put Brady in the best position to succeed given how bad that offense was last season.

6. Denver Broncos

Eh, I kind of like where they’re at with Drew Lock, though John Elway might want to try and duplicate his success with Peyton Manning. Age is not a fear for Elway. He won a Super Bowl when he was old. Manning won him a Super Bowl when he was old. And the Broncos still have a very good defense and some pieces in place on offense, including Courtland Sutton. Sure, why not? It’s not my most likely destination obviously, but I think the Broncos will compete to win the AFC West. I imagine I could get raked for putting Denver this high when nobody has talked about Denver, but whatever. This list is not important! I’ll say it!

It’s fan fiction to help me draw a logical conclusion to all these Brady stories, which is that he probably winds up back in New England.

5. San Francisco 49ers

Again, if you could trade Jimmy Garoppolo — or in this case maybe just release him — it would make sense. Obviously Brady would be very interested in getting to play for the defending NFC champions. And he probably respects Kyle Shanahan as an offensive mind to give him success. I initially had the 49ers as less likely than this but upgraded them after writing through it. The big sticking point will be giving up on Garoppolo and basically repeating what Belichick did when he traded Garoppolo to you to begin with.

Get every Niners player and coach in a soundproof room, alone, with nobody in the world that will ever hear them, and ask them one question: “If you had been in that Super Bowl with Tom Brady, do you think you would have won?” How many of them do you think are saying “Yes”?

The 49ers save $22.5 million by releasing or trading Garoppolo, enough to sign Brady and maybe more. They would only have $4.2 million in dead money in 2020 — they paid Jerick McKinnon over $17 million in the last two years. What does John Lynch care about $4.2? The big question is whether they are ready to give up on a 29-year-old who has gone 19-5 for them so they can add a 43-year-old who probably isn’t a threat to their Super Bowl chances if he signs anywhere else? It will be the biggest risk of Lynch and Shanahan’s careers, if they let it be more than a passing thought. I doubt they will.

4. Las Vegas Raiders

The next three teams I’m covering here all went 7-9 last season, but had potential to do much more. The final two clearly had their biggest issues having to do with quarterback play, while the Raiders actually got a decent season out of Derek Carr. That being said, the NFL will not be able to sell Carr as a “travel-worthy QB” to come watch; they’re moving a team to Vegas and the biggest selling point is going to be making your Las Vegas trip scheduled around seeing your team or just watching the home team.

Which unfortunately for Vegas is the Raiders.

A home team with Carr is maybe 7-9 and has Derek Carr. A home team with Tom Brady could still be 7-9 but would draw a lot more national coverage. But given that LV would also have $67.7 million in cap space if they traded Carr (and let’s say $30 million of that goes to Brady, so $37.7 million remaining) they could sign a couple more big name free agents, draft a WR 12th overall (in one of the best classes of our lives), and put him behind what was an elite offensive line last season. Including his old buddy Trent Brown.

They also must compete with the AFC West, but maybe Jon Gruden is the best sell of any head coach in the division, if not the NFL, for Brady; I know that it has been a long time since Jon Gruden won the Super Bowl, but players don’t let take those things lightly.

There’s something to this idea. Perhaps none bigger than if Brady goes to the Raiders, the league itself helped push it through because they desperately want this transition to Vegas to work.

3. Indianapolis Colts

Indy has obvious arguments in their favor.

No team has more money to spend. They clearly had one major deficiency at QB, with Jacoby Brissett. They can unload him with little dead money too. They have a great offensive line and could probably convince Anthony Castonzo to say if he knows he gets to block for Brady. They have a 2020 Defensive Player of the Year candidate in Darius Leonard. They have picks 13, 34, and 44 on day one and two of the draft. They play in a division with Bill O’Brien, Doug Marrone, and Vrabel as head coaches, and I think most are expecting the Titans to take a step back. It’s the AFC South, there’s been virtually no stability since Peyton Manning left it, as teams rotate around the top. Frank Reich is a Super Bowl-winning offensive coordinator and he was with the Manning and the Colts when they won the Super Bowl in ‘06 and returned in ‘09. Reich and Nick Sirianni got as much as they could out of Andrew Luck and Brissett in their respective seasons.

If Brady really tests the market, the Colts provide all answers he’d be looking for probably. But can they top the Patriots? Other than the excitement of seeing Tom Brady switch teams, do you believe that the Colts give him a better chance to win the Super Bowl than the Patriots? Maybe! But I think one team went 7-9 and the other went 12-4 and I don’t think Brady is the five-win difference there.

2. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

For Tampa Bay, Brady actually might be a five-win difference. Compared to the 30 interceptions of Jameis Winston, I think you could easily argue that having Brady in there wins them games vs the Giants (one-point loss), Titans (four points), Seahawks (OT), Texans (three points), and Falcons (OT).

I’m kind of taking a big shot here with the Bucs, but I think they could be on the precipice of winning the NFC South for the first time since 2007 when they had Gruden. The Panthers and Falcons do not excite me. The Saints could be due for a fall. The Bucs have two number one receivers and a really good receiving tight end. They have a ton of money to spend, which I believe will be used to re-sign 2019 Defensive Player of the Year candidate Shaquil Barrett. They pick 14th and don’t have as strong of a draft position as Indy, but maybe they just use that to trade for a player if they want to win during this particular window. More than anything, I think Bruce Arians gets so much respect around the NFL; he was Peyton Manning’s first QB coach; he was the offensive coordinator the last time the Browns went to the playoffs; he went to the Super Bowl three times with the Steelers, winning twice; he was perhaps the real reason the Colts went to the playoffs in 2012; he’s the most successful head coach in Arizona Cardinals history.

Tom Brady has only ever played for Belichick, do we know he’s ready to play for Reich? Or Anthony Lynn? Or even Mike McCarthy? There’s a certain level to Gruden and Arians and Arians also provides Mike Evans and Chris Godwin.

I expect Brady to re-sign with the Patriots but if a team makes him an offer he can’t refuse, I think Arians is the most likely to be the one to give it to him.

The Chargers would have to climb over a lot of other teams to have the strongest selling point and to the many of you who don’t want them to make a case to Brady at all: I don’t think you have to worry. They probably won’t, unless it’s in that 48-hour window, and even then it’s probably just due diligence.

They say Tom Brady is going to be a free agent. I say otherwise.