The New England Patriots have more young players filling key roles on offense and defense than we're normally accustomed to seeing, and there are a few reasons for that.
The Patriots have drafted poorly in recent seasons -- that's the most obvious explanation. Another reason is the salary cap, as Patriots head coach Bill Belichick explained during a recent interview with Charlie Weis on SiriusXM NFL Radio.
“We’re playing more young players than we’ve played in the past,” Belichick said, as transcribed by ESPN's Mike Reiss. “A combination of reasons. We were pretty heavily invested in our team in the past few years. From a salary-cap standpoint, we didn’t have much flexibility at all. I think that was obvious on the Cam Newton contract. Then we had some opt-outs, so we lost some players there that would normally have been giving us significant amount of play time. And then like every year, a couple guys are banged up and we’ve missed some guys here and there in certain games.
"I think when you combine it all together, there is opportunity there, and some of that opportunity has gone to younger players. Again, because of our cap situation in this particular year, this is kind of the year that we’ve taken to, I would say, adjust our cap from the spending that we’ve had in accumulation of prior years. We just haven’t been able to have the kind of depth on our roster that we’ve had in some other years.”
The Patriots weren't able to be major spenders in NFL free agency over the offseason due to a lack of salary cap space. New England has spent aggressively in recent seasons, and with good reason because the team was a true Super Bowl contender during Tom Brady's final years in Foxboro.
However, when you spend lots of money and design contracts in a certain way, at some point the bills must be paid. Many of those bills are being paid in 2020. For example, the Patriots are among the league leaders in dead money -- cap space taken up by players no longer on the roster. New England has about $28 million in dead cap space, per OverTheCap, with $13.5 million of that coming from Brady's last Patriots contract.
The Patriots currently have a lot of cap space because they had a few veteran players, including Dont'a Hightower and Patrick Chung, opt out of the 2020 season due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But by the time these players had opted out, the top free agents on the market had already signed.
The future is bright for the Patriots in regards to cap space. OverTheCap projects New England to have around $66 million in cap space for 2021, which is the fourth-most in the league.
In the meantime, the Patriots will have to bite the bullet in 2020 to adjust their salary cap and gain some flexibility for future seasons. It could make for a painful season for Pats fans, but it's the smart thing for the team to do.