Tom Brady is the biggest name to hit free agency since Peyton Manning. Manning moved from the Indianapolis Colts to the Denver Broncos back in 2012. Neck surgery, his age and the chance to draft Andrew Luck made Manning expendable. There's still a chance that Brady returns to the Patriots this year. Unlike Manning, there's some ambiguity with his offseason. But never before has it seemed more likely that he would leave.
The chatter has been constant since prior to the start of last season. Brady has encouraged speculation by refusing to quash rumours when they've arisen. He even teased fans with a bait-and-switch Super Bowl commercial.
In a move eerily similar to that of Lebron James prior to his move from Cleveland to Los Angeles two years ago, Brady just announced that he was launching a production company called 199 Productions. It's described as a global company but is headlined by the biggest names in Hollywood. Brady was born in California. Simple logic suggests that he would want to return to the West coast of America. Philip Rivers' departure from the Los Angeles Chargers clears a spot for him to start too.
While the Patriots remain odds-on to retain him, this kind of speculation has never existed previously. Brady has always reworked his contract each offseason to fit the needs of the team. By letting the speculation run all through the season, Brady is either leveraging the Patriots to pay him more than they ever have or he's leaving.
Paying Brady $35+ million per season would be a mistake but someone is likely to do it. The Patriots are reportedly willing to go as high as $30 million, which would be above-average money for a starter.
From a pure football perspective, the best fit for Brady would be the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Bruce Arians is the Buccaneers current head coach. He previously signed Carson Palmer toward the end of his career when he was the Arizona Cardinals head coach. Arians set Palmer up to play to an MVP level despite his declining skill set. Arians is also one of the most widely-respected coaches in the league. He's a former quarterbacks coach and former offensive coordinator. He's the type of mind and leader Brady would respect. That's an important detail.
When Manning left the Colts, he chose the Broncos primarily because he respected John Elway as the team's CEO. Brady will likely think similarly.
On the field, the Buccaneers have one of the best sets of skill position players in the league. Mike Evans is a superstar wide receiver, Chris Godwin is on track to be one too. O.J. Howard is the type of mismatch tight end that Brady has thrived with in the past. Cameron Brate is too. Ronald Jones and Dare Ogunbowale make up a strong tandem in the backfield. The Buccaneers' biggest issue on offence is their offensive line, a unit Brady can elevate with his intelligence and speed getting the ball out.
Furthermore, the Buccaneers have the fourth-most amount of cap space available this season. They can give Brady a huge deal and still sign any other big-name free agent he wants to bring with him.
The Buccaneers went 7-9 last season with arguably the worst starting quarterback in the league, Jameis Winston. Assuming Brady plays to the same level he did last season, read more on that here, it would be easy to take a step forward into the playoffs. The only potential negative is that he wouldn't be any closer to California. Tampa Bay is in Florida on the East coast. But that assumes the California narrative is accurate and not just simple logic permeating the media.
Brady is undoubtedly the biggest free agent available this year. He's not the best though. These are the best available free agents this year and their most logical landing spots:
1. Dak Prescott - Miami Dolphins
As previously noted, Dak Prescott is a $40 million quarterback. His numbers for the Cowboys haven't stood out over the course of his career, but that's because of his situation rather than his individual performance. Prescott's performances have been consistently outstanding. His skill set is built on an incredible mind, consistent accuracy and poise in the pocket. There's virtually no chance he leaves Dallas. They'll franchise tag him if they can't agree to a long-term deal.
If he somehow hits the free-agent market, the most intriguing landing spot would be in Miami with the Dolphins.
Brian Flores' team messed around and accidentally won too many games last season. They were supposed to tank, lose all their games and get the top pick in the draft. Instead, they now can't draft Joe Burrow first overall. Tua Tagovailoa might be still available to them but he's a massive risk. Prescott is a 26-year-old, proven top-10 starting quarterback. The Dolphins have the most money to spend and would get the cornerstone player they could rebuild around. Prescott would get the chance to escape the Cowboys' archaic offensive philosophies and have a team tailored to his skill set.
