Patriots

Which Patriots players could be vulnerable to cuts if NFL lowers salary cap?

Which Patriots players could be vulnerable to cuts if NFL lowers salary cap?

Whatever happens with the NFL's salary cap following a season that will in all likelihood be played without fans in the stands, know this: Cuts are coming. 

Across the NFL, many teams are going to have to work harder than usual to become cap compliant. The cap could simply nose dive in 2021 based on money lost in 2020. Some believe there's a chance the cap could fall in 2020 in order to make a 2021 adjustment more easily absorbed. There also exists the possibility that the NFL figures out a way to spread out the impact over several years. 

Regardless, there is going to be less money available.

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The cap will fall — or at least flatten — accordingly, and determinations on player values will be weighed as ownership purse strings tighten. The expectation is that the segment of the NFL player population that was hit hardest by the last collective bargaining agreement will once again be the most vulnerable about a year within signing the current CBA: middle-tier veterans.

What does that mean for the Patriots and their players? 

IF THE CAP CRATERS IN 2021

The Patriots are better off than most. They're projected to have the fourth-most salary-cap space in the NFL in 2021 so even if the cap falls off a cliff next offseason, they look like they would be one of the few teams who'd still be cap compliant without making a single move. 

That's a good thing for them. They have some breathing room, unlike the Saints or Eagles who are already scheduled to be over the cap even in the event the cap increases at a normal rate next year.

Does that mean if the cap falls by $50 million per team in a year's time that Bill Belichick will be able to lock up all of his free agents and make a move for the talent that gets thrown overboard across the league? No. But his team will be — relative to other clubs — in a better position to maintain the talent it has.

Here's a list of New England's 2021 free agents whose current contracts pay them on average at least $1.5 million: Joe Thuney, Dont'a Hightower, Mohamed Sanu, Jason McCourty, James White, Lawrence Guy, Adam Butler, Rex Burkhead, David Andrews, John Simon, Jermaine Eluemunor, Brandon Bolden, Damiere Byrd, Shilique Calhoun and Cody Davis. 

Thuney may be the lone member of the group who is essentially "COVID-proof" from a contractual standpoint, meaning he's young enough and accomplished enough that he should be paid what he's worth regardless of the cap's movement. (We discussed the potential outcomes between Thuney and the Patriots in depth here.

Hightower, McCourty, Sanu, Guy, Burkhead and Simon, meanwhile, will all be at least 30 years old by next offseason. They could see their markets impacted by a massive dip in the cap. The same could be true even for younger veterans like White, Butler and Andrews. 

The Patriots should have the option to bring those players back if they want because they have some money to play with. Another club, though, might weigh the benefit of trying to get a player on a rookie deal to provide a percentage of a vet's production rather than paying the vet and squeezing him into a shrunken cap. 

OPPORTUNITY KNOCKS?

Veterans expecting middle-tier contracts and getting the short end of the financial stick is nothing new. When the league started to slot rookie contracts with the last CBA, the idea — on the union side of things, at least — was that the money saved on rookies would go to the players on their second or third contracts who could still play.

Instead the money went to quarterbacks and other stars. Teams loaded up on cheap rookie talent, and plenty of talented veterans found the interest they should've received as free agents . . . wasn't quite there.

The Patriots loaded up on these types over the last few years. Bargains were there to be had because the league at large didn't want them. (Or didn't want to pay them, at least.) But they were more dependable than unknown commodities on rookie deals. And in New England they fit the strategy of maxing out a talented roster with an aging quarterback at the helm.

In 2018, which ended in the team's sixth Lombardi Trophy under Belichick, the Patriots had a greater percentage of their cap committed to low-cost veterans — any deal at a $4.5 million cap figure or less, per Over The Cap — than any other team in football. No team spent less on rookie contracts.

The Patriots could try to do the same thing in 2021 and beyond if enough veteran talent shakes free from teams looking to cut costs. The question will be whether or not spending on those types will make sense for a roster that's getting younger as it transitions to a post-Brady age.

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PLANNING AHEAD

The Patriots 2022 free-agent class is worth examining as well since, in the case of the 2021 cap shriveling, there are players there who could be released before playing on the last year of their deals to save the Patriots some cap space. Despite being in good shape cap-wise, the Patriots could make additional moves if they need any more cap room to be buyers in what looks like it'll be a wild 2021 free-agency period.

