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Tom Brady, Cam Newton, and the Biggest Story Lines of the NFL Offseason

With the Super Bowl in the rearview mirror, let’s break down the stories that will define the league’s spring and early summer. Most pressing is the possibility that some big-name quarterbacks might be on the move.

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The NFL offseason is a myth, like Bigfoot or boneless chicken wings (they’re rebranded chicken nuggets, wake up, sheeple). It doesn’t exist. Yes, the Super Bowl is over, but the year in football is just beginning. The NFL combine is in three weeks, free agency is in six weeks, and the draft is in 12 weeks. Football is never off, so let’s look at the biggest story lines this offseason.

Will Tom Brady leave the Patriots?

Last week Tom Brady posted an Instagram picture of him literally looking into the light at the end of the tunnel.

Brady’s post turned out to be him trolling us for a Hulu ad that ran during the Super Bowl. (Hulu has live sports! I said it! Give me money, Hulu!) More telling than Brady’s spon-con was the reaction from Patriots fans, who may not be emotionally prepared for what the next month will bring. The post was a joke, but the prospect of Brady leaving is real. He’s a free agent for the first time in his career and can sign anywhere he chooses as of March, though he can sign with the Patriots anytime before then. New England (the organization, but also the entire region) wants a deal in place before free agency begins on March 16 to avoid what happened last year with Rob Gronkowski. The Patriots were not informed of Gronk’s retirement decision until March 24, more than a week after free agency began, and the Patriots were left to pick from the scraps to find a replacement. This year the team wants to know about Brady’s plan before free agency so they can find a replacement immediately.

There is a lot of speculation about where Brady will go, so let’s separate fact from fiction. There are reports that teams like the Chargers and Raiders are interested in signing Brady. But there is no clear indication of which teams interest Brady aside from the Patriots. That’s a huge difference. Any team without a franchise quarterback would be happy to add Brady for marketing purposes alone. Brady is in control, and we have few ideas about what he wants. NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport reported the Patriots are willing to sign Brady to a deal paying him $30 million-plus annually, but it’s possible that Brady isn’t just looking for money, but for an organizational commitment to put better pieces around him. Perhaps he was not satisfied throwing to Julian Edelman, N’Keal Harry, Mohamed Sanu, Phillip Dorsett, and Ben Watson in New England’s playoff loss to the Tennessee Titans.

Will Philip Rivers play in 2020?

Like many people who retire when they get old, Rivers moved his family to Florida for the winter. Rivers became a free agent when his contract expired at the end of the season, and his move seems to indicate that he won’t be the Los Angeles Chargers quarterback in 2020. The question now is whether he’ll play elsewhere or retire. Rivers threw for 4,615 yards in 2019, fourth most in the NFL, but he played some of the worst football of his career down the stretch, including 10 interceptions in his final six games when the Chargers finished 1-5 and Rivers looked cooked.

Will Dak Prescott become the highest-paid quarterback in football?

Prescott is set to become a free agent in March, but there is almost zero chance he gets there. ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported the Cowboys will likely use their franchise tag on Prescott. It’s a fancy way for a team to force a player to play on a one-year contract. But both sides prefer a long-term deal. The question is for how much? Schefter reported that the two sides “disagree over the two-time Pro Bowler’s value, leaving them at an impasse.”

That impasse? Prescott going from the most underpaid NFL player just a few years ago to potentially the highest-paid player a few months from now. Dallas wants to sign Prescott to a long-term deal, but that deal has a relatively high floor. The franchise tag for Prescott this year will be roughly $33 million. Franchise-tagging Prescott again in 2021 would be roughly $40 million. Add those two together, and the floor (!) for Prescott’s deal is $73 million over two years, or $36.5 million annually. Russell Wilson’s current deal of $35 million annually is the highest in football history, and Dak has a strong case to top it after the best year of his career. Again, breaking Wilson’s deal is the floor. The ceiling depends on …

Will Patrick Mahomes sign a paradigm-shifting contract extension?

Contract negotiations are based on precedent. The team argues that Player A should take a deal like Player X, while Agent A argues Player A deserves a deal like Player Z. Eventually, they meet in the middle at Y. Patrick Mahomes has no precedent. He is the youngest quarterback in NFL history to win the Super Bowl MVP award alone, let alone the youngest player to win both the Super Bowl MVP and MVP. He is one of three players to throw for 50 touchdowns in a season along with Peyton Manning and Tom Brady, but Manning and Brady did that in their 30s. Mahomes has accomplished all this before turning 25, well before most quarterbacks hit their prime. Mahomes has achieved more than most quarterbacks do in their entire careers, and the best is yet to come. All of this makes his negotiation completely different from anything that has come before it. His agent, Leigh Steinberg (who was the inspiration for Tom Cruise’s character in the movie Jerry Maguire), won’t be comparing Mahomes to other players and asking for different provisions. Steinberg can use entirely different examples from other sports and industries to create a new language around football negotiations. Mahomes could ask for a massive amount of money, like $200 million. He could ask for a short deal à la LeBron James or Kirk Cousins and demand $120 million over three years. He could ask for a clause preventing him from being franchise tagged or voiding his deal if he wins MVP or a timeshare on Mars. He can ask for whatever he wants, but what he seems to want is to stay in Kansas City for a long time. Mahomes could ask for the moon, but he might settle for just a lot of money.

