The talk of the 2020 NFL Free Agency period has been Tom Brady. Will he return to the Patriots for his 21st season in the league? Or, will he start a new journey elsewhere as a 43-year-old quarterback?
For many football fans, the main talking point has been what the Patriots will do at the quarterback position in 2020 if Brady leaves. Fans in Foxborough are left to debate whether the team will look externally towards veteran free agents, internally to a guy like Jarrett Stidham, or if they’d rather draft a young quarterback with their first-round pick in the 2020 NFL Draft.
While the quarterback position is arguably the most important position on the field, there are plenty of other things for the Patriots to consider this offseason if Brady decides to ship out of New England in search of greener pastures.
In all of the madness that will continue throughout March, many reporters and fans have lost sight of the team’s other needs, and what they’ll have to do to compete if Brady decides to leave.
So, where do you start when the greatest quarterback the league has ever seen is no longer under center for your offense? Of course, a coach or general manager will be thinking about the replacement. For Bill Belichick, though, the focus may turn to solidifying the defensive side of the equation.
The Patriots had the top defense in the NFL last season, sitting atop the rankings when it came to points per game allowed (14.1) and total yards allowed (275.9), and finishing second in passing yards allowed (180.9) and sixth in rushing yards (95.5) allowed.
They rounded out the year with a 12-4 record and the third seed in the AFC playoff picture, even with an offense that was limited throughout the year as Brady dealt with a revolving door of receivers.
So, when defense was your strong suit for an entire season in 2019, and the reasoning behind a Super Bowl victory against the Rams in February of 2019, it seems like the smart move to make sure that defensive core sticks around.
Unfortunately for the Patriots, a lot of their top defensive players are able to test the free agency waters in 2020, with safety Devin McCourty and linebacker Kyle Van Noy headlining the Patriots free agent class. Other big defensive names include linebackers Jamie Collins and Elandon Roberts, and defensive lineman Adam Butler, but they benefit from already picking up the team option for McCourty’s brother, Jason.
If Brady leaves, the money that could go towards his deal could easily be thrown at veteran defensive cornerstones like McCourty and Van Noy, and potentially Collins depending on his market after a bounce-back year in 2019.
Outside of that, Belichick’s defensive mind may be able to make do with rookies and younger players with a summer full of coaching, unless he wants to keep Roberts around for another year of experimenting at fullback.
Also on the defensive end, given the team’s positioning in the first round of the 2020 NFL Draft, the Patriots could be in the market for a safety for either outcome of McCourty’s free agency. If McCourty stays, it gives the team a few years to learn from one of the league’s top talents at the position. If he leaves, it gives the team a replacement to try and groom over the summer to fill a massive defensive void. LSU’s Grant Delpit would be the obvious target if they go this route, given their position in the draft order.
Offensively, things get a little tricky. Given how up in the air Brady’s situation is as of March 5, it’s tough to figure out the Patriots’ process before the receiver leaves. If they feel they need to go all out on multiple receivers (like Emmanuel Sanders or Amari Cooper) to lure Brady back, but the plan doesn’t work, they may be stuck and not be able to make as many moves defensively.
But, if they decide early on that Brady’s price isn’t worth the payoff and they want to spend their money elsewhere, there are plenty of opportunities to inquire about.
As of February 4, the team had $45,565,319 in cap space, according to OvertheCap.com, which was the 17th-highest total in the league at that point. With no Brady deal in this scenario, and plenty of deals made for the team’s defensive free agents, there’s likely still plenty of money to go around for some pivotal offensive pieces.
With a lot of veteran quarterbacks available in free agency, the smart move would be to pick up a player like Teddy Bridgewater, Ryan Tannehill or Marcus Mariota, and seeing if any of the three could perform at a high level in Belichick’s system. Plus, it’d allow for some more breathing room for Stidham, rather than throwing him into the fire in his second year.
Then, the team could likely bring back free agent receiver Phillip Dorsett on a cheap contract, and could try to add one more veteran receiver like Sanders or Cooper to put on the opposite side of Edelman in the team’s offense.
The other tricky piece of the puzzle comes at tight end. Brady had no real targets to work with at the position in 2019, with tight ends only tallying 37 total catches for the team during the regular season. That’s just under 10 percent of the team’s 378 completions throughout the year.
Multiple teams may be looking to unload tight ends in the 2020 offseason, like the Giants with Evan Engram and the Buccaneers with O.J. Howard. Add in the potential for players like former Falcons tight end Austin Hooper, Ravens tight end Hayden Hurst, or Hunter Henry (who will likely be franchise tagged by the Chargers), and it could be an interesting period as the Patriots look to improve offensively.
For prediction’s sake, the best moves would likely be signing Bridgewater for a quarterback addition, bringing back Dorsett and signing Sanders for some receiving talent, a trade with the Ravens for Hurst, and rounding everything out by re-signing the Patriots’ other offensive free agents, like Joe Thuney, Ted Karras and Matthew Slater.
In any scenario, the Patriots are going to be busy in the 2020 offseason. It’ll either be making moves on offense to bring Brady back, or getting on the phone to recover from the loss. In the end, it’s about finding the right fit on both sides of the ball, keeping the core together where you can, and working to keep the Patriots dynasty intact into a new decade.