Players scheduled to hit free agency in 2022 include Devin McCourty ($2.55 million in 2021 cap savings if released or traded prior to June 1 of 2021, per Over the Cap), Julian Edelman ($4 million in 2021 cap savings if released or traded), Marcus Cannon ($6.35 million), Beau Allen ($3.1 million), Adrian Phillips ($2.25 million), Matthew Slater ($2.65 million) and Sony Michel ($1.23 million).

Several of those players are key to the overall operation in New England both on the field and off. But if the worst-case scenario plays out cap-wise, even the Patriots could be looking for space in 2021.

Stephon Gilmore doesn't seem like a candidate to be released any time soon. But he also falls into this category. The 2019 Defensive Player of the Year converted salary into signing bonus last year, reducing his 2019 cap number but increasing that figure for 2020 and 2021. His 2021 cap hit is currently a whopping $19.7 million. If released or traded prior to the season, the team would be saved $12 million in cap dollars. 

EMERGENCY SLASHING FOR 2020?

There is a scenario in which the NFL wouldn't have to wait to shrink its cap in 2021, former vice president of the Packers and MMQB.com columnist Andrew Brandt told The Pat McAfee Show recently.

"I see Roger Goodell coming to [NFLPA executive director] De Smith and [NFLPA president] J.C. Tretter," Brandt said, "and saying, 'Do you really want a cap in 2021 lower than 2020? That doesn't look good for the players.' You can explain it away with COVID. But I see them getting into 2020 cap to smooth it — i.e. lower it — so that you actually have a stair step in 2021. No one knows what the revenue loss is going to be. But in projecting it out . . . they want to get ahead of this. I think they should."

Brandt, who spent a decade in the Packers front office, is envisioning a cap reduction that isn't as dire as some other projections. He told McAfee that he believes about 20 percent of NFL revenues come on game day, meaning with no fans in the stands that a fifth of the pie could be gone. 

That could in turn cut the cap from where it was once expected to go for 2021 — Over The Cap projected about $215 million, up from $198 million in 2020 — but not necessarily cripple franchises. The other option would be to accept a hit now, even though free agency has already occurred and rosters have been built.

For a team like the Patriots, last in the league in cap space at the moment, dropping the cap even by a few million could mean parting with players they planned on having compete for gigs. Eluemunor, Justin Bethel and Deatrich Wise — each of whom, according to Over The Cap, would save the Patriots about $2 million if released or traded — could be targeted for moves.

Outside of trading or extending Thuney, moving on from Sanu (savings of $6.5 million if released or traded) might be the best option to clear significant 2020 cap space in one shot. It looks like the Patriots will have N'Keal Harry and Julian Edelman as their top two receiving options next season. Barring injury, that leaves Sanu, Byrd, Jakobi Meyers and perhaps an undrafted rookie or two all vying for playing time. In an offense that could feature more two-tight end and two-back sets this season, paying a No. 3 receiver $6.5 million while in need of cap room might not be worth it.

Brandt acknowledged that it'd be a challenge for teams to deal with an altered cap at this point in the summer, and he acknowledged that veterans making more money will feel the crunch, but to him that kind of quick cap slash remains a possibility.

"They're obviously not going to say, 'It's lowered and tomorrow you gotta get under.' They're going to give you time," Brandt said. "But I just think, like every year, high-paid veterans are at risk. They're getting younger and younger. Rookie contracts are taking up now 50 to 65 percent of rosters. That's going to be played out. We see it every year, veterans getting cut. There may be more coming up this offseason."

The Patriots are in a better spot than most of the rest of the league. But now that COVID stands to shrink the cap by an undetermined amount, even a franchise like New England has to be left feeling a little unsettled.

For a team whose players have long touted the benefits of getting "comfortable being uncomfortable," that credo might have to be adopted by the Patriots front office as well until the NFL knows what damage is.

Five bold predictions for Patriots' 2020 training camp: Breakout at TE?

Five bold predictions for Patriots' 2020 training camp: Breakout at TE?

