Tom Brady: A return to Foxboro seems smartest, but . . .
I can't tell you with any confidence whatsoever that Brady re-signs with New England, but it does make the most sense to me one month out. When I left a short session with Brady 44 days ago, after New England's loss to Tennessee in the wild-card game, I thought there was at least a 50-50 chance he'd leave. I still think so. I still think there's a decent chance he's a 405 billboard with a lightning bolt on his helmet by April, the key to a desperate drive by the Chargers to sell tickets and luxury seating for their first season in the new L.A. stadium this fall. Or maybe he'll be one of the old-timers-Cher, Diana Ross, Rod Stewart-with 2020 residencies in Las Vegas. In L.A. or Vegas, Brady would be one hell of a draw-and he would have better skill players today in either place than he had last fall in Foxboro. Which matters. Tennessee wouldn't shock me either.
Having said that, for now, I'll go against the grain and say my gut feeling is he'll settle on the Patriots. It seems the most reasonable solution to the Brady free-agency dilemma.
I'll preface this by saying none of this logic matters if Bill Belichick has already decided he wants to start a new era that doesn't include a 43-year-old quarterback who makes a lot of money. Belichick might want to begin anew with a quarterback he feels is good and who costs significantly less-someone like 32-year-old Andy Dalton; the Patriots would probably have to pay a third or fourth-round pick for Dalton, who has a year left on his contract and no future in Cincinnati. (The Patriots have two thirds and two fourths, including a likely third-round compensatory pick.) If Belichick makes up his mind that it's time to move on from Brady, then my argument is moot. Dalton, by the way, would be my pick to start in New England next year if Brady goes. Belichick would love Dalton. He's a quiet, intense, lunchpail Texan who makes no excuses. And Dalton would embrace the Patriot ethos.
If a Brady return is going to work, I think what has to happen is a summit meeting with Brady and Belichick . . . or Brady, Belichick and Kraft. I came away from my meeting with Brady last month best-guessing (Brady doesn't air family business in the press) that, for him to return, the team around him is the most important factor. The team, meaning his coaches and his offensive mates. Josh McDaniels, the quarterback coach or offensive coordinator for 13 of Brady's 20 New England seasons, is back. Belichick is back. What if Brady makes it known he'd return if they signed one of the top two free-agent tight ends, Austin Hooper or Hunter Henry, and then a couple of the free-agent wide receivers-assuming Amari Cooper's too expensive, maybe Emmanuel Sanders and Chris Hogan, a familiar face who was vital in the Super Bowl win over Atlanta? Then, while backup Jarrett Stidham is being groomed, Brady gives New England two more years of a championship window.
Regarding the money: I just think they can figure it out. I doubt that would stand in the way of a deal getting done.
Now, it could be that Brady has a bit of wanderlust, and spending his last two years (or one, or three) in a land far, far away from New England. Maybe the thought of playing in L.A. or Las Vegas is appealing. Maybe being wooed is appealing. And maybe he'll look at the newness as a rebirth. Only he knows if that's really important. I can't see it, but who knows. If Brady goes on a Peyton Manning free-agency tour, with helicopters following his chauffeured Escalade from private airstrips to team facilities, I'm skeptical on a New England return. Hard to imagine Belichick getting in line with Anthony Lynn and Jon Gruden and whoever the wooers would be. I'd guess Belichick in that case would think, Well, we've gone 14-6 without Brady since he took the job in 2001. We'll figure it out with someone else.
One other point about leaving, and Manning. When Manning signed with Denver, it was pretty well known he was going to have his fingerprints all over the offense. I have never sensed Brady wanted any other role other than quarterback. He wants his coaches to take care of the little things, and in New England, that's what has happened. Would he like working with Chargers offensive coordinator Shane Steichen? Does he even know Shane Steichen? Again: Brady may view that part of it as refreshing and new. Only he knows.
