Nick Caserio

It goes beyond Brady: Why are Patriots OK with being the oldest kid on the block?

It goes beyond Brady: Why are Patriots OK with being the oldest kid on the block?

Through two days of legal tampering, and as the clock ticked closer to the official start of free agency, the Patriots remained quiet. While Trey Flowers, Trent Brown, Le'Veon Bell and others landed with new clubs for big-money deals, the Patriots came to agreements with veterans Jason McCourty, John Simon and Brandon Bolden.

We can't rule out that the Patriots will spend to bring in a higher-priced free agent or two, but the last few days have been illustrative of Bill Belichick and Nick Caserio's team-building technique lately.

No team loaded up on low-cost veterans like the Patriots in 2018, and no team spent a smaller percentage of its cap on players on rookie contracts, making them one of them oldest teams in the league. When the season opened, the Patriots' average age was 26.8 years old (fourth-oldest in the NFL). Come the postseason, thanks in part to their 41-year-old quarterback and unusually experienced secondary, the Patriots were the oldest team left (27.6). That worked out OK for them. 

Those average age numbers are partly explained by the fact that the Patriots have missed on finding consistent contributors at the top of the draft in recent years. Had Dominique Easley worked out, he might've played last year on a relatively expensive fifth-year option. The Patriots didn't have first-round picks in 2016 or 2017. And second-rounders Jordan Richards and Cyrus Jones were jettisoned before the end of their rookie deals.

But the Patriots' spending numbers are so extreme that it's hard not to see some method to the madness in the Patriots front office. OvertheCap.com pegged the Patriots as having a greater percentage of their cap committed to "low" veteran contracts -- any deal at $4.5 cap figure or less -- than any other team last year. They were 32nd in spending on rookie contracts.

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The Patriots weren't trying to swing and miss on some of those high-end picks, of course, but former Buccaneers general manager Mark Dominik explained that they've capitalized on a market inefficiency thanks to their willingness to be older than everyone else.

"The Patriots haven't drafted great. But they do what I call 'the second draft' really well," he told The Next Pats Podcast during the combine. "Let's look at guys who are already in the league, and let's figure out how they fit into our system. Some of those guys cost a little bit more money because they might be a little bit later in their career . . . Kyle Van Noy or Adrian Clayborn, who I drafted in Tampa. Find a role for that guy at an affordable price and take advantage of the salary cap the way it is, meaning the middle class almost got wiped out of the league."

When the new collective bargaining agreement was signed, the game changed -- and not for the better if you were an average veteran. Rookie deals became more manageable with a contract-slotting system in place, assigning dollar values to draft position. But instead of teams using money saved on rookies to make middle-tier veterans richer, cheaper rookies took up more roster spots, and Pro Bowlers got an even bigger piece of the pie.

"The thought was behind the new CBA, having lived through the last negotiation when I was with the Bucs, was that the middle class was actually getting taken care of," Dominik said. "Like, 'OK, we're actually going to be able pay veterans more money. This is gonna be great. The guys that are making one million are going to be making three or four.' What actually happened was we gave the stars more and more money."

Dominik added, "We took all the money and said, 'Look, we'll figure out the roster from [players] No. 25-45 but let's pay stars, and let's pay them more. No fault of the agent, no fault of the player, but that's where the money ended up going. 'If I'm going to have to budget money for signing this guy that I love on our football team, then I'm going to have to go over here and rob Peter a little bit to pay Paul.' The middle class was Peter . . . The great players get paid. The guys that aren't minimum salary don't make it in the league. I think the Patriots do a really good job about thinking about the middle class."

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The approach at One Patriot Place, at least as of right now, seems to be similar. With plenty of time remaining in free agency, the Patriots are currently third in the league in "low" contract spending and 32nd in rookie spending. Those "low" deals include contracts for key players like James White, David Andrews, Rex Burkhead, Lawrence Guy, Patrick Chung and Matthew Slater. 

Interestingly, the Patriots aren't the only team that has rolled with a gracefully-aging approach and found success, as the Ringer's Kevin Clark -- who has been writing about big-picture NFL spending for years -- pointed out to The Next Pats Podcast during the combine.

"Oddly enough," Clark said, "the Rams were low in rookie snaps last year. Both Super Bowl teams were very old last year in a weird way. When I say 'old', it's all relative. The average age of an NFL player, especially on offense, has gone down about two years, basically, since the CBA came into play in 2011. You start to look at the trends of the game, and you realize that the Patriots always zig when everybody else zags."

But why be so open to being the oldest kid on the block? 

With more and more underclassmen entering the draft, trading away picks for young veteran players -- Brown and Van Noy are recent examples -- may reduce some of the risk of whiffing on a hard-to-project 21-year-old with little college experience. And in the case of someone like Van Noy, a second-round pick in 2014, the Patriots can acquire another team's failure -- a player they might've liked to draft themselves but didn't have the chance to -- for pennies on the dollar. 

