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Let’s Play Matchmaker for Tom Brady

The six-time Super Bowl champion will reportedly test free agency, where he should have many suitors. Does he make sense in a Las Vegas Raiders uniform? How about in Tennessee Titans blue?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

With each passing day, it’s looking more likely that Tom Brady will hit free agency for the first time in his 20-year career. The biggest news that came out of the NFL scouting combine last week was about the future of the three-time MVP, who is reportedly planning to play somewhere other than New England in 2020. It’s nearly impossible to imagine Brady in a non-Patriots uniform, but here we are in the first week of March seriously considering how he would look in powder blue or silver and black.

Plenty of potential landing spots have been bandied about: The Raiders and Chargers, both of whom are moving into new homes next season, have been mentioned since this saga first began in the fall, but lately a few other suitors have emerged. So what’s Brady looking for in his next home, assuming he’s ready to leave the Patriots? It’s safe to say he’ll need a team that’s ready to compete now; talented skill-position players and strong offensive line play will likely be his first considerations, but Brady will also want a coach and offensive scheme he feels comfortable with. If we’re to believe the reports, he’ll also want at least $30 million per year.

So let’s play matchmaker and size up which teams could make sense for Brady. With apologies to the NFC champion 49ers (who aren’t giving up on Jimmy Garoppolo, no matter how bad Skip Bayless feels about it) and the rebuilding New York Giants (who aren’t punting on Daniel Jones’s development, despite rumors that they’re in the mix for Brady), the focus here will be on the realistic options: teams that need a quarterback, offer Brady some version of what he’s looking for, and could be willing to pay him. And because you can bet on anything, we’ve included Fan Duel’s odds for Brady to play for each team in 2020.

Chicago Bears (+4800)

Why they’re a perfect match: The Bears are finally ready to admit they have a Mitchell Trubisky problem. The 2017 no. 2 draft pick was downright dreadful in 2019, finishing ahead of only Kyle Allen and Mason Rudolph—two backups thrust into action when the men in front of them were injured—in ESPN Total QBR. Chicago has reportedly reached out to Cincinnati about a potential Andy Dalton trade, and there’s been a sense that the team will add a veteran signal-caller in free agency. If Brady makes it to the open market, the Bears have to at least call his agent, Don Yee.

Chicago ranked no. 25 in Football Outsiders offensive DVOA last year, but the nonquarterback personnel wasn’t the issue. Receiver Allen Robinson had 98 receptions for 1,147 yards, while Anthony Miller improved in both categories in his second year. The running backs also offer a lot of upside: David Montgomery had the second-most rushing yards of any rookie in 2019 and Tarik Cohen had 456 receiving yards. That last part may appeal to Brady: His best offenses have typically relied on pass-catching backs like Kevin Faulk, James White, and Shane Vereen. But they’ve also been helped by elite tight end production. That’s a mixed bag for Chicago: Trey Burton struggled with a groin injury most of 2019, though he had 569 yards and six touchdowns the year before. Still, Brady could look at that personnel and the Khalil Mack–led defense, which remains among the league’s best, and decide that the Bears give him a good chance to win.

Why it wouldn’t work: The Bears offensive line was among the league’s worst in 2019, giving its quarterbacks just 2.37 seconds to throw, good for 29th in the league. Brady requires a clean pocket, and Chicago likely can’t give it to him. There’s also the question of whether Brady fits into the RPO-heavy system head coach Matt Nagy would love to run. The Bears also may lack the necessary cap space to make it happen. Simply put: This isn’t a great fit for either party.

The verdict: The Bears should probably stick to the Andy Dalton plan.

Indianapolis Colts (+3400)

Why they’re a perfect match: The Colts have emerged as a potential suitor for both Brady and erstwhile Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers. It would make sense for them to upgrade at the position: After Andrew Luck’s abrupt retirement last August, Indianapolis turned to backup Jacoby Brissett. He performed well in the first half of the season, throwing 14 touchdowns and just three picks. However, after he suffered an injury against the Steelers in early November, his numbers took a nosedive. From his return in Week 11 onward, Brissett threw four touchdowns and three picks and posted a passer rating of 75. Last month, owner Jim Irsay backed Brissett, but added that “all options are on the table.”

