From left: quarterbacks Andy Dalton and Tom Brady and Patriots head coach Bill Belichick.  USA TODAY Sports: Jasen Vinlove | Greg M. Cooper | Winslow Townson

Don't bet against Patriots if Tom Brady departs

Few franchises in American sports history have rivaled the 21st-century Patriots in terms of stability. Bill Belichick and Tom Brady’s partnership has checked off the most important boxes for long-term success for nearly two decades. In turn, New England has been able to bypass the kind of era-defining offseason moves every other franchise has needed to make at various points over the past 20 years.

But Belichick’s decision last summer not to extend Brady’s contract beyond 2019 thrusts the Pats into the center of perhaps the most complex offseason in history. How Brady and the Patriots' coach-GM navigate this unusual process will begin a frenzied chain reaction that could reshape a fourth of the league’s signal-caller situations and produce a radically different-looking quarterback landscape.


Ultimate Tom Brady scouting report


Valid arguments exist for Brady staying in New England vs. venturing west. His future with the Chargers or Raiders or Titans or mystery team X — and the moves a team would make to complement the 42-year-old passer — would become the primary offseason talking point. But the New England fallout may be even more interesting.

While Belichick has enjoyed the fortune to work with one of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history, Brady also provided unparalleled advantages in coaching and defensive support. Could the future Hall of Fame coach keep the dynasty in gear without Brady? Seeing this era’s mastermind try would be perhaps the ultimate task in modern roster-building.

Excluding free agents-in-name-only Drew Brees and Dak Prescott and even prospective tag recipients Jameis Winston and Ryan Tannehill, the market features Philip Rivers and Teddy Bridgewater. Cam Newton and Andy Dalton are almost certainly available for a trade. 

Of these stopgap-type solutions, Dalton is the least flashy name. He also profiles as the most interesting target.

The Bengals’ nine-year starter will likely be available for a Day 2 pick and change. One year and a modest $17.5 million remains on his contract. Thanks to the compensatory-pick formula, the Patriots stand to hold three third-round selections, and they possess the draft capital to complete a deal. While Dalton often underwhelmed in Cincinnati, a trade from the Bengals to the Patriots would be about the biggest infrastructure level jump the NFL could offer. (Ask Corey Dillon.)

Equipped with A.J. Green, Marvin Jones, Mohamed Sanu and then-breakout tight end Tyler Eifert, Dalton had the 2015 Bengals on track to beat the Patriots and Broncos to the AFC’s No. 1 seed before his late-season injury. Cincinnati’s offensive line that season included All-Pro tackle Andrew Whitworth and high-end guard Kevin Zeitler, whom which helped Dalton to his best season: 25/7 TD-INT ratio in 13 games with a 66 percent completion rate and 8.4 yards per attempt. His circumstances worsened in subsequent years, leading to the franchise in a position to draft a replacement (Joe Burrow), who may not be thrilled about it

Nothing descended faster than the Bengals' O-line. Since the team let Whitworth and Zeitler walk in 2017 free agency, Pro Football Focus ranked its past three offensive lines 28th, 27th and 30th, respectively. The Patriots in that span ranked third, fourth and 10th up front. Although the retirement of Pats wizard O-line coach Dante Scarnecchia will hurt, this line would benefit a bridge quarterback like Dalton more than that of most other teams.

Dalton at 32 is certainly not close to the level where Brady was at the same age. But it's not a stretch for him to do a reasonable imitation of age-42 Brady with the benefit of offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels’ system and the Patriots' strong offensive line and defense.

After punting on replacing Rob Gronkowski last season, the Pats will pursue a tight end upgrade. With Hunter Henry, Eric Ebron and Austin Hooper set for free agency, this is a good year to do it. New England will investigate wideouts on this year’s free agency and trade markets and in the deep wide receiver draft class to help Brady — if he returns. But that plan would not need to change if Dalton, or even Bridgewater, were on the payroll.

The $13.5 million dead-money hit the void years on Brady’s 2019 “extension” represent a slight deterrent, however, and the Pats having safety Devin McCourty and linebacker Jamie Collins as impending free agents creates some issues. But Belichick has fielded a top-10 scoring defense in 16 of the past 19 years, and adding Dalton or Bridgewater would allow for more offseason spending than re-signing Brady.

As they look for Brady’s true heir apparent in a near-future draft, the Patriots should still aim at keeping him. It would be the safest play. But envisioning Belichick assembling a contending roster without Brady is easier than the Chargers or Raiders pursuing a Super Bowl with a 43-year-old quarterback sans-Belichick. Since Brady’s historic ascent began in 2001, the Pats are 14-6 without him. A Patriots team with the Belichick-aided defensive safety net and one that uses unmatched offensive malleability to vex defenses should not be overlooked if Brady leaves.

The Patriots have not needed to chart a genuine quarterback pursuit since drafting Drew Bledsoe in 1993, and even then, they held the No. 1 overall pick. So it remains that Belichick being the point man to replace Brady and equip his successor with a sufficiently talented roster will headline the NFL offseason. And there's little doubt that if Brady leaves, the game’s most forward-thinking coach-executive will have an alternate route prepared that will probably work out better than most expect.

Sam Robinson is a Kansas City, Mo.-based writer who mostly writes about the NFL. He has covered sports for nearly 10 years. Boxing, the Royals and Pandora stations featuring female rock protagonists are some of his go-tos. Occasionally interesting tweets @SRobinson25.


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