Tom Brady’s easy Super Bowl path, NFL execs share top free-agent deals

Tom Brady #12 of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Tom Brady #12 of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images) /

Tom Brady’s return positions the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to make a legitimate run at two Super Bowls in the past three seasons, plus the most impactful free-agent signings so far, Deshaun Watson fallout in Cleveland, and much more

Tom Brady will be 45 in September when the NFL season begins, and he has never had an easier road to the Super Bowl.

Just 17 days ago, Brady announced that he was returning from his 41-day retirement, and since then both everything and nothing has changed across the league.

Since Brady’s return, the Seattle Seahawks shipped Russell Wilson to the AFC, Deshaun Watson stayed in the AFC by signing a mega-deal with the Cleveland Browns after being moved in a blockbuster trade from the Houston Texans, and Matt Ryan was dealt to the AFC South’s Indianapolis Colts.

Rising above the rubble following the tectonic shift at the quarterback position are Brady and the Buccaneers, who must be considered the prohibitive favorites to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl next February.

When Brady’s 23rd season kicks off this fall, he’ll be aiming for not only his eighth Super Bowl championship and fourth MVP, but he’ll be doing it in an NFC South that will likely field some combination of Jameis Winson, Sam Darnold, and either a rookie, Jimmy Garoppolo, or Baker Mayfield at quarterback.

Meanwhile, 10 of the projected starting quarterbacks in the AFC have won at least one playoff game, while only six other than Brady have in the NFC. And one of those NFC signal-callers is Jimmy Garoppolo, who might not have a starting job come September.

The last time Brady played in the AFC, he couldn’t even lead the New England Patriots to a playoff win. Logan Ryan intercepted Brady’s final pass in a Patriots uniform and returned it for a touchdown in the waning moments of a Foxboro monsoon on Wild Card Weekend in 2019 to seal a Titans victory.

Brady, of course, is one of the most accomplished winners in the history of American spots. Full stop. There’s nothing taking away the legacy he has forged and is in a prime position to add to.

However, of the 25 quarterbacks who resided in the AFC East during Brady’s 20 seasons in New England, only Chad Pennington, Tyrod Taylor, Matt Moore, Ryan Tannehill, and Mark Sanchez made the postseason over that span.

Sure, Brady had to get through the likes of Hall of Famer Peyton Manning, Ben Roethlisberger, and in recent years Patrick Mahomes in the postseason to get to Super Sunday. There were also classic matchups against the Baltimore Ravens and their stifling defenses over the years.

Within his division, though? The AFC East might as well have been renamed “Brady’s Place.”

But, if Brady makes his eighth Super Bowl, who will be the Buccaneers’ biggest challenger? Matthew Stafford’s Los Angeles Rams? Aaron Rodgers’ Green Bay Packers, Rodgers’ 12-10 postseason record, and all?

Since Brady’s return, the Buccaneers have re-signed star wide receiver Chris Godwin, running back Leonard Fournette off the strongest season of his career, added versatile receiver Russell Gage via free agency, and traded for center Shaq Mason to solidify the line in front of Brady.

Few teams in the NFC can boast the combination of a quarterback of Brady’s stature or as gifted a supporting cast around him.

With Brady behind center, there’s a legitimate chance that against a schedule that features six matchups against the woebegone NFC South, games against the NFC West, and getting matchups against the Kansas City Chiefs, Cincinnati Bengals, and Baltimore Ravens at home, Tampa could win 11 or even12 games before waltzing into the postseason with home-field advantage.

If that happens, Brady might have to get through two of Stafford’s Rams, Rodgers’ Packers, and Dak Prescott’s Dallas Cowboys, depending on how the bracket takes shape.

Those teams aren’t pushovers, but they’re far from the crucible of surviving a postseason run in the AFC that will be sure to feature some combination of Mahomes, Burrow, Allen, Herbert, Wilson, Lamar Jackson, or Matt Ryan or Ryan Tannehill.

For as much as the NFL changed in the days following Brady’s return, one big thing that hasn’t is his road to the Super Bowl is about as navigable as it has ever been.

Tom Brady, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Tom Brady, Tampa Bay Buccaneers. (Mandatory Credit: Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports) /

The 10 best free-agent signings made so far

The NFL sought to by moving the Super Bowl back one week truncate the offseason to create 24/7 buzz and fill the news cycle to the brim in its constant march to becoming a 12-month per year American centerpiece.