The Colts would like it if Brady were one of those options, and the feeling could be mutual. Indianapolis boasts one of the league’s best young rosters, led by Quenton Nelson, who has emerged as an elite guard. If the team retains left tackle Anthony Castonzo—and it certainly has the cap space to do so—this could be one of the better pass-protection scenarios for Brady to slide into. Head coach Frank Reich’s system, which emphasizes quick throws and passes to running backs, could also benefit Brady. Luck had the best completion percentage and lowest sack rate of his career in his sole season under Reich. Brady, who thrives when getting the ball out quickly and relies on his receivers to run precise routes, could see similar results.

Why it wouldn’t work: Brady should start by asking himself why the Colts fell apart down the stretch last season. The team started 5-2, only to finish 7-9 and outside the playoffs. If it’s because of coaching, that’s a big problem. If it’s because of talent, that’s perhaps an even bigger one. While there are plenty of bright spots on the roster, that doesn’t extend to the pass-catching group. No Colts receiver topped Zach Pascal’s 607 yards in 2019 (in part because T.Y. Hilton missed six games due to injury). The situation could be even worse in 2020: Tight end Eric Ebron, a 2018 Pro Bowler who flourished in Reich’s system with Luck but regressed with Brissett under center, could walk in free agency. Are an aging Hilton, Pascal, and tight end Jack Doyle enough to sway Brady?

Something else to consider: There are few teams on this list that would greatly upset Patriots fans. Given Brady’s history with the Colts during Peyton Manning’s playing days, he may want to avoid taking residency in Lucas Oil Stadium, lest he alienate an entire region that spent 20 years rooting for him.

The verdict: This feels like a home for Philip Rivers, not Tom Brady.

NFL: NOV 10 Cardinals at Buccaneers Photo by Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (+1100)

Why they’re a perfect match: Tom Brady has never had a pair of receivers as talented as Mike Evans and Chris Godwin, who both finished with more than 1,110 yards despite playing 13 and 14 games, respectively. He’d also be paired with an athletic tight end in O.J. Howard, the much-hyped former Alabama product who struggled to break out in his first three years in the NFL. Howard isn’t exactly Rob Gronkowski redux—his comparisons coming out of college were Jimmy Graham and Tyler Eifert—but working with a playmaker at that position could do wonders for Brady.

The quarterback would also work with Bruce Arians, an offensive wizard who coached an aging Carson Palmer to some of the best seasons of his career in Arizona, and play behind a stellar offensive line, which earned the second-highest grade on pass protection from Pro Football Focus in 2019. The thought of giving those receivers and that line to Brady has to excite Arians, who could go from coaching Jameis Winston (3.5 percent career interception rate) to Brady (1.8 percent) in just his second season in Florida.

There are plenty of other reasons for Brady to want to make his way to the Bucs, namely: a young defense on the rise, warm weather, no state income tax, and the most available cap space in the NFL, which would allow Tampa Bay to give Brady whatever he wants while leaving them enough cash to make upgrades throughout the roster.

Why it wouldn’t work: Can Tom Brady still throw the deep ball? Winston averaged 10.5 intended air yards in 2019, the second-highest mark in the league. Brady, meanwhile, averaged 7.6, which placed him between Jared Goff and Gardner Minshew II. Arians’s system relies on deep post and fly routes—he needs a QB who can connect with receivers downfield. While there’s evidence that indicates Brady can still find success on long passes, he lacks mobility to extend long-developing plays.

There are several peripheral issues that could scare him off of Tampa Bay, too: Brady may not want to make the jump from the AFC East to the notoriously competitive NFC South, where the Saints still reign. And, in fairness, Brady may be reluctant to join the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, a team that has struggled to attract marquee free agents throughout its history. (Though maybe those new uniforms could help.)

The verdict: Potentially the most interesting football situation, but it’s hard to envision Tom Brady in Creamsicle colors.

Los Angeles Chargers (+600)

Why they’re a perfect match: Many of us laughed back in October when Mike Florio suggested Brady could make his way to Los Angeles, but here we are. The Chargers are moving into a new stadium alongside the Rams in 2020, and they desperately need to make a splash. The team has already agreed to part ways with Rivers, clearing the way for the front office to go after a player like Brady. There are reasons to think he’d consider it.

The Chargers finished 5-11 in 2019, but are just one season removed from going 12-4. As is usually the case for this team, just about everything went wrong for them in close games last season, and much of that fell on Rivers’s shoulders. Brady, whose best skill is avoiding dumb mistakes, would likely be able to reverse some of the Chargers’ terrible luck. And to do so, he’d be given a pair of solid receiving threats: Keenan Allen, who has made the Pro Bowl in each of the past three seasons, and Austin Ekeler, a restricted free agent who emerged as one the best dual-threat running backs in the NFL last season.

