What are the Patriots’ options at quarterback if Tom Brady really leaves in free agency?

The big NFL news of Thursday morning was that the Patriots have reportedly not reached out to Tom Brady about negotiating a new contract that will keep him in New England, and that “it’s not looking good” for the living legend to remain with the only NFL team he’s ever known. Personally, I’m one of those people who will believe Tom Brady will play for a non-Patriots team when I see him on an NFL field in a non-Patriots jersey in a game that actually counts, but the morning’s headlines nonetheless raise an interesting question: if Brady really does leave, what options do the Patriots have to replace him under center?

We’re going to walk through all the realistic options below, broken down by the different ways they can be acquired. Note that we’re only talking about realistic options, so players like Dak Prescott (who will either be extended or franchise-tagged by the Cowboys) and Philip Rivers (who is not much younger than Brady, so why would they let one go to sign the other) will not be included in the list.

In-house options

Jarrett Stidham, Cody Kessler

Stidham was the Patriots’ fourth-round pick (No. 133 overall) last season. He had a solid career at Baylor and Auburn, completing 64.3 percent of his passes for 7,217 yards, 48 touchdowns, and 13 interceptions in two-plus seasons as a starter. He was viewed as a developmental prospect, the kind of player you can take a shot on but do not necessarily view as a definite future starter. He threw passes in only two games last season, and it was something like a disaster. He went 2 of 3 for 14 yards and a pick-six against the Jets, and 0 of 1 against the Bills. It seems extremely unlikely that he enters next season as the starting quarterback. 

Kessler is a journeyman former third-round pick (No. 93) of the Cleveland Browns. While I was once uninformed enough to not understand why he wasn’t considered a top NFL prospect, he has not shown himself to be a starter-quality player in the league. Granted, his previous opportunities came in Cleveland and Jacksonville, but it’s difficult to imagine the Patriots being comfortable with him as their primary option under center. 

Free agency

Teddy Bridgewater, Jameis Winston, Ryan Tannehill, Marcus Mariota, Case Keenum

When we ranked Bridgewater’s potential landing spots last week, the Patriots checked in at No. 6 (out of 8). The reason: “This would be a fantastic fit and they would be higher on the list if I believed for even a second that Tom Brady was actually leaving.” Well, in this scenario, Brady is actually leaving, which makes Bridgewater one of the more likely 2020 starters New England could land on. He protects the ball, has good accuracy on short and intermediate throws, and has the pedigree as a relatively recent first-round selection.

Winston is probably the most talented quarterback available this offseason, but he is also the most frustrating. His 33-touchdown, 30-interception season in 2019 perfectly exemplifies his merits and his foibles. The Buccaneers are talking like they might be ready to move on from him, which puts him in play, but it’s pretty difficult to see Bill Belichick as willing to put up with Jameis’ turnovers — not to mention all of the question marks surrounding his behavior off the field, particularly when it comes to his treatment of women. 

Tannehill is coming off the best season of his career. The question marks with him have always been more about health than talent, but it seems unlikely that he’ll repeat last season’s performance in the future, even if he remains in Tennessee. But teams don’t necessarily need him to be one of the best quarterbacks in the league — just an above-average one. If the Pats could get him to play the same distributing point guard style that he did last year, he would make for a very good fit. Acquiring Mariota would essentially be betting on his doing what Tannehill did last year: staying healthy and putting it all together in a different situation.

Keenum is not a quality starter, but he’s shown the ability to resemble one before, and recently led a playoff season for the Vikings. If the Patriots aren’t interested in any of the higher-end free agents, Keenum could become an option as a bridge guy in the same way he was for Denver and Washington the past two years. 

Players who could be traded or cut

Andy Dalton, Derek Carr, Jacoby Brissett, Nick Foles, Nick Mullens

Dalton has probably been the most-discussed potential option for New England if Brady leaves. He’s a steady veteran who has displayed a measure of consistency throughout his career, and actually led the Cincinnati Bengals to multiple playoff appearances in a row. Cincy is obviously widely expected to take Joe Burrow with the No. 1 overall pick, and it would not make much sense to keep Dalton on the roster at his cap hit when they could move on without dead money. Perhaps they try to wait until the last minute for a trade, but it seems more likely they cut him loose before the free-agency period opens and let him find a new team where he can at least compete for the starting job. 

One of the teams that has been connected to Brady in recent rumors is the Raiders, who would obviously and necessarily be moving on from Carr if they were to bring Brady in. That puts Carr in play for the Pats. Similarly, the Colts are heavily rumored to be interested in Philip Rivers, and they could save around $15.9 million on the cap by trading Brissett. New England drafted him in the first place, and would presumably have some interest if he were to become available. 

The Jaguars probably should move on from Foles and just hand the reins to Gardner Minshew. It would be expensive to do so, but it’s better to just rip the bandage off now and only suffer with one year of a big dead cap hit rather than spreading it out over multiple years and thus wasting three-plus years of cheap quarterback play by having another expensive quarterback on the roster. Foles struggles to stay healthy and is extremely inconsistent, but he’s shown an incredibly high ceiling, which could be attractive to the Pats when you consider the other options available. 

Mullens is an exclusive rights free agent, but the Pats and Niners have come together on a QB trade before, and John Lynch and Mike Shanahan might be willing to work something out with Belichick if New England is interested in a guy who acquitted himself nicely when filling in for an injured Jimmy Garoppolo in 2018. 

In the draft

Tua Tagovailoa, Justin Herbert, Jordan Love, Jacob Eason, Jake Fromm, Jalen Hurts

Tagovailoa would probably be in consideration for the No. 1 pick if he were fully healthy. He’s on his way and has gotten good reports on his hip, but concerns about him having to sit out as much as a year before taking the field make Burrow the surefire top QB prospect. But Tua’s still got a ton of potential, and if he checks out medically and interview-wise at the combine, he could still go somewhere inside the top five picks. That means New England would likely have to trade up to get him. 

Because compensatory selections have not yet been announced, the only picks we know the Patriots definitively have at the moment are Nos. 23 and 87, but they also have two fourth-round picks, one fifth-rounders, two sixth-rounders, and three seventh-rounders. It would be pretty difficult to move up for Tagovailoa without giving up a future first, which makes it an extremely remote possibility unless Tagovailoa falls down the draft board. But considering the medicals would be the most likely reason for that, it might take him out of consideration anyway. 

Herbert is next on the QB prospect list after Tua, but he could also potentially be a top-10 selection. It’s likely that New England would have to trade up for him as well, though they would not have to go up quite as far and could perhaps get it done without giving up future selections. Love and potentially Eason are in play with the Patriots’ own first-round pick, while Eason, Fromm, and Hurts could be taken on Day 2 or 3. 

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