If the first two weeks of free agency are any indication, mission accomplished.

Four blockbuster quarterback trades have already gone down, two of the premier players at the position are returning to their Super Bowl-caliber teams, dozens of Pro Bowlers and All-Pro players have changed zip codes. And we haven’t even reached the NFL Draft.

These are the 10 free agent signings that — at least in my opinion — have the potential to make the most impact, with insight from coaches, scouts, and executives from across the NFL:

Chandler Jones, EDGE, Las Vegas Raiders

In a division that features two matchups apiece annually against Patrick Mahomes, Justin Herbert, and now Russell Wilson, a relentless pass-rush is an absolute necessity if you’re hoping to compete.

The Raiders, after extending Maxx Crosby, bagged the premier edge presence on the market, Chandler Jones.

“I think Chandler is a top-10 caliber pass-rusher,” an NFL scout tells FanSided. “He has the ability to thrive in both three-down and four-down fronts. Adding Chandler immediately makes the Raiders better from a pass-rush and down and distance situations.”

Jones was a legitimate Defensive Player of The Year candidate last season after producing 10.5 sacks and adding 47 quarterback pressures, and now pairs with Crosby to form one of the NFL’s most dynamic pass-rush duos.

La’El Collins, OT, Cincinnati Bengals

No quarterback was sacked more than Joe Burrow last season. It was paramount for the Bengals, who opened the offseason with upwards of $50 million in cap space, to fortify the offensive line in front of one of the game’s premier quarterbacks.

Collins is one of the NFL’s best offensive tackles, and he surrendered just two sacks last season, while garnering an 82 overall grade from Pro Football Focus and an 89.8 run-blocking mark.

“I like La’el Collins a lot,” an AFC Scouting Director tells FanSided. “He should be able to help solidify that line, which needed major improvements. They needed veterans with a track record of past success, and he delivers that.”

Adding a veteran anchor along the offensive line is a major step towards the Bengals positioning themselves for a run at a second consecutive Super Bowl berth.

Von Miller, EDGE, Buffalo Bills

How much differently do those final 13 seconds of regulation at Arrowhead Stadium and the subsequent overtime look if Von Miller is screaming off the edge in chase of Patrick Mahomes in Buffalo’s loss to the Chiefs in the AFC Divisional round?

“He might not be elite anymore,” an NFC personnel executive tells FanSided. “But he’s what I call a crafty vet. Even though he probably has to come off the field on run-downs, he shows up on tape because he knows when to get after it, and he makes big plays in big spots.”

Fresh off winning a Super Bowl ring with the Los Angeles Rams, Miller lands with one of the league’s most talented rosters, bringing with him 115.5 career sacks, including 9.5 last season, positioning himself nicely to play for a third ring.

J.C. Jackson
New England Patriots cornerback J.C. Jackson (Mandatory Credit: David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports) /

J.C. Jackson, CB, Los Angeles Chargers

It’s not often that a consensus top-10 player at a position becomes available in free agency, and Jackson is at least that good — and even better.

Jackson held opposing quarterbacks to an unconscionable 48.7 passer rating when targeting him last season, as he intercepted eight passes and returned one for a touchdown while producing 58 total tackles. Signing Jackson is the kind of bold, aggressive, necessary move the Chargers had to make this offseason to keep pace in the AFC West.

After dropping Jackson into a revamped defense, Los Angeles very well may be the favorite to win the division.

“LA’s defense is now about as talented and dynamic as any we’ve seen before,” an NFL scout tells FanSided. “With Swiss Army knife, Derwin James, star rookie Asante Samuel Jr, and Nasir Adderley who hit his stride last year. Jackson is the immediate CB1 who can mentor Samuel Jr who will more than hold his own on the other side.”

Brandon Scherff, OG, Jacksonville Jaguars

For the Jaguars, this offseason was all about making amends with franchise quarterback Trevor Lawrence for his tumultuous rookie season, especially all the drama surrounding former head coach Urban Meyer.

Jacksonville came out swinging, not only signing wide receivers Christian Kirk and Zay Jones to mega-deals to bolster Lawrence’s supporting cast, but also added one of the top offensive guards in the league, All-Pro Brandon Scherff, to keep last year’s No. 1 overall pick upright.

