FOXBOROUGH — Bill Belichick doesn’t live in a cave. He knows Tom Brady will be a free agent in March, and that his future has been a big topic of conversation for the last couple of months.
“Look, I mean, I know it’s out there,” Belichick said Sunday morning, giving his final news conference of the season following the Patriots’ 20-13 playoff loss to the Titans Saturday night. “I’m not going to talk a lot of things about the future, ’cause I’m not prepared to talk about them. They’re all questions that need to be answered at some point in time. But those are collective decisions that are not made by one person. They’re made collectively, and there’s a lot of time, thought and effort and communication that goes into that. Now is not the time.”
The time to have that conversation: On or before March 17 at 4 p.m.
Brady’s contract officially voids on the final day of the 2019 league year. The 2020 season begins on March 18 at 4 p.m., so Brady will become an unrestricted free agent 24 hours prior to that.
The Patriots can always re-sign Brady after March 18, but it makes far more sense to do it before his contract voids on the 17th, because of salary cap ramifications.
When Brady agreed to a new contract in August, it came with a $20.25 million signing bonus. For salary cap purposes, this bonus gets spread out over three years: $6.75 million in each of 2019, 2020 and 2021.
If Brady doesn’t play for the Patriots next year, or if the contract voids on March 17, the remaining $13.5 million in cap space will accelerate to the 2020 season. And any contract Brady signs with the Patriots after March 17 has to include the $13.5 million acceleration.
But if the Patriots are able to sign Brady to a new contract before March 17, they can split that money in half — $6.75 million on the 2020 salary cap, and $6.75 million in 2021. They can’t split it down any further than that, even if they sign him to, say, a four-year contract.
Either way, the Patriots will have to take a salary cap hit on Brady next year. But if Brady is going to play for them in 2020, the best course of action is to take care of his new deal before March 17.
So at least the decision shouldn’t drag out across the offseason. We should know Brady’s fate by mid-March.
Brady isn’t the only Patriot whose future is in doubt, of course. There could be a major shakeup in the organization for the second year in a row. Here are the Patriots whose futures are in question:
Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels
The Patriots’ longtime offensive coordinator has received permission to interview for three head coaching jobs — the Panthers, Browns, and Giants — and he badly wants to become a head coach again. McDaniels also could be a candidate for the Cowboys job, now that it is officially open.
If the Patriots were still alive in the playoffs, McDaniels would have been allowed to interview this week, but wouldn’t be able to agree to a deal until the Patriots were eliminated. Now that the Patriots are out, McDaniels is free to interview and sign whenever he wants.
That said, it doesn’t appear to be a lock that McDaniels leaves. The Browns, Giants, and Panthers are each interviewing several qualified candidates, and McDaniels has some baggage — his poor tenure in Denver, and his flip-flop on the Colts two years ago.
Plus, McDaniels may ultimately decide that these jobs aren’t the right fit for him. As one league source said, “hopefully Josh is smart enough to not take the Browns job.”
Director of player personnel Nick Caserio
The Patriots blocked him from taking the Texans’ general manager job last year, but Caserio will be a free agent come April, and the Patriots can’t stand in his way anymore. Caserio is now free to interview and sign with any team for any job, though only one GM job is officially open (Cleveland). Though his contract runs a few more months, the Patriots likely will want Caserio to move on sooner than later, so he doesn’t catch too much wind about their offseason and draft plans.
But league sources say Caserio still considers Houston and Carolina to be options, and more GM positions could come available throughout the spring and summer. And Caserio hasn’t ruled out a return to the Patriots, either, though he is definitely going to explore all of his options.
Caserio’s top two lieutenants, director of pro personnel Dave Ziegler and director of college scouting Monti Ossenfort, also are candidates to leave the Patriots.
Special teams coordinator/wide receivers coach Joe Judge
Judge, 38, is one of the rising stars of the Patriots’ coaching staff, and one source said he is being groomed as the next offensive coordinator if and when McDaniels leaves New England.
But the Patriots may need to do some work to keep Judge. He has received permission to interview for the Giants’ head coach vacancy, though Judge is probably a few years away from being a top candidate. But another, more realistic option came open last week when Mississippi State fired its head coach. Judge was a three-year letterman for the Bulldogs, then spent three years as a graduate assistant, and reportedly is getting a serious look for the job.
And if the Patriots lose McDaniels and/or Judge, it likely increases the chances that two longtime Patriots assistants end up retiring: offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia and running backs coach Ivan Fears.
The Patriots have 15 unrestricted free agents come March 18 other than Tom Brady, including a few big names:
■ Safety Devin McCourty has played 10 NFL seasons and won three Super Bowls, and is unsure if he wants to continue playing. McCourty had a great season, and the Patriots certainly could use him next year.
■ Linebacker Kyle Van Noy will be an unrestricted free agent for the first time in his six-year NFL career. If his goal is to maximize his value on the open market, he may not return to New England. The Patriots probably won’t consider a franchise tag (expected to be close to $15.9 million) or transition tag (expected to be close to $13.8 million) for Van Noy, but the window for doing so is Feb. 25-March 10.
■ Linebacker Jamie Collins also will be a free agent after signing a one-year prove-it deal. Collins, 30, already cashed in once in free agency with the Browns, and may not get such big offers this time around. Don’t be surprised if the Patriots let Van Noy walk and keep Collins on more of a value contract.
■ Left guard Joe Thuney has been a terrific Patriot for the last four years, playing in all 74 games (including postseason) and barely missing a snap. But Thuney has been so good and durable that he could get a record-setting guard contract on the open market, if that’s what he pursues.
The Patriots could consider tagging Thuney — his franchise tag number should be around $14.9 million, and a transition tag number around $13.6 million. But considering the Patriots already have sunk money into right guard Shaq Mason and center David Andrews, it doesn’t seem likely they would shell out big money for Thuney, too. More likely, they’ll let another team (his hometown Bengals?) pay Thuney, and take the third-round compensatory draft pick.
■ Special teams ace Matthew Slater is also set to be a free agent, and after 12 NFL seasons, may be ready to call it a career. This would be a tough loss for the locker room, as Slater is a respected leader and a crucial mentor for younger teammates, many of whom play on special teams.
Other unrestricted free agents include receiver Phillip Dorsett, tight end Ben Watson, center Ted Karras, guard James Ferentz, offensive tackle Marshall Newhouse, defensive tackle Danny Shelton, linebacker/fullback Elandon Roberts, linebacker Shilique Calhoun, special teamer Nate Ebner, and kicker Nick Folk.
The Patriots also have two restricted free agents (defensive tackle Adam Butler and offensive lineman Jermaine Eluemunor) and one exclusive rights free agent (Keionta Davis).