Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have been eliminated from the 2022 NFL playoffs — in a 31-14 blowout loss to the Dallas Cowboys in the wild-card round — which means the greatest quarterback in league history is again an unrestricted free agent. The 45-year-old Brady has been coy about his future, but he’s still playing at a high level; he recently broke his own record for most completions in a season.
The last time Brady was a free agent, after the 2019 season, he left the New England Patriots to sign with the Bucs and promptly won a Super Bowl in Year 1. He briefly retired after Tampa Bay was eliminated in the divisional round last year, but he reversed his decision less than two months later and led the Bucs to an NFC South title.
Now, Brady again has options. He could return to the Bucs to make a run at his eighth Super Bowl title, sign with another team — or retire and start his career as a TV analyst.
Where should Brady want to play in 2023? What could the Bucs do at quarterback if Brady leaves? We asked our panel of ESPN NFL experts to weigh in on what’s next for the GOAT and the Bucs:
Which NFL team should go all out to sign Brady in 2023?
Jeremy Fowler, national NFL writer: Raiders. Las Vegas appears to want three things: a culture shift, an exciting player to drive interest and a quarterback who can run coach Josh McDaniels’ offense better than anyone. Brady fits on all fronts. The Raiders also need to win now. Brady can help with that, too.
Dan Graziano, national NFL writer: Dolphins. I know it sounds like they want to stick with Tua Tagovailoa, assuming he has recovered from his concussion by then. But with the players they have on offense, a little tinkering with the offensive and defensive lines would make this a win-now roster that could be a Super Bowl contender with a more reliably available quarterback.
Jenna Laine, Bucs reporter: Buccaneers. Despite the loss on Monday, the issues they’ve had this season stem from injuries to their offensive line. Getting back center Ryan Jensen, having tackles Tristan Wirfs and Donovan Smith healthy again, taking a swing at another guard in the draft and getting some more speed at wide receiver to complement Mike Evans and Chris Godwin would go a long way in getting this offense back to what it was in 2021. Tampa Bay does have questions, including: How much money can it keep pushing toward the future while still being able to re-sign linebacker Lavonte David, cornerbacks Jamel Dean and Sean Murphy-Bunting and safety Mike Edwards?
Sal Paolantonio, national NFL correspondent: Jets. If Miami really is committed to bringing back Tagovailoa, that takes the Dolphins out of the Brady sweepstakes and should make the Jets contenders. If Brady is looking for a similar situation to the Bucs in 2020, it’s the Jets, who have a ready-made defense. He could remake the offense the way he wants. And he would face Bill Belichick and the Patriots twice a year. Get your popcorn ready.
Jason Reid, Andscape senior NFL writer: Raiders. With longtime starter Derek Carr headed out the door, they need to upgrade. As Jeremy mentioned above, Brady already has a relationship with McDaniels from their days together in New England. That should be the starting point for the Raiders to push for him.
Mike Tannenbaum, NFL front-office insider: Raiders. They have playmakers on offense — Davante Adams, Darren Waller and Hunter Renfrow, and could re-sign Josh Jacobs — and continuity with the coach and front office. The Raiders should sign Brady and draft another quarterback; they own the No. 7 overall pick in the April draft.
Field Yates, NFL analyst: Buccaneers. Tampa Bay has adjusted its salary-cap strategy since acquiring Brady, making a series of win-now moves and pushing money into the future while maximizing this window. Can you blame the franchise? Of course not. And with Brady still playing at a level that is good enough to make the playoffs annually, the Bucs should desperately want him back.
Because Brady gets to choose his team, though, where should he want to sign?
Fowler: Buccaneers. Tampa Bay, when healthy, still has a stacked roster, including several stars on offense at Brady’s disposal. From family to football, the Tampa Bay setup is familiar. And the Bucs are most likely willing to make necessary staff or player changes to accommodate him.
Graziano: Dolphins. It’s Miami and its talented roster, for all of the reasons I listed earlier.
Laine: Buccaneers. Remember that Tampa Bay gave him 11 days off in the middle of training camp to tend to his family, with zero hesitation from coach Todd Bowles and general manager Jason Licht. That’s unprecedented for an NFL starting quarterback. The Bucs have a well-constructed locker room of unselfish players whom Brady truly enjoys playing with every day — a “family,” as quarterbacks coach Clyde Christensen described it to me — and they’ve showed an unwavering commitment to him, not just as a quarterback but as a person in one of the most challenging years of his life.
Could Brady be the perfect replacement for Tua in Miami?
Bart Scott and Dan Graziano toy with the idea of the Dolphins going after Tom Brady this offseason.
Paolantonio: Jets or Dolphins make the most sense because of their rosters. He should stay away from the Raiders, who play in the AFC West with stars Patrick Mahomes and Justin Herbert.
Reid: Raiders. A union in Las Vegas makes the most sense because of McDaniels’ presence. Although Brady had impressive cumulative stats this season — he finished third in the league with 4,694 pass yards — his performance didn’t always pass the eye test as the Buccaneers struggled to an 8-9 record. At this late stage of his career, another partnership with McDaniels would be his best fit to try to win another title.
Tannenbaum: Buccaneers. Their offensive line will be much better next season. They would be in a great position to run it back, win another division title and get a home playoff game or two.
Yates: 49ers. From a pure football standpoint, it’s easy to see the appeal of the 49ers, who arguably have the league’s best roster and are loaded with skill players. Moreover, it’s Brady’s hometown team. There are questions about whether Brady would want to play on the West Coast (away from his children, who live on the East Coast) and about whether the 49ers would even be in the market for a quarterback, but if we’re just talking about his best chance to keep winning, San Francisco stands out.
