Patriots

How will the Patriots tight end puzzle come together in training camp?

How will the Patriots tight end puzzle come together in training camp?

Leading up to the start of Patriots training camp, we'll try to answer one question every day as a way of giving you a better idea of where we'll have our focus trained when practices begin. Today we start at tight end, where Bill Belichick will have his work cut out for him trying to figure out what to do following Rob Gronkowski's retirement. 

Rob Gronkowski is retired. For now. And if you're one to read into Instagram posts — who isn't? — then you might be coming around to the idea that he's going to stay retired for a while.

That means there are no quick-and-easy answers to the questions surrounding the tight end spot at One Patriots Place. 

Austin Seferian-Jenkins is no longer in the mix. Ben Watson will be on the field when training camp begins next week, but he'll be suspended for the first four games of the regular season after violating the league's performance-enhancing drug policy. 

It's looking like the starting gig could come down to two players who combined for 24 catches last season. Matt LaCosse had a career-high 24 catches last season with the Broncos. Ryan Izzo, a seventh-round draft pick in 2018, is still waiting for his first regular-season snaps after spending his rookie year on injured reserve.

The Patriots have typically employed tight ends who can do a little bit of everything. That's what made them valuable in New England's offense. That's what made the position so difficult to pick up at times. But whether it was Gronkowski, Martellus Bennett, Watson during his first run with the team, Christian Fauria or Daniel Graham . . . Bill Belichick has long had players who can move large humans in the running game and serve as capable (or better) pass-catchers.

Yes, there have been tight ends like Jacob Hollister, Dwayne Allen, Matt Lengel, A.J. Derby, Michael Hoomanawanui, Matt Mulligan, Michael Williams, Aaron Hernandez and Alge Crumpler who've played specific roles within the Patriots offense. But having a do-it-all threat made it easier to change on the fly. It made the offense a little more unpredictable. 

For the first four weeks of the season, it's looking like the Patriots won't have that luxury.

"That's gotta be a position of strength," Tom Brady said during minicamp, "even if it's not one player but multiple players doing different roles. There were times in my career before that where we've had similar approaches."

This feels like one of those times. LaCosse — who ran with Brady during minicamp alongside other projected offensive starters — may serve as the team's top pass-catching option. Izzo, a hearty blocker at Florida State who showed flashes as a receiver last summer, may end up the top run-blocking option.

That could change, of course. This is why camp matters. 

When the pads come on after a few days of practice, will LaCosse show that he can clear space as an in-line player? He's listed at 6-foot-5, 255 pounds. It's not out of the realm of possibility that he will effectively be throwing his weight around if given the chance. 

What about Izzo? What if he consistently comes down with what's thrown his way? What if his flashes as a receiver are sustained this summer? Could he be a true every-down option . . . at least until Watson is back? The good news for Izzo is that this was a run-heavy offense late last year. If that's the plan once again, then the better blocker in camp may have a path to more playing time.

Andrew Beck, the undrafted rookie tight end out of Texas, looks more like a fullback. He took reps with James Develin and Jakob Johnson throughout minicamp and could be valuable insurance for Develin in a system that values its lead blockers out of the backfield. 

Stephen Anderson, meanwhile, looks like a "move" tight end only who could face an uphill battle at a roster spot. At 6-foot-3, 230 pounds, he's listed as having almost the same measurements as rookie receiver N'Keal Harry at this year's NFL Scouting Combine (6-2.5, 228 pounds).

The reality is, however the Patriots attempt to replace Gronkowski, there will be no replacing him. They'll need to get more production from their backs and their receivers — particularly when all options are covered and Brady needs to be bailed out — in order to help make up for what's been lost in the passing game. They may have to turn to an extra offensive lineman at times for a reasonable facsimile of what Gronkowski provided as a blocker.

Someone is going to have to man the position, though. And while Belichick's top two options for the first month of the season are seriously lacking in-game experience, they'll have an opportunity to prove they belong over the course of the next month.

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Report: Patriots kicker Justin Rohrwasser removed controversial tattoo

Report: Patriots kicker Justin Rohrwasser removed controversial tattoo

"I knew I had to have it totally taken off of my body."

In April, that's what Patriots rookie kicker Justin Rohrwasser told WBZ's Steve Burton about a controversial Three Percenters tattoo on his left arm that gained instant notoriety after he was drafted by New England.

Well, it appears he has followed through on that promise.

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According to TMZ Sports, the 23-year-old has had the tattoo removed. The report states that Rohrwasser started the painful removal process right after the NFL Draft.

After the Patriots selected the Marshall kicker in the fifth round of the draft, there was a public outcry about the tattoo displaying the logo of the right-wing militia group, which has been described as racist and anti-government. Rohrwasser had said he got the tattoo when he was 18 as a way to support the military, but didn't realize its other use.

"It's shameful that I had it on there ignorantly," Rohrwasser told Burton. "I'm sorry for all my (friends) and family that have to defend me. Putting them in that compromising position is one of the biggest regrets I'll ever have. To them, I'm sorry. I'm going to learn from this. I'm going to take ownership of it. This is not who I am. No matter what, that's not who I am. Hopefully, you will all find that out."

Though he might still face questions about the tattoo when the Patriots open training camp later this month, removing the tattoo should keep the issue from being a huge distraction during his first NFL season.