Where will Cam Newton play?

Newton’s situation is confusing. He missed all but two games of the season with a foot injury, which came after he returned from an injury to his throwing shoulder that plagued him for the final stretch of 2018. Newton turns 31 in May, and his contract expires after the 2020 season. He is due for an extension, but a new contract is complicated because Carolina is under new ownership with David Tepper, a man so rich that when he moved from New Jersey to Florida, it cost New Jersey so much in tax revenue it put the entire state budget at risk. Tepper finally put his stamp on the Panthers franchise by signing fellow blue-collar football dude Matt Rhule from Baylor to a seven-year deal worth $62 million to turn around the franchise. When Rhule was asked about working with Newton in January, he did not confirm much about Newton’s status.

“I certainly look forward to working with him,” Rhule told ESPN. “I hope so. But I don’t know enough about … everything that’s kinda happening right now.’’

There have been plenty of doubts about whether the Panthers would keep Newton or trade him to create cap space. The Panthers could save roughly $19 million in salary-cap space by letting Newton go, but $19 million isn’t as much as it sounds for an NFL team. The salary cap is expected to be roughly $200 million in 2020, so Newton costing roughly 10 percent of the team’s cap space is reasonable. Jared Goff’s cap hit with the Rams this year is $36 million, so Newton seems like a bargain if he’s anywhere close to healthy. If the Panthers do decide to move on, he could be a major asset to teams looking to contend. Chicago in particular could flourish with a healthy Newton usurping Mitchell Trubisky as the team’s quarterback.

What will the Titans do with Derrick Henry and Ryan Tannehill?

In the words of Marlo Stanfield, the Titans have two good problems. Ryan Tannehill emerged from an afterthought backup quarterback to a viable starter. Once Tannehill took over from Marcus Mariota, he led or nearly led the league in every passing efficiency mark. In the same time period, Derrick Henry cemented himself as the most productive running back in the league by winning the rushing title and then stringing together three games of 180-plus rushing yards—a first in NFL history—through the Titans’ playoff push and into the wild-card round win against the Patriots. Those are the good parts. The problem is that Tannehill and Henry are both free agents, and the Titans have to figure out how to keep both of them.

Tannehill won the NFL’s comeback player of the year last week, though it’s unclear what he came back from beyond escaping Adam Gase. The team could franchise-tag Tannehill in 2020 or give him a long-term deal, but it’s unlikely they’d let him leave Nashville after this season’s playoff push.

Tackling Henry’s deal will be trickier. Henry said that the floor for his next deal is Ezekiel Elliott’s contract, which Elliott signed in September and guaranteed $50 million over the first four seasons of the deal. There is an increasingly loud school of football analysts that believes running backs are replaceable, even if their production is elite. The important thing to remember is that Titans general manager Jon Robinson and head coach Mike Vrabel probably do not agree. Henry has become central to the Titans’ identity, and it’s unlikely the team lets such a central player leave in free agency. For better or worse, the Titans are more likely than not to sign Henry to a long-term deal that pays him more than $13 million annually for the first four years of the deal.

What will the Saints do with Drew Brees/Teddy Bridgewater/Taysom Hill?

New Orleans used all three of their quarterbacks this season. Now all three are free agents.

“To have all three of those guys back is probably very unlikely,” Saints head coach Sean Payton said on Super Bowl Live last week. “You really appreciate the season you had when you had all three of them.”

One of those three seems secure. Drew Brees turned 41 last month, but Payton expects Brees to return in 2020 for his 20th NFL season. Brees said last month if he returns, it would be with the Saints. With Brees back, only Taysom Hill or Teddy Bridgewater is likely to return. The Saints went 5-0 with Bridgewater starting games while Brees missed time with a thumb injury, but when Brees returned, it was Taysom Hill playing significant snaps for the team as a utility/fullback/tight end/quarterback in the playoffs. Bridgewater just turned 27 in November, so he could glide to about $10 million annually with the potential for far more if a team sees him as a starter. The Saints may not want to pay Bridgewater that much to be Brees’s backup, and Bridgewater is too good to take backup money for another year behind Brees, so the split makes sense if Bridgewater finds a place that will pay him twice as much as New Orleans and he can compete for the starting job. It also makes sense if the Saints prefer Hill as a backup, who would be cheaper but can also be used while Brees is on the field.

