After 20 seasons of stability, the New England Patriots could be in the market for a new quarterback this time next week.
Whether fans or the team itself like it or not, that’s the reality, and we know head coach Bill Belichick has a plan for life after Brady that includes a slew of different options.
A week before free agency, here’s my gut opinion on where things stand with Brady: 45 percent back to the Patriots, 45 percent chance it’s Tennessee, and 10 percent to a mystery team.
As we reported last week, it will take a monumental pitch from Belichick, and a change in course in negotiations and offensive talent around the QB, for Brady to return to New England.
Back in February, I put my support behind Jarrett Stidham due to his play, general makeup and leadership skills, youth, and contract situation as the next guy if Brady does leave.
But there’s a strong possibility that Belichick has something else in mind, or at least wants to bring in competition for Stidham, via trade, free agency, or the draft in the coming months.
And instead of viewing the cap implications of a Brady departure as a full $13.5 million cap hit due to his voided deal, remember, $6.75 million would count against the Pats cap if Brady returns. So it’s only an extra $6.75 million, which they can navigate easily with cap maneuvers.
Below, we’ll rank the top Brady replacements that will be available on March 18:
1. Teddy Bridgewater (Unrestricted Free Agent, Project APY: $21.5 million)
The prospects of Bridgewater might be short-lived if his market develops as some anticipate, and the money gets crazy for a quarterback that has six starts in the last three seasons.
With Bridgewater’s devastating knee injury in 2016 behind him, his five starts for the Saints last season, where the team went 5-0, despite a modest 45.0 QBR, make Bridgewater a starting option as an unrestricted free agent at age 27.
Throughout his career, Bridgewater has been a risk-averse quarterback that will pass up on deeper throws for the safer check-down options.
Last season, Bridgewater turnover worthy play rate was seventh-lowest in the league, but his big-time throw percentage was 28th, and his average depth of target was only 6.2 (lowest among 39 qualified quarterbacks), according to Pro Football Focus.
Give this man a starting job pic.twitter.com/eqToB60QHH
— Steven Ruiz (a lifelong DC Defenders fan) (@theStevenRuiz) February 26, 2020
But over his last three starts, Bridgewater’s aDOT climbed to 6.8, and he began to complete more downfield shots with the above-average accuracy from the pocket that is his calling card.
Here, the Saints use play-action to set up a deep shot with a post-deep over route combination. Bridgewater reads that the defense is in a single-high coverage, and knows that the post route will occupy the safety in the middle of the field. That leaves his top target, Michael Thomas, in single coverage on the deep crosser, and Bridgewater drops the dime for a long completion.
For most of his career, Bridgewater has been a game manager that might not elevate an offense consistently, but won’t cost his team games with untimely turnovers or mistakes.
Although his salary might be steep for that kind of quarterback, his 22-12 record as a starter is an intriguing pairing for Belichick, who can win with a healthy Bridgewater.
2. Marcus Mariota (Unrestricted Free Agent, Projected APY: $20 million)
Before you get on me for having Mariota this high, hear me out, because it’s about Stidham.
The Patriots should bring in Mariota only if you can pay him as a top-end backup with escalators in his contract if he starts, and then make it an open competition between him and Stidham.
Based on Mariota’s projected salary, that might be unrealistic, but I don’t expect him to have a bevy of offers that pay him the going rate for a starting quarterback.
If Mariota wins the competition and plays well, great, the Patriots have a quarterback; if Stidham wins the job, great, the Patriots have a quarterback, and a veteran backup just in case.
Although Mariota’s play tanked a year ago when Ryan Tannehill replaced him, he did post decent Pro Football Focus grades of 75.1 (2018) and 76.4 (2017) in the two years prior.
There are a few intriguing qualities to Mariota’s game, one underrated and one we all know about him.
First, I believe that offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels would like his next quarterback to be mobile. We aren’t talking Lamar Jackson here, but without the command of the game, pinpoint accuracy, and pocket manipulation of Brady, the Patriots can create offense by playing 11-on-11 and forcing the defense to account for the quarterback.