With the New England Patriots finally hitting the practice field this week, Phil Perry shares his bold predictions for Pats training camp as well as the top storylines that will be monitored over the next few weeks.

The upcoming season may be the most challenging in NFL history for rookies to contribute. And yet here we are, predicting that a rookie tight end will end up as the star of Patriots training camp. That's gnawing-on-coffee-grinds bold, no?

OK. Maybe not. Depends on just how off-the-wall you like your predictions, I guess. But bold is what we're going for here as we try to foresee what we'll witness on the practice fields behind Gillette Stadium over the next month. Hands and feet inside the vehicle at all times, please. Let's go.

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1. DEVIN ASIASI WILL BE THE STAR OF CAMP

I know what you're thinking. "The star? Like, as in the best of the bunch?" Well, no. Probably not. But he will be among the top performers, in my opinion. And because it's training camp -- because we're itching for a look at the new names -- that'll make Asiasi "the star."

Part of the reason I can envision him having success is that he'll have opportunity. There's no veteran ahead of him demanding every rep with Cam Newton.

He's also in possession of a tremendous physical skill set. He has excellent body control for someone weighing 260 pounds. He's capable of sudden cuts in and out of breaks. He'll be working against a young linebacking corps in coverage at times and with a quarterback who has loved throwing to tight ends over the years.

Put it all together, and I think he'll be a legitimate standout among other big names whose success this time of year will be a little more expected. 

2. SUDFELD MEMORIAL HYPE-TRAIN-LEAVING-THE-STATION AWARD: J.J. TAYLOR

Every August our collective conscience as football followers in this region wanders back to a tall, long-haired tight end making play after play in training camp.

Zach Sudfeld was hope personified, the premier example of a player who emerged from nowhere, seemingly, to look like a game-changer in the summertime.

This year? That player will be J.J. Taylor.

An undersized human joystick type, he was undrafted out of the University of Arizona. He'll work in as a punt and kick returner, I believe, and has the ability to both run between the tackles and catch the ball out of the backfield.

Will he be more Dion Lewis or Jeff Demps? Hard to know before laying eyes on him in a Patriots uniform, but I'm leaning toward the former right now. And tales of his ankle-breaking ability relayed from reporters to fans will have folks clamoring to see him on the 53-man roster Week 1.

3. TWO ROOKIE DEFENDERS NOT NAMED KYLE DUGGER WILL START

Part of this will be by necessity, of course. There's no way around it: Lose four veteran linebackers in one offseason, and odds are you're going to be relying on a few young fill-ins.

Anfernee Jennings and Josh Uche feel like the most likely candidates to help make up for the departures of Kyle Van Noy, Dont'a Hightower, Jamie Collins and Elandon Roberts. There is no one-for-one replacement for Hightower, but it looks like Ja'Whaun Bentley will be the closest thing the Patriots defense has for that role.

For Collins? I like Uche as a reasonable facsimile. He was a prolific second-level blitzer at Michigan. He's a twitchy athlete who can cover. He's not as long as Collins, but he's a dynamic athlete.

Jennings may have the toughest gig of the bunch if he's the first- and second-down replacement for Van Noy. Chase Winovich (listed at 6-foot-3, 250 pounds) excelled in a third-down sub-rusher role for the Patriots as a rookie, and he'll challenge for a more regular spot. But Jennings looks like he has the frame to set the edge (6-foot-3, 259 pounds) on early downs.

Kyle Dugger is a next-level athlete who could end up as Belichick's punt-returner in Year 1. But with Devin McCourty and Adrian Phillips looking like the top two options at safety at the moment, he may have to wait to start.

Here's how Belichick assessed his rookie class on Friday: "I think they’re just trying to keep their head above water and try to swim or paddle in the right direction knowing that they’re not really able to keep up, but they’re doing the best they can and they’re way, way ahead of where they were a week ago, two weeks ago, a month ago, two months ago. So, a lot of progress there, but a long, long way to go."

4. DAMIERE BYRD WILL WIN THE NO. 3 RECEIVER JOB

Here's what we think we know about the Patriots receiver group when healthy: Julian Edelman and N'Keal Harry will be out there regularly. Other than that? Eh...