If this is how the Saints use Hill when he is their no. 3 QB, they probably have grand plans for how they want to use him in their offense.

The most likely scenario is that the Saints re-sign Brees and Hill while Bridgewater goes elsewhere. Bridgewater’s destination depends on the musical chairs of this year’s quarterback market, but if the Panthers get rid of Cam Newton they’d be among the most logical spots along with Chicago, where Bridgewater could push the struggling Mitchell Trubisky.

Who will draft Joe Burrow, Tua Tagovailoa, and Justin Herbert?

There hasn’t been this little debate over the no. 1 pick in a long time. LSU’s Joe Burrow had the best season for a quarterback in college football history, including setting the record for passing touchdowns (60) for an LSU offense that set the FBS record for points in a season (726). The fact that Burrow is proudly from Ohio makes him a no-brainer pick for the downtrodden Cincinnati Bengals, who lack an identity as much as they lack talented players. The biggest question with Burrow isn’t who will take him, but when he’ll sign. It’s been years since a no. 1 pick signed early with a team, but Burrow could agree to terms with the Bengals tomorrow if he wanted to. The collective bargaining agreement mostly standardizes the details of rookie contracts, so the Bengals may be able to sign Burrow ahead of time and get him to practice in April, weeks before the draft begins.

The real questions at quarterback in this draft revolve around Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa, who might have been a better prospect than Burrow if not for a hip injury this year, and Oregon’s Justin Herbert, who might have gone no. 1 in last year’s draft. Considering how many teams need quarterbacks in the top of this year’s draft, it will be fascinating to see how it shakes out. Here’s the draft order:

  1. Cincinnati Bengals
  2. Washington
  3. Detroit Lions
  4. New York Giants
  5. Miami Dolphins
  6. Los Angeles Chargers
  7. Carolina Panthers
  8. Arizona Cardinals
  9. Jacksonville Jaguars
  10. Cleveland Browns
  11. New York Jets
  12. Las Vegas Raiders

Assuming we can pencil in Burrow at no. 1 and Ohio State defensive end Chase Young at no. 2, the questions begin immediately. Does Detroit draft Matt Stafford’s successor at no. 3? Will the Dolphins have Herbert or Tua fall into their laps at no. 5? Will the Chargers try to leapfrog one of those teams to draft their preferred successor to Rivers? If the Panthers part ways with Newton, would they try to outbid the Chargers to move up for one of those quarterbacks? Would Jon Gruden and the Raiders try to move up from the no. 12 spot and get their passer of the future as they play their first season in Las Vegas? (Derek Carr is building a house next to Gruden’s house in Las Vegas, so that would be awkward.) Whatever happens, the destination of Tua and Herbert will shake up the league’s quarterback hierarchy.

Will the NFL agree on a 17-game season?

The NFL’s owners are negotiating with the players union on a new collective bargaining agreement. One of the most contentious aspects is owners’ desire to add one game to the schedule, something players oppose. San Francisco cornerback Richard Sherman is one of the union representatives who has been negotiating on the deal, and he said the league claiming to care about player safety but advocating for more football games was obvious hypocrisy.

“[Owners] think that players have a price tag on their health, and I don’t think we’re in the same ball park in that regard,” Sherman told reporters last week. “Players have been more aware of player safety and longevity and just life after football. The league kinda pretends that they’re interested in it, pretends that they care about it, makes all these rules, but then still proposes players to play an extra game. And not just 17—they’re really just saying 17 so that they can get to 18. And so that’s two more opportunities for players to risk their bodies, to put their bodies on the line.”

Other aspects of the CBA negotiation could garner headlines, including lifetime healthcare for players and their families, retroactive increases to the NFL’s pension program, and a drug policy that would allow marijuana use. But while players have a number of issues that matter to them, owners are primarily concerned with the revenue split. Even issues that sound small, like allowing players to smoke weed, will be traded in exchange for a portion of the pie.

Will the XFL catch on?

For the people who truly need football and cannot wait until Alabama’s spring game, the XFL will launch this weekend. We’re talking about legendary football rivalries like the Seattle Dragons vs. the St. Louis BattleHawks, the Tampa Bay Vipers vs. the New York Guardians, and the DC Defenders vs. the L.A. Wildcats. They will try to avoid the same fate of last year’s AAF, which started surprisingly strong but ran out of money midseason and ended almost overnight to the surprise of coaches, players, and team employees. This league is run by Vince McMahon, so in theory, it is backed by actual money and will not scam employees midseason.