Patriots

Pinning down the best lesson Vince Wilfork could teach Danny Shelton

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Pinning down the best lesson Vince Wilfork could teach Danny Shelton

When the Patriots traded for Danny Shelton earlier this offseason, sending a 2019 third-rounder to Cleveland in exchange for the defensive tackle, they traded for a player who was already being mentored by one of their own. 

In a conference call with reporters on Monday, Shelton explained that one of his agents put him in touch with former Patriots defensive tackle Vince Wilfork so that Shelton could pick up some tips from one of the best defensive tackles in football of the past 15 years. 

"For me, he’s someone that I still look up to even when he was with the Texans," Shelton said. "I got the opportunity to reach out to him and kind of pick his brain and just learn a couple of tips from him. He’s been really responsive. He’s been a guy that has been really helpful this offseason and I’m looking forward to reaching out more and learning some more from him."

When Shelton was coming out of the University of Washington in 2015, NFL.com's Lance Zierlein's "NFL comparison" was Wilfork. Both carried similar builds -- Shelton is now listed at 335 pounds -- and both were viewed as surprisingly good athletes for their body types. Shelton was also viewed as the top two-gapping tackle in the draft that year, which is exactly what the Patriots ask their interior linemen to do. 

Shelton has made good on those projections over the last couple of years. Last season, he was a key part of a Browns defense that ranked fourth against the run by Football Outsiders in terms of DVOA. In 2016, Shelton was ranked by Pro Football Focus as its eighth-best interior lineman against the run. Per PFF, he was second that year -- behind only Damon Harrison -- in terms of the number of run stops he recorded from the interior.

It's clear that Shelton, the No. 12 overall pick three years ago, understands what his strengths are. 

"Honestly, I’m just going to go with whatever Coach [Bill Belichick] wants me to do," Shelton said. "My best feature is stopping the run, so if he wants me to play at a specific position I’ll do it, and I’ll make sure I do my job for the team’s success."

So how can Wilfork help? If he has any tips on how to be a consistent player from the inside in Belichick's system, that could go a long way. Over the course of Wilfork's 13-year career, few defensive tackles were as effective from week to week and year to year. Wilfork played at least 830 snaps in four of his last five seasons with the Patriots (he was injured in 2013), and even during his two seasons with the Texans, he averaged about 600 snaps per year. He made five Pro Bowls with the Patriots and was named a First or Second-Team All-Pro four times.

In what form might Wilfork's advice on consistency be delivered? Would it be nutritional, which was an aspect of his preparation he embraced later in his career? Would it be technique-based? Would it be simply how to take the coaching dispensed inside the walls of Gillette Stadium? 

Shelton, who missed two games last season and played in 469 snaps, doesn't have a long-term contract with the Patriots to be able to prove his worth over multiple years the way Wilfork did. And he may not be asked to take on the myriad roles Wilfork did during his time under Belichick. But if Shelton can pick up some advice from Wilfork on how to stay on the field and how to help the Patriots win on first and second downs, that might make him the team's most valuable offseason addition. 

New England finished the season 20th in rush yards allowed per game, and they were 31st in yards per attempt allowed. In the Super Bowl, with run-stuffing defensive tackle Alan Branch a healthy scratch, the Patriots allowed 6.1 yards per carry to the Eagles on their way to 164 yards rushing. 

Shelton is in the final year of his rookie contract and scheduled to make $2.03 million this season. The Patriots may not be willing to pick up his hefty $11.7 million fifth-year option for 2019, but if he can continue his upward trajectory then maybe the Patriots will work to extend him before the end of the year. 

How Wilfork impacts that trajectory, if at all, remains to be seen. But he's certainly not a bad guy for Shelton to have in his corner as the 24-year-old embarks on life with the Patriots. 

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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.