It would not be hyperbole to say that this offseason could be the most important in the history of the Patriots. The organization is at a crossroads, with Tom Brady set to become a free agent in March for the first time in his career.
Do the Patriots bring back Brady, and take one last shot at a championship? Or do the sides finally part ways, and close the book on the greatest 20-year run of dominance the NFL has ever seen?
The Patriots’ offseason plans can go in a hundred different ways, depending on the ultimate question: To Brady, or not to Brady?
So we put it to each of the Globe’s NFL writers to determine a course of action for the Patriots this offseason — a blueprint for Brady, and what to do in free agency (their own players, and those on other teams), and in the NFL Draft. Here are the master plans:
Ben Volin: Tempted to let go, but just can’t do it
Tom Brady is no lock to remain with the Patriots. And if I were running the team, I’d be tempted to rip off the Band-Aid and move on.
Just draft another quarterback to compete with Jarrett Stidham, and may the better man win the job. And take the money you were going to pay Brady and instead fortify the offensive line by re-signing Joe Thuney, and get some accomplished targets such as Chargers tight end Hunter Henry.
But I just can’t do it. Brady wants to play in 2020, and I still believe he will ultimately remain in New England.
For Brady, it’s the best chance to win a seventh ring. For Robert Kraft, it would be too strange, and too unpopular, to see Brady finish his career in another uniform. And for Bill Belichick, 2020 just isn’t the year to move on. The Patriots don’t have a second-round draft pick, after trading it for Mohamed Sanu, leaving them with the 23rd overall pick, and three picks late in the third round — picks that could be used to refresh the roster with several young players instead of bundled in a trade for a quarterback. Next season’s schedule is also brutal on paper, with difficult games at Seattle, Los Angeles (twice), Kansas City, and Houston, plus home dates with Baltimore and San Francisco. If you want to win, Brady is your best bet.
So, here is my blueprint for what the Patriots should do this offseason:
Sign Brady to a two-year deal before March 17.
I have written much about this already, but the most prudent salary-cap move for the Patriots would be to sign Brady to a multiyear deal before his current contract voids on March 17. They don’t have to actually commit two years to him in terms of playing time, but this would allow the Patriots to split his $13.5 million in dead cap money into two years, and make his 2020 number much more palatable. And it would be smart to push as much cap money as they can into 2021, when the NFL salary cap could explode under a new collective bargaining agreement and new TV deals.
Sign Emmanuel Sanders.
The Patriots obviously need a wide receiver, and if Brady remains, it should be a veteran player. Forget Odell Beckham, A.J. Green, and Robby Anderson, who will cost big money, come with an injury risk (Green), or off-field issues (Beckham, Anderson), or could cost the Patriots the 23rd pick in a trade (Beckham).
Sanders, whom the Patriots have been eyeing since the 2013 offseason, is the guy to get. The 32-year-old would be more cost effective, and he proved this season with the 49ers that he can fit in with a new team. A receiving corps of Julian Edelman, Sanu, N’Keal Harry, and Sanders looks good enough to win. (As an aside, if the Patriots can get Green on a one-year, prove-it deal, they should do that).
Re-sign Devin McCourty and Jamie Collins. Let Kyle Van Noy and Thuney walk.
The Patriots can’t keep everyone, and Thuney should command a huge contract on the open market, which will be tough for the Patriots to match. Van Noy likely won’t get as big a deal, but I’m expecting him to price himself out of the Patriots’ plans, as well.
But the Patriots can’t let the entire defense leave. McCourty is still a productive player and an emotional leader, and 32-year-old safeties usually don’t have a robust market. And Collins, who will turn 31 next season, should bring better free agent value than Van Noy.
Double up on tight ends in the draft.
Much like the Patriots did with Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez in 2010, they should double up at tight end to better their chances of at least getting one good one. The Patriots haven’t used a top-four round pick on a tight end since Gronk and Hernandez, and didn’t have any starting-caliber players in the pipeline last year when Gronk retired. Between the 23rd overall pick, and three late-third-round picks, the Patriots have a good opportunity to restock the position.
Re-sign the following value free agents:
Linebacker Elandon Roberts. One of the team’s hardest hitters, he contributes on special teams and at fullback, and he shouldn’t cost a ton.
Special teams Matthew Slater. An invaluable special teams maven and locker room leader.
Nose tackle Danny Shelton. Had a career year this past season, and should be brought back on another short-money deal.
Defensive tackle Adam Butler (restricted free agent). The Patriots should put a second-round tender on Butler, which guarantees him a salary projected to be around $3.25 million, or nets the Patriots a second-round pick if he signs elsewhere. A first-round tender of $4.667 million seems unnecessary, and an original-round tender of $2.144 million wouldn’t ensure Butler returns.
Guard/center Ted Karras. Did an admirable job filling in at center all season, and provides valuable depth at all three interior spots, which could be important if Thuney moves on.
Guard/center James Ferentz: See Karras.
Let the following free agents walk:
Wide receiver Phillip Dorsett. Just couldn’t get on the same page as Brady.