With all the qualifiers, you must wonder why I have picked the Patriots? It's because it's the smartest football move. And I think, in the end, Brady will make the decision mostly because of football, and what gives him the best chance to win another Super Bowl. Staying, with some offensive upgrades, gives him that. I've vacillated between Brady staying and going, and this dart-throw of him staying in New England is based on logic, not emotion. We all know Kraft wants that to happen. In a month, we'll know if Brady and Belichick do.
Drew Brees, Taysom Hill, Teddy Bridgewater: It's not that complicated
What it boils down to:
• I think it's more likely than not that Brees returns, eschewing TV for one year.
• I think Hill, barring an unlikely restricted-free-agency offer of good money and a likely starting job, will remain a Saint in 2020.
• I think Bridgewater is most likely (but not certainly) gone, because he knows the Saints want to give Hill the chance to be Brees' heir.
Like his friend and quasi-mentoree from San Diego, Philip Rivers, Brees knows he'll have 20 years to do football on TV if he wants (or to do politics, or to be anything other than a quarterback), and only one or two to be a quarterback at a high level with a legitimate chance to win a Super Bowl. He and Payton are such a good fit that they complete each other's sentences. That's literally true; I saw it in a Saturday night QB meeting in New Orleans in 2018. Even if he walks into the ESPN Monday night booth, or some booth for some network, at something like $7 million per year, that's a quarter or a fifth of what he'd make taking one shot at a Super Bowl-and he knows the Saints are close. Plus, chances are there will be another big network job there for him in '21 or '22, when his body is telling him, "Enough."
I think Hill will have the chance to return in 2020 even if Brees retires. I think the Saints would probably give him the shot to win the starting job-and wouldn't want to pay Bridgewater to keep from the open market and a starting job somewhere else. Payton was honest last week in this column, telling me he thinks it's likely Hill will get an offer sheet in free-agency. I'm not so sure, but whatever the offer is, Hill already feels the love from one of the most imagination play-designers and callers in this century, Payton. So, somehow, the Saints will make it worth Hill's while to stay for one more year, and let him know he's next in line when Brees leaves.
Assuming Hill is going to be a good to very good NFL starter when Brees leaves is a gigantic leap of faith and could be way wrong. But the other day I put on the Chargers-Saints preseason game from last August on NFL GamePass and saw Hill, in 32 minutes, complete 11-of-15 and lead the Saints back from a 17-3 deficit to win. It's preseason, and who cares. But before you say Hill can't play, or before you say Hill is a fools-gold Tebow II, watch some of the plays Hill made. "Taysom Hill, I take my hat off to him," Chargers coach Anthony Lynn said that day. "He's a heck of a player." Moreover, Payton thinks Hill can do it. He's seen him every day for almost three years. Wouldn't he know better than those on the outside?
And stop this nonsense about how Hill's too old, and who wants to start a rebuild behind a 30-year-old quarterback. (He turns 30 Aug. 23.) He's played 1,125 snaps in three NFL seasons, 62 percent on special teams. He's 30 because of a two-year Mormon mission, a fifth college season at BYU, and three NFL seasons in the shadows. He's not going to fail because he'll be 30 or 31 when his starting career begins. He'll fail, if he does, because he's not good enough.
Hill succeeding is no sure thing. But too many people are too quick to dismiss him. I'm not.
I just can't see the Saints laying out big money to sign Bridgewater, even if Brees walks. That would be choosing Bridgewater long-term over Hill, which might be smart. But I just don't see the Saints, in the event Brees retires, paying Bridgewater to be the man for the next three or four years, thus forcing Hill to take almost any offer in restricted free-agency. And so . . .
Teddy Bridgewater: Tampa Bay makes sense
I can hear it now: Bridgewater doesn't have the deep arm Bruce Arians needs. I would dispute that. When Arians put Carson Palmer in the pilot's chair in Arizona, his previous NFL yards per attempt in Cincinnati and Oakland was 7.2. Bridgewater's career NFL yards per attempt: 7.2.
