Former NFL player and scout Bucky Brooks knows the ins and outs of this league, providing keen insight in his notebook. Today's installment covers:
But first, a look at three teams that could welcome the G.O.A.T. in 2023 ...
Though Tampa is 6-7 in Tom Brady's third year with the team and failed to advance beyond the Divisional Round of the playoffs in his second, the marriage between Brady and the Buccaneers will go down in the history books as a success. Brady fulfilled his promise in 2020 by delivering a championship to the city while adding a seventh ring to his trophy mantle, cementing his place as the undisputed G.O.A.T. in the sport.
But his current contract with the Bucs only keeps him in town through the 2022 season. What happens after that? Per NFL Network Insiders Ian Rapoport and Tom Pelissero, "all options are on the table." Considering Brady's Tampa tenure has also confirmed his capacity to thrive without Patriots coach Bill Belichick, it's reasonable to think Brady might look for another challenge.
Remember, the 15-time Pro Bowler is just one season removed from arguably the best statistical effort of his career. In 2021, Brady topped the 5,000-yard mark for just the second time, and he finished with at least 40 touchdown passes for the second straight season. Although his numbers are trending downward this season, Brady has flashed enough clutch moments to suggest that he still has enough gas in the tank to make another Super Bowl run in the right environment.
First, a word on Brady's fit in Tampa. Based on the team's decline this season and the mismatched personnel, it seems the supporting cast is no longer able to upgrade Brady's play from the pocket, and he would be best served by moving on.
There are a handful of other teams that would offer Brady the supporting cast that he would need to thrive at this stage of his career. Given some time to examine his potential options in 2023, here are three perfect prospective fits:
As odd as it might sound, a potential reunion between the QB and his former squad would likely be a win-win scenario for Brady and Belichick. The duo combined for six Super Bowl titles and posted a .774 winning percentage during a 20-year run together with the Patriots.
Setting aside the tension that developed during Brady's time with the team, as well as the underwhelming end (a one-and-done playoff appearance) to Brady's final season in New England, the Patriots have clearly been at their best in recent seasons with No. 12 running the show. The veteran is not only a clutch player with a knack for coming up with big plays in critical moments, but he has the savvy to stabilize an offense that has floundered in 2022, helping youngsters, newcomers and even coaches (like Matt Patricia and Joe Judge, or whomever is running the attack in 2023) master the nuances of the system.
Brady's return would put 2021 first-round pick Mac Jones on the bench or on the trading block. But if he remained a part of the team, Jones would have a chance to watch Brady conduct a master class in leadership and organization. Moreover, Jones could learn from a quarterback with similar traits as a pocket passer.
Considering how much Brady influenced and impacted the culture within the organization during his time there, a reunion between TB12 and the Patriots is the most sensible option on the table. Brady would get to make a Dwyane Wade-like return to a team that turned him into an icon. And Belichick would get another chance to make another title run that would further burnish his legacy as an all-timer in the coaching ranks.
If Brady wants to live out a fairy tale, he could opt to close out his career playing for the team he cheered on in his childhood. San Francisco boasts a supporting cast and coach who could elevate his game while giving him another opportunity to claim a ring.
Brady is a traditional dropback passer with limited mobility -- and we've seen Kyle Shanahan have success with a quarterback like that during his time as offensive coordinator in Atlanta. Yes, Shanahan could utilize the playbook that helped Matt Ryan become an NFL MVP in 2016 and very nearly -- if not for Brady and the Patriots' infamous intervention in Super Bowl LI -- a world champion. Myriad play-action passes, deep crossers and double moves would enable the veteran to push the ball down the field without taxing his arm, thanks to the sensational run-after-the-catch skills of the 49ers' playmakers.
Veteran Jimmy Garoppolo -- out with a foot injury -- is headed for free agency, meaning the Niners are currently on track to have Brock Purdy (who has had eye-catching success this season but remains a seventh-round pick with two starts on his résumé) and Trey Lance (the third overall pick in 2021, who was lost for the season in Week 2 with a fractured ankle) filling out the depth chart at QB. It's an almost-comical understatement to say Brady is far more of a known entity. With players like Deebo Samuel, George Kittle, Christian McCaffrey and Brandon Aiyuk at his disposal, Brady could rack up massive yardage playing the kind of "dink-and-dunk" game that has helped him torch opponents for years, albeit in a significantly different scheme. If the old dog can learn some new tricks with the Niners, the twilight years of his career could be bright.
Brady's deep connection with Raiders head coach Josh McDaniels, who was Brady's offensive coordinator in 11 of his seasons with the Patriots, could make Las Vegas his destination of choice.
Brady's swagger, competitiveness and championship pedigree could lift the Silver and Black (currently 5-8 in McDaniels' first year on the job) from mediocrity to a championship level. Brady obviously knows how to win, but he also understands how to do it while executing McDaniels' scheme. From making the basic checks and adjustments at the line of scrimmage to adhering to the "DBO" (don't beat ourselves) principles preached at every turn, Brady can surely play the brand of football that fits McDaniels' vision.
Current Raiders starter Derek Carr signed a three-year extension in April, but he is owed no guaranteed money after this season, according to Over the Cap. He is also on track to post his lowest completion rate (62%) since 2015 and his lowest yards-per-game mark (239.8) and passer rating (89.4) since 2017. He could raise his game in his second year running the system. But we know what Brady can do with McDaniels. There is little doubt Brady could maximize the talent and potential of a passing attack featuring dynamic playmakers like Davante Adams, Darren Waller and Hunter Renfrow, lifting Las Vegas to the ranks of championship contenders.
