The darkest timeline: What if the Patriots had to trade up for Brady?

The darkest timeline: What if the Patriots had to trade up for Brady?

This will be a weird one, but it's August and the Red Sox stink. Bear with me. 

Tom Brady posted a picture of his draft card Sunday. It taught us nothing new -- we've all heard countless times that he was a sixth-round compensatory pick -- but it did give me a thought. 

What if Brady wasn't the 199th pick? What if teams knew the doughy kid from Michigan was a legend in the making, and thus he was the first overall pick? 

There's no measuring how much the Patriots were helped by the fact that they got the greatest player ever in the sixth round, but let's try. 

If anybody even remotely knew his worth, how much would it have cost the Patriots -- who didn't even have a first-round pick in the Brady draft -- to get to the top and select Brady? 

The Browns held the first overall pick that year, which they spent on Courtney Brown. New England's first-round pick in 2000, which was 16th overall, went to the Jets as part of the package for Bill Belichick. The Pats were first on the clock at No. 46 overall, hardly a potential centerpiece for the first overall pick. 

So, the Patriots would have had to get creative. They'd definitely need to include their 2001 first-round pick, which they used on Richard Seymour. From there -- and again, this is in some fantasyland where they know Brady is going to be Brady -- the move would be to ship out Bledsoe for tradable assets. 

Let's take a look at teams that could have used QBs in 2000, a year that was considered to have a horrible quarterback class (LOL). Only one team took a quarterback in the first round in that draft, but it was the very one that had just gotten its coach stolen from the Patriots. Let's call Bledsoe-to-the-Jets a long shot, even if Bledsoe would eventually be traded in the division. 

A direct swap with the Browns would have been unlikely given that they'd taken Tim Couch first overall. Getting to No. 2 with Bledsoe wouldn't have been easy either, as the Redskins had Brad Johnson coming off a Pro Bowl season and only held the pick because they'd gotten it from the Saints as part of the haul for the Ricky Williams pick. 

The best-case scenario would have been a deal after the season with the 49ers, who held the third overall pick after Steve Young retired. There's no telling whether they'd have traded for Bledsoe, however, as they had a player in Jeff Garcia who was on his way to a Pro Bowl nod the very next season. The 49ers ended up trading No. 3 to the Redskins for Nos. 12 and 24 a few weeks after the Super Bowl. 

The more realistic fits for a Bledsoe trades would have been the Ravens at No. 5, the Steelers at No. 8 and the Bears at No. 9. 

Say the Pats could have gotten the fifth pick from Baltimore for Bledsoe. They'd then be able to offer Cleveland the fifth overall pick, the 46th overall pick and their first-round pick in 2001 in exchange for the first overall pick. That's a package similar to what the Giants paid to swap Philip Rivers (No. 4 overall) for Eli Manning (No. 1 overall; the trade was Rivers, the Giants' third-rounder that year and first-and-fifth rounders the next year). 

Again, though, this is a timeline in which the Browns and Patriots know this is Tom Freaking Brady, not Eli Stupid Manning. We'll be kind to the Pats and only make them add another second to the pile, making the trade:  

To Cleveland: No. 5 (from Baltimore), No. 46, 2001 first-round pick, 2001 second-round pick 
To New England: No. 1 

OK, so the Patriots end up with Brady. Now comes the fun (or anxiety-inducing): What would the Patriots have not had?

- Bledsoe in 2001. Do the Patriots even reach the Super Bowl without Bledsoe in the AFC Championship replacing an injured Brady? 

- Seymour, whom they chose sixth overall in 2001. One of the best players in franchise history. It makes the conversation fascinating, as you can legitimately ask whether the Patriots still would have won one or both of their first two Super Bowls (both three-point victories) without the defensive stalwart. 

- Adrian Klemm, the tackle they chose 46th overall pick in 2000. He started 10 games over five seasons for the Pats. Respectfully, he wasn't the caliber of the other players we're discussing here. 

- Matt Light, the Patriots' second-round pick in 2001. They traded up to get him using the second-rounder they would have dealt to Cleveland in this scenario. Light, Brady's longtime left tackle, started in the Pats' first three Super Bowl victories, earned three Pro-Bowl nods and was an All-Pro in 2007. 

- Before you go thinking that's it: Remember, the Patriots giving up Bledsoe to get Brady would mean there would be no post-Brady trade of Bledsoe to the Bills. Buffalo sent its 2003 pick to the Pats for Bledsoe after Super Bowl XXXVI. The Pats used that pick (No. 14 overall) to move up a spot and take eventual All-Pro Ty Warren. 