How Cam Newton's 'up to' $7.5 million contract fits under Patriots salary cap

How Cam Newton's 'up to' $7.5 million contract fits under Patriots salary cap

How did the Patriots pull this off? How did a team that had no financial breathing room, no salary-cap space, go ahead and sign Cam Newton to a contract that's worth up to $7.5 million?

The key words there are "up to."

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Bill Belichick and Nick Caserio drew up a deal that would pay Newton the way other quarterback reclamation projects have been paid, if he performs. In the meantime, his salary-cap figure for 2020 comes in at just a smidgen higher than that of long-snapper Joe Cardona.

Let that sink in.

ALPHABET SOUP

Understanding how the Patriots were able to pull that off — pay Newton the going rate for a quarterback looking to revive his career, while simultaneously getting his salary on their books when they had next to no cap space — requires an understanding of the letters "NLTBE."

That acronym stands for "not likely to be earned," and it describes the majority of the incentives Newton received in his new deal with the Patriots. By NFL rule, NLTBE incentives do not count against the salary cap immediately. NLTBE incentive markers are markers that a player didn't achieve the season prior. If those markers are reached, then that incentive payment hits the following season's salary cap.

(As you might guess, LTBE incentive markers are markers a player did hit the season prior. LTBE incentives are counted against the cap upon the player's deal being signed.)

For example, if a player did not throw for 3,000 yards in 2019 but would be paid a $1 million bonus for reaching the 3,000-yard passing mark in 2020, that would be considered an incentive that is NLTBE. It would not count against the 2020 cap. If that 3,000-yard mark is reached in 2020, it would count toward the 2021 cap.

We can deduce then that the $5.75 million in available incentives included in Newton's deal did not count against the Patriots cap for 2020. They couldn't. The team didn't have enough cap space on hand to give him that kind of money in LTBE incentives. The Patriots had less than $1 million in space prior to agreeing to terms with Newton, per Patriots cap expert Miguel Benzan.

We don't yet know the specific markers Newton has to hit to earn his 2020 incentives, but because he played in only two games last season, the Patriots could have given him very reasonable numbers to reach and they still wouldn't count against the cap immediately because they'd be NLTBE. 

For instance, New England could've given Newton bonuses for playing in three games, passing for 600 yards and throwing one touchdown. Because he didn't hit any of those numbers in 2019 — he played in just two games and threw for 572 yards without any touchdowns — they'd all be considered NLTBE and not counted against the 2020 cap. In all likelihood, though, it's going to be a little more difficult than that for Newton to reach the incentives laid out for him.

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WARNING: MATH AHEAD

So if $5.75 million of Newton's "up to" $7.5 million contract with the Patriots won't count against the cap, what will?

Newton's veteran-minimum $1.05 million contract, for one, will count. That's the minimum under the new collective bargaining agreement for players with at least seven years of NFL service.

Additionally, two games of Newton's $700,000 in per-game roster bonuses will count against the cap. If he's provided $700,000 total in per-game roster bonuses, that means he'll be owed $43,750 for each of the 16 regular-season games he's on the Patriots roster. Two games of per-game roster bonus — $87,500 — counts against the 2020 cap because it's LTBE; he played in two games in 2019. The rest of those per-game roster bonuses are considered NLTBE but will count against the cap with each game he plays. So if he plays in all 16 games, by the end of the 2020 season, his cap number will be $1.75 million. Active roster bonuses are the only earned NLTBE incentives that hit a current year's cap, Benzan relayed. 

Therefore, Newton's cap number for New England in 2020 — his base salary plus two games of roster bonuses — comes to $1,137,500. That's slightly more than the $1.08 million cap number assigned to Cardona and the $1.05 million number assigned to fellow quarterback Brian Hoyer for this coming season. It's slightly less than fullback Dan Vitale's 2020 cap hit of $1,287,500. 

Now the question is, how did the Patriots fit Newton under their cap if they had less than $1 million in cap space left prior to landing him? His cap number is over $1 million, isn't it?

It is. But there's an accounting rule the NFL uses to include only the contracts of the players with the top-51 base salaries against a team's cap until active rosters are finalized.

Newton's cap number replaces what was the No. 51 salary on the 90-man roster prior to Newton's signing. According to Benzan, that No. 51 slot was assigned to outside linebacker Tashawn Bower. Because the difference in cap numbers between Newton and Bower is only a few hundred thousand dollars, the Patriots had enough space to add Newton once Bower fell below the No. 51 spot.

If the Patriots were snug up against the cap before, they're even more so now. By Benzan's estimates, they have $263,489 left in cap room. To handle regular in-season spending, they'll need to clear out more space eventually. Re-working Joe Thuney's contract to reduce his nearly $15 million cap hit, for instance, could free up some significant cap room quickly. 

MAXING OUT

If Newton makes the team, plays, and plays well, he may have a chance to reach the full $7.5 million value of the deal. But why $7.5 million? Why settle there?

Marcus Mariota is getting a $7.5 million base salary to be the No. 2 for the Raiders in 2020. Teddy Bridgewater made about that much in 2019 from the Saints. Both were passers in need of a fresh start. Both carried a certain level of uncertainty.

The same is true for Newton in New England, though his résumé is vastly more impressive than that of either of those other quarterbacks when they signed their contracts.

It's the definition of a low-risk, high-reward deal. It just required a little bit of creativity to get it in under the minimal amount of cap space the Patriots had available for 2020.