INDIANAPOLIS -- NFL front-office types are dealing with uncertainty.
They don't like uncertainty.
Especially this week, at the NFL Scouting Combine, when deals are often struck and team-building plans are typically in the initial stages of execution.
Those things, by and large, aren't really happening this year. Not yet, at least. Turns out there's a long legal document that's jamming the pipes of league activity.
The passage of the new proposed collective bargaining agreement appears inevitable, but the CBA itself has not yet been finished off and sent to the entirety of the NFLPA's membership for an electronic vote. That could take days. The voting process itself is expected to take a while.
And though the expectation is that a large enough swath of "working-class" players will support the new deal -- the CBA will provide for immediate bumps in minimum salaries and add active roster spots -- nothing is official until it's official. Stars like J.J. Watt and Russell Wilson have publicly denounced the deal, while behind the scenes Aaron Rodgers has been a vocal opponent, I've been told, in an effort to sway union partners.
Meanwhile, in Indy, executives are wondering how to proceed. They don't have a clear picture of the salary cap. They don't know if -- as is the case under the current agreement -- they'll be able to use both the franchise and transition tags to retain players. They don't know if only one tag will be available to them, which would be the case if the new CBA was ratified.
It's gotten to the point where execs have asked media people as to what their expectations should be. When might the deal get ratified? What might it look like? What will the rules be on tags, voidable years and back-loaded deals? The understanding is that once passed, if passed, the CBA would take effect immediately.
That brings us to the league's quarterback situation, and specifically Tom Brady. The fact that the NFL is embarking on an offseason that could be accompanied by unprecedented quarterback movement further complicates the picture for team decision-makers.
There will be more money on the table for teams under a new CBA, but if a team is planning to pitch Brady or Philip Rivers or Jameis Winston, if a team wants to make a play for Matthew Stafford via trade, odds are those players are going to become the highest-paid employees wherever they end up. Not only are there important financial questions that would need answering for any team landing a new passer -- tough questions with the CBA situation still up in the air -- but then there are relevant roster-building questions that pop up, too.
Which players will best augment the new quarterback's skill set? How should the money available be spread around to those complementary pieces? This would be particularly relevant for any team interested in Brady, who's going to want to find himself in a desirable situation personnel-wise. Adding specific players to satisfy a quarterback would come with another set of financial ramifications that aren't easy to map out at the moment.
It makes sense, then, that there's been as little definitive action as there's been. To me, that helps explain why it's been quiet on the Patriots front when it comes to a potential Brady contract.
Consider this: Drew Brees, who reportedly had no intention of going to free agency, made it clear he intended to return to the Saints 10 days ago. There are still no details available on his contract. They're not done, as far as we know. The wait continues as the CBA uncertainty lingers. The wait is on across the league, with players at all positions, on all rosters. So the delay is not unique to Brady and the Patriots, and I wouldn't yet characterize the team's patience to this point as indifference.
With that, let's unload the combine notebook with some Patriots-specific rumblings I picked up while bouncing around Indianapolis this week . . .
BRADY MARKET TAKING SHAPE
It would make sense for any team with questions at quarterback to at least inquire about Brady's interest in joining their franchise. But I've come away from the week looking at Tennessee as a strong candidate -- maybe the strongest -- to land Brady's services.
Publicly, neither coach Mike Vrabel nor general manager Jon Robinson offered convincing defenses of Ryan Tannehill when given the opportunity. Privately, no league people I heard from this week made the case for Tannehill as the surefire plan for the future at quarterback there. Meanwhile, publicly, Vrabel couldn't help but to engage in a spirited back-and-forth when I asked about the possibility of Brady wearing Titans blue. The assumption from people I spoke to in Indy this week is that Vrabel will make a play for his friend and former teammate. If he hasn't already.
CROSS A COUPLE OFF?
It was curious to hear Raiders GM Mike Mayock point out on Tuesday that in any quarterback evaluation handled in Vegas, the Raiders would strongly consider how well a player could run Jon Gruden's offense.
That makes sense, of course, but less so if they want to be in on acquiring Brady.
The prevailing thought around the league is that wherever Brady ends up, he's going to want to take his system with him. Could he and Gruden -- a West Coast offense guru -- work out some amalgamation of their preferred schemes? Would Gruden be willing to change what he's done for just about the entirety of his career, something he's taken pains to install over the last two seasons, to bring Brady aboard? How tied is Gruden to his offense? Because if the scheme has to be Gruden's, then maybe Vegas and Brady aren't meant to be.
Another nugget that I found interesting this week: There doesn't seem to be a lot of optimism in Indy that Brady would even consider the Colts as his next team.
Maybe there's just too much there between the Patriots and Colts, who are definitely in the quarterback market despite having Jacoby Brissett under contract. It was once a great rivalry; Indy helped spark Deflategate (though former Colts GM Ryan Grigson was one of the key figures in that situation, and he's no longer there); and of course Josh McDaniels refused to take the Colts head-coaching job in 2018. Maybe that's why it's hard to envision.
But Indy has a good offensive line, gobs of cap space and some talented weapons. In theory, if Brady wanted to build a "super team," the Colts would be equipped to do it. But Rivers is the veteran passer who's name continued to be linked with the Colts this week as a free-agent fit because of his shared background with some of the staff here.
ANGLING TO ENTER THE RACE
The Chargers and Bucs are interested in Brady, though people I spoke to questioned the fit at both spots. Organizationally, the Bolts would be a drastic change for someone who helped the Patriots program become what it's become -- something former Chargers offensive lineman Nick Hardwick told us during Super Bowl week. And Tampa, an offense built to chuck it deep with Bruce Arians roaming the sidelines, would be viewed by some as an odd football marriage if it ever came to be.
QUARTERBACK ORDER TBD
Everyone understands that one of the most important developments to come out of the combine will be the medical reports on Tua Tagovailoa's hip. While Joe Burrow is considered the top quarterback in the class, the reports on Tagovailoa could very well impact just how long he has to wait on draft night. If they're good, he could go No. 2 overall. If not . . .
I spoke to evaluators this week, though, who indicated that Tagovailoa might not be a lock to be the second quarterback taken even if fully cleared. It all depends on who's picking and what type of quarterback they're looking for. All different flavors, so to speak, are available.
Want the polished passer even if his arm strength isn't exceptional? That's Tagovailoa. Want a big arm and a sturdy NFL frame? You might be more interested in Justin Herbert. Those into big-play potential, those willing to live with some volatility to acquire it, they might like Jordan Love more than Herbert. After Burrow at the top, the quarterback order seems far from settled.
The Patriots, for their part, will be digging into the film of some of the top quarterbacks more post-combine.
TRAUTMAN PEGGED AS A PATRIOTS TYPE
It's not considered a strong draft class at the tight end position this year. There's depth, but it's lacking the types of guaranteed first-round talents that were available last year in Iowa's T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant.
One player though, has already been pegged by rival evaluators I spoke to as a perfect Patriot: Dayton tight end Adam Trautman.
He obviously isn't coming from an SEC program. He didn't rack up numbers against the best of the best in the country. But he was a high school quarterback, with size to play in-line (6-foot-5, 255 pounds), and he has real athleticism (clocked a 6.78-second three-cone time).
We highlighted Trautman as a potential Prototypical Patriot prior to the Senior Bowl based on his size alone. Everything he did this week only certified that he'll make that list prior to the draft. He tested well. I'm told he impressed in interviews. And whether it was in meetings or in his media availability period, he made it clear he enjoys the blocking aspect of his job because it allows him to move another man "against his will."
In a draft class with no consensus top tight end -- many are lighter "move" tight end types -- Trautman's size, athleticism, football IQ and ability to block led one NFL tight ends coach to shake his head and tell me this week, "The Patriots will love him."
ONE TO WATCH
Of course we'll be talking and writing a great deal about quarterbacks and tight ends in this year's draft class for the next two months. But safety is another position that could interest Patriots in the early rounds. One name that has generated a lot of interest already during the pre-draft process is Kyle Dugger of Division II Lenoir-Rhyne in North Carolina.
Dugger checks every box in terms of his size as a strong safety, measuring in at 6-foot-1, 217 pounds. If he tests the way scouts are expecting him to on Sunday -- he might run like a free safety -- it sounds like he has a chance to work his way into the first-round conversation. Dugger, who returned six punts for touchdowns in college and could fill that role at the next level, generated plenty of buzz in Mobile, Ala. with his week at the Senior Bowl against top-end competition. That buzz certainly followed him to Indy this week.