Editor's Note: In conjunction with Tuesday's first-in-the-nation primary in New Hampshire, NBC Sports Boston is taking a closer look at the Primary Concerns facing the Patriots, Celtics, Bruins, and Red Sox.
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If the Patriots want Tom Brady to remain in the six-state region upon which the political world has recently descended, they'll need to have one heck of an economic plan.
Brady has made it clear he wants to get to free agency. That means when March 18 hits — the start of the new league year, when free-agent contracts can be signed — he's interested in hearing from other clubs. He'll likely want to meet with the chiefs of whatever prospective organization he joins next.
From Brady's perspective, it's understandable. He's never tasted free agency before. He'd like to see what it's like to get there. He'd like to see just how badly other organizations — after his own wouldn't hand him a multi-year deal he liked last offseason — want him.
For the Patriots, this represents a mountain of a challenge. Not only can they not count on Brady coming back to them after he gets to the market, potentially leaving them high and dry at the game's most important position, there's also a $13.5 million cap charge they'll absorb if they get to March 18 and Brady hasn't re-signed. Additionally, there exists the possibility that the Patriots could have a hard time wooing other free agents to join them if Brady isn't the answer to quarterback questions that will inevitably arise.
Brady remains the team's best option to win next season, it appears. Players like Jarrett Stidham and Teddy Bridgewater hold certain levels of promise. Marcus Mariota or Andy Dalton might be viable bridge options. Leaning on one of them with the future in mind might be prudent. But they don't offer what Brady will in 2020, even headed into his 43-year-old season.
So if keeping Brady is the goal, keeping him from free agency — when the odds he walks would seemingly skyrocket — would appear the best strategy toward that end.
The Patriots can't go out and officially sign Amari Cooper or A.J. Green or Hunter Henry or Austin Hooper prior to March 18. Those guys are free agents. They'll hit the market the same time Brady does. However, the team could try to come to free-agent agreements with those players quickly during the legal-tampering period. That's March 16 and 17. If they agree to deals with, say, Green and Henry during the tampering period, then perhaps Brady would say, "Good enough for me..." and run it back for another year in New England, signing before March 18.
Another option for Belichick and his front office would be to execute a trade or two that would entice Brady to stick around. Say, for instance, the Browns and new head coach Kevin Stefanski were looking for a way to change their culture and deal away Odell Beckham, Jr. It might cost the Patriots multiple high-end draft selections, but if adding a true No. 1 receiver — who has a reasonable base salary of $14 million in 2020 — would be enough for Brady to eschew free agency for the first time in his career, then that might be a worthy investment.
Are these realistic options? If Brady has that March 18 date circled in red, if there's really no stopping him from getting there, then no. But if the Patriots want to keep their championship window open for 2020, then enticing Brady to stay by surrounding him with weapons before the official start of free agency feels like their best bet.
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For a Celtics team that has lost 127 man games to injury or illness this season, the primary concern is simple: Will this team’s key players all be healthy when the games matter most?
Ever since Enes Kanter bruised his knee on opening night in Phiadelphia, the Celtics have essentially never had their top-8 players healthy since. The team’s preferred starting five — Kemba Walker, Jaylen Brown, Gordon Hayward, Jayson Tatum, and Daniel Theis — has played only 175 minutes together in 16 appearances. And it’s still far and away the team’s most common five-man lineup because of how often the team has been forced to mix and match.
Hayward has missed 17 games due to a hand fracture and sore foot; Walker (neck sprain, knee soreness, illness) and Brown (illness, thumb sprain, ankle sprain) have missed eight games apiece, while Tatum (knee soreness, groin strain) and Theis (illness, knee soreness, ankle sprain) have both missed four games. Top reserves Kanter (knee bruise, hip bruise) and Marcus Smart (eye infection, quad bruise, illness) have combined to miss a total of 23 games. Backup big man Robert Williams has missed 31 in a row due to a hip issue.
All of which leaves us uncertain about just how good the Celtics are. They’ve found a way to win games despite the rotation roulette and it’s looked encouraging when Boston has most of its horses (recent wins over the Lakers and Thunder the highlights). And yet there hasn’t been a large enough sample size to know exactly where this team ranks in the NBA hierarchy when anywhere near full strength.
One thing is certain: Boston is going to need its Best 5 (sub Smart for Theis with that starting group) healthy in the postseason to have any chance of emerging from the Eastern Conference. Any absence leaves them dangerously thin on proven depth, particularly after the team stood pat at the trade deadline.
Boston’s biggest weapon is its perimeter depth but it needs all five of those veterans healthy, knowing their roles, and accentuating each other’s talents to make a true postseason run.
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The Primary Concern for the Boston Bruins, as it’s been for the last few seasons, is secondary scoring beyond their top offensive guys.
With one of the NHL’s top game-breakers in David Pastrnak and a Perfection Line of Pastrnak, Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand that’s widely considered the NHL’s best line, the Bruins have top elite scoring power and a power play that’s annually top-5 in the entire league.
That will get them plenty of points against NHL teams that aren’t ready for prime time.
But when it gets to the playoffs and the Bruins are playing big, tough and deep defensive units capable of oft-times holding down Boston’s top offensive players, the Bruins don’t have enough other players stepping up and providing offense.
In each of the last two postseasons, the Bruins have ultimately lost to teams that could shut down the Perfection Line and contain Boston’s power play. That leaves other players like David Krejci, Jake DeBrusk, Torey Krug, Charlie McAvoy, and Charlie Coyle to step up and produce at the key times, and they have been unable to do so on a consistent basis.
That’s why a top-6 winger and bona fide goal-scorer is the biggest need for the Bruins at this month’s trade deadline as they attempt to fortify their roster for what they hope is another extended playoff run. The Bruins are good enough right now to roll through the regular season, but the primary concern is they don’t have enough scoring when the going gets tough in the playoffs.
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It's tempting to say the primary concern regarding this year's Red Sox is whether they'll even try after admitting that the Mookie Betts/David Price trade makes them worse, but let's grant them their competitive spirit and focus on the only name that matters in 2020.
The big left-hander has escaped scrutiny all winter, what with the rest of the craziness enveloping the franchise. But now that our attention is finally about to return to the diamond, there's little doubt that the hopes of the season rest on the tall, skinny shoulders of the man they call The Condor.
Lest we forget, Sale missed the final six weeks of last season with a sore elbow that thankfully did not require Tommy John surgery. At least not yet. With Price gone, Nathan Eovaldi a question mark, and Eduardo Rodriguez no guarantee to repeat a breakout 2019, the Red Sox will be leaning on Sale to pitch like the ace that he is when healthy.
The Red Sox went just 10-15 in Sale's 25 starts, and he finished a grisly 6-11 with a 4.40 ERA. Had the Red Sox compiled a more typical 18-7 record in Sale's starts last year, they would've found themselves in the middle of the wild card race, maybe they add a piece at the trade deadline, and they certainly would've tried in September.
They instead shut it down. Whether they again wave the white flag of surrender or proudly fly a pennant over Fenway Park this fall rests largely on Sale, whose five-year, $145 million extension officially kicks in this season.