Why it wouldn’t work: Let’s start with the main football reason: The Chargers’ offensive line is terrible. With left tackle Russell Okung out for most of the season, starting tackles Sam Tevi and Trent Scott allowed 88 combined pressures, the second most of any tackle duo. Even if Brady had a solid release valve like Ekeler at his disposal, that’s too much for an aging pocket passer to battle against.

Also: Would Brady want to play for the Chargers, who finished last in the AFC West in 2019 and have played second fiddle to the Rams since both teams relocated to Los Angeles? Brady would instantly make the Chargers relevant, but with little built-in fan base and/or excitement around this team, he may not be inclined to come to Southern California. Especially if that means playing Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs twice a year.

The verdict: Johnny Unitas ended his career in Bolts blue. It would be shocking if Tom Brady did the same.

Oakland Raiders v Denver Broncos Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

Las Vegas Raiders (+500)

Why they’re a perfect match: The Raiders were linked to Brady early, and the rumors haven’t gone anywhere. According to ESPN’s Jeff Darlington, they have the second-best chance of landing him. From Las Vegas’s perspective, it makes a lot of sense: The team will move to a new city this year, and replacing Derek Carr—whom head coach Jon Gruden has never been totally enamored of—with Brady would add a lot of star wattage. The Raiders are also reportedly prepared to offer Brady what he’s looking for: a multiyear deal that pays him like one of the league’s best.

Brady may enjoy working with Gruden, a tinkerer who’s looking for a quarterback who can execute his high-volume offense. He’d also be reunited with Trent Brown, the left tackle who protected him during the Super Bowl LIII run. Elsewhere on the line, guards Rodney Hudson and Richie Incognito allowed just 12 pressures combined in 2019. Considering that pressure on Brady up the middle has long been the recipe to defeating him, he may see a lot of promise there.

Why it wouldn’t work: Despite the emergence of tight end Darren Waller, the cupboard is bare in Las Vegas. Tyrell Williams and Hunter Renfrow, the team’s top two wideouts in 2019, combined for just over 1,200 yards, and despite plans to expand rookie star running back Josh Jacobs’s role in the passing game, he caught just 20 passes for 166 yards. The Raiders had a good-not-great passing offense last season, but would a QB who relies on precision and timing be willing to spend the last few years of his career with a group of inexperienced receivers?

Additionally, the boisterous Gruden and hands-on owner Mark Davis are about as stark of a contrast to Bill Belichick and Robert Kraft as you can imagine. Maybe Brady wants to experience something completely different in his next stop. For better or worse, the Raiders would certainly offer that.

The verdict: The Raiders fan base has hated Brady for nearly two decades following the Tuck Rule Game. Odds are that won’t change this offseason.

Tennessee Titans (+380)

Why they’re a perfect match: Tennessee is the favorite to land Brady right now, according to ESPN’s Jeff Darlington (via Adam Schefter) and Colin Cowherd. There’s a lot to like about this pairing. For starters, Brady is familiar with Titans head coach Mike Vrabel, who played linebacker for New England from 2001 through 2008 (catching 12 touchdowns from Brady when he lined up as a tight end). The Titans played hotter than virtually any team in the second half of the 2019 regular season and early rounds of the playoffs, and Vrabel proved himself to be one of the best coaches in the league—even outsmarting Bill Belichick during Tennessee’s wild-card upset in Foxborough.

The Titans offense also seems to play to Brady’s strengths. That starts with A.J. Brown, who was a dynamic playmaker in his first season and had an outside shot at Offensive Rookie of the Year. But the other playmakers on the roster also offer a lot of upside for Brady. Adam Humphries is one of the more dependable slot receivers in the league (71.5 percent catch rate in 72 career games) and is one year removed from a 76-catch, 816-yard campaign. Tight end Jonnu Smith is capable of making jaw-dropping catches and incredible plays when he has the ball in his hands. Pass-catching running back Dion Lewis was one of Brady’s favorite targets during his brief stint in New England. If the Titans re-sign human battering ram Derrick Henry, this could quietly be one of the better groups Brady has worked with.