Furthermore, Mariota’s accuracy within 20 yards of the line of scrimmage and skill as a pocket passer is better than the narratives out there.
On this completion, Mariota does the Mahomes before the Mahomes, manipulating the zone linebacker (no. 58) by moving him out of the passing lane with his eyes to throw an accurate no-look pass to his receiver with anticipation to the middle of the field.
Mariota has also been one of the best red-zone quarterbacks in the NFL since entering the league in 2015, posting a near-perfect 51-1 touchdown to interception ratio with a 103.4 rating.
The former number two overall pick is a quick processor inside the 20, as shown on the play above, where he reads out a spot concept. Mariota is reading the flat defender. If the corner widens, he’ll hit the spot route. If he sits under the spot, he’ll hit the flat. The corner buzzes into the flat, leaving the passing lane open for the spot route, and Mariota puts the ball on the receiver quickly to give Corey Davis time to turn upfield and score.
There are legitimate knocks on Mariota; he takes way too many sacks (35.2 sack rate in 2019, highest in NFL), and looks uncomfortable and has sloppy footwork in the pocket at times.
But the Patriots are fantastic at developing pocket poise and mechanics, and Mariota has plenty of talent to function within a scheme crafted by McDaniels and Belichick, two of the best.
3. Ryan Tannehill (Unrestricted Free Agent, Projected APY: $25 million)
Tannehill’s 2019 regular season was one of the biggest outliers in recent NFL history, which makes committing significant money to him this offseason a risky proposition.
The Titans might place the franchise tag on Tannehill depending on Brady’s decision after he finished with an elite 90.2 overall grade, ranking third among all quarterbacks, per PFF.
Although it’s a risk, Tannehill’s skill set of accuracy between the numbers and proficiency off of play-action fit the Patriots offense well, making him an intriguing option if the money is right.
#Titans film: Tannehill has been money to the intermediate level as the starter. Throwing with anticipation, accuracy, and fits the ball around zone defenders.
Tennessee running the "hoss" part of "hoss z/y juke" here. Hitches on the outside, seams on the inside. pic.twitter.com/tezWt5UaYt
— Evan Lazar (@ezlazar) January 2, 2020
Tannehill led all quarterbacks by a wide margin in Next Gen’s completion percentage above expected metric, completing 70.3 of his passes despite an expected completion rate of 62.2 on his throws.
#Titans film: Tennessee's go-to play-action concept is hitting the intermediate crosser. They run this play several times a game since Tannehill took over. Both Brown and Davis are good on the crosser. pic.twitter.com/rpW3Hb9DgZ
— Evan Lazar (@ezlazar) January 1, 2020
As a play-action passer, Tannehill led all quarterbacks in both yards per pass attempt (13.5) and passer rating (143.3) with the Titans last season.
The former Dolphins first-rounder could regress back to the inconsistent player with extremely low-lows he was in Miami, and his 2019 postseason exemplified his limitations as a passer.
But if the Patriots want to be a 21-personnel team with fullback James Develin back in the mix in 2020, he’s a viable passer within a scheme centered around a power running game.
4. Nick Foles (Trade Target, 2020 Cap Hit: $15.1 million)
How crazy would it be if the guy that ripped a Lombardi Trophy out of Tom Brady’s hands just two years ago replaced the GOAT in New England?
The Patriots trading for Foles doesn’t seem likely, but the Jaguars would like to move on after signing him to a four-year, $88 million contract a year ago.
Foles’s base salary is $15.1 million, which means a team acquiring him in a trade would take on a modest cap hit, and there’s a potential out in his deal following the 2020 season.
The former Eagles quarterback was doomed from the start in Jacksonville, suffering a broken clavicle in the first quarter of his first regular-season game as the Jaguars’ starter.
