When Tom Brady started his first NFL game, I was 14 years old. I'm turning 35 in a few months. You do the math on that one.
Brady announced his retirement (again) Wednesday, and assuming this one sticks, he walks away having completely rewritten the NFL record books. More than that, though, he completely rewrote our expectations of what an NFL career could look like, playing at a high level well into his mid-40s.
Back when he was in his late-30s – which was a pretty long time ago at this point – Brady would talk about wanting to play until he was 45, and I would scoff at the idea. Well, he led the NFL in completions and pass attempts as a 45-year-old. Sure, he didn't play at a particularly high level last season, but the fact that he was playing at all was more astounding than we probably realized at the time.
And now he's finished, which creates some significant questions for the Buccaneers heading into 2023. We also learned Tuesday that the Broncos got their preferred coach, agreeing to hire Sean Payton and to a trade for his rights from the Saints. That's two legends, one leaving and one coming back, in a span of less than 24 hours, so that's what today's newsletter is going to focus on, starting with the three biggest questions in the wake of Brady's retirement and then moving on to what the Payton hiring means (and doesn't mean) for the Broncos:
Three Big Questions
Is Tom Brady really retired?
I mean, we have to ask, right? Brady says he's retiring "for good," this time, but it's not like he retired last year with a wink and a nudge. He would eventually walk it back, and it's entirely possible he'll decide to do the same here … but I doubt it.
You can't really get away with pulling that trick twice. And, in looking back at Brady's statement from a year ago, one thing that strikes me in retrospect is how Brady said you can't succeed in the NFL if you aren't 100% committed. In light of Brady and the Bucs struggling so much this season, that seems pretty notable. Not to say that Brady wasn't 100% committed, or anything, but he clearly wasn't the same guy in 2022 as he had been even the year before.
Brady's yards per attempt fell from 7.4 to 6.4, while his touchdown rate was nearly chopped in half, from 6.0% to 3.4%; both of those 2022 rates ranked among the 11-worst for qualifying passers. Brady had just four touchdowns on 64 passes of at least 21 air yards, as he and Mike Evans especially struggled to get on the same page consistently enough.
There were flashes, particularly when the Buccaneers ran a hurry-up offense – Brady ranked ninth in passer rating on no-huddle plays – but Brady ended up crawling into the playoffs mostly thanks to a hapless NFC South. Once there, they were unceremoniously trounced by the Cowboys in the Wild Card round, with Brady completing just 53% of his passes for 5.32 yards per attempt in the playoff loss.
It wasn't up to anyone but Brady to decide whether he was done, but anyone watching could see that Brady had lost something. This decision doesn't come as much of a surprise, then. Now, the question is: What's next for the Bucs?
What do the Buccaneers do at QB?
Turnover at the quarterback position has become one of the defining features of the NFL over the past few seasons, and it looks like we're in for another turn of the QB carousel this offseason. That's not a bad thing if you're a team looking for help at the position, and since I doubt the Bucs really want to go into next season with Kyle Trask as their quarterback, I have to imagine they're going to be looking for help.
Of course, it's worth noting that the Bucs currently have negative cap space for 2023 even with Brady's $35.1 million cap hit unaccounted for, so some gymnastics will be required no matter what they decide to do. If the Buccaneers do opt to swing for an upgrade, here are the five best candidates they could be picking from:
- Lamar Jackson (free agent) – Okay, this one is a significant long shot, I know that. Jackson is a restricted free agent who is likely to return to Baltimore, though not necessarily certain. If he doesn't, he'll likely sign a top-of-market deal, and the Buccaneers may not be able to make that work with the cap. If they did want to swing for the fences and remain a contender, pairing Jackson with Mike Evans and Chris Godwin would do the trick. It's exceedingly unlikely, but it's fun to imagine.
- Derek Carr (likely trade candidate) – Now, this one seems a bit more realistic, albeit with potentially even more cap questions. Carr is already under contract for a pretty hefty sum and he'll require trade compensation, though the former fact makes the latter less of a concern, in all likelihood. Carr isn't a superstar, but he's probably good enough to keep the Buccaneers in contention for a division title with this very good receiving corps.
- Jimmy Garoppolo (free agent) – There's a nice bit of symmetry to this idea, and Garoppolo won't require trade compensation nor a top-of-market deal. Garoppolo is competent, though far from elite, and his injury history is scary, but he's another QB who could probably keep the Bucs in contention.
