Patriots

Six Patriots draft questions that need answering

Six Patriots draft questions that need answering

Big draft? Big draft.

The Patriots have significant restocking to do this year. They lost their left tackle, their best front-seven player and a Hall of Fame tight end since the Super Bowl ended. They have a very experienced secondary that’s on the edge of aging. There’s no Tom Brady successor in the house. Their wide receiver group is Julian Edelman, Phillip Dorsett and a whole lot of hope for the recovery of Demaryius Thomas and stability of Josh Gordon. We’ll learn some stuff beginning Thursday. Here are six questions that will start getting answered then.

HOW LONG WILL WE HAVE TO WAIT?

I bet I can convince you the Patriots should trade up in this draft. Watch. They drafted 12 players last year and they have another 12 picks this year. They don’t have room on the roster for a couple dozen new players, nor do they have a fleet of experienced coaches to easily indoctrinate them. Moving up a little makes a difference.

First-round picks inside the top 25 yielded Isaiah Wynn (23), Chandler Jones (21), Dont'a Hightower (25) and Nate Solder (17) in the past 10 drafts. Outside, the Patriots have gotten Devin McCourty (27), Dominique Easley (29), Malcom Brown (32) and Sony Michel (31). The higher you go, the better the player.

But with the talent dropoff perceived to be after the first dozen players, the difference between the 15th pick and the 50th pick is said to be negligible. But it’s in the Patriots' nature to drop down and add picks. It gives them options and room to move. If there’s no pick made by the Patriots on Thursday, expect a wild night of trades on Friday.

Unless the wild trade comes on Thursday and the Patriots bring in Josh Rosen.

WILL THEY HAVE 2020 VISION?

If the Patriots do deal out of the first round, their preference almost certainly would be trading into next year. If they can get a team to send them a first-rounder for next April when the quarterback crop is expected to be much better with Tua Tagovailoa (Bama), Justin Herbert (Oregon) and Jake Fromm (Georgia), the Patriots would then have multiple first-rounders.

That kind of caché will give them more latitude when it’s time to replace the ageless wonder.

ANY LOVE FOR THE OFFENSE?

The Patriots have used their first selection on defense in 10 of the past 12 drafts. The only time they didn’t go defense, they selected offensive tackles (Nate Solder, 2011; Isaiah Wynn, 2018). Tight end is an obvious need spot but the best two, Iowa’s T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant, are expected to be gone by 32 and Alabama’s Irv Smith is regarded as a borderline first-rounder.

The top wideouts - A.J. Brown, Marquise Brown, Parris Campbell, D.K. Metcalf and Deebo Samuel - are varied talents and all fall in the 20 to 40 range. I truly wouldn’t be surprised if the Patriots went wideout in the first round and if Campbell is the pick.

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DO THEY SEE A CHUNG SUCCESSOR?

Patrick Chung is 31 and this will be his 11th season. To do what he’s done – especially in the last five seasons – at the level he’s done it for as long as he’s done it is remarkable. He’s one of the most underrated players of the Patriots’ great run.

And it’s time to get serious about finding another player like him. As a guy who could cover deep, play in the box, play in the slot and contribute on special teams, Chung was actually a little ahead of his time. Now, every team needs a safety/linebacker/corner like him and teams are trying to get them.

Mississippi State’s Johnathan Abraham and Florida’s Chauncey Gardner-Johnson are two players who can bring Chung-like sensibilities. They are top-40 players.

WHAT’S THE LEVEL OF QUARTERBACK SERIOUSNESS?

The Patriots made it through 2018 with Brian Hoyer and Danny Etling as Tom Brady’s backups. That’s got to be one of the shakiest setups in the league. Meanwhile, two years earlier, the Patriots had arguably the best setup in the league with Brady, Jimmy Garoppolo and Jacoby Brissett.

Will the Patriots go into this draft looking for a Brady successor or a caddy for Hoyer? Unless Etling had an absolutely remarkable season of practices and an incredible offseason, the player we saw come out of LSU last April and play during training camp didn’t scream NFL potential. Expect the Patriots to draft somebody at the position in the first three rounds — and if they make a move up to go and get someone, that’s an indicator they aren’t just bringing in an arm because they should but are hoping he can be the No. 2 and maybe develop into an eventual starter. Say, Ryan Finley from N.C. State.

HOW ABOUT A BIG-PROGRAM WIDEOUT?

The Patriots have drafted wide receivers from such far-flung programs as Marshall (Aaron Dobson, 2nd round, 2013), TCU (Josh Boyce, 4th round, 2013), Ohio University (Taylor Price, 3rd round, 2009) and North Carolina (Brandon Tate, 3rd round, 2008).

Yes, Malcolm Mitchell was from Georgia and Chad Jackson was a second-rounder from Florida in 2006, but the Patriots are more prone to try and unearth a find at a mid-major than to take a wide receiver from a high-profile program. And how often is that going to work out?

Julian Edelman? OK, fine. Whatever.

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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.