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.
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.
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.