Tom Brady and Sean Payton wanted to join the Miami Dolphins in 2022. That much seems clear based on months of reporting and the NFL’s decision this week to discipline the Dolphins for tampering with Brady and Payton while they were still under contract with other teams.
The Brady-Payton partnership was temporarily stymied, but there’s no reason these two NFL icons couldn’t pair up in 2023. Still, there is only a select list of teams that likely fit what Brady and Payton will be looking for next season.
Contenders to land Tom Brady and Sean Payton in 2023
You probably know the details by now. Brady would have become a minority owner of the Dolphins, who would have tried to acquire Payton’s rights from the Saints. At some point, Brady would have un-retired, forcing Miami to get his rights from the Buccaneers.
That alternate history has been laid to rest, and Brady and Payton certainly won’t be descending on Miami after the league docked the Dolphins’ first- and third-round draft picks and fined owner Stephen Ross $1.5 million.
Brady will stay in Tampa Bay for the 2022 campaign while Payton enjoys retirement, but they could both be available next offseason. Brady is entering a contract year with the Buccaneers and cannot be franchise-tagged in 2023. The Saints still technically control Payton’s rights, but they’ll likely be willing to trade him to an interested team in the spring.
If Brady and Payton want to team up next year, what type of situation will they be looking for? First and foremost, they’ll need to find a team ready to move on from both their head coach and their starting quarterback. That seems obvious, but fewer clubs than you might think are prepared to consider a wholesale change in those two critical roles.
Brady signed with the Buccaneers in 2020 because they had a roster that was ready to win — they just needed a quarterback. Tampa Bay already had excellent offensive weapons, an above-average offensive line, and a playmaking defense, and they committed to continuously improving the squad around Brady.
Brady’s next team will need to have at least some pieces in place. Sure, teams like the Falcons or the Texans might theoretically want Brady and Payton, but the two future Hall of Famers wouldn’t be interested in joining rosters largely devoid of talent.
Any team that signs Brady will realize that he’s in a year-to-year situation — he just turned 45 years old and could retire at any time. His next organization would have to be comfortable acknowledging that this could be a single-season alliance and willing to trust that Payton could find and develop another quarterback to succeed Brady.
Which teams make the most sense for Brady and Payton in 2023? Let’s start with a few clubs that could hold some appeal but probably aren’t real contenders for the duo’s services.
There are scenarios in which these teams could target Brady and Payton (or vice versa), but there are flaws that will likely prevent a union.
San Francisco 49ers
Brady grew up in California and idolized the Joe Montana-led 49ers during his formative years. San Francisco was also reportedly his preferred destination when he hit free agency in 2020.
According to Seth Wickersham’s “It’s Better to Be Feared,” Brady pitched himself to the 49ers and said he’d sign with them without a free agency tour or a bidding war. But after Kyle Shanahan and San Francisco’s coaching staff decided Brady’s tape was “better, but not that much better” than Jimmy Garoppolo’s, their interest waned.
Could the 49ers correct their mistake in 2023? It’s possible, but it would probably mean San Francisco bottomed out in 2022. Even then, they traded two additional first-round picks to acquire Trey Lance — it’s hard to imagine them moving on after his first full season as a starter, even if he doesn’t look ready for prime time.
Meanwhile, Shanahan’s reputation as an offensive mastermind will likely keep him employed even if the 49ers struggle next year, so Payton probably wouldn’t fit in the Bay Area.
Brady also reportedly had interest in joining the Colts in 2020, but Indy went with Philip Rivers instead. After cycling through Carson Wentz, the Colts have now turned to Matt Ryan as their latest stopgap quarterback. While there’s optimism Ryan will be an upgrade, there’s a scenario in which the 37-year-old takes a significant step back, or gets injured, leading Indianapolis to start fresh in 2023.
That’s probably the only way the Colts would move on from head coach Frank Reich, who’s been a revelation through four seasons in blue and white. He’s proven to be an outstanding play-caller and game manager, and it seems unlikely he’d be fired even if Indianapolis goes 5-12 or 6-11 next year. It would take a truly catastrophic campaign for Reich to lose his job in favor of Payton.
Brady would surely be enticed by the prospect of playing with Jonathan Taylor and Michael Pittman Jr. Additionally, the Colts have one of the NFL’s best offensive lines and tons of talent on defense. But to lure Brady, Indy would need to add extra pass catchers and show a willingness to be more aggressive in free agency.
Pete Carroll has had enough success with the Seahawks that he’ll be allowed to decide when he wants to retire. The 70-year-old Carroll is all about competition, but it won’t be a surprise if one season of coaching a team with Geno Smith or Drew Lock under center is enough to convince Carroll to call it quits.
If Carroll retires, the Seahawks would have openings at head coach and quarterback, clearing the way for Brady and Payton. Seattle has one elite receiver in DK Metcalf and another above-average option in Tyler Lockett. They added running back Kenneth Walker III in the second round, and rookie tackles Charles Cross and Abraham Lucas should help up front.
