FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Tom Brady's future is not only the biggest story in the NFL in the coming months, but maybe in all of sports.
It is rare, but not unprecedented, that such an iconic figure finds himself in this situation: a free agent who made $23 million in 2019 with the leverage to dictate his destination. Adding further intrigue is that it is unknown to what extent New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick values Brady's return.
Will Brady, 42, be back with the Patriots for a 21st season? Or should New England fans prepare themselves to see Brady in a different uniform in 2020?
Let's break down the situation:
How did we get to this point?
Brady and the Patriots failed to come to an agreement on a true extension by August, so they adjusted the contract to give him a raise in 2019. As part of the adjusted contract, the Patriots included two voidable years in 2020 and 2021 for salary-cap purposes. The voidable years ensured Brady would become a free agent after the 2019 season. The adjusted contract also prohibited the Patriots from assigning Brady the franchise tag, which would have guaranteed Brady the average salary of the top five highest-paid players at his position or 120% of his salary from the previous year (whichever of the two amounts is higher).
Does Brady want to stay?
Brady hasn't decisively answered that question publicly, although he was open to signing a true multiyear extension as of last offseason. How the dynamics have changed for him since -- after the sides couldn't reach a deal, the Pats went through a 12-4 season in which they were disappointingly light on offensive firepower around their quarterback and the team ended its campaign with a wild-card loss Saturday -- is an unknown. Family considerations will be a notable part of his decision-making process.
Hasselbeck: Brady's future is up to Belichick
Tim Hasselbeck and Ryan Clark discuss what Tom Brady's future with the Patriots looks like now that he's a free agent.
Does Belichick want him back?
Only one person has the answer -- he often wears a hoodie and his initials are B.B. -- and he isn't tipping his hand. Here's what Belichick said during his season-ending news conference Sunday regarding Brady:
"I want to give the proper attention and communication and detail and thought into my input into those decisions," he said. "But any decision made is not an individual decision. There are other people involved. There has to be some type of communication, understanding, agreement, whatever you want to call it. That's not a one-way street. I hope you can understand that. One person can't just decide what everybody else is going to do.
"There's a lot of time, thought and effort and communication that goes into that. Now is not the time."
But any decision regarding Brady, or any player, usually comes down to one question with Belichick: At what cost? The coach has made the unpopular decision to move away from franchise quarterbacks in the past (Bernie Kosar to Vinny Testaverde in Cleveland; Drew Bledsoe to Brady in New England), and he has a history of removing emotion in personnel decisions he views as best for the team.
Is there a timetable for a decision?
Brady becomes a free agent on March 18. The sides can always strike an extension before that date, although sources say there have been no talks since August. If Brady does not sign a new deal by March 18, the team would take on $13.5 million in dead cap space. If a deal is struck after that date, it would still stay on the cap. So, if the Patriots move to retain him, there would be some urgency to do so before March 18. However, if Brady takes visits to other teams after March 18, it wouldn't necessarily mean the door is closed on a return to New England; there have been situations in the past where free agents visit/negotiate with other teams before returning (for example, current captains Dont'a Hightower, Devin McCourty and Matthew Slater).
What role does team owner Robert Kraft play?
A significant one. Just as Kraft brought NFL players and ownership together to help end the 2011 lockout, which has earned him a reputation as a bridge builder worthy of Pro Football Hall of Fame consideration, he has a similar challenge in keeping the Brady-Belichick partnership alive for a 21st season. Kraft wouldn't want to alienate Belichick by forcing a decision on him. But with "hope and prayer" that Brady stays, Kraft is ultimately the one who has the power to ensure it happens. It's a delicate balance.
Is there an ideal fit for Brady outside New England?
The Tennessee Titans could offer something no other club can: a coach in Mike Vrabel who is one of Brady's best friends; a Derrick Henry-led power running game (assuming Henry re-signs) to help take the load off Brady in his quest to play until he is 45; and more explosive options at wide receiver and tight end than he currently has in New England. The Titans also have an abundance of cap space at their disposal. So it is hard to imagine a better fit than that, with the caveat of family/personal considerations hovering over any decision. One thing possibly working against Brady with a Titans scenario, however, is that Ryan Tannehill has been excellent since taking over as the starter this year, and the club reportedly has expressed interest in locking up Tannehill long term.
Because of Brady's California roots and the fact that he spends time training there in the offseason, some point to the Los Angeles Chargers as another intriguing possibility. He certainly would help the Chargers sell tickets. But Brady has limited connection to anyone in the organization, which might give him pause when compared to a situation such as that with the Titans.
Would Brady follow Josh McDaniels to the Browns?
Unlikely. Cleveland is the only team without a designated coach as of Tuesday afternoon, and the quarterback position is accounted for with Baker Mayfield. While some have speculated on a McDaniels-Brady package elsewhere, there also is a line of thinking that the two could see a benefit in branching out from each other. The odds of a McDaniels-Brady package deal are long.
What talent upgrades do the Patriots need to help Brady?
More speed and dynamic playmaking ability at wide receiver to complement Julian Edelman, 2019 first-round pick N'Keal Harry, veteran Mohamed Sanu and 2019 undrafted free agent Jakobi Meyers. Then more of a consistent pass-catching presence at tight end. The return of starting center David Andrews (he spent 2019 on injured reserve) should have a positive trickle-down effect on the offensive line, as that upgrade already is in-house.
If Brady leaves, what about backup Jarrett Stidham?
In the preseason, Stidham had some around the organization as excited as they have been since drafting Jimmy Garoppolo in 2014 that they potentially had found an heir apparent. The Patriots didn't know for sure about Garoppolo until his second season, so there is still a lot that has to fall in place for Stidham to reach that point. But he did everything possible to put himself in good position, as he didn't miss a practice all season.