How Expiring CBA Makes it Difficult for Patriots to Sign Top-Market QB During Free Agency
You best bet the New England Patriots are exploring any and all options at the quarterback position in the event that Tom Brady signs with another team during free agency.
Luckily for them, there are lots of options at that position. Quarterbacks like Drew Brees, Jameis Winston, Ryan Tannehill, Marcus Mariota, and Teddy Bridgewater are set to be free agents this offseason. That may seem like a good thing for New England, but it can also make their decision very difficult when the free-agency window opens. If they are not able to reach an agreement with Brady on a new contract before the 4 p.m. deadline on March 18, the 42-year-old QB will be able to negotiate with other teams, and will leave a $13.5 million cap-hit back in New England. That's tough to recuperate from for the Patriots, as they are projected to have $29 million in cap space available this offseason, according to ESPN's Mike Reiss. So, while there will be options for New England at quarterback during free agency, finding the money to sign a veteran QB will be very difficult.
Let's use Philip Rivers, who was recently added to the free-agency pool, as an example. The long-tenured Charger is hitting free agency for the first time in his 16-year career. At age-38, one has to think he wants to compete for a championship, which he has been unable to do since entering the league. Given his talent and the Patriots' potential need at the position, there's plenty of reason to believe Rivers could be the next-best option at QB for New England in the event that Brady signs elsewhere this offseason.
As a quarterback that threw for 4,600 yards and completed 66% of his passes in 2019, Rivers can still sling the football if need be. Having not missed a game since becoming Los Angeles' full-time starter in 2005, the durability is there, which gives the Patriots plenty of reason to want to sign Rivers despite his age. Those are also some of the reasons why Rivers can warrant a contract this offseason worth $25 million/year.
However, with the current CBA expiring in 2021, finagling a formidable contract for Rivers if you're the Patriots is very challenging, especially if they want to add talent around him.
Article 13, Section 7 of the current CBA states "no player contract extending into a season beyond the Final League Year may provide for an annual increase in salary ... of more than 30 percent of the salary provided for in the Final League Year, per year, either in the season after the Final League Year or in any subsequent season covered by the Player Contract." In layman's terms - if any team has a player signed through 2021 or beyond, the cap hit they have for 2021 or any year beyond that cannot exceed more than 30% of what their 2020 salary cap hit is. That prohibit's teams from backloading contracts before the new CBA is agreed upon, with the assumption that the new CBA would allow that to happen.
Taking into account Brady's dead money if he were to leave, New England will have $15.5 million in cap space available to spend in 2020. If they win the Antonio Brown grievance case, you can tack on an additional $9 million to that number. But that's no guarantee. The option also exists for the team to restructure some of their current contracts. But doing such won't give them a heckuva lot more room to work with.
So, Rivers would have to be hard-set on winning a championship, because he would need to sign a deal that's well below the league average for a high-level starting QB in order to join the Patriots. The same goes for players like Brees and Winston, who can merit contracts near $25 million/year this offseason. You can also make the case that Tannehill deserves that type of money. Prescott, who is at the top of the free-agent market for his position if he doesn't sign a new deal with the Cowboys, reportedly wants in excess of $35 million/year.
The point being - if the Patriots want to sign a quarterback during free agency, it would very, very difficult to coerce one of the top-market free agents. That leaves free-agent QBs such as Teddy Bridgewater, Marcus Mariota, and Case Keenum as the next best options if they want to sign a veteran who has shown flashes of potential in the league. While Bridgewater and Mariota are definitely viable options for New England, it seems more likely that the Patriots may trade for a veteran QB, or opt to ride with Jarrett Stidham and/or draft a quarterback high in the 2020 draft.
The option of Brady returning to the Patriots is very possible. But if that doesn't happen, New England will have a difficult time getting high-level play from the quarterback position going forward based on their situation and the other options available.