Playing for the Dolphins would likely mean punting on the playoffs in 2020. Prescott would essentially punt a season of his prime for an incredible long-term outlook.
2. Amari Cooper - New England Patriots
Amari Cooper drops a lot of passes. He dropped a lot of passes with the Raiders and he dropped a lot of passes with the Cowboys. But it doesn't matter.
Cooper is so exceptionally talented that the drops aren't enough to offset his value. He's not Odell Beckham, he's not on that top tier of NFL receivers, but he's right there beneath them. Cooper creates separation against every kind of coverage. He most famously roasted the Eagles defensive backs when they tried to jam him at the line of scrimmage in press alignments over the last two seasons. Cooper finds the soft spots in zone coverages. He creates big plays after the catch. When he catches the ball in open space, he has the speed to run away from those in pursuit.
Like Prescott, Cooper has been handicapped by the offences he's played in. Kellen Moore was a marginal improvement over Scott Linehan. Cooper needs to land in a scheme that lets him run every possible route, a scheme that maximizes his impact by sending him on different vertical and intermediate routes rather than an overreliance on isolated stop routes.
The Cowboys avoided signing free agents last offseason to keep as much cap space as possible for Cooper and Prescott this offseason. Despite that, rumours suggest that Cooper is going to hit the free-agent market. And the Broncos are reportedly interested. The Broncos traded Emmanuel Sanders away during the season so there is some logic to that move. Drew Lock will be entering his first full season as a starter this year, having Cooper and Courtland Sutton to throw to, with Noah Fant at tight end, would be a strong foundation for his career.
Many teams have big cap space and a need at wide receiver. This year's draft is very strong at that position so rebuilding teams are more likely to look past free agency. Contenders will see Cooper as a priority. The Broncos aren't on that list, instead the Patriots, Titans and Packers make more sense. The Packers don't have the money, they'll likely look to Emmanuel Sanders instead, and the Titans have other positions to address. That leaves the Patriots.
Regardless of who plays quarterback for Bill Belichick's team next year, they need to upgrade at wide receiver. Julian Edelman has lost a step and N'Keal Harry is in the early stages of his development. Both Edelman and Harry can start next year without being the number one option. Cooper would fit perfectly as the lead receiver working outside the numbers, keeping Edelman in the slot and drawing coverage away from Harry. Josh McDaniels calls a diverse offence that would maximize Cooper's impact.
3. Hunter Henry - Green Bay Packers
Prior to tearing his ACL two seasons ago, Hunter Henry was emerging as one of the league's best tight ends. That disruption hurt his reputation, while his production has been limited by his situation. Philip Rivers declined into an ineffective quarterback and Keenan Allen has been the focal point of the team's passing game. Allen is one of the best receivers in the league so flying under-the-radar because of him is no indictment of Henry's quality.
Rivers leaving means the Chargers have the capital to retain any of their free agents. Unless Henry desperately wants to leave and the Chargers don't think he's worth the franchise tag, he'll be back in Los Angeles.
Should he hit the open market, he would be a perfect replacement for Jimmy Graham in Green Bay. The Packers didn't have a lot of money to spend entering free agency, they had $20 million in cap space. Releasing Graham gave them $8 million more. Henry would be a huge upgrade over Graham as a versatile receiving tight end and as a blocker. Graham is 33 and was a linear athlete with a narrow skill set during his prime. He had become an anchor on the passing game.
Aaron Rodgers hasn't had a tight end of the calibre of Henry in his career. And because of Henry's versatility, he could fill two needs at once for the offence. Matt LaFleur likes using blocking tight ends and the Packers don't have a viable second wide receiver. Therefore, in some packages, Henry could line up out wide and Jace Sternberger, Robert Tonyan or Marcedes Lewis could line up at tight end. It's something they tried with Graham last year but he was too ineffective to make it work.
Premier receiving talent is what the Packers desperately need this offseason. Henry would get to play with Rodgers and be a greater piece of the passing game alongside Davante Adams. The Packers would have Adams, Henry and Aaron Jones with David Bakhtiari and Rodgers as the protagonists of their offence. They'd still be able to draft another receiver to round out the unit in April.
