It's a situation that has slowly been sneaking up on the Patriots but is about to get very real.
Over the second half of their dynasty (call it 2011-present), the Patriots have done a tremendous job managing contracts and keeping finances in order while developing one of the most talented young rosters in the league. The first part of that equation is nothing new; the Pats vary rarely get the money wrong. The second part has come about since the team pulled itself out of a drafting slump at the end of last decade (call it 2006-2009) and stocked useful players throughout the roster.
The result is what Robert Kraft would call a classy problem -- a lot of good players who will soon be coveted across the league. In other words, the Pats roster is about to get a lot less cost effective, and decisions will have to be made, as no fewer than 13 contributing players will be free agents at the end of the upcoming 2016 season.
The Pats will do well to keep half of them. In fact, they've already started the bloodletting, showing Chandler Jones the door for draft picks and letting defensive linemen Akiem Hicks, Silver Siliga and Dominique Easley sign elsewhere for nothing in return this past offseason. In the cases of Jones and Easley, there was probably more at play than just money, but finances are never far removed from any NFL decision, so don't delude yourself into thinking Jones is gone only because he wandered half-naked into a police station parking lot last winter. He was also about to get paid -- and the Pats decided it wasn't going to be from them. If Jones was still affordable, the Pats, like most every other team in the NFL, could handle a little synthetic weed.
(Usual disclaimer: We're discussing real money decisions here, not salary cap decisions. The Pats can figure out the cap if they want to, just like any team in the league. Fitting players under the limit by playing with the figures and timing out the payments is the easy part. The hard part is dolling out signing bonuses and guaranteed dollars. That will be the rub for the Pats).
Anyway, the Jones decision is just the beginning.
About the only pending free agent the Pats have leverage over is corner Malcolm Butler. He's on the books for just $600,000 this year and will only be a restricted free agent at the end of the season. Getting him a bridge contract (somewhere between what he makes now and the top of the market, which is around $14 million per year for his position) seems like a no-brainer. But we'll see how tough the Pats are on him this summer and how far he wants to push it.
The Pats aren't really in a position to play hardball with anyone else. Dont'a Hightower will make excellent money this year ($7.75 million) and stands to make even more as an unrestricted free agent after the year. Not much incentive for him to sign early. Jamie Collins, as a former second-round pick, hasn't done nearly as well on his rookie deal (he'll make $900,000 this year), but he stands to have an even stronger market than Hightower. One way or another, he's about to be a very rich man.
Meanwhile, Logan Ryan and Duron Harmon may be fringe starters on the Pats, but you know there will be teams across the league willing to increase their roles and fatten their wallets. Hard to imagine the Pats will be the high bidders for guys like that.
How about Matthew Slater? I don't know if I've ever seen anyone better covering kicks. In many respects, he's a perfect Patriot. But he's ultimately just a special teams player, and you can't overspend on that. Seems like an easy guy for someone else to get stupid over.
Other pending free agents include veterans Jabaal Sheard, Rob Ninkovich, Alan Branch, Terrence Knighton and Chris Long on defense and Martellus Bennett and Sebastian Vollmer on offense. Certainly, through injury and underperformance, some of those players will take themselves out of your future plans. But others you'll want to keep. If it all comes together as the Pats want this season, they'll want to keep most of them but will be unable to.
Again, a classy problem. But an issue nonetheless. There will be a lot of incentive for players to have good years this season, and some potential for unhappiness in the locker room. Who gets paid and who doesn't? Who stays and who goes? We're about to find out.
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