By NATE WELLER
It’s been a highly-intense week of free agency since the NFL’s legal tampering window opened on Monday. The “offseason of the quarterback” has lived up to the hype, headlined by Tom Brady officially ending his 20-year run in New England and joining the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
From a talent standpoint, it’s pretty easy to see the allure of playing quarterback in Tampa. The Bucs receiving talent runs laps around anything New England has put on the field in the last few seasons, and their defense quietly put together a very strong campaign in 2019. The marriage between Arians and Brady doesn’t immediately make sense on paper though.
It’s not a secret that Arians prefers his quarterbacks to push the ball downfield. A lot. And while it didn’t take much nudging to get Jameis Winston to be reckless with the football, Carson Palmer also posted an Average Depth of Target (ADoT) of 10.6 yards under Arians in 2015, followed by two more seasons above 9.0 to finish his career. Outside of an outlier season in 2017 in which he posted an ADoT of 8.8, Brady’s ADoT has generally been a shade under 8.0, including only 7.1 in 2019.
Looking at the distribution of throw depth for both Brady and Arians’ quarterbacks, the difference becomes even more stark. Brady had a higher percentage of throws at every depth under 9 yards. Arians’ quarterbacks consistently attacked the intermediate and deep portions of the field more than Brady.
More importantly, Brady wasn’t great last season in the intermediate and deep portions of the field that Arians likes to attack. On throws between 10 and 19 air yards, Brady’s EPA per Attempt (EPA/A) of 0.32 ranked 23rd best in the league, and his 52% positive percentage (percentage of plays with a positive Expected Points) was 29th. He fared better on throws that traveled at least 20 yards in the air, though his EPA/A of 0.34 still ranked 14th, and his Positive% of 41% ranked 12th.
Some of this is due to his aging, but some of this can undoubtedly be linked to Brady’s receivers. Behind Julian Edelman, the Patriots’ most targeted receivers last season were James White and Phillip Dorsett. Brady will now be throwing to arguably the most dynamic receiving duo in the NFL in Mike Evans and Chris Godwin.
Last year Godwin turned 95% of his catchable targets into catches, the highest rate in the league among receivers who were targeted at least 50 times. Jakobi Meyers and Dorsett paced the Patriots in that metric at only 84% and 83%.
On 45 targets between 10 and 19 yards, Godwin didn’t record a single drop and turned 94% of catchable targets into a reception, 5th best in the league. Edelman, Brady’s top target when attacking this part of the field, posted a Catchable Catch% of only 77% on intermediate throws. Mike Evans isn’t nearly as efficient as Godwin but is still among the most dangerous deep threats in the NFL, a role the Patriots were never able to fill last year despite their best efforts.
Having receivers will undoubtedly help Brady, but it would be shocking to see Brady run the same offense Arians ran with Winston last season, or even the offense Arians ran with Palmer. Arians may utilize more quick-hitting route concepts than he has historically. As he’s aged, Brady has shown less willingness to stand the pocket, and also posted an Independent QB Rating of 63.3 when pressured last season, 26th in the league, neither of which mesh well with long-developing route concepts.
Brady also found a lot of success passing from ’21’ personnel last season, something only four teams utilized more than the Patriots, and something the Bucs used sparingly. On 74 dropbacks from 21 last season Brady posted an IQR of 108.8 and an EPA/A of 0.19.
Using SIS-WAR, which allows us to estimate team win totals, the Buccaneers would’ve been expected to win a game and a half more by replacing Winston with Brady, and this comes on the tails of a season where the Bucs already under-performed against their SIS-WAR expected Wins and Pythagorean Wins total.
It’s hard to project exactly what the Bucs offense will look like, or the kind of performance they will get from Brady, but it’s reasonable to think that average quarterback play and anything less than 30 interceptions is enough for the Bucs to make a legitimate playoff push.