Mohamed Sanu clearly has an advantage over other younger receivers in this shortened offseason. He has an advantage over veteran newcomer Damiere Byrd in that he's been in the system since the middle of last season.

But I could envision a scenario in which Byrd -- whose top-off-the-defense speed makes him a different type of player than Sanu or Jakobi Meyers -- is the No. 3 wideout in 11 personnel packages for Josh McDaniels.

Patriots Talk Podcast - Training Camp Preview: Burning Questions and Bold Predictions | Listen & subscribe | Watch on YouTube

Particularly if the team wants to work in more Shanahan-style concepts -- with a flat option, an intermediate option and a deep-threat option all on the field simultaneously -- Byrd could end up playing starter snaps.

Where does that leave Sanu? He'll provide valuable depth as someone who can play in the slot and on the outside, but I'd anticipate the Patriots wanting to give Harry every opportunity to be a legitimate starting "X" receiver, and we know Edelman is still their most dependable option on key downs.

Value in roster-building then comes into play. If Sanu isn't a top-three wideout, and if he's not a big-time special-teams contributor, and if he's making $6.5 million, is he long for the roster? 

5. COACH WE'LL BE DISCUSSING THE MOST: JEDD FISCH

Fisch was named quarterbacks coach this offseason, a title that McDaniels typically holds in addition to his offensive coordinator role.

Having bounced around the country working high-profile jobs both in the NFL (Vikings and Jaguars offensive coordinator) and in college (Miami and UCLA offensive coordinator), Fisch has worked alongside a number of brilliant offensive coaches.

Early in his career, though, he took a position coaching Mike Shanahan's receivers in Denver and appears to have been significantly impacted by a Shanahan system that features heavier personnel packages, wide-zone runs and play-action passes.

In Jacksonville, he emphasized some of the same concepts. Working in Los Angeles under Sean McVay (another Shanahan acolyte) Fisch was swimming in another system heavily influenced by Shanahan.

The reason we'll be discussing Fisch and his early impact on the offense, I think, is because we'll see some of those Shanahan elements in the Patriots offense as it redefines itself following Tom Brady's departure: Fullbacks leading the way for wide-zone runs, two tight end packages and play-action bootleg roll-outs.

That last element -- helped by quarterbacks who have no issue with a "moving pocket" -- wasn't something that was featured prominently with Brady behind center. But with Newton and Jarrett Stidham, McDaniels will have no problem calling for those kinds of looks in 2020. And Fisch will be instrumental in helping them master that portion of the Patriots playbook.

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Why Jason, Devin McCourty decided not to opt out of Patriots' 2020 season

Why Jason, Devin McCourty decided not to opt out of Patriots' 2020 season

The New England Patriots have a league-high eight players opting out of the 2020 NFL season due to concerns about playing amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Pats defense was impacted most with safety Patrick Chung and linebacker Dont'a Hightower deciding the risk of playing this year outweighed the reward. There was some speculation Devin and/or Jason McCourty could follow suit after Devin criticized the NFL for moving up the opt-out deadline, but both are set to play this season.

On Friday, Jason McCourty explained why he and his twin brother never seriously considered opting out.

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“Me and Dev have both spoken a lot about our stance on everything that goes on — I don’t think either one of us ever thought about actually opting out," McCourty said on a video call with reporters. "The opt-out itself just wasn’t worth it. I think for us, the love of the game and the ability to go out there — we didn’t really have a lot of issues that other people have, whether it was newborn kids, whether it was things that put them in high risk or close family members that put them in high risk.

“So for us, it was strictly from a family standpoint, we felt like it was worth it to give it a try and see what we were up against. And being able come into the building, seeing the things that would be done (to protect players), I think we thought it was necessary to go through that process.

"And I think us, like anybody in our society right now, if it was something that was at an extremely high risk to you or your family, of course you wouldn’t continue to do it if you could stop it. But I think for all of us right now playing that are in our building — I can’t speak for everybody, but I think we’re comfortable with the protocols and the measures that have been taken. I think all of us are in this thing together."

While they're a bit shorthanded for 2020, the Patriots defense still is positioned to be one of the best in the NFL. That especially applies to the secondary, where the McCourty twins will aim to help maintain the unit's reputation as one of the best positional groups in the league.

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