The Patriots can’t expect to keep Tom Brady happy enough to re-sign with them without making some pleasing personnel upgrades that can help him rebound from a tough 2019 NFL season.
Brady, 42, showed some decline with his worst combination of passer rating (88.0) and QBR (52.5) in six seasons. His 6.6 yards per attempt was the second-lowest mark of his career. But when looking at his pass protection, receiving corps and other broken-down parts of the offense around him, he arguably was working with his worst overall supporting cast.
The Patriots’ defense and special teams carried the team as far as it could go, to another AFC East title at 12-4 and a wild-card playoff exit. But to go back to the standard of competing for another Super Bowl — and convincing Brady they are still the best place for him to compete for a seventh ring — the Patriots need to have a great offseason of catering to him in NFL free agency and the draft.
Here are six such moves New England can make to ensure No. 12 returns in 2020.
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1. Re-sign LG Joe Thuney
The Patriots have some other key non-Brady free agents, but Thuney should be highest on that list over linebacker Kyle Van Noy, who might price himself out of New England, anyway. The Patriots’ offensive line struggled at times with the injuries to center David Andrews and left tackle Isaiah Wynn, but Thuney remained a rock, earning second-team All-Pro honors. Should he return between Wynn and Andrews to flank Shaq Mason and Marcus Cannon, the cohesive, consistent strong blocking will return inside and out.
2. Sign Hunter Henry or Austin Hooper in free agency
The Falcons and Chargers have tough decisions to make with their talented pass-catching tight ends and there’s a chance one or both won’t be re-signed. The Patriots tried to get by with Matt LaCosse and Benjamin Watson as their main two-man committee to try to replace Rob Gronkowski.
Other than a few flash games for Watson, who chose to retire right after the 2019 season, New England got little in the passing game from its tight ends, especially in the red zone. Hooper and Henry were productive all around for their teams. They are smart, tough, sure-handed players built like Gronk.
Hooper, only 25, is 6-4, 256 pounds and a Bay Area product like Brady. Henry is the same age at 6-4, 250 pounds and reestablished himself as a force after a torn ACL wiped out his 2018 season.
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3. Consider Breshad Perriman or Robby Anderson in free agency
The Patriots drafted N’Keal Harry, who was disappointing overall with limited immediate first-round impact. Along the way, they had to cut ties with Antonio Brown and Josh Gordon. That left them with no experienced big-play receiver outside, as the trade for the Falcons ‘ Mohamed Sanu fell flat in simply adding another slot option to flank Julian Edleman, and undrafted rookie Jakobi Meyers faded down the stretch. Brady is at his best when he has a home-run hitter, even a Brandon Lloyd-type.
Perriman showcased himself well down the stretch for the Buccaneers when the team saw Mike Evans and Chris Godwin go down with hamstring injuries. Working in a Bruce Arians downfield-passing offense tailored to his strengths, the Ravens’ 2015 first-rounder (6-2, 215 pounds) finally lived up to being fast and explosive, looking like a seasoned deep threat. Brady could use an outside option from his ilk instead of multiple slot types.
Anderson, with the rival Jets, was often held in check by Patriots cornerback Stephon Gilmore. But at 6-3, 219 pounds, he’s known for using his size and speed to take the top off a defense. Both Perriman and Anderson are only 26.
4. Sign WR Rashard Higgins away from Browns
Higgins likely won’t be re-signed by the Browns behind Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry. He should easily pique the interest of the Patriots as a good route runner with versatile possession skills. At 6-1, 198 pounds, he could be a lot more valuable “doing his job” for the Patriots as a reliable technician.
Phillip Dorsett is a free agent, Meyers may not be in the mix and Sanu is entering his age 31 contract season. Edelman is going into his age 34 season after playing through knee, rib, shoulder injuries. The Patriots need once again reshuffle their depth and Higgins is only 25 as a good addition to it.
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5. Draft another wide receiver in Round 3 or 4
The Patriots may be reluctant to go wide receiver in the first round at No. 23 on the heels of drafting Harry. But they don’t need to do so to get some good value at the position in a deep and talented class. They gave up their second-rounder to the Falcons to acquired Sanu, but they still have a third-rounder. And after trading one fourth-rounder to the Bears, they got another one back from the Ravens.
In that range, for now, among the players to target at the position include Penn State’s K.J. Hamler and Michigan’s Donovan Peoples-Jones.
6. Upgrade the QB room behind Tom Brady
The Patriots moved on from longtime veteran backup Brian Hoyer, turning the No. 2 duties behind Brady to rookie fourth-rounder Jarrett Stidham. The third-stringer, Cody Kessler, was added early in the season. Stidham got a little mop-up playing time in Week 3 against the Jets, and was promptly benched again for Brady after throwing an interception that Jamal Adams returned for a touchdown. Although he has some developmental promise, Stidham by no means earned being Brady’s successor. Kessler has been on four teams in four years since being drafted by the Browns.
However you look at it, this is a far cry from the 2016 Patriots, who had both Jimmy Garoppolo and Jacoby Brissett behind Brady. He was stellar in the season after his post-Deflategate suspension and ended up leading the big comeback over the Falcons to win Super Bowl 51.
This is more of a subtle move but signing a true veteran backup and/or drafting someone who feels more like the future at QB — such as Oklahoma’s Jalen Hurts or Georgia’s Jake Fromm on Day 2 — can help Brady, too. Adding more experience gives him a sounding board on one hand, and getting a more talented and accomplished young option can reinvigorate him on the other hand.