It's dangerous, of course, to consider giving up on Jameis Winston, the number one pick in 2015. He's a dynamic passer, well-liked by teammates and coaches. And Arians and offensive coordinator may think they can fix the seemingly fatal carelessness that ails Winston, who has thrown more picks than any quarterback since entering the league. But I noticed something with Arians this season. He defended almost every Winston miscue for the first three months of the season. In December, though, that changed. Tampa was 7-7 entering the last two games, both at home. In game 15, against Houston, Winston threw interceptions on two of the first five Buc snaps, and Tampa was down 10-0 after four minutes. The Bucs lost by three. Next week: Overtime against Atlanta. First play, Winston somehow didn't see lurker linebacker Deion Jones on tight end Cameron Brate. Pick six. "It smells as bad as it could possible smell," Arians said after the game. The Bucs had a clear path to a redemptive 9-7 season, but six interceptions in the last two weeks ruined that.
So what does that have to do with now? Which free-agent quarterback would you pursue, assuming Bridgewater is free:
• Winston, 26, with a career 61.3 completion percentage and 86.9 passer rating, and a prodigious 121 touchdowns in five years. But he had 30 interceptions in 16 games in 2019.
• Or Bridgewater, 27, with a career 65.2 completion percentage and 88.3 passer rating, and a pedestrian 38 touchdowns in 44 career games. He has 25 interceptions in 44 career games.
Read the last two sentences, and think of how a coach would think about turnovers.
This is the story about Bridgewater I appreciate: After Drew Brees was lost with a hand injury in Week 2 and Bridgewater took over, Bridgewater hosted a dinner in Seattle-site of the next game-for all the offensive players, basically to say, All is not lost. We'll be fine. Minus Brees, the Bridgewater-led Saints went 5-0. Maybe the Bucs will think Winston deserves another chance with Arians and offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich. But I won't be surprised if they go after Bridgewater or Ryan Tannehill, the best free-agent quarterbacks on the market.
Philip Rivers: Colts look like best bet
I think two teams make the most sense, in this order: Indianapolis and Carolina. Rivers would be perfect for the Colts. He sat in the quarterback room in San Diego from 2013 to 2015 with Colts coach Frank Reich (QB coach, coordinator) and Colts offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni (offensive quality control, QB coach)-and averaged 31 touchdown passes and 14 picks a year. The Colts have the pieces to win now, are $86.2 million under the cap, per Over The Cap, and have three prime draft picks in a stocked draft (13th, 34th and 44th overall); it's quite conceivable that they could win the AFC South with a few upgrades, including at quarterback. Indy GM Charis Ballard took a chance in signing Jacoby Brissett to a two-year deal last year, but he had an injury-affected sub-prime season and the Colts can't enter 2020 just hoping Brissett confirms the promise he showed entering last year. If I were Ballard, I'd go hard after Rivers, the perfect bridge to whatever's next (Brissett or otherwise) in Indiana.
Carolina has shown it won't be outbid on things of import like a quarterback, so if the Panthers want Rivers, this could be a bidding war-within reason. I can't see Ballard going overboard for anyone but I can see David Tepper doing it. He already did, for Matt Rhule.
Ryan Tannehill: Why would he leave?
His career was reborn in the last three months of 2019-70.2 percent passing, 117.5 rating (the NFL's best single-season passer rating since 2013)-and I can't figure out why the Titans would look elsewhere. I get the attraction for Tom Brady, and if he'd sign in Tennessee, I suppose I get it. But Tannehill is 11 years younger, and he just showed the Titans a 15-game trial in which he won 10 games with 27 TDs and six interceptions. If I were GM Jon Robinson, I wouldn't let him out the door.
