The New England Patriots will be worse off in 2020 if Tom Brady leaves in free agency. That much is obvious.
But the ripple effects of Brady's departure may be felt for years to come.
The 42-year-old quarterback is one of several key Patriots players who will become free agents on March 18, including safety Devin McCourty and linebackers Kyle Van Noy and Jamie Collins.
If Brady returns for a 21st season, it's possible at least one member of that defensive trio sticks around for another Super Bowl run.
If Brady signs elsewhere? Former Patriots defensive standout Rob Ninkovich believes the dominos could fall quickly in New England.
"If Tom doesn’t come back, I don’t know if those guys are going to want to stick around," Ninkovich told the Boston Herald's Karen Guregian on Wednesday. "Because what’s the outlook for the team? Is it a rebuilding phase? What happens moving forward?"
Ninkovich also noted head coach Bill Belichick may have a harder time executing the team-building model he's had so much success with over the years, as free agents would be less likely to take a pay cut to come to New England.
“That would be a hard sell. In years past, the Patriots have been able to get guys at a bargain, because it’s an older veteran, a guy who’s looking for a Super Bowl, for a playoff run," Ninkovich explained.
“They’re approached by the Patriots, who say, ‘Look, we’re not going to guarantee the biggest contract, but we’re going to give you an opportunity to play in the playoffs and Super Bowl if you’re interested. Ninety-nine percent of the guys are ‘yeah, I want some validation for my football career.' "
But would free agents be confident that Brady's replacement -- 23-year-old Jarrett Stidham, perhaps -- could keep the Patriots in Super Bowl contention? Ninkovich isn't so sure.
"It won’t be easy without Tom. It’ll definitely be a struggle," he said.
As our Patriots Insider Phil Perry recently pointed out, time is also working against Belichick as he (and the Patriots' other pending free agents) awaits Brady's free-agent decision.
On that front, Ninkovich believes there's a real chance the six-time Super Bowl champion signs elsewhere in March.
"My gut is telling me Tom is motivated to prove a lot of people wrong," Ninkovich added. " ... So it wouldn’t surprise me if he puts up the deuces to everybody, and tries to motivate himself to prove people wrong."