“Scherff is one of the top two or three offensive guards in the game,” an AFC coach tells FanSided. “He’s physical. He’s smart. He’s the best puller and out in space guard that there is in today’s NFL.”

Allen Robinson, WR, Los Angeles Rams

The Rams are seemingly hoping Robinson can vacate a similar role Robert Woods occupied before tearing his ACL late last season, and Robinson lands with Stafford, who is easily the most gifted and accomplished quarterback he’s played for.

However, not everyone is convinced Robinson will be the game-changer the Rams are betting on him being.

“This move really surprised me,” an NFC offensive coach tells FanSided. “I don’t think he’s the same player anymore. He’s a step slow at this point.”

Still, during Robinson’s most recent fully-healthy season in 2020, Bears quarterbacks produced a 90.1 passer rating when targeting him and he only had one drop in 150 targets while producing 1,250 yards and catching six touchdowns. The combination of Robinson, Cooper Kupp, and perhaps eventually Odell Beckham Jr. will make the Rams a tough out in their Super Bowl defense.

Haason Reddick, EDGE, Philadelphia Eagles

There are few fits this offseason than Reddick landing in Eagles defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon’s scheme that utilizes multiple fronts and exotic blitz packages.

“I think he finally gets the chance to do what he did when he was at Temple, again,” an AFC scout tells FanSided. “They’ll probably use him as an off-the-ball SAM linebacker, especially because he’s so good at rushing the passer and can drop if needed.”

Reddick arrives in Philadelphia as a burgeoning edge rush talent, coming off a 15-sack and 44 pressure campaign in 2021, during a season in which he finished with the fourth-best pass-rush win rate last season. The Eagles positioned themselves to benefit from Reddick’s best years, which appear to be in front of him.

Juju Smith-Schuster, WR, Kansas City Chiefs

The AFC West is in the midst of an arms race, and the Chiefs dropping one of the game’s most dominant slot receivers into an offense that must find a way to replace the lost production from Tyreek Hill proves wise. Travis Kelce is still performing at an All-Pro level and the Chiefs may have some countermoves with the draft picks acquired in the Hill trade, so this addition could be one part of what proves to be a formidable counterpunch to the moves the Chargers, Raiders and Broncos have made in recent weeks.

Kansas City has consistently won due to its speed on offense around Mahomes, and Smith-Schuster departs the Steelers after averaging 11.9 yards per reception and catching 26 touchdowns through his first five seasons. Adding Smith-Schuster into Mahomes’ arsenal makes the Chiefs exponentially more difficult to defend, and ultimately to beat.

“Juju brings them size,” an AFC scout tells FanSided. “He brings length and a playmaking ability running after the catch. Juju will be a big target in the red zone, along with Travis Kelce. It’s a good fit and he will make their offense more diverse.”

Foley Fatukasi, DT, Jacksonville Jaguars

Many executives around the league believed the Jaguars would be big-spenders at the top of the market along both lines of scrimmage. Trent Baalke followed through, committing $30 million, including $20 million fully guaranteed to Fatukasi.

“He’s a big body to drop into the middle of their defensive line,” an NFC personnel director tells FanSided. “And a really solid run defender. Sounds like he’s just what they need, and they certainly paid a premium for him.”

A dominant run-stuffer, Fatukasi has produced 115 total tackles, including 18 tackles for loss, and 14 quarterback hits over the past three seasons. The Jaguars are betting big that he’ll act as a space-eater against the AFC’s elite running backs like Derrick Henry and Jonathan Taylor.

Jordan Whitehead, S, New York Jets

The Jets’ defense was a sieve last season, allowing a league-high 397.8 yards and 29.6 points per game, so, constructing a defense around proven playmakers was a top priority for general manager Joe Douglas this offseason.

Douglas and the Jets poached safety Jordan Whitehead, who was instrumental to the Buccaneers’ Super Bowl win in 2020, and who produced 73 total tackles with two interceptions en route to a 74.9 overall grade from Pro Football Focus.

“Jordan is an absolute tone-setter,” an NFC defensive coach tells FanSided. “He’s a physical player who delivers big hits, is an absolute asset in run-defense, and is a tremendous leader off the field.”



“Until they plant me, I guess,”

– John Clayton, via the Pittsburgh Post Gazette in 2018, when asked how long he’d keep covering the NFL. 