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"Some of these guys," Clark said, "are washing out and then the Patriots can get them on the cheap . . . They're able to get these wash-outs at very low cost. They're basically cleaning up everyone else's mistakes. They can churn the roster and say, 'This guy played three years with the Niners and it didn't really work out, and now we're going to stick him at left tackle.' " 

Plus, even though those veterans who arrive in New England in exchange for picks are more expensive than rookie options, the ever-rising salary cap makes those more deals easier to absorb than ever.

Another on-the-field advantage to having a roster that skews older is having players who understand schemes -- and more importantly scheme changes -- better than their younger counterparts. Never was that more apparent than with the Patriots defense this past season, and in their secondary especially. Players handled changing positions, coverages and assignments seamlessly all the way through the Super Bowl, completely flummoxing one of the game's brightest offensive minds on its grandest stage in a 13-3 win over Sean McVay and the Rams.

In an age when iPads have facilitated round-the-clock film study, and on a team whose coach shifts his game plans from week to week, having players who can grasp concepts quickly is crucial. And older players, in general, may be able to handle that kind of thing more easily. 

"You can really change your philosophy on the fly," Clark said. "And you're doing that with players who are younger than ever? One of the reasons Bill Belichick has been able to succeed is he's been able to change what his team is every single week . . . If you've got really smart guys who are 25 or 26 instead of 21 or 22, you're able to do that. A Devin McCourty, a Jason McCourty, guys who are veterans. If you're going to do the Belichick model, which is just to be able to be adaptable and smart all the time, you don't want a bunch of first-year guys, you don't want a bunch of second-year guys. 

"One of the things that has been lost is rookies come in more impressive than ever physically . . . but there's no replacement for experience and smarts. One of the things the Patriots are really freaking good at is understanding that there are inefficiencies out there where a smarter guy who maybe is a step slower is going to play faster than the rookie who runs a 4.2."

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Belichick is also adept at understanding when to cut bait on a mistake. Players like Easley, Jones and 2016 third-rounder Tony Garcia didn't last long in part because Belichick likely has greater job security and more leeway than any other coach in the league. As long as Richards stuck around in New England, Belichick isn't married to making top-end picks work to prove a point. That impacts the team's average age and spending as well. 

"Some of the worst players in the NFL," Clark said, "are fourth-year rookies who GMs are still trying to justify. Bill Belichick is just not going to do that."

At some point, of course, there is going to have to be a shift. The Patriots are going to have to turn over their core as Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski, Julian Edelman, Dont'a Hightower, McCourty, Slater and Chung all would readily admit they're closer to the end than the beginning. 

Maybe, with 12 picks in this year's draft class and six in the top 101, this is the year the Patriots invest in a drastic infusion of youth to avoid any steep drop-off that may be looming as their core ages. But they let a 25-year-old pass-rusher in Flowers walk via free agency, and they dealt for 33-year-old Michael Bennett to help fill the void. They came to terms with three low-cost veterans before we heard about them inking anyone in their mid-20s looking for a second contract.

At least at this point, the Patriots aren't getting any younger. But they don't seem to mind. And no one can argue that it hasn't worked.

"The Patriots understand the trends of the game better than any other franchise, and they understand how to take advantage of it," Clark said. "We've seen it so many times. Belichick has talked about it. They switched from a 3-4 to a 4-3 because they realized that nose tackles got too expensive. They'll shift their entire philosophy around based on what players they can acquire for cheap. And right now they understand that they'd rather have a guy making $3 or $4 million than a bunch of rookies. And the NFL is not going to learn to catch up with that."

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Areas of change: How can the Patriots create some cap space ahead of free agency?

Areas of change: How can the Patriots create some cap space ahead of free agency?

Change is coming for the Patriots this offseason. Every day this week, we'll react to one area of the team that either has already undergone a shift, is in the process of shifting, or will be shifting soon. Today we'll see what kinds of changes the Patriots could make to player contracts in order to free up some cap space ahead of the new league year. 

Change is coming for Patriots bookkeepers. Happens every offseason, and 2019 will be no different. The team will have to make a few changes to contracts ahead of free agency if they want to have the cap space necessary to be in the mix for players on their radar.

Say the Patriots would like to make a play for Trey Flowers to keep continuity in their front seven, and say they'd like to try to add both Golden Tate and John Brown to bolster their depleted receiver corps. How would they do it? Could they do it?

The cap hits for those players in 2019 could very well eat up every last bit of the about $18 million in cap space the Patriots have at the moment. Not ideal, especially since they'll likely want to re-sign some of their other free agents like Stephen Gostkowski and Ryan Allen, have enough space to sign their rookie class, and leave some space left over for mid-season acquisitions.

So what can they do?