Why it wouldn’t work: While Tennessee’s offensive line was one of the best run-blocking units in the league in 2019, Football Outsiders ranked it as the absolute worst on pass protection. For a soon-to-be-43-year-old quarterback who has never been all that mobile even when he was younger, that could be a disaster. There’s also the matter of whether the Titans would want Brady. Before the Brady-to-Tennessee rumors began, the team was expected to sign free agent Ryan Tannehill to a multiyear deal. Tannehill is 11 years younger than Brady and coming off the best season of his career after taking over in Nashville in the middle of 2019. The Titans may see a longer-term future with Tannehill, and he could be the preferred option in the locker room. As Henry asked last month, “Ryan Tannehill is our quarterback and went to the AFC championship, why would we not want Ryan back?”

Verdict: Potentially the smartest football move for Brady. Is it for Tennessee?

Dallas Cowboys v New England Patriots Photo by Kathryn Riley/Getty Images

New England Patriots (-125)

Why they’re a perfect match: For nearly 20 years, Brady and Bill Belichick have led the greatest dynasty in modern pro sports. But sentimentality doesn’t seem like it will factor into the quarterback’s decisions, so let’s look at what New England can offer him.

In the first half of 2019, the Patriots defense looked like one of the best we had ever seen as it dismantled inferior opponents and led the team to a historic early-season point differential. That performance tapered off as the quality of competition improved, but the team still enters 2020 with the best cornerback in the league (Defensive Player of the Year Stephon Gilmore), one of the greatest defensive minds of all time in Belichick (plus his son Steve, who can channel dad on and off the field), and plenty of playmakers on that side of the ball.

On offense, Brady would continue to work in the only system he’s known as a pro, and while he had few weapons at his disposal last year, you can’t fault the Patriots for lack of trying. Following the retirement of Rob Gronkowski last spring, the Patriots drafted N’Keal Harry in the first round, brought Josh Gordon back, signed Antonio Brown once he became available, and traded for Mohamed Sanu at midseason. None of those moves worked out—Gordon and Brown didn’t last long because of off-field issues and Harry and Sanu were both seriously hampered by injuries—but each looked smart at the time they were made. The Patriots would presumably try to make similar moves this offseason to bolster the receiving corps, and there’s no way they could turn out worse. The offensive line should also be healthier this season; center David Andrews missed all of 2019 with blood clots in his lungs (he’s optimistic about a 2020 return) and left tackle Isaiah Wynn spent much of the season on injured reserve with a toe injury. Fullback James Develin, who is quietly one of the more important pieces of the team’s offense, also lost most of his season with a neck injury. Basically, everything that could possibly go wrong on offense for the Patriots did, and that’s unlikely to happen again in 2020.

Another thing to consider: Robert Kraft may be willing to extend himself to keep Brady in New England. While the Patriots owner has typically given complete roster autonomy to Belichick, he may deem Brady too important to the franchise and decide to intervene. If that were to happen, and especially if it put the Patriots in a financial bind for the future, the question would then become whether Kraft secured his quarterback only to lose the trust of his head coach.

Why it wouldn’t work: Despite what Kraft may or may not do, it’s “not looking good” for the Patriots, according to ESPN’s Jeff Darlington. Brady may feel like he wants to be better compensated after years of taking team-friendly deals, or he may want a late-career change of scenery, or he may want to go to a place that he thinks gives him a better chance to win.

That last one may seem wild given the Patriots’ sustained success, but it makes sense once once you dig deeper: Despite New England’s best efforts, the pass-catching group could be even worse this year (Phillip Dorsett is unlikely to return), and key defensive players Devin McCourty, Kyle Van Noy, Danny Shelton, and Jamie Collins are scheduled to hit the open market. Joe Thuney, the third-ranked guard by Pro Football Focus in 2019, is expected to reset the market at his position. Even before re-signing any of those players or Brady, the Patriots rank 18th in available cap space. New England may not have enough available money to keep the players it’d like to, let alone upgrade at wide receiver or tight end.

Those roster-building considerations will weigh heavily on the Brady situation itself. Belichick has never been afraid to deal players or cut them a year or two too early rather than too late. Lawyer Milloy, Ty Law, Deion Branch, Richard Seymour, Logan Mankins, Wes Welker, Chandler Jones—the list goes on. Time has proved Belichick right on most of those decisions. Even if Brady is the best short-term solution for the Patriots—and given the list of potential replacements, how could he not be?—Belichick won’t want to sacrifice the team’s long-term outlook. In the end, he may view the most accomplished quarterback in history like he did all those other franchise legends: good enough until he doesn’t fit into the plan any longer.

The verdict: We view the past through rose-tinted glasses. Neither the Patriots nor Brady will do so when deciding their futures.