INDIANAPOLIS — Any conversation about where Tom Brady will play in 2020, if it’s not with the Patriots, usually starts with the Chargers and Raiders. Those teams have been rumored to be Brady’s top landing spots.
The Titans are also a hot rumor, considering Brady’s relationship with coach Mike Vrabel and the Titans’ uncertainty at quarterback.
But with Brady set to become a free agent in three weeks, it’s time to take another team a lot more seriously — a certain band of pirates down on Florida’s west coast, who look ready to pillage the Patriots of their prized booty.
Beware the Tampa Bay Buccaneers — they need a quarterback, and they should be seen as a serious threat to steal Brady away from the Patriots.
While most of the buzz has revolved around the Chargers and Raiders, the Bucs have quietly been lurking as a major player in the Brady sweepstakes.
Tracking rumors and news about Tom Brady’s free agency
Last week, a league source closely connected to one of this year’s free agent quarterbacks said the Bucs are one of three teams — along with the Chargers and Raiders — that most often come up in his conversations with league personnel about Brady’s potential landing spot.
And Tuesday at the NFL Combine, the Bucs all but grabbed a microphone and shouted to the world that they want Brady.
Their general manager, Jason Licht, didn’t sugarcoat the fact the team is looking at other options besides retaining Jameis Winston, who will also be a free agent next month.
“We’re not saying we don’t want Jameis,” Licht said. “We’re just saying we want to check what’s behind door number 2, 3, 4.”
And Bucs coach Bruce Arians violated every tampering rule on the NFL’s books when he was asked if there was a quarterback available who would cause him to “pick up the phone.”
“Tom Brady,” Arians said.
Brady won’t be a free agent until March 17 at 4 p.m., and the Patriots could file tampering charges against the Bucs if they want to.
But that’s a card not often played in the NFL, and the Patriots are probably happy to let teams tamper with Brady before he becomes a free agent. It would allow the Patriots to get a good grasp on Brady’s market — which is going to be robust, per the source. He said Brady is the linchpin of the quarterback market — every team that needs one wants to know what Brady is going to do before moving on to Ryan Tannehill, Philip Rivers or any other available quarterback.
“They all want Tom,” the source said.
The Chargers seem like a good fit for Brady because they are desperate for the immediate boost in attention he would bring. Los Angeles also has great weather and would be a terrific market for Brady to expand his TB12 business.
The Raiders make sense for many of the same reasons. Brady sells jerseys and season tickets and gets you on national television — and also may get you closer to a championship in the immediate future.
But the Bucs, on paper, look like the best match.
“It does make sense,” one lower-ranking Bucs source acknowledged to me on Tuesday.
The Buccaneers currently have a void at quarterback. They have tremendous weapons in the passing game — arguably the best receiver in the NFL in 26-year-old Mike Evans; an up-and-coming star in Chris Godwin, who just had a 1,300-yard season; a solid No. 3 receiver in Breshad Perriman; and an elite tight end in O.J. Howard.
Licht knows Brady well — Licht was a Patriots scout in 2000 when they drafted Brady.
Arians, entering his second season as the Bucs’ coach, has a history of coaching star quarterbacks — Peyton Manning, Ben Roethlisberger and Carson Palmer all learned under him.
And the Bucs’ defense under coordinator Todd Bowles was surprisingly solid last year, finishing first against the run (3.3 yards per carry) and 13th in yards per attempt allowed (7.0).
Add in the warm sunshine, a less-than-daunting NFC South landscape, about $80 million in salary-cap space and no state income tax, and the Bucs might be the most attractive option for Brady, should he want to leave New England.
The one issue would be scheme fit. Arians’s offense is full of seven-step drops and deep shots down the field, which has never been Brady’s forte.
But Brady definitely fits Arians’s ideal quarterback mold in one sense — he doesn’t throw interceptions.
Winston threw 30 picks last season, the first player to reach that threshold since 1988. The interceptions drove Arians nuts.
“I loved him and I hated him,” Arians said of Winston on Tuesday, via SiriusXM NFL. “There’s a lot to love, just the mistakes sometimes you scratch your head. I think there were about 10 [interceptions] that weren’t his fault, but I would’ve liked to see a better December.”
Brady, of course, doesn’t throw interceptions. He threw an interception on 1.3 percent of his pass attempts last season, tied for the sixth-lowest rate in the league. Winston was the worst in the NFL at 4.8 percent.
The Bucs would be getting 17 years older at quarterback by switching from Winston to Brady, but they don’t seem to mind. They haven’t made the playoffs in 12 years and are desperate for success.
“This is a unique year where there are a lot of experienced quarterbacks that could potentially become free agents,” Licht said. “We want to make the best decision possible for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and we’re in a unique position this year.”
Uniquely positioned to pilfer away Brady, should he want to leave New England for a new challenge.
Ben Volin can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin