Tom Brady’s return to Patriots ‘not looking good,’ new rumors say, but does it matter at this point?

NFL free agency in 2020 is still three weeks away, but we all knew the rumor ​igniter that is the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis would give us some Tom Brady gossip as the greatest quarterback of all time prepares to hit the open market for the first time in his 20-year career.

Whoever had Thursday, Feb. 27 as the day a flood of Brady-related hearsay would arrive, claim your prize.

ESPN NFL reporter Jeff Darlington, appearing on the network’s morning show “Get Up” on Thursday, said he would be “stunned if Tom Brady returns to the Patriots,” adding that Brady has told people “very close” to him he is “going somewhere else.”

Added The Boston Globe’s Karen Guregian on Thursday: “The Patriots still have not reached out to Tom Brady. According to a source, ‘it’s not looking good.'”

And The Athletic’s Vic Tafur: “The strong buzz in Indy this week is that Tom Brady won’t return to the Patriots.”

At this point, nobody should be surprised by the idea of Brady, 42, flirting with other teams in free agency. He renegotiated his contract so it would expire after 2019 for a reason, and speculation regarding his future began as soon as New England lost to Tennessee in the wild-card round of the playoffs. Yet the shocking nature of the scenario persists in part because Brady’s decision will have league-altering ripple effects.

Thursday’s reports of Brady leaning away from the Patriots could be a leverage play on the part of the QB’s camp. (Although New England coach/general manager Bill Belichick doesn’t strike us as one who’s likely to fold under the pressure of whatever leverage Brady can create.)

Also, that the Patriots reportedly haven’t reached out to Brady means nothing at this point. According to NFL Media, team owner Robert Kraft is comfortable letting Brady test free agency. “From what I understand,”’s Ian Rapoport reported, “Kraft’s thinking on this was basically, if the sides came together, if Brady decides that the Patriots were his best option after testing free agency, and if Bill Belichick — who of course is making the decisions for New England — if he decides that Brady is his best option at this price, then in the end after all of this after going through everything, that it will mean that it’s basically meant to be.”

Added The Boston Globe’s Ben Volin on Thursday: “Belichick doesn’t see much sense in talking to Brady about a possible deal until he knows what the CBA situation will be.”

So Thursday’s reports at this stage mean little. What we know for sure is legitimate answers to the questions about Brady’s future should be coming soon.

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If Brady is not on the Patriots’ roster on March 18 at 4 p.m. ET, when the 2020 league year begins, the team will be hit with a $13.5 million dead cap charge (signing bonus acceleration). That number that will be cut in half if he re-signs, so New England will need an answer.

The NFL’s legal tampering period for soon-to-be free agents is two days before the start of the league year, so if Brady wants to listen to other teams’ pitches (without visiting), that’s his first opportunity to do so within the league’s rules.

“Within the league’s rules” is key, because as former NFL GM and current Sporting News contributor Jeff Diamond points out, the most important activities at the NFL Combine this week are taking place away from the cameras and spotlight.

“Lots of conversations — legal and illegal under NFL rules — between general managers with their contract/salary cap guys often in tow,” Diamond writes. “Conversations with agents for soon-to-be free agents and for players already signed but targeted for pay cuts or release. … The priorities for GMs are the agent chats in hotel rooms, bars, restaurants, coffee shops and skyways of Indianapolis — with greater privacy needed for the illegal discussions on other teams’ players who will soon hit the free-agency market.

“Such negotiations on outside free agents are not supposed to take place until the legal tampering period. It is the NFL’s most absurd rule, as it is constantly broken by every team beginning long before the Combine. Things only escalate in Indy.”

And yes, Brady’s agent Don Yee is in Indianapolis this week.

Unless Brady and the Patriots come to some sort of agreement before March 16, the events of that 48-hour period before the official beginning of free agency likely will answer the question to which everybody wants the answer: Where will Brady play in 2020?

Until then, the speculation and reporting war will continue.

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