The Patriots care about locker room dynamics. They pay attention to the way in which the contractual hierarchy is structured.
That's why their newfound cap space might force a conversation with Cam Newton.
As part of the newly amended collective bargaining agreement, signed on Monday night, it was determined that 2020 cap hits for players who opt out would be kicked down the road to 2021. That includes the prorated portions of signing bonuses that have already been paid out.
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That late adjustment to the CBA freed up additional cap space for all teams with players who a) opted out and b) had prorated signing bonus amounts count against the 2020 cap.
For example, as Patriots cap expert Miguel Benzan points out, the amount the Patriots saved on Dont'a Hightower changed with this week's adjustment. Previously, his opt-out saved the Patriots $7.85 million. Now, with the prorated portion of his signing bonus adding to that number, his opt-out saves the Patriots $10.35 million.
In all, the Patriots now have over $35 million in cap space. It wasn't all that long ago that the team hovered under $1 million.
So what do they do with their money now?
They could choose to spend in order to buttress the positions that just saw players leave: linebacker, safety, offensive tackle, tight end. They could add to a position group, like the interior of the defensive line, that could benefit from some depth.
There are talented players available. Marcel Dareus is hanging around and could strengthen New England's defensive line by complementing Lawrence Guy, Beau Allen and Adam Butler.
Jadeveon Clowney, Clay Matthews, Jabaal Sheard and Everson Griffin are available to man the edge of someone's defense. Eric Reid and Tony Jefferson are still available at safety.
Demar Dotson (formerly of the Bucs), Cordy Glenn (Bengals), Jordan Mills (Cardinals), Greg Robinson (Browns) and LaAdrian Waddle (Bills) are around if the Patriots are looking for a Marcus Cannon replacement to come from outside the organization.
Delanie Walker or Ed Dickson (who played with Newton from 2014-2017 as a member of the Panthers) are free-agent veterans at tight end.
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But if the Patriots spend a significant chunk of change on any of them, they might have to adjust the contract of the man who looks like the favorite to be their starting quarterback in 2020.
Newton signed for the veteran minimum on an incentive-laden deal that could grow to more than $7 million. Still, it's a veteran minimum deal. How would it sit with Newton if the team gave Dotson or Walker a few million to help them fill a role that suddenly needs filling? What would that do to locker room dynamics?
The Patriots could choose to take all the cap space they've been afforded and hold onto it. They may need to make more in-season signings than usual due to COVID. There's enough uncertainty these days that prudence might be the best course of action. Then they could roll over that cap space to 2021 and — even though the cap will be reduced and could drop as low as $175 million from almost $200 million this year — be real players in the free-agent market when other teams have to slash payroll just to become cap compliant.
But if they don't take that route, if they add veterans to their team by using real money, that could spur action with the man who could be shouldering quite a bit of offensive pressure as the Patriots play out their first season of the post-Tom Brady era. Even if they don't add pieces — unless they tell Newton they have to hold onto their cap space because these are uncertain times — Newton might have an argument to be given a bump in pay.
For Newton, the conversation might start with somehow turning those incentive dollars into guarantees. After all, Marcus Mariota is getting more than $7 million to be the backup in Vegas. Teddy Bridgewater picked up $7 million from the Saints as he tried to get his career back on track. Should Newton not be afforded at least the same amount as the most accomplished of that quarterback-revival-tour trio?
The Patriots couldn't give Newton that kind of deal when they signed him. They were up against it with the cap. But after all these opt-outs, that's no longer the case.
And while that means they're afforded the opportunity to add talent to their locker room, it also might mean they have to revisit the contract of the player who looks like the favorite to man their most important position.