Patriots

The Replacements: Questions abound for potential Tom Brady fill-ins with Patriots

The Replacements: Questions abound for potential Tom Brady fill-ins with Patriots

We still don't know what's going to happen with Tom Brady. 

We don't know what his market is going to be, though that should become clear soon enough. We don't know what he's going to decide to do. We don't know what the Patriots are going to choose either.

Yet, despite the uncertainty, there have been plenty of other quarterback names who've been mentioned as potential Brady replacements in New England. They all come with some skill set that sets them apart. They all come with some level of concern about their short and long-term viability as starters.

They all are available — or have a realistic path to availability — during a rare NFL offseason in which several starting-caliber quarterbacks could be changing locales.

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Here's a list we came up with of the most frequently-mentioned potential Brady replacements, their ages and contract statuses. We take guesses for each as to what it would cost the Patriots to make that player their quarterback. We also take a stab at the odds for each to end up Bill Belichick's starter in Week 1.

As someone who has long leaned toward Brady playing elsewhere in 2020, I'll set his odds for return at 40 percent and we'll go from there. 

Jarrett Stidham, 24
Contract status: Under contract through 2022, $830,000 per year
What it would take: Nothing

Why it would work: Stidham had as impressive a rookie preseason as any Patriots rookie during the Bill Belichick Era. He was accurate to all levels of the field. He picked up yards with his legs. He made strong throws on the run. He finished the preseason with the fourth-best Pro Football Focus quarterback rating (factoring in air yards, drops and throwaways) of all passers with at least 25 percent of their team's snaps. He was behind only Daniel Jones, Ryan Tannehill and Matt Barkley. Stidham impressed both coaches and teammates alike with his practice work during the season.

"Jarrett is a smart kid," Belichick said midway through the year. "He picks things up very quickly. He has a good grasp of the offense given where he is in his career. He’s handled everything we’ve thrown at him."

That experience in the Patriots system gives him a leg up in that regard than any other passer on the list. No one else listed here played with the Patriots or under a Patriots-affiliated offensive coordinator. His salary — that he's on a rookie contract — also makes him an appealing option. Making him the starter and paying Brady's $13.5 million dead cap hit would allow the Patriots to spend more on free agents at other positions.

They still probably couldn't make a play for someone like Amari Cooper given their salary-cap situation, but maybe landing one of the top tight ends on the market (Austin Hooper, Hunter Henry) would become a more realistic option if the Patriots go with a low-cost starter.

Why it wouldn't work: As much time as the Patriots spent with Stidham last season, he's still a relative unknown. It's impossible to gauge just how he'll handle things when the bullets are live, so to speak, in a regular-season game. The last time one of Brady's backups had to come in and play critical snaps was Jimmy Garoppolo in 2016 — his third year in pro football.

There's a chance the Patriots like what they see from Stidham after his first full offseason in the offense, but the next time they'll see him on the field will be after the initial wave of free agency and the draft have come and gone. They'll need to make a decision soon on whether or not they believe he can be their guy. Feels like a lot to expect from a young player who was drafted in the fourth round less than a year ago.  

Chance Stidham is under center Week 1: 20 percent

Marcus Mariota, 26
Contract status: Unrestricted free agent
What it would take: One year, $7.25 million contract

Why it would work: Mariota is a potential starting-caliber quarterback who won't be expecting to be paid like one. If Brady leaves, forcing the Patriots to eat $13.5 in dead money, then landing someone with significant starting experience at low money isn't the worst alternative. Teddy Bridgewater accepted a one-year deal for $7.25 million last year with the Saints at 26 years old. Ryan Tannehill was paid $7 million in 2019 ($5 million from the Dolphins, $2 million from the Titans) as he looked to resurrect his career. Mariota is in a similar spot.

He had a 6-to-2 touchdown-to-interception ratio in seven games last year before losing his job to Tannehill. He had a 92.3 quarterback rating and a 7.5 yards-per-attempt number. He also completed a career-low 59.4 percent of his passes. His last full season wasn't pretty, but it wasn't as bad as you think. He graded as a top-20 passer in several key Pro Football Focus categories in 2018, including his grade from a clean pocket (18th), grade under pressure (17th), turnover-worthy play percentage (18th), adjusted completion percentage (9th), PFF rating (13th) and third-down grade (13th).

Mariota, like Andy Dalton, looks like he'd be a locker-room fit. He studied under one of Bill Belichick's pals, Chip Kelly, at Oregon. He'd bring a mobility element to the quarterback position in the Patriots offense. And he's performed well in the past against Belichick defenses, which might help sway the coach's opinion of him this offseason. Mariota, in two full games against the Patriots, recorded a 7.9 yards-per-attempt figure, four touchdowns, no picks and a 108.7 rating. He's played in three offenses over the last three years and could be helped in a system that'll tailor itself to his skills.

Why it wouldn't work: Mariota dealt with injuries throughout the 2018 season that may have lingered into 2019 and impacted his ability to throw the football. There are questions about his arm strength, and while the Patriots aren't exactly a down-the-field passing attack, fitting passes into tight windows in the elements in New England requires a certain level of velocity.

There's promise with Mariota, but there's enough uncertainty in his game that the $7.25 million it could cost to land him could still qualify as no small "miss" if he provides little value in return. That number would make him the sixth-highest cap hit on the roster at the moment. 

Chance Mariota is under center Week 1: 11 percent

Teddy Bridgewater, 27
Contract status: Unrestricted free agent
What it would take: Two years, between $9 million and $20 million per year

Why it would work: He can play. He's not in the same tier as other free-agent quarterbacks like Brady, Drew Brees or Dak Prescott, but in a five-game sample last season he proved he could help a good team stay that way. The Saints won all five games he started as he completed 68 percent of his passes with nine touchdowns and two picks.

If it's accuracy and good decision-making you're after, you could do worse than Bridgewater. Should he land on the low-end of this projection salary-wise — which was laid out by OverTheCap.com, via PFF — that's a pittance for someone who's proven recently that he has the ability to be a competent starter. 

Why it wouldn't work: The only problem is we have no idea where Bridgewater is going to slot in salary-wise. Working against him is the fact that the free-agent market is saturated with starters this offseason. And though his recent sample-size of starts is impressive, it's small. Will teams look at him as a slightly lesser Nick Foles, who received $22 million per year after winning Super Bowl LII? Will they look at him like Jacoby Brissett, who got a two-year, $30 million extension from the Colts?

At $10 or $15 million per year, he seems like a bargain. At $20 million, he's a lock starter wherever he goes. At $30 million, a dollar figure thrown out there recently by ESPN, he's a real risk to blow up a team-builder's plan if he doesn't pan out. For the Patriots, locking him up at a sky-high number wouldn't make much sense. Might as well go with Brady at that point. We should have a better idea of his market following the combine.

Chance Bridgewater is under center Week 1: 9 percent

Philip Rivers, 38
Contract status: Unrestricted free agent
What it'll take: Two years, $24 million per year

Why it would work: Rivers isn't all that far removed from MVP-caliber play. He averaged 8.5 yards per attempt in 2018 and threw 32 touchdown passes to help him to a 105.5 quarterback rating. His numbers were down across the board last season behind one of the worst pass-blocking offensive lines in football.

Rivers would have to be willing to play for something less than market value in New England, one would think, but perhaps the chance to play under Bill Belichick would convince him to do exactly that. Rivers respects Belichick and last year fondly remembered getting "fussed out" by the Patriots coach at halftime of a Pro Bowl years ago.

"He’s played great," Belichick said of Rivers prior to their postseason meeting last year. "He plays great. Very accurate, obviously a smart guy, offense runs through him, handles things at the line of scrimmage, makes good decisions with the ball, uses everybody, as he always does ... He’s very, very efficient, makes big plays, good in situations — third down, red area. He’s really good, outstanding. Hard guy to tackle, big, strong guy, has a good feel for the pocket, knows how to use his blockers, kind of like [Ben] Roethlisberger — same type of thing. He’s good."

Why it wouldn't work: Once again, the money factor is a factor. Does Rivers want to take less to try to win a Super Bowl as the “Next Guy” after Tom Brady? If his rate is going to be $24 million per year — as Spotrac.com suggests — that's a lot of cake for a bridge guy. Especially when that bridge guy is 38 years old.

There's also the question of the system. This is something that could come into play with Brady as well, as we've noted. If Rivers is going to want to take his style of offense wherever he goes, then that could make this a difficult match. With Josh McDaniels in the fold with or without Brady, odds are he's going to prefer his language and his calls. At this point in his career, Rivers probably isn't worth a significant salary and an offensive overhaul just to help the Patriots get to their next long-term answer at quarterback.  

Chance Rivers is under center Week 1: 5 percent

Andy Dalton, 32
Contract status: One year remaining, $17.5 million base salary, $17.7 million cap hit
What it would take: Third or fourth-round draft pick traded to Cincinnati

Why it would work: "Quiet, intense, lunch-pail Texan who makes no excuses." That's how Peter King described Dalton in his latest Football Morning in America column. Dalton seems to be a real fit when it comes to demeanor. No matter who's playing quarterback for the Patriots after Tom Brady, that player will be expected to be a pro's pro.

A leader? Probably not a vocal one, at least. They'll have plenty of those already in the room. And looking to fill Brady's shoes from a leadership perspective would be a bit of a fool's errand for a newcomer to the locker room. Dalton has a reputation as a worker, someone who won't ruffle feathers, and he brings 133 starts over nine seasons with him wherever he goes.

Why it wouldn't work: Even if Joe Burrow refuses to go to Cincinnati — taking a page out of the Eli Manning playbook — one has to assume that the Bengals will be taking a quarterback early in this year's draft. So whether it's Burrow, Tua Tagovailoa or Justin Herbert, someone is replacing Dalton. But just because Dalton is an experienced starter who's available, should that make him worthy of pursuing?

The cost is exorbitant. His cap hit plus the dead money on Tom Brady's deal ($13.5 million) equals over $30 million for 2020. Why not just try to keep Brady — still a vastly superior player — at around the same dollar figure over a couple years? Even if Dalton is willing to take a reduced salary, the draft-pick compensation to land Dalton also feels like a non-starter. King suggested it'd take a mid-round pick. That's not crazy in a vacuum; Dalton's been to three Pro Bowls in his career. But it is too much for the Patriots, in my opinion.

They had the oldest roster in football last season and have gone through a stretch of drafts that appear to have left them with little in the way of core young pieces. They need to continue to draft in bulk, as they have over the last two years, in order to build up their rookie-contract talent base. Giving up a pick when the number of capable quarterbacks available in free agency is at an all-time high seems like an unnecessary concession.

Then there's Dalton's level of play to consider. Like Brady, his supporting cast last season was less than ideal, but he had what was arguably the worst year of his career. His 78.3 quarterback rating was his lowest, and his 6.6 yards-per-attempt figure matched that of his rookie year, which was his previous low. He threw four interceptions in a loss to the Patriots in December. 

Chance Dalton is under center Week 1: 5 percent

Tua Tagovailoa, 22
Contract status: Draft eligible
What it would take: Two first-round picks and a third-rounder

Why it would work: Tagovailoa does not fit the profile the Patriots typically draft at this position. He's a lefty. He's undersized. There are questions about his arm strength, which might cause the Patriots to hesitate when it comes to his fit in New England. But he's been incredibly productive in the country's best conference, throwing with anticipation and accuracy from the moment he was thrust in the National Championship two years ago.

He has a huge fan in his head coach, Bill Belichick's great friend, Nick Saban. Until injuring his hip this season, he was widely considered the top quarterback in the draft class. As would be the case if the Patriots went with Stidham, having a starting quarterback on a rookie contract is a distinct team-building advantage — so long as that quarterback is capable.

Why it wouldn't work: He's still recovering from a broken hip and might be best served by sitting out a season to ensure that he's fully healed. The injury concerns are significant. The skill-set questions shouldn't be ignored, either. Surrounded by elite-level talent on the offensive line and at receiver, Tagovailoa was in one of the friendliest offenses a quarterback could dream up.

Then there's the draft-pick compensation. The Chiefs had to give up two firsts and a third to get from No. 27 to No. 10 to draft Patrick Mahomes in 2017. The Patriots would need to put together a similar package in order to get into a realistic range to nab Tagovailoa, who's expected to go in the top-10 and be the second or third quarterback off the board.

Chance Tagovailoa is under center Week 1: 3 percent

Justin Herbert, 22
Contract status: Draft eligible
What it would take: Two first-round picks and a third-rounder

Why it would work: Herbert stands 6-foot-6 and fits more of the prototypical Patriots mold at the position. He has a huge arm to threaten every level of the field and played in an offense that asked him to go through the types of progressions he'll be asked to make at the pro level. His mobility will give defensive coordinators headaches at the next level.

There are times his accuracy escapes him, times when he's tentative. But he could end up being an accurate version of Buffalo's Josh Allen — a scary concept. NFL.com's Lance Zierlein compares him to Carson Wentz. Other draft-eligible quarterbacks will either be out of reach for the Patriots (LSU's Joe Burrow) or likely need a year or more to develop behind the scenes (Utah State's Jordan Love).

Why it wouldn't work: As with Tagovailoa, the Patriots would likely have to move into the top-10 in order to have a chance to select Herbert. The cost, then, would be steep. Herbert reportedly showed good leadership during his week at the Senior Bowl, but apparently questions have been asked about his personality and his ability to be a commanding presence as a pro.

Drafting Herbert where the Patriots would need to draft him would immediately signal he's Brady's heir. How would he handle that kind of pressure? It's a worthy question for any player — young or old — following in Brady's footsteps.

Chance Herbert is under center Week 1: 3 percent  

Ryan Tannehill, 31
Contract status: Unrestricted free agent
What it would take: Four years, $30 million per year

Why it would work: Tannehill just put together a ridiculous season. He was PFF's highest-graded quarterback and led the league in their positively-graded throws category. He completed 70 percent of his passes, had 22 touchdowns against just six picks, had a yards-per-attempt figure of 9.6 and a rating of 117.5.

His magic wasn't quite as potent in the postseason, completing 60 percent of his passes and posting a rating of 98.5, but he could still ride his performance to a lucrative deal this offseason if he gets to free agency. If you could guarantee Tannehill could replicate his play from 2019, he'd be worth a hefty payday for any quarterback-needy club.

Why it wouldn't work: Replicating his 2019 will be … asking a lot. Tannehill was the NFL's most accurate passer on throws beyond 10 yards of the line of scrimmage, and the Titans were the second-most efficient passing offense during his run as the starter. Is that who he'll be moving forward after having a career-year in his 30s? Or is he closer to the middling (or worse) quarterback we saw in Miami?

Paying him $30 million per year after losing Brady feels like a monumentally risky decision. Plus, it looks as though the Titans could bring Tannehill back on the franchise tag. That way they wouldn't have to commit to Tannehill long-term, and they wouldn't have to part ways with a quarterback coming off a tremendous season. They could see if 2019 was a fluke, then handle him accordingly for 2021 and beyond.

Chance Tannehill is under center Week 1: 1 percent

Cam Newton, 31
Contract status: One year, $21.1 million cap hit
What it would take: Day 2 draft pick 

Why it would work: Newton is a former MVP who back in 2018 completed 68 percent of his passes, had an almost 2-to-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio (24-to-13) and a 94.2 rating. He also had 101 rushing attempts and averaged 4.8 yards per carry. At 6-foot-5, 245 pounds, when healthy, he isn't all that far removed from being a force. 

Why it wouldn't work: Where to start? He's currently injured. Rumblings are he'll begin football activities in relatively short order, which should allow the Panthers to make a decision as to whether or not he's in their plans. But until then, it's hard to know where he's at physically for the 2020 season.

The trade compensation he'll command is significant. The Patriots don't currently have a second-round pick this year. They'll have three third-rounders (assuming they have two compensatory picks) to play with. But, again, they need to add young talent on rookie contracts. Trading a high-end pick away for one year of Cam Newton is not without risk. How would he mesh with Belichick's program? Especially if he's traded to New England and therefore not necessarily choosing to be there? 

Chance Newton is under center Week 1: 1 percent

Jameis Winston, 26
Contract status: Unrestricted free agent
What it would take: Four years, $27 million per year

Why it would work: Winston did throw for 5,109 yards and rack up 8.2 yards per attempt last season in Bruce Arians' down-the-field passing attack.

Why it wouldn't work: He threw 30 interceptions in 2019. That's not going to play for a coach who values possessions as much as Belichick does. Especially at the cost it'll likely take to secure his services.

