Everyone has March 18 — the beginning of NFL free agency — circled on their calendars as the entire sports world waits to see what Tom Brady ultimately will do.

The New England Patriots, however, might be operating on an entirely different timeline.

Brady and the Patriots are at a weird place, with the legendary quarterback preparing to enter free agency for the first time in his storied career. The organization is thus at a crossroads, not only having to wait on Brady’s decision but perhaps having to make its own difficult choice about whether it’s time to move on from the signal-caller who will turn 43 in early August.

While this is unfamiliar territory as it pertains to Brady, this isn’t a totally foreign situation for Bill Belichick and the Patriots. New England actually went through a similar ordeal last season when it perhaps waited too long for an answer from Rob Gronkowski. The hulking tight end ultimately retired, and by the time he called it a career, it was too late for the Patriots to mobilize in free agency. They reportedly spoke with Jared Cook, but as New England waited for Gronkowski’s decision, Cook’s talks with the Saints advanced and he ultimately signed in New Orleans.

The result was an underwhelming tight end corps that was a glaring weakness all season for the Patriots.

ESPN’s Adam Schefter thinks the organization might not wait around this year while Brady tries to make up his mind. Schefter said on ESPN’s “Get Up” on Thursday he thinks the Patriots could make their decision before Brady.

“Here’s the situation: I don’t believe the New England Patriots are waiting until March 16 to get an answer from Tom Brady,” Schefter said. “Last year, Rob Gronkowski wound up retiring in late March. I don’t know the conversations they did and didn’t have before, but New England missed the window on free-agent tight ends. So I don’t think they’re going to let Tom Brady go to free agency, all of a sudden, sign with Team X, and then on March 20, say ‘Well, what do we do at quarterback now?’ That’s not the way that organization operates.”

It’s still possible the Patriots and Brady find common ground before mid-March and ensure he doesn’t reach free agency. And who knows, maybe they’ll decide Brady is important enough to wait for, and regroup with him after he takes meetings with other teams. Patriots owner Robert Kraft, after all, did emphatically say the Patriots plan to re-sign Brady. We probably also shouldn’t count out the specter of backroom tampering, both with Brady and other teams as well as the Patriots and other quarterbacks.

But if Brady does take his time — and there’s no reason to believe he’s in a hurry to make his decision — the Patriots will have a difficult decision to make. If the game of quarterback musical chairs ends with Brady gone and the Patriots without a seat, then it most likely would be second-year QB Jarrett Stidham taking over. Whether that’s something the Patriots are comfortable with, we’ll find out soon enough.

Thumbnail photo via Winslow Townson/USA TODAY Sports Images