By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com
The Patriots took a distinct and relatively consistent approach with key veteran free agents over the past decade. Does Tom Brady fit into that category? It's more complicated than that, and it goes beyond the mere fact that he's the greatest football player who ever lived and plays the most important position on the field.
Some top Brady insiders have suggested recently that the chances of Brady re-signing with the Patriots are increasing. ESPN's Mike Reiss sets the probability of a return at 80 percent. The Boston Globe's Chris Gasper believes Brady's first preference is to stay in New England. But to do so, he may have to take one last marked drop in pay to make it work on the Patriots' end, and he may have to do it before his current deal voids and he becomes a free agent.
You can point to past free agencies with Julian Edelman, Dont'a Hightower, Devin McCourty, and Matthew Slater to have confidence that Brady could hit the market on March 18 and still re-sign. The Patriots successfully retained all four of the aforementioned players while allowing them to test the open market first, albeit with mixed results on the contracts themselves. Edelman visited with the Giants as a free agent in 2013 before returning to the Patriots on a one-year deal. Hightower met with the Jets and Steelers and reportedly turned down more money from Pittsburgh to stay with the Patriots. McCourty went through the same process with the Eagles before the Pats made him one of the highest-paid safeties in the National Football League.
There's a notable difference between these guys and Brady, though. The Pats already have Brady on the books for a $13.5 million cap hit in 2020 if he becomes a free agent. So that will complicate matters when it comes to agreeing to a new deal. The two sides could come to an agreement before March 18, but that wouldn't make the $13.5 million hit disappear. It would prorate it over the next two seasons, meaning the Patriots will absorb at least $6.75 million against the cap in 2020 with or without Brady on the roster.
The team has done so much to prove people wrong over the past two decades that nothing can truly be ruled out. But the numbers would have to be managed, especially in the first year if Bill Belichick has to maneuver around $13.5 million in dead money for a player he's retaining.
Cap expert Miguel Benzan of the Boston Sports Journal, also known as @PatsCap on Twitter (give him a follow if you haven't already), posted a hypothetical structure of a two-year, $50 million extension for Brady. The Patriots could theoretically get by with a $26.75 million cap hit in 2020 while taking on $36.75 million in 2021, if they spread a $10 million signing bonus over the two seasons with a salary bump in year two. The pertinent information, though, is that they're stuck with that $13.5 million over some span of time, no matter what happens.
The best recourse for the Patriots, financially, is that Brady takes less money (again) and makes like easier for everyone else. Perhaps the recent reports indicate he's willing to do that. He has been for a long time and has noted that wife Gisele Bundchen still makes an absolutely absurd amount of money. So that can't really be ruled out. But as both sides face a unique situation, it may be necessary for everything to work the way the team wants.
Brady doing one more solid for the team could allow them to retain another key free agent like left guard Joe Thuney, who is receiving All-Pro votes after an outstanding season. But even he might have to take less money to stay in New England. The Patriots also need to improve their weaponry on offense after a down year for the tight ends and wide receivers.
On Brady, though, his uncommon free agency situation and ominous cap number looms. And the best way to manage it is to make a new deal before Brady even has a chance to explore free agency.
Matt Dolloff is a digital producer for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff or email him at [email protected].