Cam Newton: Man of mystery
Logic says the Chargers, but I won't be surprised if the new kids in L.A. are going to be more of draft-and-develop than big splash. That changes, of course, if Brady comes. Tyrod Taylor, who was Rivers' backup and is well-respected inside the Chargers, could get the first snaps of 2020 in new So-Fi Stadium while the quarterback of the future (Justin Herbert?) marinates for a few months or a season after being the seventh overall pick. Might be a tough sell to a public already skeptical of the Chargers' ability to make Los Angeles home, but GM Tom Telesco is charged with winning, not selling luxury seating.
Newton will play 2020 at age 31. He is five years removed from his MVP season. But you don't have to go back that far to see when he was good for a sustained period. Under Norv Turner in the first half of 2018 in Carolina, the Panthers were 6-2, Newton completed 67 percent with 15 TDs and four interceptions, and he beat Super Bowl champion Philadelphia at the Linc, as well as Baltimore and Tampa with near-perfect games. It's true that, post-shoulder surgery, no one's sure exactly who Newton is. But I'd look into him thoroughly if I were the Chargers . . . and I wouldn't close the door on him if I were the Panthers.
Joe Burrow: Like it or not, Bengal-bound
It's the only choice for a team that needs a long-term quarterback. Burrow is not just the best choice because he's the local-boy-making-good (his Athens, Ohio, home is 2.5 hours east of Cincinnati on U.S. 50). He's the best choice because he's the best quarterback. Coach Zac Taylor likes a quarterback who can play equally well from the pocket-where a lot of his throws will be designed to come from-and also can be proficient on the move, often times on designed movement throws. If you watched Burrow, particularly when he had to move some against defenses like Alabama's, you'll know what Taylor likes is what Burrow can do very well. Burrow doesn't take too many chances, he's above-average accurate downfield, and, with the shaky Cincinnati offensive line, won't be cowed by pass-rushes pushing him out of the pocket.
Burrow, a coach's son, will also fit well with Taylor because he always was able to understand the "why" to so many defensive schemes in talks with his dad Jim, the former Ohio University defensive coordinator. And Taylor wants his quarterback to understand where each play in the game plan fits in the grander scheme of the total plan for a game. Burrow is thoughtful and confident, and he and Taylor will be a good combo platter.
Now, whether it works-who knows? But Burrow is the favorite to go first overall, and to Cincinnati.
Tua Tagovailoa: A tradeup, or Miami
I asked a longtime NFL team physician recently if he was worried about a 13-month span in which Tagovailoa suffered two high ankle sprains and a significant hip injury, and had ankle and hip surgery. Without examining the records or the player, this doctor said because all three injuries were contact injuries, and all three would be the kind of injuries that are probably not chronic, he probably would not red-flag Tagovailoa as an injury risk. That's one doctor, who would tell his team: If you want the guy to stay healthy, design an offense that doesn't put him in harm's way as much as he was at Alabama. And with Tagovailoa being an accurate passer (70 percent his last two years, with only nine interceptions in 607 attempts), that should be the priority.
A bunch of teams could theoretically jump Miami (picking fifth) in the first round if Tagovailoa or Justin Herbert becomes the object of affection between now and the draft. Teams at 6 (Chargers), 7 (Panthers), 12 (Raiders) or 13 (Colts) all might be tempted. But Miami, with four picks in the top 40, could trump them all. I doubt Miami exits this draft without a quarterback it likes very much.
Dak Prescott: I don't believe the hype
The contract has gotten ugly, but it seems foolhardy to suggest he won't be back in Dallas.
The rest? It could be that Jameis Winston will have to move, and fight for a starting job somewhere . . . I have to think Chicago could be in the market for a better backup than Chase Daniel, knowing he may have to play half the season or more if Mitchell Trubisky has a bad September . . . Alex Smith, if healthy (big if) could provide significant competition for Dwayne Haskins in Washington, with a new coaching staff wiping the slate clean . . . Case Keenum could be an attractive insurance policy in Cleveland . . . The Raiders could be aggressive, and I would not be surprised, if they don't sign Brady, to see them in the Winston market if he's free.