Special teams Nate Ebner. With Justin Bethel and Brandon Bolden under contract and Brandon King set to return from injury, there may not be a need for Ebner.
Tight end Ben Watson. Will likely retire.
Linebacker Shilique Calhoun, offensive tackle Marshall Newhouse, defensive end Keionta Davis, guard Jermaine Eluemunor, kicker Nick Folk. Thank you for your service.
Nora Princiotti: Brady’s position stronger than the team’s
Put on your speculation pants, boys and girls. Here’s one idea of how the Patriots should reboot in the 2020 offseason, starting with the biggest question in the NFL:
Re-sign Tom Brady for one year, $28 million.
Not for sentimentality, but because it’s the best way to stay competitive. Giving Brady a raise after one of his worst statistical seasons will go down like cough syrup, but unless the Patriots are ready to hand the keys to Jarrett Stidham, Brady’s negotiating position is stronger than the team’s.
The hope should be that the offer is good enough for the Patriots to know where they stand before the legal tampering window opens March 16. Brady’s status drastically alters their free agent needs, and they need to get a deal done by the time free agency begins on March 18 to split up the dead cap hit from Brady’s current contract’s void year. Deals with void years or complicated incentive structures are trickier this year because of the expiring collective bargaining agreement, so keep it simple. Also, Brady must agree to come to OTAs.
Prioritize culture, run defense when re-signing players.
The Patriots should have $49 million in cap space to use and a long list of players hitting free agency, so spend wisely. Here, they re-sign a number of core leaders and try not to take a step back on run defense, a weak point in 2019. They should offer Devin McCourty a two-year, $18 million deal and try to re-up Matthew Slater at $2.5 million for 2020, and Nate Ebner with a two-year, $5 million contract. All of that is similar to what those players make now, with term lengths that make sense given their ages.
Danny Shelton should stick around on a three-year, $9 million deal and restricted free agent Adam Butler should get an original-round tender worth $2.144 million. The Patriots should try to keep backup tackle Marshall Newhouse on a veteran minimum salary.
Ted Karras, Jamie Collins, and Elandon Roberts can test their markets. At the right price, the Patriots should try to keep them. If they can keep Karras for $2 million annually or less, they should be glad to do so given the uncertainty with David Andrews and the need for guard depth.
Joe Thuney and Kyle Van Noy are gone, significant losses who will be too expensive to keep. Goodbye as well to Phillip Dorsett, Nick Folk, James Ferentz, Jermaine Eluemunor, and Shilique Calhoun. Ben Watson appears to be retiring.
Create cap space.
They can create about $5 million in space by extending Dont’a Hightower and Duron Harmon’s deals, but things get more difficult after that. Rex Burkhead finished 2019 strong but is often injured and, with Damien Harris barely able to crack the game-day roster because of the running back depth chart, is probably worth parting ways with for a savings of $3 million. Cutting Matt LaCosse would save $1.4 million.
The toughest choice: The Patriots can move on from Marcus Cannon or Jason McCourty for some significant cap relief, $5.1 million in Cannon’s case and $4 million in McCourty’s. Cannon had a down year but is affordable for a starting tackle, and the Patriots would still carry $3.7 million on his contract against the 2020 cap if they released him. McCourty is beloved and was great at the beginning of 2019, but he just had groin surgery and plays a position of depth.
What not to do is prematurely part with Mohamed Sanu, even though it would save the Patriots $6.5 million. Sanu never caught on after hurting his ankle, but his history makes him deserving of a chance to prove himself with a full offseason.
Double dip for tight ends.
Maybe triple dip. Look in free agency, look in the draft, look between the couch cushions. This position needs multiple new contributors.
First, call back the Buccaneers about O.J. Howard, who is entering the fourth year of his rookie deal (there’s a team option for a fifth year in 2021) and would be cheaper than Austin Hooper or Hunter Henry with a $3.5 million cap hit in 2020. Tampa Bay wanted a first-round pick during the 2019 season, but the asking price should be lower now. Hopefully a third-round pick gets it done, but sweetening the deal with a late-round or future pick would still be worth it.
Tight end should also be a target within the first four rounds of the draft.
Make use of extra time in draft scouting.
This is a critical draft for the Patriots, who were the oldest team in football this season. Tight end, offensive tackle, safety, and wide receiver are areas where they need to restock for the future. The Patriots take every offseason seriously but can take advantage of extra time at events such as the Senior Bowl, knowing how much these picks matter.
To the same end, they should make an early overture to Nick Caserio and try to re-sign him. Money and a title bump would be a small price to pay for continuity, and to be able to go through this draft season without worrying about information-sharing issues.
Jim McBride: Stay with Brady till 45
It’s the magic number to keep the magic going.
Tom Brady has consistently maintained he wants to play until he’s 45, so that should be the pivotal number the Patriots consider when pitching new contract figures to their No. 1 pitcher.
Keeping Brady in the fold is the best solution for a team whose championship window is still wide open and for a quarterback who knows this offense like the back of his hand.
