Tom Brady’s biggest problem during his 2019 slump wasn’t the fact he was a 42-year-old quarterback playing in a cold-weather stadium. It was that his Patriots receiving corps had been picked apart.
Rob Gronkowski retired. Josh Gordon was ineffective, injured, released, and then suspended by the league after latching on with the Seahawks. Ben Watson was suspended for the first four games of the season and 38 years old. Neither N’Keal Harry nor Mohamed Sanu provided the fill-in value they’d been expected to.
This all led to a pedestrian season from the six-time Super Bowl winner, his team’s earliest playoff exit in a decade, and the lingering concern Brady had finally reached the end of his run as an elite quarterback. Rather than gamble with his legacy again in 2020, he did something about it. Brady joined a QB-needy team with quite possibly the league’s top one-two punch at wideout.
Brady is set to leave the only team he’s known for the past two decades to sign with the Buccaneers in advance of his age-43 season. While Tampa Bay can’t offer the legacy or prestige Brady left behind, it can offer Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, and the aging quarterback’s best opportunity to prove he can be a top-tier passer outside of Bill Belichick’s influence.
Brady instantly upgraded his receiving corps by moving south
There are two major positives working in a quarterback’s favor in Tampa. The first is head coach Bruce Arians.
The veteran playcaller has a particular gift in pushing his passers to be their truest possible selves. Sometimes that’s a veteran making up for lost time (Carson Palmer in Arizona). Sometimes it’s keeping the trajectory of future Hall of Famers pointed skyward (Peyton Manning in Indianapolis, Ben Roethlisberger in Pittsburgh) Most recently, it’s been trying to contain a wildly spraying fire hose that soaks everything in its vicinity, good or bad (Jameis Winston, 2019).
Arians’ guidance shines brightest with a Pro Bowl wideout to boost his offense. He’s got two of them with Evans and Godwin, who have developed into a deadly playmaking combination.
Evans is a 6’5 monster with the athleticism and agility to leave cornerbacks flailing at ghosts in a footrace. In six seasons as a pro, he’s never failed to have at least 1,000 receiving yards. His size, strength, and speed make him the perfect eraser for imperfect throws — something he knows plenty about after spending the last five seasons with Winston.
Godwin’s third season in the league was his best yet. He set career highs in catches (86), receiving yards (1,333), and touchdowns (nine) in 2019 despite playing in only 14 games. He’s capable of filling roles in the slot or near the sideline, and will likely be the man who inherits all the funky pre-snap movement Julian Edelman used to run in order to jumble defenses and switch up coverage.
Here’s how Evans and Godwin stacked up against the Patriots’ top six wideouts — Edelman, Gordon, Sanu, Harry, Phillip Dorsett, and Jakobi Meyers — combined in the 2019 season:
Mike Evans and Chris Godwin vs. Tom Brady’s top WRs, 2019
|Mike Evans and Chris Godwin||239||153||2490||10.4||16.3||64.0%||17|
|Patriots' top 6 WRs, combined||355||213||2472||7.0||11.6||60.0%||15|
If you go by yardage alone, Evans and Godwin (2,490 yards) were equal to the sum of the Patriots’ top six wideouts in 2019 (2,472). They had more receiving touchdowns than every WR to suit up for New England. Despite getting targeted further downfield than the Pats’ wideouts — Winston’s average throw traveled 10.5 yards past the line of scrimmage compared to 7.6 for Brady — they still caught a higher percentage of their passes than their New England counterparts.
Having Goodwin and Evans will allow Brady to up that number and showcase the deep ball bonafides that escaped him in 2019. While nothing may match the pitch-and-catch magic of his late-00s connection with Randy Moss, the Bucs’ game-breaking duo would give him the chance to relive some of those highlights in a new decade.
Evans, Godwin, and Arians aren’t the only positives working in Brady’s favor
Brady will also get the chance to help tight end O.J. Howard fulfill the potential that made him a first-round draft pick in 2017. Howard’s kinda like Gronkowski in that he’s a first-rate athlete, only roughly 25 percent as reliable and not nearly as good a run blocker. He fell out of Arians’ rotation last season after some embarrassing miscues, but the addition of a new tight end-dependent QB could restore his value.
If Howard can’t live up to Brady’s standard, red zone magnet Cameron Brate (24 touchdowns in his last four seasons despite limited targets) could be the biggest beneficiary of Brady’s rapid progression down his route trees. Either way, Tampa should be in good shape up the seam.
The team’s running game isn’t nearly as enticing as what Brady had in New England — there’s no James White clone to bust up defenses with wheel routes. But Ronald Jones showed off some useful receiving skills in 2019 and raised his yards per rush average from a putrid 1.9 yards per carry as a rookie to 4.2 last fall. If he can keep that up, he could be a valued counterbalance to the Bucs’ downfield passing game.
Tampa has still time to bring in more weapons with the draft approaching and more than $30 million in cap space remaining. Rumors have flown about the team adding more offensive firepower, whether that’s in a trade for Todd Gurley, an impact free agent wideout, or dipping into a deep cache of receivers in this spring’s draft.
A pricy salary probably got Tampa’s foot in the door for Brady’s services. However, Arians and the rest of the front office also likely assured Brady that the offense would be built out to his specifications in 2020 and beyond.
Brady brings an immediate gravitas to Tampa unmatched by any other Buccaneer quarterback. As ESPN pointed out, he’s several times more success on his own than the Bucs have been since being willed into existence in 1976 ... one year before Brady was born.
That doesn’t mean he’ll be able to fight back the hands of time just because of a change in venue. Tampa Bay has more to offer Brady as a downfield passer in 2020, but if last year’s slump was indeed the start of a decline, it may not matter who he’s surrounded by.
Even so, Brady still has gas in the tank to be one of the game’s top quarterbacks at 43 years old. He may not get a better opportunity to prove it than he will with the Buccaneers.