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.
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.
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.