NFL salary cap

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

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

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. 

Patriots cap space explosion could complicate things with Cam Newton

Patriots cap space explosion could complicate things with Cam Newton

The Patriots care about locker room dynamics. They pay attention to the way in which the contractual hierarchy is structured.

That's why their newfound cap space might force a conversation with Cam Newton.

As part of the newly amended collective bargaining agreement, signed on Monday night, it was determined that 2020 cap hits for players who opt out would be kicked down the road to 2021. That includes the prorated portions of signing bonuses that have already been paid out. 

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That late adjustment to the CBA freed up additional cap space for all teams with players who a) opted out and b) had prorated signing bonus amounts count against the 2020 cap.

For example, as Patriots cap expert Miguel Benzan points out, the amount the Patriots saved on Dont'a Hightower changed with this week's adjustment. Previously, his opt-out saved the Patriots $7.85 million. Now, with the prorated portion of his signing bonus adding to that number, his opt-out saves the Patriots $10.35 million. 

In all, the Patriots now have over $35 million in cap space. It wasn't all that long ago that the team hovered under $1 million

So what do they do with their money now?

They could choose to spend in order to buttress the positions that just saw players leave: linebacker, safety, offensive tackle, tight end. They could add to a position group, like the interior of the defensive line, that could benefit from some depth. 

There are talented players available. Marcel Dareus is hanging around and could strengthen New England's defensive line by complementing Lawrence Guy, Beau Allen and Adam Butler.

Jadeveon Clowney, Clay Matthews, Jabaal Sheard and Everson Griffin are available to man the edge of someone's defense. Eric Reid and Tony Jefferson are still available at safety.

Demar Dotson (formerly of the Bucs), Cordy Glenn (Bengals), Jordan Mills (Cardinals), Greg Robinson (Browns) and LaAdrian Waddle (Bills) are around if the Patriots are looking for a Marcus Cannon replacement to come from outside the organization.

Delanie Walker or Ed Dickson (who played with Newton from 2014-2017 as a member of the Panthers) are free-agent veterans at tight end

Patriots Talk Podcast: Should Patriots spend newfound cap cash or roll it over? | Listen & subscribe | Watch on YouTube

But if the Patriots spend a significant chunk of change on any of them, they might have to adjust the contract of the man who looks like the favorite to be their starting quarterback in 2020. 

Newton signed for the veteran minimum on an incentive-laden deal that could grow to more than $7 million. Still, it's a veteran minimum deal. How would it sit with Newton if the team gave Dotson or Walker a few million to help them fill a role that suddenly needs filling? What would that do to locker room dynamics? 

The Patriots could choose to take all the cap space they've been afforded and hold onto it. They may need to make more in-season signings than usual due to COVID. There's enough uncertainty these days that prudence might be the best course of action. Then they could roll over that cap space to 2021 and — even though the cap will be reduced and could drop as low as $175 million from almost $200 million this year — be real players in the free-agent market when other teams have to slash payroll just to become cap compliant. 

But if they don't take that route, if they add veterans to their team by using real money, that could spur action with the man who could be shouldering quite a bit of offensive pressure as the Patriots play out their first season of the post-Tom Brady era. Even if they don't add pieces — unless they tell Newton they have to hold onto their cap space because these are uncertain times — Newton might have an argument to be given a bump in pay.

For Newton, the conversation might start with somehow turning those incentive dollars into guarantees. After all, Marcus Mariota is getting more than $7 million to be the backup in Vegas. Teddy Bridgewater picked up $7 million from the Saints as he tried to get his career back on track. Should Newton not be afforded at least the same amount as the most accomplished of that quarterback-revival-tour trio?

The Patriots couldn't give Newton that kind of deal when they signed him. They were up against it with the cap. But after all these opt-outs, that's no longer the case.

And while that means they're afforded the opportunity to add talent to their locker room, it also might mean they have to revisit the contract of the player who looks like the favorite to man their most important position.

Even with cap windfall, Patriots should still spend carefully

Even with cap windfall, Patriots should still spend carefully

Ever find yourself scrounging for change in your car, flicking aside calcified french fries and scraping up the back of your hand as you reach under the seat for something that could be a nickel, could be a quarter?

That’s about where the Patriots were a couple of weeks back. Tight to the 2020 salary cap with barely any cash in their wallet to spend.

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Now? Thanks to cap credits and a spate of opt outs, the Patriots are — in relation to the cap — pretty flush. They have nearly $25M in cap space and that windfall is burning a hole in the pockets of some folks who’d love to see the team go on a spending spree.

Jadeveon Clowney? Git ‘em. Snacks Harrison? Him too. Anybody not nailed down is fair game.

For a Patriots team that saw its two most important defensive players — Dont’a Hightower and Patrick Chung — and starting right tackle Marcus Cannon opt out this week, the need to reload is there.

But the smarter play for the Patriots would be to sit on the bulk of that money and roll most of that cap space into 2021.

There are a couple of reasons for that. First, the cap is going down in 2021. It may drop down to $175M. The Patriots are already in a good spot cap-wise for next year with an estimated $50M in cap room available against a $175M cap even before the opt-out money gets rolled over.

When teams all around the league find themselves forced to release players they’d prefer to keep all because of the falling cap, the Patriots will be in a good spot to add talent because they have the money to do so.

Second, the newly-realized cap space is — to a degree — an apparition. Hightower’s cap hit this year was $12.4M with an $8M salary and other bonuses. His hit in 2021 will be about $10M. Same with Cannon’s $9.5M and Chung’s $4.8M. If those players all come back, their cap hits essentially go with them unless they renegotiate, retire or are released. 

Meanwhile, there are several key Patriots whose contracts are up at the end of this year: James White, Joe Thuney, Rex Burkhead, Adam Butler and Lawrence Guy among them. The Patriots are going to need that dough next offseason to get some of those players re-signed.

Patriots Talk Podcast: Should Patriots spend newfound cap cash or roll it over? | Listen & subscribe | Watch on YouTube

Now some of the $25M could be allocated to signing players this year to short-term deals. The Patriots may have the depth to withstand the loss of Chung, but the losses of Hightower and Cannon are going to highlight some of the experienced depth issues they have at those spots.

Right now, it’s not a great market for a team in need. Players are reporting and some are landing in quarantine after testing Covid-positive. Opt-outs will continue until early next week. Depth is vital because the looming threat of a player unexpectedly testing positive and being removed from the team for at least five days (if he is asymptomatic and has two negative tests in succession) will be ever-present.

But when teams do need to trim their rosters, a lot of cuts may be made with the cap in mind. A valuable player with a significant cap hit in 2021 may get turned out because teams are wary of what next year brings. And that’s when the Patriots windfall can come into play.

A player like Clowney who’s hoping for $16M or more may not be interested in a one-year deal. A team like the Patriots may not be interested in throwing that much money at a player for a one-year rental, especially if he’s had no offseason to get assimilated.

But plug-and-play veterans willing to sign on one-year deals after being released unexpectedly could entice the Patriots. And they have money now that they didn’t have a few weeks back to bring players like that aboard.