Here are the 3 consecutive turnovers that got Nick Foles benched – pic.twitter.com/hHawrtbdRZ
— Michael Kist (@MichaelKistNFL) December 4, 2019
When he returned from the injury, Foles was benched for Gardner Minshew after three first-half turnovers against the lowly Buccaneers defense; it just wasn’t meant to be in Jacksonville.
With that said, Foles’s comfortability operating in an RPO-heavy scheme that attacks between the numbers gives him a viable offensive system that the Patriots could create around him.
Although it’s different, Belichick and McDaniels will always shift the system to fit the personnel.
Foles throws with great anticipation to the middle of the field as well. On the play above, Foles sees the linebacker vacate the passing lane when he takes the running back in man coverage and looks the zone linebacker off by staring down the right side. He comes back to skinny post to tight end Dallas Goedert, releasing the ball before Goedert even enters the picture.
The former Eagles quarterback also throws a pretty tear-drop deep ball that’s difficult to size-up for defensive backs since it drops out of the sky into the receivers’ hands.
Adding Foles to this list might be more hunting for a juicy story than reality, but he’s on the block, and he’s the only quarterback featured with a Super Bowl MVP on his resume.
5. Andy Dalton (Trade Target, 2020 Cap Hit: $17.5 million)
The most redeeming qualities for Dalton is that $17.5 million for a starting quarterback is on the lower end of the spectrum, and he has no dead money, meaning he can be released for nothing.
The Patriots could force Dalton into a pay cut or sign him to an extension to lower his 2020 cap number, but Dalton would hold all the cards after Brady walks and the Pats trade for the Red Rifle. Why would a player with leverage willingly agree to make less money? He wouldn’t.
On the field, Dalton makes some boneheaded decisions for a veteran quarterback, and his accuracy on throws over 15 yards is as spotty as it gets. Plus, we all know his big-game record.
But if Bill Belichick thinks he can win with Dalton, it’s probably because of his fast release and fit in a quick, horizontal passing game, which are things the Patriots do best offensively.
Last season, Dalton’s 2.39-second time to throw tied for the fastest release in the NFL with Drew Brees, and that came with an average depth of target of 8.1, so it wasn’t all check downs.
Here, Dalton reads out a similar spot concept to the Mariota play above. The switch release from the tight end with the stack alignment opens a passing lane to the spot route, and as soon as Dalton gets to the top of his drop, the ball is out quickly and on time.
Dalton and the Bengals will orchestrate a trade of the veteran quarterback with Cincinnati locked in on a quarterback at the top of the draft, most likely LSU’s Joe Burrow.
The Patriots shouldn’t give up much to acquire Dalton in a trade, but if you believe the chatter around the league, the Red Rifle might be their top choice to replace Brady if he walks.
Other Free-Agent Options
6. Jameis Winston (Unrestricted Free Agent, Projected APY: $27 million)
Winston is that he’s one of the most volatile quarterbacks in the NFL; he’s either dropping absolute dimes down the field or throwing the ball to the other team. The top-end plays are intriguing, but I don’t see the Patriots investing in a poor processor and decision-maker.
7. Josh Rosen (Trade Target, 2020 Cap Hit: $660,000)
Rosen’s had one of the worst starts to a career for a top ten pick in recent memory. When the Dolphins draft a quarterback and trade Rosen, he’ll be on his third team in three seasons. He’s cheap on a rookie deal and under contract through 2022 with the fifth-year option.
On the field, his 502 pass attempts led to a disastrous 47.6 PFF grade. But going back to his college scouting report, he’s got a smooth, compact delivery with good footwork and a sturdy base. If you treat Rosen as a project and not an immediate starter, it’s not a bad idea to get someone with his talent in the system.
8. Case Keenum (Unrestricted Free Agent, Projected APY: $11 million)
Keenum was awful in a bad situation with the Redskins last season. Still, he comes at a much lower price than the other of the quarterbacks here, and he was an absolute magician in the pocket for two seasons in Minnesota, where he finished eighth in PFF grade in 2017.