Tom Brady has firm grip on Patriots’ draft board

Dan Wetzel
Columnist

Everyone says Tom Brady is coming back to the New England Patriots, except, officially, Tom Brady.

This hasn’t mattered much across the slow burn following February’s Super Bowl loss to Philadelphia. Rob Gronkowski has yet to commit to a return either and for a stretch there, no one was 100 percent about Bill Belichick either.

Cryptic and coy is always popular in New England, which has long done things (quite successfully) its own way. Now the Patriots are staring down next week’s NFL draft and the mindset in Foxborough may finally reveal itself.

It’s unclear how much longer the Tom Brady-Bill Belichick era will continue in New England. (AP)

Loaded with picks and potential, this Patriots draft is as much about Brady as it is any college kid they select.

New England’s selections, and how it maneuvers (if at all) to get them, may be a direct reaction to their greatest player, his dwindling career window and what it might take to maximize the fast-coming end of an era.

Officially, Belichick will say he is doing “whatever is best for the team to win games” or some variation. But this draft night in New England carries a lot more meaning than normal.

The Patriots long ago created the harshest of competitive reality in football – Super Bowl or bust. You either win (five times) or you don’t. There is no close enough or moral victories. The loss to Philadelphia will sting forever, the way previous Super Bowl losses to the New York Giants already do. That’s the price of a dynasty.

It’s not like the Pats are suddenly going to go into some rebuild mode, but Brady looms over everything in a bunch of different ways.

He’ll be 41 in August and has said he wants to try to play until he is 45. Those close to him agree with that, but they also have long intimated that Brady will play only as long as he is entering a season he believes he can win a Super Bowl. That makes sense. If Brady is uncertain about 2018 after winning the MVP and throwing for 505 yards in a close Super Bowl loss, then anything less would likely drive him out.

The Pats are certainly a favorite to reach a fourth Super Bowl in five years, a strong draft though will play a big role in accomplishing that. There are needs all over the roster.

Either way, how long can the Patriots count on Brady? If there is even a little doubt about 2018, is 2019 realistic to count on?

If the long-term future is the pressing concern, do they package some picks and jump up and get an elite quarterback prospect? With Jimmy Garoppolo gone to San Francisco – and fetching that 43rd pick in return – the cupboard is bare. Lamar Jackson of Louisville is the most often cited, in part because Nick Caserio, the team’s director of player personnel, attended his pro day.

If Belichick doubts, at all, that Brady is coming back, then perhaps he needs to draft a QB. Yet by drafting a QB does he not strengthen the team enough and motivate Brady to, indeed, actually return? If it takes packaging two picks to get Jackson, then that’s two picks who, if Brady returned, wouldn’t see the field.

There is plenty of help needed. Offensive lineman Nate Solder is gone. Slot receiver Danny Amendola is gone (although Julian Edelman will be back). Deep threat Brandin Cooks is gone.

Then again, the Pats lost the Super Bowl not because it couldn’t do enough on offense, but because the defense couldn’t get a stop. The lack of a pass rush is a particular need. The linebacker depth is thin. The defensive backfield is always in need.

Does a strong draft that plugs holes and impresses Brady aid in his decision to return?

Without him, New England isn’t much of a team.

Then again, when, without fully bottoming out, will New England have such an ability to grab an elite quarterback prospect again? The collection of draft assets this year presents a unique opportunity to move way up in the first round, rare territory for New England. It’s had just two first-round picks of any kind in their past five drafts and have picked just once in the top 10 since 2003.

Going all in on 2018 with complementary pieces could cost the Patriots long-term because they have no franchise quarterback in the pipeline.

In New England, where this offseason public commitments were rare and at least a hint of uncertainty hung over everything, this draft is one like no other.

Of course, Belichick could just grab another future Hall of Famer in the sixth round.

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