Chance Winston is under center Week 1: 1 percent

Taysom Hill, 29
Contract status: Restricted free agent
What it would take: Draft pick, new contract

Why it would work: He's mobile. He's tough. He'd give the Patriots a unique element behind center, even if he was used as a weapon and not as an every-down starter. As one prong of a multi-pronged attack at the position, he'd provide value, as he did in New Orleans.

Why it wouldn't work: He's attempted 13 passes in his career, completing six for 119 yards and a touchdown. (Mohamed Sanu has competed seven passes on eight attempts for 233 yards and four touchdowns in his career.) Hill is going to be 30 years old when the season begins. He's not a realistic option as a starting quarterback unless a team wants to run a run-heavy throwback offense.

There's also the matter of cost. Dollars-wise it shouldn't be all that difficult to figure out, but as a restricted free agent, the Saints will likely give him a first- or second-round tender, meaning any team that signs him would have to send the Saints either a first- or second-round draft choice. Hefty.

Chance Hill is under center Week 1: 1 percent  

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NFL rumors: Buccaneers signing Blaine Gabbert to be Tom Brady's backup

NFL rumors: Buccaneers signing Blaine Gabbert to be Tom Brady's backup

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have found Tom Brady's backup.

NFL Media's Ian Rapoport reported Thursday that veteran quarterback Blaine Gabbert is headed back to the Bucs on a one-year contract.

Gabbert started the 2019 season as the backup quarterback behind Jameis Winston in Tampa Bay, but he did not play a single snap. He was placed on injured reserve in September after dislocating his shoulder in the preseason.

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The Buccaneers opted not to bring back Winston as their franchise quarterback, and instead pursued Brady in free agency after he announced his decision to leave the New England Patriots. Brady signed a two-year contract with the Bucs that could be worth as much as $59 million.

Gabbert was the 10th overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft by the Jacksonville Jaguars. He's failed to meet expectations and has spent the majority of his career as a backup. It's safe to say the Buccaneers are in huge trouble if Brady misses any amount of games due to injury next season, but in fairness, you could say that about most teams in regards to their quarterback situation.

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Who were Tom Brady's all-time favorite Patriots targets? What the numbers say

Who were Tom Brady's all-time favorite Patriots targets? What the numbers say

Tom Brady completed a lot of passes in a New England Patriots uniform -- 6,337, to be exact.

Brady was diplomatic in his distribution, too: He threw at least one touchdown pass to 77 different targets during his 20-year tenure with the Patriots, which ended when he signed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers this offseason.

But the six-time Super Bowl champion certainly had his favorites. And as it turns out, the most prolific pass-catcher of Brady's Patriots era by sheer volume is on the current roster.

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Boston Sports Info (@BostonSportsInf on Twitter) compiled a list of Brady's 10 most-coveted targets based on total receptions. At the top of the list: wide receiver Julian Edelman.

Edelman has the benefit of experience: He spent 10 years catching passes from Brady, more than any other player on this list. But the 33-year-old still averaged 68.9 receptions per season with Brady after beginning his career as a converted quarterback drafted in the seventh round.

As for Brady's most prolific pass-catchers based on their career averages in New England rather than total numbers? Here's our unofficial top five:

1. Rob Gronkowski
Gronkowski's stats are absolutely mind-boggling: A Patriots-leading 8,949 receiving yards in the regular- and postseason with 90 touchdowns over nine seasons.

2. Wes Welker
Welker was nearly as prolific in a shorter amount of time: He averaged 112 catches per regular season alone during his six-year stint with Brady from 2007 to 2012.

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3. Julian Edelman
Edelman has three 1,000-yard seasons under his belt with Brady and has caught at least 74 passes from the GOAT in five of the last six seasons.

4. Troy Brown
Brown was Brady's Welker and Edelman before either player came to prominence, winning three Super Bowls with TB12 in the early 2000s while amassing 101 receptions in 2001.

5. Randy Moss
Moss only spent three seasons in Foxboro, which makes it even more remarkable that he cracked the overall top 10. The Hall of Fame wideout hauled in an NFL-leading 23 of Brady's 50 touchdown passes during the Patriots' historic 2007 season.

Brady has a strong set of weapons in Tampa Bay with wide receivers Chris Godwin and Mike Evans and tight ends Cameron Brate and O.J. Howard. But none of those players will come close to cracking the "Brady 10."