Patriots

Why the Patriots can't wait on Tom Brady's free agent tour

Why the Patriots can't wait on Tom Brady's free agent tour

The Patriots can't handle Tom Brady the way they've handled other high-profile free agents.

The obvious answer why is because Brady is not just another high-profile free-agent-to-be. But it goes deeper than that, deeper than any emotional connection the franchise and fan base have to sport's most accomplished athlete.

The reality is that because of the importance of the position Brady plays, and because of the impact his presence (or absence) will have on Bill Belichick's roster-building approach, the Patriots need to have a plan in place for what they're doing at quarterback well before free agency begins on March 18.

PATIENCE EQUALS RISK

If Brady wants to sign a deal with the Patriots before free agency begins, that's one thing. It'd be a two-way street. It'd be a deal that would satisfy both Brady and the team that was unwilling to give Brady what he hoped for last summer.

But if Brady wants to see what's out there for him in free agency — a desire that was made apparent when he had the 2020 franchise tag option removed from his one-year agreement with the team — then that's where things get complicated.

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Brady could hit free agency for the first time in his career. He could make whatever visits he wants to organizations outside New England. He could later come back to the Patriots, it's been hypothesized, tell them what he's been offered, and negotiate based on that new information. That's what the Patriots have done in retaining cornerstone pieces in the past like Dont'a Hightower, Devin McCourty and Matthew Slater.

But Brady is different.

Whether or not the 42-year-old quarterback is back would impact roster-building in a way no other player could.

Will the Patriots want to go on a spending spree in free agency, or sit back and save? Will they want to trade draft picks for veterans, or hang tight and roll the dice with as many selections as possible in late April? The answers to those questions could hinge on whether or not Brady returns.

Waiting for Brady to field offers during the legal tampering period (March 16-17), come back, and then negotiate would open up the Patriots to botching portions of the roster around Brady.

Do they make an offer on a veteran wideout or tight end before they know for sure they have Brady? Do they scramble to get offers in on those types only once Brady's signed? And what are the odds they get what they want if that's their strategy?

For a coach and owner who've built the league's longest-running dynasty with sound business decision after sound business decision, that sounds like more uncertainty than they'd be willing to deal with.

There may be players available dying to play with Brady and under Belichick. But when there is free-agent money at stake, players generally aren't willing to wait around for teams to make up their minds while bags of cash in the form of massive signing bonuses are being lobbed at the feet of their peers.

DÉJÀ VU?

That's why there's a chance Brady's free-agent tour could end up resembling Wes Welker's more than Hightower's or McCourty's.

Before the start of the 2013 season, Welker fielded offers around the league. He had an opportunity to see what his market was for the first time since being traded to New England in 2007. He was one of the league's most productive receivers. That was his right.

But the Patriots had to prepare. They didn't want to go into the next season without a sure thing at one of the most important positions in their offense. They signed Danny Amendola as soon as free agency began, unwilling to wait around on Welker — potentially missing out on other free-agent slot receiver options in the process — only for him to choose someone else.

If certainty at receiver held that kind of value to the Patriots seven years ago, wouldn't the same logic apply to a vastly more important position?

Would the Patriots be willing to wait on a Brady decision as other free-agent quarterbacks like Marcus Mariota, Teddy Bridgewater or Philip Rivers went off the board to other clubs?

ESPN's Adam Schefter recently referred back to what happened with Rob Gronkowski last offseason and said the Patriots wouldn't want to be caught in the same position at quarterback that they found themselves in at tight end in 2019.

"Here’s the situation: I don’t believe the New England Patriots are waiting until March 16 to get an answer from Tom Brady," Schefter said on ESPN's "Get Up" program Thursday, referencing the start of the legal tampering period.

"Last year, Rob Gronkowski wound up retiring in late March. I don’t know the conversations they did and didn’t have before, but New England missed the window on free-agent tight ends. So I don’t think they’re going to let Tom Brady go to free agency, all of a sudden, sign with Team X, and then on March 20, say ‘Well, what do we do at quarterback now?’ That’s not the way that organization operates."

The comparison isn't a perfect one. Gronkowski was under contract and had a roster spot waiting for him if he wanted it. Brady isn't signed.

If anything, this time around, the Patriots have much greater control over the situation. If they don't want to get caught flat-footed at the position, they won't.

THE MONEY MATTER

There's another issue that comes into play if the Patriots wait for Brady to see what's out on the market and make his free-agent decision: Dead money.

When Brady's contract was adjusted over the summer, he had cap hits of $6.75 million spread over the 2020 and 2021 seasons.

If Brady is signed by the Patriots before the start of the new league year on March 18, then he'll have just $6.75 million added to whatever salary-cap hit comes with his new contract. If he signs after the new league begins, then $13.5 million hits the Patriots cap in addition to the cap hit associated with his new deal. 

Now play it out. If the Patriots want to get a deal done with Brady but there's uncertainty as to whether or not it gets done before the start of the new league year — perhaps negotiations will drag, perhaps Brady will want time to rack his brain before making a move — that impacts the math of what the Patriots can do elsewhere. 

The salary cap can be maneuvered in a number of different ways — which Belichick himself has acknowledged before — but the Patriots already have the fourth-most dead money counting against their books. Adding $13.5 million to that figure would inhibit how the Patriots can spend in 2020. 