Henry is a strong candidate to be the steal of the offseason.
4. Jadeveon Clowney - New York Giants
Jadeveon Clowney was franchise tagged last season. The Houston Texans tagged him before trading him to the Seattle Seahawks. Part of that agreement was that the Seahawks wouldn't tag him again this season. That guarantees that Clowney will be available to every team this offseason if he chooses so.
Clowney came out of college as a generational prospect but has never developed into the superstar pass rusher he was supposed to be. Yet, his value is still sky-high. He's a good enough pass rusher to stay on the field in obvious passing situations and he's a wrecking ball run defender. Clowney's sheer size, athleticism and brutality make him an intimidating force who could find a role on any team, in any scheme with any personnel.
The Seahawks set Clowney up for success and would make a lot of sense if he chose to re-sign there. To maximize his money he will have to look elsewhere.
David Gettleman is still somehow the GM of the New York Giants. Gettleman has an unhealthy fixation on the running game to the point that he's jettisoned quality players in favour of targetting more physical players. Clowney should be a dream signing for Gettleman. He's one of the very best, if not the best run defender in the league. The Giants drafted Dexter Lawrence as a run-stopping interior lineman and traded for Leonard Williams to play inside during last season. Clowney could immediately start on the edge or move inside to play alongside those big-bodied defenders.
The Giants have almost $80 million in cap space. Daniel Jones is on a suppressed salary for the next four years. Money isn't an issue for them. Clowney would help fix the age profile of the defence. Currently, the Giants have too many inexperienced players and older players playing in roles they're not capable of filling.
5. Marcus Mariota - Chicago Bears
Marcus Mariota took the blame for everything that faltered around him last year. Ryan Tannehill replaced him and played to an elite level during the regular season. Tannehill elevated those around him while the supporting cast itself also took big steps forward independent of the quarterback position. Mariota was unlucky because he has played quite well in bad situations over the course of his career. His play dropped off last year on a small sample before he was benched.
He still has a skill set to be one of the best quarterbacks in the league. More importantly, he doesn't need to be that to start again.
Mariota fits best in a spread offence. He needs to spend most of his time in shotgun, with receivers rather than tight ends on the field around him. The Titans always tried to force him into a run-oriented scheme that forced him to play under pressure and throw into tight windows. In Chicago, Matt Nagy has done a lot wrong as head coach but also brought in a scheme that perfectly suits Mariota.
The Bears could sign Mariota as competition for Trubisky the way the Titans did Tannehill for Mariota. They could also sign him and install him as the starter from day one. Mariota is a far superior quarterback to Trubisky, he has a level of accuracy and decision-making that Trubisky hasn't shown consistently.
Without a first-round pick or a lot of cap space, the Bears have limited avenues to find a new quarterback. They're very fortunate that Mariota will be available at an affordable price.
6. Teddy Bridgewater - Jacksonville Jaguars
Teddy Bridgewater should still be the Minnesota Vikings starting quarterback. His devastating knee injury changed the direction of the league as a whole by forcing the Vikings to ultimately sign Kirk Cousins. Cousins has prevented one of the most talented rosters in the league from reaching the Super Bowl over recent years.
Cousins has the numbers and the availability that Bridgewater is lacking. But Bridgewater has everything that Cousins doesn't. Poise, accuracy, consistent decision making and an ability to be effective against pressure. He can throw receivers open and hit tiny windows in coverage with great timing and anticipation. When he last started, he played behind the worst offensive line in the league and worked miracles to make the offence functional. Charles Johnson was his second receiver at the time.
The Los Angeles Chargers would make a lot of sense for Bridgewater. They have Keenan Allen to be the best receiver he's ever played with and plenty of complementary talent across the offence. Anthony Lynn isn't an ideal fit philosophically though.
Instead, Jay Gruden is perfect. Gruden is the offensive coordinator of the Jacksonville Jaguars. Before becoming Washington's head coach, Gruden was an outstanding offensive coordinator for the Cincinnati Bengals. He excelled at setting Andy Dalton up for success in a spread offence. He worked similar magic with Kirk Cousins when they were together in Washington. Bridgewater's ability to connect on short and intermediate throws at a high rate would allow Gruden to immediately upgrade the Jaguars offence.