So, signing the 42-year-old Brady to a three-year contract with manageable — but not hometown discounted — cap hits should be priority No. 1 when constructing the 2020 roster.
Giving a 20-year veteran a megadeal is uncharted territory in the NFL, but Brady isn’t just any player — try finding a résumé that stacks up favorably.
A three-year pact worth an average annual value of at least $28 million would place Brady in the top 10 among signal-callers.
There’s also the possibility of restructuring and/or tweaking at any point, should Brady decide to hang ’em up early — earning title No. 7 could be a factor here.
Getting this done sooner rather than later — as in before free agency — would really help. If Brady signs before the floodgates open, his $13.5 million dead cap charge from his current deal can be split over two seasons. If not — or if he signs elsewhere — it all gets rung up in 2020.
Though Brady has never come across as someone overly concerned with other players’ paychecks, that number also would put him ahead of Jacoby Brissett ($27.975 million) and Jimmy Garoppolo ($27.5 million), making him again the top dog of the wolf pack.
After securing Brady’s services, there are several other in-house matters that need to be addressed. Here’s a look at those:
On the defensive
The championship window remains open in large part because of a defense that battened down the hatches for long stretches of 2019. Many of the stellar performers from that unit are in line for new contracts.
Keeping all of them is unrealistic (the Patriots project to have around $50 million in cap space) unless they decide en masse that staying in Mass. and making another run at history is their top priority (i.e. hometown discounts).
At the front of the line is safety Devin McCourty. Few players in franchise history are more respected in and out of the pads, and he’s coming off one of his best seasons. A two-year deal at $7 million-$8 million per would make a lot of sense.
The Patriots enjoyed terrific linebacker play this past season, but two of the famed Boogeymen, Kyle Van Noy and Jamie Collins, can walk. Both like playing here but both likely will have plenty of suitors. The guess is Van Noy gets bowled over by a big offer from a team with big cap space and Collins stays — perhaps a two-year, $10 million pact could work?
Up front, tackle Danny Shelton had the best year of his career. He lightened up and immersed himself in the program. A two-year, $5 million agreement seems fair.
The most notable pending free agent on offense (other than Brady) is Joe Thuney. The left guard will rightfully command a ton of attention and earn a ton of dough on his next contract, though likely from a different franchise.
Ted Karras, who filled in for David Andrews, is also a free agent, and retaining him would be wise. He could slide into Thuney’s spot or remain at center if Andrews’s return is held up.
Matthew Slater wants to continue playing and wants to continue wearing the red, white, and blue. This deal (say, two years at $2.75 million per) should come together quickly.
Nate Ebner is another standout special teamer and it’d be a surprise if he didn’t receive another short-term deal to stay.
Front office supplies
Perhaps no piece of business is more important than locking up Nick Caserio before the director of player personnel’s contract runs out after the draft. As Bill Belichick’s righthand man, Caserio wears multiple hats and is involved in every aspect of the day-to-day business.
Caserio is always among the first names mentioned when general manager jobs open, so a promotion, a raise, and a new deal could keep other teams at bay.
There’s a number of players who could be in line for contract adjustments to provide some cap room, including Dont’a Hightower ($11.375 million), Marcus Cannon ($8.9 million), Shaq Mason ($8.7 million), and Duron Harmon ($5.5 million).
With the inside moves made, attention must be paid to restocking the roster through free agency, trades, and the draft. Here are some suggestions:
Stockpile some weapons
Tight end is a major need after the Patriots lost one of the greatest to ever play via retirement last March and didn’t receive a ton of production from the position in 2019.
Hunter Henry and Austin Hooper will be available in free agency, but they’ll command big money — upward of $10 million per season, and that’s steep. Tyler Eifert would be slightly cheaper alternative at approximately $7 million.
A trade could be a more attractive scenario, especially if the target is O.J. Howard, who has been underutilized as a receiver in Tampa Bay and could give this offense an immediate boost. A 2017 first-rounder, Howard could be under control for two seasons if his fifth-year option is picked up. The Buccaneers would want a bounty in exchange, and the Patriots have the draft capital to make something work. New England could have three third-rounders (their own and two projected compensatory picks), so package one of those with a later-round selection to strike a fair deal.
Adding another receiver should be a priority, as well. A.J. Green is the biggest name out there, but he’s coming off a lost season and investing big money ($15 million per) here doesn’t make a ton of sense. Robby Anderson has impressed the Patriots and would be less expensive.
The Patriots have a dozen selections in April’s draft — eight of their own and four projected compensatory picks. New England will have one pick in the first round; three in the third; one in the fourth; four in the sixth; and three in the seventh.
It’s not considered a deep tight end draft, but it is rich with receivers, so a talented player (or players) could be available in the third round. Tackle could also be a priority, with Cannon entering Year 10 and/or if the team decides to kick Isaiah Wynn inside to possibly replace Thuney.
A wild-card early selection could be safety. The Patriots have good depth at the position, but starters Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung will be entering their 11th and 12th seasons, respectively, so youthful reinforcements are necessary.