Top 5 business decisions confronting Patriots
A few salary cap moves loom for Patriots
The Patriots currently have about $5M in wiggle room under the projected 2016 salary cap of $154M. That’s not enough room if they want to address extensions with some key players, particularly on defense. But there are a couple of simple contract restructures Nick Caserio and Bill Belichick could undertake, which would free up more space and allow them to get down to the business of sealing up the principal guys on defense. We’ll start our list of the biggest business decisions the Patriots face with the nip/tucks that are necessary. My crutch in all cap-related matters since 2001 is Miguel Benzan of PatsCap.com.
Jerod Mayo/Danny Amendola
The shared cap hit between Mayo and Amendola is $18.2M for 2016 (Mayo at $11.4M, Amendola at $6.8M). Start with Mayo. He’s got a $4M roster bonus due March 9 that the Patriots almost certainly won’t pick up. If they choose not to and cut ties completely, the team will save $6.4M. That Mayo tore his pectoral tendon in the playoffs and is currently on IR will make it hard for him to latch on elsewhere prior to the start of the 2016 season if New England doesn’t pick up the option. It’s an easy decision on the money but a little tougher one on how to proceed with a seven-time captain. As for Amendola, $5M of his cap hit is salary. He is coming off his best season in New England (65 catches, 648 yards and three TDs) and was terrific in the postseason in 2014. Even though he hasn’t produced stats commensurate with his paycheck all the way through, he has been a tremendously valuable player. But $5M is a little aggressive, especially when it’s exactly twice what Julian Edelman will make in 2016 salary. A release of Amendola – which I wouldn’t anticipate – would save $3.5M against the cap.
The Patriots picked up the fifth-year option on Chandler Jones’ rookie contract last year. He’s locked in to make $7.8M this year and then will be a free agent in 2017. The Patriots can knock down the 2016 cap figure by extending Jones and trimming his salary. What would Jones likely command on the open market? Let’s use Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan as a comp. The 2011 first-rounder signed a five-year, $55M deal last June with $33M guaranteed. That was a restructure before Jordan became a free agent after this year. He and Jones have each had 30 sacks over the past three seasons, are about the same age, same durability and are Pro Bowl-level players. For the Patriots purposes, I don’t think Jones is as important to their defense as Devin McCourty, however, and McCourty got a five-year, $45M deal with $28.5M guaranteed last offseason when he was a free agent. The Patriots, by going to Jones early, can offer him less than he’d be able to ask for as a UFA next season. The advantage is New England’s because it can get a sense of Jones’ demands now and plan accordingly by making moves this offseason or next if they think Jones is going to hit free agency. Jones’ January dustup in which he showed up shirtless and shoeless at the Foxboro police station and had to be admitted to the hospital doesn’t help his bargaining position.
Like Jones, Hightower is playing on the fifth-year option the team picked up from his rookie deal. That’s $7.75M. A case can be made that Hightower is the Patriots most important defender. He can rush, cover and is the most critical part of stopping opposing running games. He relays the defensive calls and has become – as Peyton Manning called him – the defensive quarterback. He’s in his prime and, like Jones, is a Pro Bowl-level performer. Durability is somewhat of a concern though his willingness to play while hurt and through injury was on display each of the past two seasons with shoulder, knee and rib issues. He was still able to play at a high level despite those. Lavonte David of the Buccaneers just signed a new deal that was five years, $50M with $22.5M guaranteed. Hightower will certainly command that or more. And he strikes me as a smart businessman who’ll understand his value both in Foxboro or, if it comes to pass, elsewhere. He may be hard to entice to take less this year as opposed to testing free agency.
Before worrying about Jones and Hightower, the Patriots should make a priority of bringing Jamie Collins’ salary up in line with his performance and contributions. A second-round pick in 2013, he’s going to make $917,865 in 2016, the final year of his contract, unless the contract it’s reworked. The Patriots deserve credit for sniffing out the potential of Collins and putting him in positions to succeed; Collins deserves reward for becoming one of the most complete linebackers in the league and a Pro Bowl-level player. Collins and Hightower will need to be paid similarly, one supposes. Lavonte David’s deal or Deandre Levy’s four-year, $33.75M deal would be comps. Collins would have holdout potential if the team doesn’t make him a priority given he’ll be making about one-quarter of what Marcus Cannon makes and $80K less than Jonathan Freeny.
First things first when it comes to contracts, Malcolm Butler needs a raise. He’s down to make $600K in 2016 – same as Tyler Gaffney and Brock Vereen. Who? Precisely. This is the last year of Butler’s deal as well. If he wanted to play out the deal – and corner isn’t as much of a high-risk position in terms of injuries as linebacker – he certainly could and would command about a $10M per year deal. If his play doesn’t slip. And that’s the risk of not accepting what the Patriots will dangle. Players like Chris Culliver, Brandon Flowers and Byron Maxwell are in the $9.7M range. Butler is better. Would he take a boost from $600K to a four-year, $32M deal if the Patriots were to extend that? That could represent a potential saving of $18M or so for the team if it were to get Butler on that. But $18M would be a lot to leave on the table for the corner. Suffice to say Butler is the first player to move on.