Steve Wilks deserves to stay in big chair
If Carolina Panthers owner David Tepper is looking for his head coach for the 2023 NFL season, he needs only to knock on Steve Wilks' door.
The interim head coach, given the role after Matt Rhule's firing in October, is 4-4 since taking over the team -- and he has the Panthers squarely in the mix as a playoff contender, sitting one game behind the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the NFC South race.
Considering the Panthers traded away do-it-all running back Christian McCaffrey and wide receiver Robbie Anderson and dismissed a handful of assistant coaches following Wilks' promotion, Wilks deserves credit for reversing the franchise's fortunes -- and doing it his way.
A former college and NFL defensive coordinator who was also head coach of the Arizona Cardinals in 2018, Wilks has rebuilt the Panthers on the backs of a young, energetic defense and an emerging rushing attack spearheaded by a collection of hard-nosed running backs. The complementary approach is old-school but still effective in today's game. The combination of punishing runs and suffocating defense forces opponents out of their comfort zone. Moreover, each game is a battle of physicality, toughness, discipline and execution.
From a defensive standpoint, Wilks has recreated the turnover-obsessed culture that prevailed under former Carolina coach Ron Rivera. The Panthers are flying to the ball like a pack of wolves while also utilizing more zone-coverage tactics to enable defenders to keep their eyes on the ball. Committing fewer mental mistakes and making a more concerted effort to play like a "hustle hard" unit, the Panthers have been able to lean on emerging stars like defensive end Brian Burns, defensive tackle Derrick Brown, linebacker Frankie Luvu, cornerback Jaycee Horn and safety Jeremy Chinn.
The improvement of the unit is apparent, as the Panthers have won three of their past four games, including a hard-fought road victory against Seattle in Week 14. The Panthers have allowed just 15.5 points per game during that span, with the unit's anchors playing at an all-star level.
Offensively, the Panthers have committed to playing smash-mouth football with a strong emphasis on the running game, even as they've rotated through a carousel of starting quarterbacks. The Panthers have rushed for at least 169 yards in five of the past seven games behind the efforts of D'Onta Foreman and Chuba Hubbard. Furthermore, the Panthers have averaged 204 ground yards over their last two games with Sam Darnold in at quarterback, opening up the play-action pass downfield. This philosophical shift, which came after McCaffrey was dealt to San Francisco, is about creating a tough mentality while limiting turnovers and controlling the clock.
In creating the bully ball environment, the Panthers have increasingly utilized "jumbo" sets, with six-plus offensive linemen on the field. Per Next Gen Stats, the Panthers have featured "jumbo" personnel on 56 carries, leading to 185 yards, ranking third in the NFL in such sets, behind Cleveland and Detroit.
With the Panthers also utilizing an "Arby's" package with eight offensive linemen on the field, Wilks is challenging opponents to play in a phone booth with big men facing big men in close quarters. As defensive coordinators lean into more sub-packages with five and six defensive backs on the field, the unorthodox formations and personnel groupings tilt the scales in the Panthers' favor.
If Tepper wants a head coach who demonstrates superb leadership skills and schematic adaptability, as well as toughness, grit and resilience, Wilks is clearly a qualified candidate to be given the job full time.
Do Pats boast best edge-rushing duo?
If you want to build a dominant defense, you must have at least two pass rushers with the potential to take over a game. The transformation of the NFL into a passing league has made it imperative to have multiple pass rushers on the front line to disrupt and destroy the rhythm of the passing game.
In New England, the emergence of Matthew Judon and Josh Uche as a dominant edge-rushing tandem has bolstered the Patriots' playoff hopes this season, as they currently hold the AFC's seventh seed entering the weekend of Week 15. The only pair of teammates to each have at least 10 sacks this season, Judon and Uche have combined for 24.5 sacks and 20 tackles for loss while overwhelming opponents with their individual and collective talent as speed rushers. The duo's rise had the Patriots ranking third in the NFL in sack rate this season (9.4) and fourth in QB pressure rate (32.5) from Week 6 through Week 14, according to Next Gen Stats.
Judon is amidst an impressive two-year run, having logged 27 sacks over 30 games in a Patriots uniform. The 6-foot-3, 275-pounder has hit double-digit sacks in each of the past two seasons, and he has the second-most in the NFL this season with 14.5. That's after failing to register more than 9.5 sacks in any campaign before he arrived in New England. Part of his success can be attributed to Bill Belichick's clever deployment of Judon as an edge defender who can align on the front line or in the second level in hybrid fronts and personnel packages. The constant movement and deception create favorable one-on-one opportunities for the veteran, allowing Judon to have 13 unblocked pressures this season (tied for most in the NFL, with Demarcus Lawrence), per Pro Football Focus.
Uche has blossomed in the Patriots' defense as a speed rusher with a newly developed bag of tricks. He's especially come on strong since Week 8, generating at least three QB pressures in each game in which he has had 20-plus snaps, per Next Gen Stats. In doing so, the third-year pro has utilized a series of traditional speed rushes, hesitation moves and bull-rush tactics to keep offensive tackles guessing on the edge. The combination of Uche's individual skills and the Patriots' stunts/games have created favorable pass-rush chances for the freak athlete this season.
While fans of the Minnesota Vikings (Za'Darius Smith and Danielle Hunter), Dallas Cowboys (Micah Parsons and Demarcus Lawrence/Dorance Armstrong), Philadelphia Eagles (Haason Reddick and Brandon Graham), Pittsburgh Steelers (T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith) and Miami Dolphins (Bradley Chubb and Jaelan Phillips) have strong arguments in favor of their favorite edge-rushing tandems, it is hard to place any of them above the Patriots' duo based on their weekly impact.