- Daniel Jones (free agent) – If you want to take a bigger swing, trying to pry Jones away from the Giants could be an interesting option. He took a step forward last season, his rushing production is a legitimate weapon, and Godwin and Evans would give him the best weapons he's ever had. I tend to think Jones isn't very good, but there's at least upside here.
- Jameis Winston (trade candidate) – From a purely Fantasy perspective, a reunion here would be my favorite option. This isn't the same Bucs offense, with both Bruce Arians and Byron Leftwich gone, but we've seen how good Evans and Godwin can be with Winston chucking it around. Would he make the Bucs a contender? Maybe not! But he'd make them fun again. I'll take that trade.
Is it time for a Buccaneers rebuild?
Of course, this might just be the time to hit reset. The Buccaneers went all-in on the Brady era, and they got a Super Bowl out of it. They also fell to 8-9 and weren't anywhere close to contending this season, so can they really expect to rebuild on the fly and remain contenders?
Is there a path back to the promised land available for a team as capped out as this one? Sure, but it's probably a pretty narrow one, and with many of the team's most important players in their late 20s on both sides of the ball, they probably don't have the flexibility of a multi-year runway here.
Which means it might make sense to see what they can get in the trade market for the likes of Evans, Godwin, Lavonte Davis, Devin White, Antoine Winfield Jr., and some of the other big names here. A team like the Bears might be willing to offer a pretty significant package to get one of those wide receivers paired up with Justin Fields, and those defensive stars still have plenty of value.
A rebuild is, at the very least, on the table.
Sean Payton to the Broncos
The other big news from the past few days involved the Broncos agreeing to hire former Saints coach Sean Payton, while also agreeing to a trade compensation package with the Saints that sees them sending the 30th overall pick in this year's NFL Draft plus a 2024 second-round pick to the Saints for Payton's contractual rights plus a 2024 third-round pick.
I'll admit, my first reaction to all of this was incredulity. I don't really think a team that just traded a massive package for a potentially ruined quarterback should be trading high picks for a coach. The thought process here is relatively clear: When you've given up said package for said quarterback, you've gotta do what you can to figure out if said quarterback can be permanently un-broken.
(Hold on, I'm googling "the Gambler's fallacy," be right back.)
In all seriousness, a great coach should be worth the kind of package the Broncos just gave up. Payton doesn't quite stack up to the accomplishments of a Bill Belichick or Andy Reid, but he sports a career .631 winning percentage and had 10 or more wins in nine of 15 seasons with the Saints.
More importantly, arguably, are the 12 top-10 scoring offenses he put together in New Orleans. Because, ultimately, the success or failure of this experiment is going to come down to whether he can make Russell Wilson look like an elite quarterback again. Wilson just had the worst season of his career, putting together the second-lowest yards per attempt and lowest touchdown rate he's ever had for a Broncos offense that finished dead last in scoring under first-time head coach Nathaniel Hackett.
It seems like a pretty tall task because this offense really didn't do anything right last season. Wilson especially struggled in the red zone, where he ranked 28th out of 33 quarterbacks in passer rating in 2022. He had just seven touchdowns on 49 attempts in the red zone; in 2021, he had 15 touchdowns on 45 attempts in the red zone.
Wilson no longer has the mobility he once did, and his productivity as a passer on the run has declined significantly over the past couple of seasons. Of course, Payton's greatest success in New Orleans came with Drew Brees, not exactly a guy known for his escapability. The Saints built an offense around Brees' accuracy and decision making, whereas Wilson's greatest strengths when he was an elite quarterback revolved around his ability to work out of structure and consistently hit on big plays.
Which is to say, we shouldn't just expect Payton to port over his playbook from the Brees days and thrive. Payton will work with Wilson to improve his play within structure, but he'll also surely find ways to build on Wilson's strengths. In Hackett's offense, I'm not sure there were any real strengths you can point to; Wilson was a below average passer in pretty much every situation you could think of.
Which is all to say, turning this offense around is a tall task, and the assets the Broncos gave up first for Wilson and now Payton mean they'll pretty much have to pull it off with what they've got in house. This is still a pretty solid group of skill players, especially if Javonte Williams and Tim Patrick return from their torn ACLs without much issue, so if Payton can cook up a scheme that works, there's still potential in this offense.
But, based on what we saw last year, I'm not ready to return Wilson to the ranks of the starting Fantasy options just because he got a new coach. Will I take a late-round flier on him? In some leagues, sure. But, Wilson needs to prove he can be even an average NFL quarterback again before you buy into him for Fantasy.