AFC East Q&A: How many more years for Tom Brady playing at elite level?

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- When ESPN's SportsCenter visited New England Patriots training camp in 2014, there was a humorous but telling exchange between Patriot-turned-analyst Tedy Bruschi and his former teammate, Tom Brady, on live television.

The topic was how much longer Brady could play at a high level.

Bruschi: “I’m giving him four [more seasons].”

Brady: “Four?”

Bruschi: “Four is realistic.”

Brady: “You’re out of your mind.”

Bruschi: “Oh yeah?”

Later in the show, Brady said, "I want to play for a long time. There’s nothing else I’d rather do. I make a commitment in the season and the offseason to do that. ... Hopefully I do it for a long time. Hopefully for longer than the four years over here that my buddy wants me to play.”

It was good stuff, real, and reflective of Brady's passion for playing the game.

As for how much longer he can do it, I operate with a simple rule on most things relating to Brady: Be wary of betting against him, because as we've learned since the day the Patriots made him the 199th overall pick of the 2000 draft, he has beaten the odds at every turn. If he thinks 44 is realistic, I'm on board (assuming, of course, there is no major injury).

As we look ahead, I'm reminded of what Patriots Hall of Famer Troy Brown said upon his retirement: "You can't outrun Father Time."

That's true, but the soon-to-be-39-year-old Brady is putting up a heck of a fight. And with that in mind, I turn it over to my AFC East colleagues James Walker (Dolphins), Rich Cimini (Jets) and Mike Rodak (Bills) for their thoughts on how much longer Brady can play at a high level.

James Walker, Miami Dolphins: An important thing Brady should be remembered for is his ability to stretch his prime longer than any other quarterback. There hasn’t been any noticeable drop-off in Brady’s play for the past dozen years, which is amazing. Brady, barring a serious injury, should play at least three more seasons at a high level. This year certainly won’t be an issue, especially with an expected four-game suspension that will shorten Brady’s regular season. But New England had better improve its pass protection -- fast -- if it wants five more quality years from Brady. His sack numbers increased from 21 in 2014 to a Ryan Tannehill-esque 38 last season, and we also saw Brady get lit up during the playoffs in a loss to the Denver Broncos. Brady won’t be under center for the Patriots into his mid-40s at that rate.

Rich Cimini, New York Jets: I was listening to the conference call last October when Brady, speaking to the New York media during the run-up to a Patriots-Jets game, said he’d like to play “maybe 10 more years.” I’ll be honest, I snickered. There’s no way he’ll be playing when he’s 48, but you know what? The idea of him playing into his 40s isn’t farfetched. He showed no signs of slippage last season at 38, and there’s every reason to believe he can remain at that level for another three years. Only three quarterbacks in their 40s have passed for 3,000 yards in a season -- Brett Favre, Warren Moon and Vinny Testaverde -- and I’d be surprised if Brady isn’t the fourth. Eventually, he’ll start to decline, and he’ll have to make a personal choice on how long he wants to push it.

Rodak: I can remember years ago in the Boston area there was talk about how Brady would make a great coach, or even a politician. More recently, Brady has spoken about how he wants to become an advocate for healthy eating, exercise and overall wellness. I've been fascinated with stories about Brady's strict diet and, in some cases, unusual conditioning and rehabilitation methods. I'm not an expert in how that compares historically with past NFL players, especially quarterbacks, but I would have to think that Brady has an edge over some of his predecessors. I've seen little sign of him losing arm strength or elusiveness in the pocket, two of the qualities that he will need to continue his career. Because of that, I can realistically see him playing another four or five seasons.