No player has ever altered a franchise like Tom Brady, but look at those names and think of just how different everything would have been if that's how the Patriots had to get him. The first half of the Patriots' dynasty would have been without a pair of All-Pro defensive linemen and its All-Pro left tackle, among other things. Would Brady still be a six-time champion, or might four or five be a more realistic number in such a case? 

Luckily, that timeline never had to play out. Just thank the football gods Brady was doughy and teams aren't as good at projecting as they tell us. 

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Nate Ebner wants to stay with Patriots as free agency looms

Nate Ebner wants to stay with Patriots as free agency looms

The New England Patriots have some key players set to enter free agency this offseason. Obviously, Tom Brady will take most of the attention, but the team has some important special teams players set to hit the open market as well.

Notably, Matthew Slater and Stephen Gostkowski will be available. And Nate Ebner will be as well.

Ebner, an eight-year pro who was drafted in the sixth round in 2012, has been a big-time special teams ace for the Patriots. In 2018, he ranked second in the league in special teams tackles with 15. He provided another eight last season and continued to be a key cog in that aspect of the game.

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Ahead of his free agency, Ebner opened up about wanting to stay with the Patriots as he looks to continue his NFL career.

“I mean, that would be the best thing, I think, when you consider my entire career has been here,” Ebner said per NESN's Zack Cox. “I understand how things go. I’ve got some true friendships here.

“I understand how things work — that would be great. But right now, it’s out of my hands, so we’ll see what happens and I’ll just take it as it goes. We’ll see.”

It wouldn't be surprising to see Ebner return to the Patriots. After all, Bill Belichick places a lot of value on special teams performance. Given that Ebner should come relatively cheap -- he signed a two-year, $5 million deal last time he was set to hit free agency -- it's well within the realm of possibility that the team could find a way to keep him.

Nothing is guaranteed in the NFL, and if the Patriots use up most of their cap space signing Brady and some offensive weapons to surround him, Ebner might not fit. But if Ebner's first choice is remaining in New England, it seems likely that the team will at least entertain the idea of bringing him back.

How the reported expanded NFL playoff proposal impacts the Patriots

How the reported expanded NFL playoff proposal impacts the Patriots

NFL owners are pushing for a big change that would be part of a new collective bargaining agreement with the players. The league reportedly will propose expanding the postseason to add a seventh playoff team in each conference.

As ESPN's Adam Schefter detailed, the league would now have six games on Wild Card weekend under the new proposal, three in each conference, and only the No. 1 seed in each conference will get a playoff bye.

Also in the proposal is a 17-game regular season and a shortened preseason to three games. The changes would be implemented for the 2020 season if the new CBA is ratified by the owners and NFL Players Association.

If adopted, this is certainly a massive change and one that could have a big impact on the New England Patriots. 

The Patriots have mastered the art of qualifying for a bye in their two-decade-long dynasty. In fact, this past postseason was the first time New England didn't have a first-round bye since the 2009-10 postseason. The Patriots finished as the No. 3 seed and promptly lost to the Tennessee Titans at home, marking their earliest playoff exit since the '10 postseason.

Thus, the elimination of one of the byes could have a significant impact on the Patriots. Since Bill Belichick took over as coach before the 2000 season, the Patriots have made it to the Super Bowl nine times. In each of those seasons, they've had a first-round bye.

In the Belichick Era, the Patriots have been the AFC's No. 2 seed on six occasions. They advanced to the Super Bowl and won three times in those six instances, and it's fair to wonder if they would've had a similar chance to advance had they needed to play another game, even if it was against a seventh-seeded team.

In the past seven Super Bowls overall, no team has made it to the big game without a first-round bye. The 2013 Ravens were the last team to play Wild Card weekend and make the Super Bowl.

So, needless to say, the No. 1 seed in each conference will now have a major advantage, and the Patriots are going to have to fight harder to earn it. They're certainly capable of earning the No. 1 seed. They were the No. 1 as recently as the 2017 and 2018 playoffs, when they beat the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl 51 and lost to the Philadelphia Eagles in SB 52.

The road to the Super Bowl will become a little more difficult without that No. 1 seed if the new format is approved. Only once in the Patriots history have they reached the Super Bowl as a Wild Card team and that was 35 years ago in the 1985 season. The No. 1 seed and home-field advantage will carry even more importance, but they'll have to outduel some powerful up-and-coming AFC teams if they want to earn it in the near future.

For a team with the NFL's toughest projected strength of schedule in 2020, that will be no easy task.