Still, this probably isn’t a roster that Brady and Payton are dying to join. There are holes all over Seattle’s depth chart, and they’re closer to Stage 1 of a rebuild than contending. Brady and Payton will have more alluring suitors.
Best landing spots for Brady and Payton
These three teams make the most sense for Brady and Payton in 2023. We’ll begin with a franchise that’s been searching for stability for the past several decades.
3) Washington Commanders
Let’s start with the good. Terry McLaurin and Jahan Dotson aren’t Mike Evans and Chris Godwin, but Washington’s top two receivers would give Brady a fighting chance. The Commanders have an underrated offensive line that should be able to keep Brady on his feet, and their defense has the talent to be among the NFL’s best (even if the results haven’t been always there).
Clearing out room for Brady and Payton shouldn’t be an issue, either. If Ron Rivera’s seat isn’t hot, it’s certainly warm. After consecutive seven-win seasons, Washington wouldn’t need much of a reason to move on from Rivera if the team doesn’t show improvement next year. If the Commanders are bad, that probably means Wentz was bad, and Washington could release him without taking on any dead money.
Roster-wise, Washington should be in the running to attract Brady and Payton. But we’re not sure how enthusiastic the pair would be about joining a franchise run by Daniel Snyder. Off the field, the Commanders are an organization in shambles, constantly beset by scandal after scandal. Brady and Payton have both been hit by league-imposed discipline in the past, but that was largely related to on-field incidents.
The Commanders’ depth chart might appeal to Brady and Payton, but they might need to see Snyder removed from his ownership role before taking a chance on Washington. The idea of joining a franchise that’s been so directionless for years probably isn’t all that attractive for two future HOFers in the twilight of their careers.
2) New York Jets
Brady and Bill Belichick had their way with the Jets during the Patriots’ dynasty, posting a 30-7 record against their AFC East rival. Admittedly, we don’t know if Brady would be interested in signing with a team that he fought twice per year for decades. Maybe his competitive drive is too strong to join a formerly hated opponent. Then again, perhaps Brady would relish the chance to take on Belichick in the same division.
For Brady and Payton to fit in New York, the Jets would have to struggle mightily in 2022. Zach Wilson would have to play as poorly as he did in his rookie year, and Gang Green’s free agent and rookie additions would need to flop. The Jets believe they’re building something, so it would likely take a sub-six-win season for head coach Robert Saleh to get fired.
If that happened, though, New York could be alluring for Brady and Payton. The Jets have young players like Elijah Moore, Garrett Wilson, and Breece Hall at the skill positions and a useful offensive line with at least a few long-term building blocks. On defense, young pieces such as Quinnen Williams, Ahmad Gardner, and Jermaine Johnson II litter the depth chart.
Plus, the Jets are usually more than willing to add additional help in free agency. Their signings haven’t always worked out, but they’re typically near the top of the list in active cash spending. Brady and Payton could rest easy knowing they’d have financial support from ownership.
1) Carolina Panthers
Over the past year-plus, the Panthers have swung and missed on Matthew Stafford, Russell Wilson, and Deshaun Watson. They opted against drafting a first-round quarterback in 2021 even though Justin Fields and Mac Jones were still on the board. Now, they have a QB room comprised of Baker Mayfield, Sam Darnold, and Matt Corral.
Maybe Carolina was waiting for Brady the entire time?
We kid, but the Panthers would likely be the No. 1 destination for Brady and Payton in 2023. Carolina could wipe the QB slate clean in an instant, and Matt Rhule is already the odds-on favorite to be the first coach fired. Owner David Tepper is the NFL’s second-richest owner, and he’s used to getting what he wants. He’s also reportedly “obsessed” with finding a quarterback solution and clearly ready to win.
From Brady and Payton’s perspective, the Panthers stand out as a team that’s nearly ready-made. They’d get to stay in the NFC, where the road to the Super Bowl is much easier than in the AFC. And they’d even get to face their old teams twice per year, which could be of interest to the uber-competitive Brady and Payton.
Carolina has the assets to attract Brady and Payton. Christian McCaffrey and DJ Moore are standout weapons, and the Panthers have made an effort — including drafting new left tackle Ikem Ekwonu at No. 6 overall — to improve a previously porous offensive line. While Carolina would likely need to commit to adding at least one more pass catcher, they can offer an ascending defense that includes playmakers like Brian Burns, Jeremy Chinn, and Jaycee Horn.
If — and it’s a big “if” — Brady and Payton want to team up in 2023, they’ll have plenty of suitors around the NFL, and their coordinated choice of a landing spot would mark a seismic shift in the league. Whichever team lands this dynamic duo would become an instant contender and insert themselves into the Super Bowl mix.