Gardner Minshew had some success last year as a late-round rookie. He wasn't good enough to keep the starting job though. The Jaguars need a new quarterback. They previously passed on Bridgewater during the draft for Blake Bortles, but that was a previous regime.
The Jaguars don't have a star receiver but they have depth and quality, young players who Bridgewater could help take the next step in their careers. Despite being drafted in 2014, Bridgewater is still only 27 years of age. He has a wealth of experience having played for teams coached by Norv Turner, Pat Shurmur and Sean Payton.
Bridgewater and Gruden together would bring stability to an offence that hasn't had any for more than a decade.
Other notable names:
Philip Rivers - Las Vegas Raiders.
Rivers shouldn't be signed as a starter. He apparently wants to move to Florida, meaning the Buccaneers or Dolphins. Assuming those teams go in other directions, Rivers makes sense as Derek Carr's backup in Las Vegas. Carr is coming off his best season but the Raiders can't be certain of his future yet. Rivers could prove security, guidance and competition in one package.
Jameis Winston - Los Angeles Rams.
The Rams need to look for options behind Jared Goff. Blake Bortles offers no upside as a backup, Winston likely doesn't either. Sean McVay doesn't have a good option here so Winston's potential upside makes the most sense.
Kareem Hunt - Miami Dolphins.
None of the Dolphins running backs are good enough and the team needs to focus their draft capital on more important positions. Kareem Hunt played well in a weird role for the Browns last season. He's further away from his suspension so there should be minimal controversy over his addition. The Dolphins likely won't be relevant until after this upcoming season, so Hunt makes a lot of sense as their primary back moving forward. He's the rare 25-year-old star on the open market.
Emmanuel Sanders - New England Patriots/Green Bay Packers.
The Patriots previously tried to sign Sanders when he was with the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Packers desperately need a number two receiver and Sanders' transition would be smooth coming from Kyle Shanahan's offence. The 49ers and Packers essentially run the same offence. Sanders is a perfect fit for a contender in need of more talent out wide.
Robby Anderson - Indianapolis Colts.
The Colts haven't had a competent complement to T.Y. Hilton since Reggie Wayne. Anderson and Hilton are similar in style, both are at their best running vertically. Both are well-rounded enough to complement each other and fit with Jacoby Brissett. Assuming Brissett returns as the starter.
Jordan Reed - Buffalo Bills.
Concussions ruined Jordan Reed's career. He was once the most intimidating receiving tight end in the league outside of Rob Gronkowski. He's no longer that. He'll be a cheap signing with huge upside for whoever picks him up this offseason. Dawson Knox is an emerging tight end for the Buffalo Bills, but the Bills don't have a game-breaking receiver anywhere on the field. Reed could find opportunity in that offence.
Everson Griffen - Baltimore Ravens.
Everson Griffen is a superstar. His release from the Minnesota Vikings wasn't about performance but age and cap space. The Vikings tied their own hands, forcing them to part with one of their top performers from last season. He's a dangerous, consistent edge rusher, everything the Baltimore Ravens desperately need. Maybe with Griffen they could stop sending all-out blitzes every third down.
Dante Fowler - New York Giants.
Dante Fowler has proven that he can play as a stand-up rusher or as a pure edge rusher. The Giants desperately need a proven edge rusher. Similar to Clowney, Fowler is proven quality with the right age profile for a building team.
Bradley Roby - Philadelphia Eagles.
There are bigger names available at cornerback but they're all older than 28-year-old Bradley Roby. Cornerback is a young man's game so signing a big-name defensive back in free agency is always dangerous. Roby will be a value addition and he's already said he won't be returning to Houston. Replacing Byron Jones in Dallas could work if the money works, but it's the Eagles who would maximize his on-field impact. The Eagles need cornerback help and play aggressive man coverage, the style that best suited Roby when he played his best football in Denver.