Tom Brady’s free agency takes up plenty of space on the airwaves and Internet, but he is not the only NFL quarterback whose future is in limbo.
Nearly one-third of the league has questions or uncertainty at the top position. This year’s free agency and draft should be quite the game of musical chairs, and not everyone is guaranteed a seat in the end.
Let’s take a look at the top quarterbacks available in free agency and the draft, and predict at how the carousel is going to spin:
■ Tom Brady: Patriots. It sure seems as if Brady is determined to test free agency, and it’s hard not to get caught up in the buzz that he is done with the Patriots after 20 years, and looking for another challenge. But since the fall, my belief has been that Robert Kraft and Brady will get together at the last minute and make a deal happen, and I’m not going to waver from it. For Brady, going to another team brings too much risk of falling flat on his face and damaging his TB12 brand. If he wants to prove to the world he can keep winning and playing at a high level into his mid-40s, New England is the place to do it. And for Kraft, having Brady end his career in another uniform will not make him a popular figure around town.
■ Drew Brees: Saints. Brees will be a free agent as well, but his relationship with the Saints seems much more harmonious than Brady’s is with the Patriots. Brees said he will either play for the Saints or retire, and here’s betting the Saints bring Brees back for one more run.
■ Taysom Hill: Saints. The Saints aren’t going to let the future walk out the door, either. Hill proved himself last season as one of the most versatile and valuable weapons in the NFL, and coach Sean Payton would love to build more of the offense around Hill and use him to spell Brees more often. Hill is a restricted free agent, and it seems as if a first-round tender should keep him in New Orleans. Despite all the buzz about Hill as a franchise quarterback, I have a hard time seeing a team give up a first-round pick and pay a massive contract for a guy who has 15 career pass attempts and will be 30 years old in August.
■ Teddy Bridgewater: Panthers. The Saints won’t be able to keep all three free agent quarterbacks, however, and Bridgewater will find a job for a team that plans to draft and sit a quarterback. The Panthers seem like a good bet to be in that boat, with rumors that they will trade Cam Newton and draft a quarterback with either the seventh or 38th pick (or via a trade up).
■ Philip Rivers: Retire. Not every quarterback will end up with a seat, and Rivers, 38 years old, may be out of luck after the Chargers bid him an unceremonious goodbye this past week. He and his family moved to Tampa, prompting rumors of landing with the Buccaneers. Two other teams that make sense are the Colts (he played in San Diego for Frank Reich) and the Panthers (Rivers went to N.C. State). But at his age, and coming off a down season, this looks like the end of the road for Rivers.
■ Cam Newton: Chargers. Though everyone’s attention is on Brady, the Chargers instead will draft a quarterback and target the much more cost-effective Newton, under contract for one more year at $19 million, to keep the seat warm. A tandem of Newton and Anthony Lynn could create some buzz in Los Angeles as the only Black QB-coach combo in the NFL. In this scenario, the Chargers would send the Panthers their second-round pick, which would give the Panthers Nos. 37 and 38 in the second round.
■ Ryan Tannehill: Titans. Tannehill, the 2019 Comeback Player of the Year, shouldn’t go anywhere. The Titans were 2-4 and 28th in points with Marcus Mariota, then went 7-3 and reached the AFC Championship game with Tannehill, finishing in the top three in almost every offensive stat while Tannehill compiled a historically great season. The Titans would be crazy to scrap it all and start over with Brady or any other quarterback. Tannehill dumped his agent and signed with the same agency that represents Titans GM Jon Robinson, a good sign he’ll be back in Tennessee.
■ Dak Prescott: Cowboys. He just finished his fourth NFL season, and had his best season yet, with 4,902 yards, 30 touchdowns, and 11 interceptions. Prescott will be just 27 years old in July, and his new coach, Mike McCarthy, runs an offense perfectly tailored to Prescott’s skills. The Cowboys would be nuts to dump Prescott for Brady (16 years older) or anyone else, even if they have to use the franchise tag this year.
■ Jameis Winston: Buccaneers. Coach Bruce Arians is playing coy about the team’s intentions, but here’s betting they bring Winston back for one more run. Winston threw a league-leading 30 interceptions this past season, but also 5,109 yards and 33 touchdowns, and it was Winston’s first season in Arians’s system. Considering Winston is only 26, they should give him another shot.
■ Joe Burrow: Bengals. It’s worth monitoring whether the LSU star pulls an Eli Manning between now and April’s draft and tries to wiggle his way out of Cincinnati, as he already has dropped a couple of bread crumbs hinting at it. Heck, maybe the Dolphins offer all three of their first-round picks (Nos. 5, 18, and 26), and the Bengals find it too tempting to pass up. But the most realistic scenario is Burrow, a southern Ohio native, going to Cincinnati. Plus, don’t the Bengals seem like an organization that would draft Burrow and sit on his rights anyway, even if he announces he would hold out?
■ Andy Dalton: Redskins. The Bengals likely will trade him once they draft Burrow. Dalton is under contract for one more year and a reasonable $17.5 million, making him a realistic option for the Patriots should Brady leave. But the Redskins also make a lot of sense — Dwayne Haskins is cheap, they don’t have a backup, and offensive coordinator Ken Zampese was Dalton’s quarterbacks coach in Cincinnati. The Jaguars also make sense (OC Jay Gruden was Dalton’s OC in Cincinnati), but they would likely need another team to take Nick Foles and his $20 million guaranteed off their hands.
■ Tua Tagovailoa: Dolphins. The Panthers and Chargers are looming, with the Bucs and Colts as darkhorses. But the Dolphins have three first-rounders and a boatload of other draft picks, and will do whatever it takes to draft Tagovailoa, even if it means trading all the way up to No. 2.
■ Marcus Mariota: Lions. Matt Patricia and Bob Quinn are in a win-or-else situation, and can’t afford a repeat of last season, when they went 0-8 once Matthew Stafford went down with an injury. Mariota didn’t develop as expected in Tennessee, but he’s still much better than the other backups Detroit had last year.
HALL OF FAME
Rivers has all the numbers, too
Eli Manning’s retirement last month sparked a fierce debate about his Hall of Fame candidacy. But he’s not the only quarterback from the 2004 draft who will be a borderline candidate.
Philip Rivers, too, is a polarizing nominee. He has all the numbers, but none of the accolades.
My initial hunch is he is not a Hall of Famer. Rivers never made it to a Super Bowl, and only went to one AFC Championship game in 14 years as a starting quarterback. Although Rivers was an eight-time Pro Bowl selection, he was never named All-Pro as one of the top two quarterbacks in a given season.
But Rivers has solid numbers — currently ranking top 10 all time in touchdowns (sixth), passing yards (sixth), completion percentage (ninth), and passer rating (10th). He also has an impressive ironman streak of 235 starts since the start of the 2006 season, including a memorable performance of playing with a torn ACL in the 2008 AFC Championship game against the Patriots.
And based on precedent, Rivers probably should get into the Hall. His best comparable is another former Charger. Dan Fouts, a first-ballot Hall of Famer in 1993, threw for a ton of yards and touchdowns, but went to just two AFC Championship games, never appeared in a Super Bowl, and went 86-84-1 as a starter.
Warren Moon also got into the Hall of Fame without a Super Bowl appearance. Jim Kelly, Fran Tarkenton, and Dan Marino are other enshrinees without a championship.
Rivers was never a transcendent quarterback. But he was very good for a long time, and that is usually enough to get you into the Hall of Fame.
Chargers not best place to play
Speaking of the Chargers, Tom Brady may want to speak to Philip Rivers and recently retired safety Eric Weddle before signing on the dotted line with the Bolts in free agency.
The Chargers, led by owner Dean Spanos, don’t exactly have the best reputation around the league — both in terms of their willingness to spend money and in how they treat people.
Take Rivers’s recent departure. It’s never easy breaking up with a franchise quarterback, but the Giants at least gave Eli Manning a grand send-off with a news conference and celebration from the entire organization. The Chargers, meanwhile, didn’t communicate with Rivers for weeks, then sent Rivers off with a thank-you tweet for his 16 years of service, including the laughable claim that the sides “mutually parted ways.” To be fair, Rivers hasn’t been the most devoted Charger the last two years — he refused to move his family when the Chargers relocated from San Diego to Los Angeles, and wasn’t a big presence in the Chargers’ new community — but surely he deserved more than this.
