While the rest of the American sportscape has shuttered in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the National Football League has planned to proceed with its offseason schedule, with Monday marking a milestone date on the 2020 team-building calendar.
As of noon, clubs are allowed 52 hours to contact and negotiate with free agents from other teams in advance of the official start to the league’s new year, which comes at 4 p.m. Wednesday. That’s especially significant in New England because it means that for the first time in a pro career that’ll turn 20 next month, Tom Brady can discuss contract terms with a team other than the Patriots — but the status of their iconic quarterback is not the sole focus for the Pats, who have plenty of other business to do, as well.
Perhaps with the pressure of those deadlines looming, there was activity this weekend in both Foxborough and beyond that brought clarity to some situations and simultaneously furthered the uncertainty in others. Most notable among the former were the Pats’ striking of deals with special teams ace Matthew Slater and safety Devin McCourty, a couple of tenured veterans who are critical pieces of the leadership structure on top of each turning in an excellent 2019 season.
But the uncertainty is where the intrigue lies, and why Brady has been the talk of the league for the past couple months, so in New England the most stunning football-related news of the weekend had to be the Titans’ decision to re-sign Ryan Tannehill on Sunday. Tennessee gave him a four-year deal worth $118 million, $91 million of it guaranteed, and in its quest to take the next step as a true contender committed itself to the one-time Pro Bowler.
Nashville looked like a prime landing spot for Brady, considering he’s friendly with coach Mike Vrabel, it’s a tough and talented team that looks poised to win now, and the franchise clearly had the requirement and resources to make a big signing at his position. But instead they went with Tannehill, who was excellent for them last season, even as he took a somewhat-reduced lead during a playoff run that ended in the AFC championship.
Maybe most curious for Pats fans are the terms of the deal. The number that’s been tossed around most frequently for Brady has been $30 million a season, yet before they could even legally consider the GOAT, they gave Tannehill $29.5 million. Yes, Tannehill is 11 years younger than Brady, but with the guarantee structure the Titans are really only committed to Tannehill for one year’s compensation longer than they would’ve been by giving Brady a two-year deal.
That could suggest that the Titans, and Vrabel, weren’t convinced Brady was a better fit than Tannehill if the money was a wash. That would be a damning indictment of Brady’s market value.
Or, it could suggest that the Titans had acquired a sense that the market for Brady will be so competitive that his compensation will blow past the $30 million mark, and Tannehill will soon come out looking like a relative bargain.
Either way, Tannehill’s signing seems like a good development for those in Patriots circles who want Brady to return. If his market is limited, maybe he will be more willing to consider a one-year offer that pays him around the $23 million he made last season. And if the Titans are out, and the 49ers are supposedly also out, maybe Brady looks at the remaining options and wonders whether or not the additional dollars and a second guaranteed year are worth what he’d need to put up with in changing addresses.
Tampa Bay may come at him with big money and a great receiver (in Mike Evans), but does he want to go to a franchise that hasn’t even made the playoffs in 12 years? The Raiders or Chargers may come calling, but the AFC West figures to be Patrick Mahomes’s division for the next couple years. The Dolphins have a familiar coach, money aplenty, and a boatload of draft picks — but three first-round picks probably doesn’t appeal much to Brady unless those are flipped for the types of veterans he feels he can trust. (And is that in Miami’s best long-term interest?)
Perhaps there’s another team that’s in the mix and could make a play, but if the Patriots had interest in cutting a deal with Brady before 4 p.m. Wednesday, the Tannehill deal would seem to give them sudden leverage. If Brady explores the market and is underwhelmed, and without the most-appealing option available to him in Tennessee, maybe the Pats swoop in to take advantage and save themselves $6.75 million in salary cap space while settling things at the game’s most important position.
The other big news of the weekend was the NFL Players’ Association’s approval of a new collective bargaining agreement, which reportedly adds about $10 million to the salary cap available to each team and allows some cap forgiveness for players re-upping with their own vested veterans. McCourty and Slater would appear to qualify, so New England may have more money available than they could’ve previously planned on.
And they’ll need it. Beyond the quarterback, the Patriots also need to fill a number of holes that could turn into major liabilities if left gaping. Because this is the linebacker’s big chance to cash in coming off a strong season, the Pats are probably working under the assumption that Kyle Van Noy is gone, and they’ll need to replace the guy who was arguably the MVP of Super Bowl LIII and followed it up with a star turn in 2019.
Fellow linebacker Jamie Collins is also a free agent, and although he may not be as consistent as Van Noy, it’s important that New England doesn’t let both those playmakers escape. The decision to place a second-round tender on defensive lineman Adam Butler was a good one, and making efforts to bring back role pieces Elandon Roberts and Danny Shelton would be similarly wise at the right price. Retaining McCourty (and his cornerbacking brother Jason) should help settle the secondary, though the safeties are a particularly aging group, and may need reinforcement.
The defense again figures to be New England’s stronger side this coming season, so don’t be surprised if Belichick acknowledges that by continuing to beef up in those areas. But the offense has needs, too, a big one of which was filled when New England used the franchise tag on Joe Thuney Monday. Ted Karras could be gone after starting 15 games at center this past season.
Part of the new CBA included expanding game-day rosters from 46 to 48, at least one of which must be an additional offensive lineman, so expect the Pats to bring in bodies that pile depth at those positions, anyway. The question is whether they’re willing to commit the money it would take to add higher-end talent, or if they’ll instead pledge that money to acquiring a legitimate difference maker at tight end.
They lacked someone anywhere near resembling that last season, in the wake of Rob Gronkowski’s retirement, and it showed. Look around. The game has evolved. A tight end is more a necessity than a luxury these days. Ex-Falcon Austin Hooper would be the choice, but he’ll be pricey. Eric Ebron might be another option, or perhaps the Pats could fill that void in a trade.
Of course, in the grand scheme, the construction of a football team is a trivial matter as we all deal with far more serious concerns and disruption. But the COVID-19 response could introduce another series of unknown into the NFL equation. Will teams limit travel and meetings with free agents? Will they hesitate to sign a player without seeing them in person? Will it take longer to complete or process physical exams?
Will players be more hesitant to change teams, and introduce further stress or uncertainty for their families? Will players and teams err on the side of familiarity because they aren’t sure when (or if) the off-season programs will take place. Will there be that valuable time to help bring newcomers up to speed? How much more of a crapshoot will the draft be based on all of these factors?
Again, these answers matter little in the big picture. But as the NFL trudges forward, and the Brady Watch moves into its final phase, the landscape remains defined by its uncertainty.