4-Down Territory: Brady’s return, Watson’s future, QB schism, underrated free agents

4-Down Territory: Brady’s return, Watson’s future, QB schism, underrated free agents

After a brief break following the Super Bowl, and with the scouting combine and the start of free agency to inform them, Touchdown Wire’s Doug Farrar, and Luke Easterling of Draft Wire and Bucs Wire, are back with yet another episode of “4-Down Territory,” in which our intrepid analysts throw a wide net over everything that’s happening in the NFL.

This week, Luke and Doug discuss Tom Brady’s return, Deshaun Watson’s complicated future, what the league’s quarterback landscape looks like after the combine and before the draft (hint: it doesn’t look great for this year’s quarterback draft class), and the most underrated free agents in this class.

As always, you can watch the “4-Down Territory” video right here!

Tom Brady is back, baby!

(Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports)

Tom Brady announced on Sunday that he is indeed returning for his 23rd NFL season. Does this surprise you at all, and what does this do to the NFC pecking order?

Doug: When you consider Brady’s 2021 season, and how well he played, I’m not surprised at all. The only thing that surprised me was that he retired in the first place. Perhaps that was a family decision that has now been reversed. He set career marks last season in attempts, completions, passing yards, and his 43 touchdown passes were the second most he’d had in a season, behind only the 50 he threw in 2007. There’s no real drop-off in ability, he led the league in deep passing attempts with 88 and ranked second with 37 deep completions behind only Matthew Stafford and Josh Allen, and given his insanely competitive nature, I think he would have regretted retiring while he still has it on the ball for the rest of his life.

And the re-signing of center Ryan Jensen, who reportedly took less money to hang out with Brady than he would have received in free agency, doesn’t hurt at all.

As far as what this does to the NFC – Brady wouldn’t come back if he didn’t think he was capable of winning another Super Bowl.

Luke: Not surprising at all, Doug. Just like the Bucs’ decision-makers, this was the outcome I had been hoping for (obviously, as a lifelong fan of the team and now covering them for Bucs Wire), and it really felt like the one that was always going to happen. The timing makes sense, as Brady got plenty of time away with his family to process his decision, and now he gives the Bucs the chance to go into free agency without the question mark at quarterback. Like you said, they still have a lot of other holes to plug, and the interior of that offensive line will be the biggest concern, but when you’ve got the GOAT, you’ve always got a good chance to going to the Super Bowl.

The Deshaun Watson complications.

(AP Photo/Zach Bolinger)

Now that Deshaun Watson’s legal issues are behind him to whatever degree they’re actually behind him, and things are in the civil phase, all indications are that some team is going to give up at least two first-round picks, and possibly several premium players, to get him. If you’re a general manager who’s seriously just a quarterback away from Super Bowl contention, do you make that deal?

Doug: If you isolate Watson as a player, it’s clear that he was a top-five quarterback in 2020 with a dumpster fire of an offense around him. As long as he’s the player he was after his year off in 2021, he’s worth a Matthew Stafford/Russell Wilson-level haul as far as picks and players. Of course, we can’t put Watson in a vacuum that way. I don’t want to get into the legal particulars of this, because there are people in our business who have made some unfortunate assumptions about Watson’s future based on their lack of knowledge, but I would find it hard to take a Watson deal of that magnitude to my team owner. There’s just so much we don’t know about the person right now. This isn’t wondering whether Stafford will fir in Sean McVay’s offense, or whether Wilson can throw over the middle. This is a guy who could define your team on one side of things, and completely tank your culture on the other… and you have absolutely no idea what you’re going to get.

Luke: Watson is absolutely one of the most talented quarterbacks in the league, and obviously still in his prime, on a contract that will only look cheaper every year from here on out. From a football standpoint, Watson would absolutely be worth the three first-round picks and perhaps more that the Texans are hoping to get for him. These allegations are obviously a different story, and even without criminal charges, the NFL has proven before that suspensions can be levied in these situations. You also have to consider the fans, and how they will react to a move like this, bringing in a player who has been accused of these kinds of things. I understand why some teams might bank on the football upside with Watson, but if it were me, I couldn’t be the GM that trades for him.

QB schism after the scouting combine!

(Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports)

When you look at the number of quarterback deals – Aaron Rodgers, Russell Wilson, even Carson Wentz – that happened right after the combine, are we seeing a referendum on the 2022 quarterback class, where there’s no clear franchise guy? Is this a year where the league doesn’t actually overcook the value of quarterback prospects in the draft?

Doug: It’s not just the Rodgers and Wilson deals, because we knew those were probably going to happen. It’s not just what might be given for Deshaun Watson. And it’s not the Wentz deal – that’s just Washington proving that it doesn’t understand how to evaluate quarterbacks. It’s also the sudden narrative that Mitch Trubisky could be a starter for the Steelers in 2022, and we’re now blaming everything that happened in Chicago on Matt Nagy. You wonder about the sub-strata of guys like Marcus Mariota and Teddy Bridgewater are going to get, but I think it is true that the NFL has taken a serious look at this class of quarterbacks, and it is not tremendously impressed. This could be like the 2013 class of quarterbacks. 11 were drafted, but only one (E.J. Manuel) in the first round, and none of them panned out.

Luke: It’s absolutely a reflection of this year’s QB market, both veterans and draft prospects alike. There’s no marquee name set to hit free agency, and while Malik Willis from Liberty gets me the most excited as a potential superstar from this year’s draft class, it still doesn’t feel anything like last year’s quarterback class, with all the guys that had franchise-type potential. There are two kinds of teams in this league, you know this: The ones who have THE GUY at QB, and those what are desperately trying to find that guy, and nobody wants to be in that second group.

Underrated free agents.

(Syndication Democrat And Chronicle)

Who are your one or two most underrated upcoming free agents – the guys who might go under the radar this week, but who could really help their next teams?

Doug: A few names stand out to me, mostly on defense. Linebacker Jordan Hicks, who played very well in a Cardinals defense that didn’t seem to want him. Two 2021 Packers – linebacker De’Vondre Campbell (back with the Packers), and cornerback Rasul Douglas (still unsigned at this time) – both of whom redefined Green Bay’s defensive profile with very little advance notice. Haason Reddick (signed with the Eagles), the best edge-rusher on the open market not named Von Miller, who would work very well in any multiple front. And Quandre Diggs, formerly of the Seahawks, who is that most important of players – a real deep-third eraser. He’ll be even better in 2022 if he lands with a defense that makes the most out of its players’ attributes. (Instead, Diggs re-signed with the Seahawks)

Luke: I’m gonna mention a few Bucs here. Safety Jordan Whitehead is just 24 years old, and played the best football of his career last year, because he was finally healthy for most of the season. Alex Cappa is kinda the forgotten man on Tampa Bay’s offensive line (and he signed with the Bengals), but the right guard has made 46 starts over the last three years, and played at a high level. Ronald Jones II at running back, another guy who is still just 24 years old, and still has tons of potential as an explosive, big-play runner.