If you were Bucs GM Jason Licht, what would be your pitch to Brady to get him to return?
Fowler: It’s about a strong, veteran roster in a familiar setting. Plus, the NFC remains weak. Let’s take advantage. Win multiple Super Bowls in a second jersey. Tampa Bay will pay him really well, too.
Graziano: You’d have to be able to convince him you’re going to make upgrades on the offensive line. Whether that means getting guys back healthy or pursuing upgrades on the market, Brady needs better protection than he had this season, or else he will walk.
Laine: Not every organization will bend over backward to accommodate even a seven-time Super Bowl winner. But when Brady has expressed a desire for the team to sign a player or tinker with things on the offense, the Bucs have been more than willing to accommodate him. At this phase in his life, it isn’t just about winning. It’s about genuinely being happy every day. Tampa Bay provides that.
Paolantonio: The Bucs’ pitch is simple: Bowles is a great coach. The roster is still loaded and will get better. They own the division, so postseason is pretty much guaranteed. There’s no state income tax in Florida, and he’d be close to his kids.
Reid: Licht should start by reminding Brady of what the future Hall of Famer has accomplished in Tampa Bay. In three seasons, Brady has led the team to a Super Bowl championship and two division titles. There’s a track record of winning. As Brady is well aware, there’s no guarantee he would enjoy similar success with another franchise.
Tannenbaum: It’s about Brady’s legacy — he doesn’t need to go anywhere else. Licht can pitch him on having a two-team career and winning multiple titles for both teams.
Yates: Licht and the Bucs have made the win-now moves Brady has wanted, to the detriment of their salary cap. What’s one more year of that? They also don’t have a great alternative if he leaves.
The Bucs still have a solid roster. Where else do they need to improve this offseason?
Fowler: Can they convince Rob Gronkowski to come back? Brady is at his best with the future Hall of Fame tight end by his side. They need to add offensive line and defensive backfield reinforcements after an injury-plagued season. And it’s probably time to move on from running back Leonard Fournette; they can replace Fournette with a younger player alongside Rachaad White.
Graziano: At some point they’re going to need to find a way to get younger on defense. That and the O-line would be my offseason priorities for Tampa Bay.
Laine: They need to get that offensive line back to health and potentially make changes at guard, depending on if Luke Goedeke can improve there or if Nick Leverett could show he’s their long-term answer. The ground game also must improve. Brady does not want to drop back and pass 50 times a game at this stage in his career. Speed at receiver will help, too. And getting as much of their secondary back as possible in free agency.
Paolantonio: Offensive line. Running back. Tight end. Get Brady more help on offense. Bowles will want a corner or two as well.
Reid: For starters, improved health would help. Throughout the season, the Buccaneers were weakened by injuries to wide receivers, linemen and defensive backs. Most teams would take a major hit on defense if an edge rusher as gifted as Shaquil Barrett was lost for the remainder of the season. The Bucs also finished last in the league in total rushing yards (1,308) and yards per carry (3.4). Regardless of who lines up behind center for Tampa Bay next season, those numbers have to improve.
Tannenbaum: They have to get better — and healthy — along the offensive line. Could they find a new left tackle? And as many here have mentioned, I would also look to upgrade at running back and sign another pass-rusher.
Yates: It’s the offensive line, as others have noted. The group went from a strength, in prior seasons with Brady, to a liability. The entire league is starved for above-average offensive line play, but the Bucs need to think O-line all offseason.
If Brady leaves, what’s the quarterback move the Bucs should make?
Fowler: Backups Blaine Gabbert and Kyle Trask are options on low-cost contracts, so the first order of business is determining if they are starting-caliber quarterbacks. Trask was a second-round pick in 2021. If they want to go outside the organization, Derek Carr — who is likely to be traded or cut by the Raiders — could be a fit. He’s a pure pocket passer with an affinity for the deep ball — Mike Evans’ specialty — but he’ll cost more than Gabbert or Trask.
Graziano: I’ve said this before about other teams, but I’d look into trading for Trey Lance. The 49ers might be about to win the Super Bowl with Brock Purdy at quarterback. Lance, the No. 3 overall pick in the 2021 draft, is still just 22. Get him healthy, pair him with the right offensive coordinator and reap the benefits of the development work the Niners did with him.
Laine: When you look at the free agency market, the Bucs’ next-best option might be Gabbert. He has been in their system for five years, as it evolved from Bruce Arians’ “No risk it, no biscuit” to more of a hybrid version of Arians’ system and what the Patriots ran with Brady. The feeling within the organization is that Gabbert could have had a much different career had he had some semblance of stability after he was picked by the Jaguars No. 10 overall in the 2011 draft. Of course, Tampa Bay might also want to explore what San Francisco does with Lance. How much would the Bucs give up considering his injuries?
Paolantonio: Trade for Carr before he hits the open market after Las Vegas releases him. He’s a tough team player who can make all the throws. His personality is perfect for this team and staff. Tampa Bay will fall in love with him.
Reid: If the Seahawks fail to re-sign Geno Smith after his breakthrough season, the Buccaneers should sprint toward him. Carr could be a viable option as well. Obviously, neither is of Brady’s caliber, but who is? The reality is they likely will take a step back at the position.
Tannenbaum: Trade for Carr and draft another one high. I would throw a lot of resources at Brady’s replacement.
Yates: The trick of this is that we don’t know exactly which veterans will actually become available this offseason, so my answer is to survey the market for every available veteran. There are nine players on the roster besides Brady who carry a cap hit of at least $10 million next season, which means this is a franchise that wants to prolong its window for contention and does not want to hand over the reins to a young, unproven signal-caller.