It's yet another reason why the Patriots would like to know what they're doing with Brady before the legal tampering period begins.

We're 53 days away.

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Patriots QB Cam Newton and Josh McDaniels are in the honeymoon phase

Patriots QB Cam Newton and Josh McDaniels are in the honeymoon phase

Any coach worth the dried spit on their whistle knows player-coach relationships hinge on communication and expectations.

An avalanche of instruction is actually counterproductive if the coach doesn’t know what a player already knows or how he learns or what motivates him.

Early in any coach-player relationship, the simple phrase, “Help me help you,” has to be said.

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Josh McDaniels said on Friday that he and Cam Newton are already well down that road.

"I think he's a really good communicator,” McDaniels said when asked how the interpersonal fit with Newton has been. “He tells you when he when he feels comfortable with something and he tells you when he doesn't, and I think at the beginning of any relationship, I think that's a really good place to start (by saying), 'Hey, I'm going to be trying to move at a pace that suits you. Just be honest and tell me what I need to do better in terms of trying to communicate it to you.'

Care-and-feeding protocols for every player are a little bit different. And, if we’re being honest, the more talented and important the player is to the team’s success, the more important it becomes to make sure he’s comfortable.

Coaches aren’t lying awake at night worried that a practice squad player was sad after getting yanked out of a rep. A quarterback? A veteran quarterback? A veteran quarterback just getting to know new teammates? Different equation.

"The process of learning how to communicate and … coach and motivate each player comes with more experience and exposure to him on the field,” said McDaniels. “What happens when we make mistakes? When we correct them? Those opportunities, I think, we're all looking forward to going through them together that's how you build a good relationship."

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Newton and the Patriots are in the honeymoon phase. It's running and stretching on the field with the strength coaches and studying in the meeting rooms with the coaches and teammates.

What can go wrong? 

It’s well-established, the approach of the Patriots coaching staff is unique. There aren’t lobbing bouquets and high praise when a guy does, basically, what everyone expects him to.
Some veteran players have a hard time adjusting to that. Jerod Mayo told me once of a veteran Pro Bowler who wondered during his first training camp with the team why he never even got told, “Nice play…” by Bill Belichick.

McDaniels indicated that Newton doesn’t need a steady stream of positivity. And Newton himself said the pressure he puts on himself to perform means he’s right there with the coaching staff in being hard on himself.

“I've talked to some people that have been with them in the past and he's a very coachable guy,” said McDaniels. “This guy wants to work and he's worked really hard since since we signed him, and he's trying to gain every day, which is really all we can ask of him.”

After a week of spitballing about how Newton will respond to the Patriots’ style – first by me, and then (and more importantly) by former teammate Kyle Love -- this angle has been pretty well covered. So far.

But it’s an ongoing and fascinating subplot to the 2020 season.

Newton’s a once-brilliant quarterback trying to prove he’s still brilliant by going to a team that’s played a style completely different from what he’s used to.

Belichick nudged and cajoled Tom Brady toward the door and, now that the New England portion of one of the great rags-to-riches stories in sports history is over, the Patriots coach is turning to a guy who won the Heisman, went first overall and has always been The Man. And he’s telling him to compete for the job.  

Can these two men share an NFL sideline without driving each other crazy?

As weary as people may get by body-language interpretations and lip readings, how it works between Newton, Belichick and McDaniels will go a long way toward determining how well it works in general.

How Julian Edelman let Cam Newton know about Patriots' complex playbook

How Julian Edelman let Cam Newton know about Patriots' complex playbook

Remember when Cam Newton jokingly compared the Patriots' playbook to "calculus" after signing with New England last month?

Turns out that wasn't his own assessment. (Not yet, anyway.)

Rather, it was Julian Edelman who made Newton aware of what he was dealing when the quarterback called his new Patriots wide receiver for the first time.

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"We were both excited just to be on the phone with each other," Newton told reporters Friday in a video conference. "Then all of a sudden he just said, 'Hey bro, this (explicit) is calculus.'

"He said it and it was just funny. From that whole 15-minute conversation, that's the only thing that I just remembered: Calculus."

The Patriots playbook that Tom Brady spent 20 years mastering is notoriously complex and has stumped talented veterans like Chad Ochocinco and Reggie Wayne. Edelman has dealt with that playbook for a whole decade, so it's no wonder his comparison stuck with Newton.

Not that the 31-year-old QB is intimidated by learning a challenging offense after nine seasons with the Carolina Panthers.

"At the end of the day, football is still football and you just can’t make too much on it than what it already is,” Newton said of the playbook. "(Offensive coordinator) Josh (McDaniels) has been there every step of the way as well as (quarterbacks) coach Jedd (Fisch). Just been hammering away. All the quarterbacks have been trying to learn this whole system from what it is."

Newton admittedly faces a tall task picking up the Patriots' offense in short order without the benefit of the on-field workouts of a traditional training camp.

The three-time Pro Bowler has his means of getting up to speed, though: Newton is a "visual learner" who famously relied on a large three-ring binder in Carolina stuffed with notes on the Panthers' offense.

"We all have our different methods of how we (learn) and go about different ways to retain as much information as possible,” Newton said. "I don’t think the binder is actually here, but some type of retention methods have adapted towards New England."

Newton has a few more weeks to study, but his first test -- the Patriots' 2020 season opener against the Miami Dolphins on Sept. 13 -- is rapidly approaching.

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