It's time to address the elephant in the room.
As our own Tom E. Curran and others have reported, there's a very real chance this is Tom Brady's final season with the New England Patriots.
It's hard to imagine any QB but TB12 starting in New England, but with Brady's 2020 free agency rapidly approaching, it's worth at least discussing contingency plans at quarterback.
For those who like to live in the moment: Enjoy Weeks 16 and 17 as the Patriots gear up for a playoff run.
For pragmatic fans who like to plan ahead, below is a list of quarterbacks New England could target from three different pools: inside their own building, the free agent/trade market and the 2020 NFL Draft.
Let's dive in.
Jarrett Stidham. Stidham is the easy answer to the Brady replacement question. The rookie out of Auburn has gotten extra reps at practice lately thanks to Brady's elbow injury, and while he's taken just 15 offensive snaps this season, there's value in relying on a quarterback who's been in your system (Remember when the Patriots beat the Houston Texans 27-0 with rookie Jacoby Brissett?). There would be plenty of growing pains, but it may be the most seamless transition to throw Stidham into the fire to see how he holds up as Brady's heir apparent.
Likelihood on a scale of 1 (least likely) to 10 (most likely): 8
FREE AGENT/TRADE OPTIONS
Teddy Bridgewater (free agent). If Drew Brees returns to the New Orleans Saints in 2020, Bridgewater becomes expendable. The knee is still a concern, but the 27-year-old flashed his potential by going 5-0 with a 98.9 passer rating this season while filling in for Brees. Bridgewater is a smart (nine touchdown passes to two interceptions in 2019), athletic QB who wouldn't break the Patriots' bank.
Likelihood on a scale of 1 to 10: 6
Marcus Mariota (free agent). Do you believe in reclamation projects? The 2015 No. 2 overall pick played his way out of a job with the Tennessee Titans and is looking like a bust. Maybe Mariota could benefit from a change of scenery, though, and he has spent the past two seasons with Bill Belichick disciple Mike Vrabel. Brady to Mariota would be quite the fall-off, but at least the Patriots could buy low.
Likelihood on a scale of 1 to 10: 5
Cam Newton (trade). If Robert Kraft wants as little as a drop-off as possible, he'll go after Newton, who is a ripe trade candidate entering the final year of his contract. The Patriots would have to look past the Lisfranc fracture and the hefty contract ($21.1 million cap hit in 2020), but Newton is 2-0 against New England in his career, so Bill Belichick knows very well what he's capable of.
Likelihood on a scale of 1 to 10: 5
Josh Rosen (trade). The idea of Rosen as a starting NFL quarterback isn't all that enticing. But the Patriots reportedly coveted the UCLA product as a draft pick and trade target, so if Belichick and Co. still see something there, a deal with the Miami Dolphins could net another project under center for New England.
Likelihood on a scale of 1 to 10: 4
Ryan Tannehill (free agent). The Titans are expected to re-sign Tannehill after his late-season resurgence. But there still should be a bidding process, and Belichick and the Patriots have a relationship with Tennessee general manager Jon Robinson. Tannehill isn't the sexiest choice, but if the Titans can go 6-2 with him, imagine what New England can do.
Likelihood on a scale of 1 to 10: 3
Jameis Winston (free agent). The No. 1 pick in the 2015 draft also is set to be a free agent. Unlike Mariota, though, he'll cost a lot more: Winston's $20.9 million cap hit was only $500,000 less than Brady's. Winston is one of the more talented players on this list, but considering he loves interceptions and the Patriots hate turnovers, this seems like an unlikely fit.
Likelihood on a scale of 1 to 10: 2
Philip Rivers (free agent). How wild would it be if Rivers and Brady swapped jobs in 2020? Rivers might be done with the Los Angeles Chargers after another losing season and still has some gas left in the tank. We can't see the Patriots replacing a 42-year-old QB with a 38-year-old, though.
Likelihood on a scale of 1 to 10: 1
NFL DRAFT OPTIONS
Tua Tagovailoa. Our Phil Perry laid out this enticing scenario last month: Alabama's star quarterback slips to the end of the first round due to concerns over his dislocated hip, but Belichick calls up his buddy Nick Saban to get the green light on drafting one of the most talented players in college football. Tagovailoa might not slip to the Patriots if his hip improves between now and April, but this might be the most intriguing scenario for depressed Patriots fans contemplating life after Brady.