Patriots

If Patriots save cap space, plenty of big NFL free agents could be available in 2021

Patriots

Maybe we reacted a little hastily, like a rookie first-rounder who just earned his first paycheck.

Money available? Excellent. Point us to the shiniest car on the lot.

With over $35 million in cap space after having eight players opt out, and with a roster that has its share of question marks, the logical reaction to the recent salary cap windfall in New England has been, “How will Bill Belichick spend it?”

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But what if he doesn’t? We know this has been an offseason unlike any other. Next year’s will be too.

The salary cap is likely to come down, and it could reach as low as $175 million for each team — a $25 million drop from this year’s cap and about a $35 million difference from where teams were expecting the 2021 cap to sit. 

Saving may be the more prudent option. Not only will it give the Patriots more breathing room for in-season expenditures in 2020 — who knows how many signings they’ll have to make if COVID remains an issue and there is eventually a run of positive tests — but it could separate them from the pack as legitimate suitors for some big-name free agents a year from now. 

For instance, say the Patriots don’t spend for a Marcel Dareus or an Eric Reid in the next few weeks. They still could end up going through about $15 million of their $35 million in cap space during the season. That would mean they could theoretically carry about $20 million in space over to next year. 

 

Already slated to have around $40 million in available cap room under a $175 million cap for 2021, carrying over $20 million more would easily have them among the league leaders in cap room next March. About $60 million in cap space would give them just over one third of the overall cap to spend.

The last time they had about that much? They went into the 2017 offseason with about $60 million in space when the cap was set at $167 million. What’d they do with it? They paid a significant chunk on Day 1 of free agency to their future Defensive Player of the Year and the cornerstone to their man-to-man coverage schemes: Stephon Gilmore. 

They also signed Lawrence Guy, Rex Burkhead and Mike Gillislee that offseason in addition to handing new contracts to Dont’a Hightower and Duron Harmon. 

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If they wanted to be big spenders again in 2021, they’ll be in good position to sign a star or two while a handful of NFL clubs have to cut costs just to become cap compliant. 

Allen Robinson, T.Y. Hilton and Keenan Allen will be available at receiver if they want an all-around threat to be their No. 1 (Robinson) or a different look in the slot as Julian Edelman’s successor (Hilton, Allen). At tight end, the Patriots could add a vet like free-agent-to-be Hunter Henry to play alongside promising youngsters Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene. 

Think whoever is playing quarterback for Belichick next season wouldn’t like to add an accomplished veteran pass-catcher to play with N’Keal Harry and guide him through the early portion of his career?

If it’s a tackle the Patriots want — particularly if Marcus Cannon isn’t back after opting out this season — Ronnie Stanley, David Bakhtiari and Trent Williams are all scheduled to be free agents. 

On the defensive side, the Patriots might not be in on a high-priced corner with Gilmore still under contract. But Jalen Ramsey, Richard Sherman and Patrick Peterson could all sign with new teams prior to 2021. Same goes for edge defenders Yannick Ngakoue, Melvin Ingram, Matt Judon and Shaq Barrett. 

Should Belichick want a big body for his defensive like, Cam Heyward, Leonard Williams, Ndamukong Suh and Kenny Clark will all see their current contracts run out after this season. 

 

Then there’s the player who looks like the crown jewel of next year’s free agency period, if he shakes free: Dak Prescott.

The Cowboys might be willing to tag him a second time to keep him in Dallas, but on the off chance that he follows the path Kirk Cousins once traveled to free agency, might the Patriots be interested? Or would they instead be willing to spend on Cam Newton as a free agent in his early 30s after spending 2020 with him and seeing up close what he’s like on the field and in the facility?

Of course the Patriots will have a little less if they return some of their key contributors who opted out for 2020 and had their contracts toll to 2021. Hightower’s cap hit next year will exceed $12 million if he’s back. Patrick Chung’s will be almost $5 million. Cannon’s will be almost $10 million. Returning Brandon Bolden ($1.6 million hit) and Danny Vitale ($1.1 million) will cost a bit as well. 

Add those numbers together and the cap surplus for the Patriots next spring shrinks from about $60 million to about $30 million. Still not bad. But probably not enough to add the same kind of star power. Remember, important pieces like Joe Thuney, David Andrews and Guy will be free agents after this year and will require some dough to be kept around as well. 

Everything remains in flux. These numbers will change.

But the bottom line is this: If Belichick wants to hold onto his newfound cap space with an eye to next offseason, there will be no shortage of talent available to him. And in an offseason where other clubs may be reluctant to spend because of a plummeting salary cap, opportunity will be knocking for the Patriots if they’re still flush.