Rivers has kept his feelings private, but Weddle is not afraid to let people know how he feels about the Chargers, where he spent the first nine years of his 13-year career.
Weddle, who retired last month, told The Athletic this past week that he would retire a Raven, where he spent three seasons, before retiring a Charger.
“Until there’s new management with the Chargers, I’m not going to set foot in that place,” Weddle said. “I’m a guy who is very loyal, and once you burn that bridge and do the things that they did, that’s just not going to happen.”
Of course, this was also the organization that Manning refused to play for in 2004, forcing his trade to the Giants.
If Brady goes to the Chargers, it would be purely transactional — they want a star quarterback, and he wants a new opportunity. But he should remember the grass isn’t always greener.
Panthers owner ready to splurge
One team that will be fascinating to watch this offseason will be the Carolina Panthers, whose owner has a giant wad of cash and is ready to make his mark.
Hedge fund manager David Tepper, who bought the team in May 2018 and is worth approximately $12 billion-$13 billion, sat patiently for two years and didn’t make any moves as he got to know his organization. But he does not seem content sitting idly much longer.
Tepper already announced plans to build a massive new training facility and retail space over the border in South Carolina. Then last month he opened his checkbook, luring Baylor coach Matt Rhule for a reported $70 million (with incentives) and coaxing offensive coordinator Joe Brady away from LSU with big dollar signs.
Now Tepper and the Panthers are ready to completely remake the football team — starting, possibly, with trading Cam Newton. The Panthers have approximately $31 million in cap space right now (according to overthecap.com), and trading Newton would gain $18.6 million. The Panthers also have solid draft picks — No. 7 overall, plus Nos. 38 and 69. They can add to that arsenal by trading Newton.
It puts the Panthers squarely in the running for Tua Tagovailoa or any of the top draft prospects not named Joe Burrow. Tepper’s deep pockets and desire to make a big impact also makes the Panthers, in my opinion, a dark horse in the Tom Brady sweepstakes. What better way to announce your arrival as a big-time NFL owner than to land the biggest fish in the game?
A Detroit TV station reported that the Lions are looking to trade Matthew Stafford this offseason, but it doesn’t make sense for two reasons. One, the Lions and Stafford just agreed to a restructured deal Dec. 26 that created cap space in the short term. Not only are the Lions and Stafford clearly working in concert, a trade would eat up an extra $11 million on the salary cap and leave the Lions with a massive $32 million dead cap hit on Stafford. But more importantly, Matt Patricia and Bob Quinn are in no position to be trading away their 32-year-old franchise quarterback. The two have gone 9-22-1 the last two years, and were lucky to survive this offseason. Patricia and Quinn need to win next season, which should take them out of the running for Tagovailoa or any other rookie QB. It also should make the Lions, currently armed with about $46 million in cap space, major players in free agency . . . One player I’m pulling for in the XFL is defensive end Kony Ealy, a former Super Bowl star for the Panthers who flamed out of New England and three other teams between 2017-18. Ealy was out of football in 2019, and the deaths of his father and sister from respiratory diseases, combined with the birth of his first child, sent him spiraling into a nervous breakdown and deep depression, he told XFL.com. “I just had so much on my plate,’’ Ealy said. “I didn’t handle it well. I just collapsed instead of stepping up.’’ But Ealy, 28, is back on the field now, and hopes to earn one last shot for the NFL. “I appreciate the game so much more this time around. I want to be the best I can be and get back to the highest level,” he said . . . The clock is ticking fast for the owners and NFL Players Association to agree to a new collective bargaining agreement. NFLPA president Eric Winston’s tenure will end approximately March 18, and he is ineligible to run again, meaning a new president could take over (Russell Okung has stated he will run) and negotiations might have to start over from scratch. And if there is no new deal by March 18, the NFL will have a few different salary cap rules for 2020 since it is the last year of the CBA, including: no June 1 cuts, no void years for contracts, all incentives must be accounted for this year, and teams can use both the franchise and transition tags, instead of one or the other.