John Clayton died Friday, following a brief illness, and a life spent carving a legacy as one of the NFL’s most respected reporters.

More importantly, though, beyond a career that landed him enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame alongside the legends of the sport he devoted a lifetime to telling its stories, Clayton touched the lives of so many in our industry, myself included.

When I was still a college student, hosting a measly sports radio show on a measly college radio station whose reach didn’t extend more than a block off campus, Clayton appeared as a call-in guest several times. He was gracious and kind each time our paths crossed, be it early in my career at the Maxwell Football Club banquet in Atlantic City, or in a corner of Prime 47 Steakhouse during the NFL Combine in recent years.

You’d struggle to meet a more cordial and attentive reporter on the NFL beat.

That’s probably what made him so great at his job.

Before Clayton starred in arguably ESPN’s most iconic This Is SportsCenter commercial, fake ponytail, Slayer t-shirt, and all, he dominated the Pittsburgh Steelers beat.

Clayton was a mainstay covering the Seattle Seahawks through the latter chapters of his life, and he was as influential a voice in terms of growing the knowledge of the sport as we’ve seen in the past three decades or longer.

Much like John Madden, a generation of football fans grew up getting their football news from Clayton. He was always among the lead segments on SportsCenter when it was an NFL story that led the day, including leading the broadcast the day before Thanksgiving in 2015, reacting to a story I had published for about Chip Kelly’s tumultuous relationship with players inside the Philadelphia Eagles locker room.

Now, in the span of three months, Madden and Clayton are no longer with us. But their impact will live on forever.

Final thought

The Cleveland Browns traded for Deshaun Watson sending six draft picks to the Houston Texans. Already at a steep price, it wound up costing the Browns far more.

As one current head coach said in this space last week, when discussing Watson’s most likely destination; “Watch the Browns, they’ll trade the world for him and for the chance to win now,” turns out, Cleveland also traded its integrity and its morality for the chance to win.

The franchise best hope it climbs into the Super Bowl picture with Watson behind center. And not just one: several.

There’s no question that the Browns, a franchise that has started 31 quarterbacks since 1999 acquired the most gifted quarterback to wear its iconic uniform since Otto Graham’s retirement in 1954, needed to upgrade. If Baker Mayfield was done for good, it’s time to move on and add the “grown-up” Cleveland wanted.

It’s just hard to fathom how Watson is that “grown-up.”

Despite a Harris County, Texas’ Grand Jury decision not to charge Watson criminally, he arrives on the banks of Lake Erie with the questions. Twenty-two, to be exact; the number of credible allegations of sexual misconduct and assault hanging over his head. He very well could be found civilly liable by any number of these women who are alleging heinous misconduct by the 26-year-old.

In addition to trading a package that includes three first-round picks to the Texans, the Browns also, as Peter King points out this week, structured Watson’s contract in a way that not only guarantees $80 million, but his signing bonus of $45 million dwarfs his 2022 salary of $1.035 million.

Such a move means that if Watson is suspended for six games, his fine would only be $345,000, based on his weekly game checks.

Some league insiders tell FanSided they believe Watson could face a 12-game ban, which would raise his fine to $690,000 which accounts for only .0153 percent of his signing bonus, alone.

Of course, Watson could fight it in a similar fashion to that of Ben Roethlisberger, who saw his six-game ban in 2010 drop to four.

It’s one thing to trade for a top quarterback. It’s another to protect him so significantly from financial hardship should the NFL’s investigation reveal his misconduct merits a significant suspension.

As a result, the Browns now must look their fanbase in the eye and justify the damage even associating with Watson does to the franchise’s legacy.

Owner Jimmy Haslam, general manager Andrew Berry, and head coach Kevin Stefanski now must explain to every woman in the front office, every woman who walks through the turnstiles, every woman who pays to attend a chalk talk or other community outreach function why adding Watson and protecting him financially was worth the risk of such a significant gesture.

What’s more, Haslam, Berry, Stefanski, and the rest of the Browns’ decision-makers chose to move forward with Watson after reportedly speaking with him about the allegations against him for a mere 30 minutes and without consulting any of his accusers.

If the Browns’ big bet pays off, Cleveland should ultimately win a Super Bowl with Watson.

Will what they traded away — more so than picks — will it really have been worth it?