They could extend Tom Brady for another couple years, drop his base salary to the minimum of $1.03 million, and convert his remaining 2019 base salary into signing bonus prorated over the life of his new deal. The result? He gets a raise, and the Patriots get a few million in cap space. 

Not a bad way to start.

Then the Patriots can work their way down the roster, and there's more cap space to be had. For instance, Dwayne Allen was a key to the Patriots Super Bowl victory, allowing them to get two tight ends on the field to pick apart the Rams, but with a $7.3 million cap hit for 2019, he's an obvious candidate for a contract restructure or release.

The Patriots will have decisions to make on role players such as Adrian Clayborn and Elandon Roberts. If they're looking for more cap relief, they could free up several more million by moving on.

Retirements will impact the equation here, too. If those are coming, they could mean millions more in cap space.

The bottom line: There are a lot of moving parts salary-cap wise for Bill Belichick and Nick Caserio to consider, but if they want to give themselves some financial flexibility ahead of the new league year, they have a variety of options to pursue in order to achieve that goal.

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McDaniels says role hasn't changed, but he's open to taking on more

McDaniels says role hasn't changed, but he's open to taking on more

FOXBORO -- When Patriots.com posted draft-day videos from the team's war room, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels was right there for the internet to see. He sat with coach Bill Belichick, director of player personnel Nick Caserio, football research director Ernie Adams, chairman and CEO Robert Kraft and president Jonathan Kraft. He had a seat at the head table.

Was that the first sign that McDaniels would have an expanded role in New England after he passed up the opportunity to take the head coaching job in Indy? Not exactly, according to him.

When I asked last week if anything about his job had changed since he decided to come back to the Patriots, McDaniels explained that his gig was the same as it ever was.

"My role is the same," he said. "I would say that I'm always open to...If they wanted to give me any responsibility in any way shape or form, I'd try my best at it. And I'm always trying to learn. If there's something they'll let me be a part of that could make me a better coach, I'm definitely going to do it. I'm still at a part in my career where I'm trying to grow and get better. If there's anything that I'm able to do in that regard, then I would jump at the chance."

Meanwhile, Albert Breer of SI.com reported on Thursday that McDaniels' presence in the team's "notoriously small and private draft room" was a "new development, and reflects a step forward."

That was a reasonable assumption after what had been said about the factors that led to McDaniels staying in New England soon after the Super Bowl. Following his decision to stick with the Patriots, indications were that he'd been given clarity about his future with the team -- clarity he hadn't had previously -- and the presumption was that changes were coming.

"The opportunity," McDaniels told the Boston Globe's Jim McBride in March, "to stay here and work for who I think is the greatest owner in sports and the best head football coach in the history of our game, to work with the best quarterback that has ever played...Look, I’m privileged to have the opportunity to do that, and when they kind of crystallized that -- ‘Hey, here’s what we see going forward and here’s how we would like you to fit into it’ -- it gave me a reason to stop and say, ‘All right, what’s the best decision for me?’ And certainly, it was difficult. But I made the decision on my own, nobody pushed me into it."

Maybe that part about "here's what we see going forward" didn't mean any immediate changes to McDaniels' role. That could've meant responsibilities would only be added down the line. Perhaps it was strictly a reference to McDaniels' compensation; the Globe reported that he did have his contract "adjusted" when he decided to stay.

Still, it felt like there was more was on the horizon for McDaniels. And at the draft -- whether this was the team's intention or not -- McDaniels seemed to have more of a forward-facing role. He joined Belichick, Caserio and Robert Kraft as the guest speakers at the team's draft party before the first round. And then there were those inside-the-draft-room videos.

It's hard to put too much stock into what's seen on those things. They're obviously produced by the team and heavily edited. But the fact remains that McDaniels was shown sitting with the team's decision-makers all weekend. A quick scan of Patriots.com draft videos in the past shows the same primary players -- Belichick, Caserio, Adams, the Krafts -- together without their offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. 

That doesn't mean McDaniels hasn't been in the room before, of course.

"Josh has been in there before, even going way back to the 2000s when he and I were in there together when we really didn’t know anything," Caserio said on draft weekend. "We still don’t know anything, although we have a little more experience. Look, Josh is a great friend of mine, there’s no question about it. He’s great to work with. Our entire coaching staff is very involved in our process. We have a lot of confidence and faith in their information, their input and their evaluation. Josh has been in there before and our coaches, and their opinions on our entire staff, are very valid. They’re an intricate part of this process and we rely on them on a lot of information, and Josh is included. He’s one of them."

“I’ve been in there before,” McDaniels said. “Some years I’ve been in there and some years I haven’t. It all depends on what the focus is or isn’t at that particular year. I think all of us hear the same thing each spring. Our responsibility is to -- whatever they give us in terms of evaluating and scouting. We try to do the best we can, whether that’s going on trips to visit guys or doing stuff when we get to have our 30 visits in the building or watching tape and evaluating guys on tape.

“From that perspective, my role did not change at all. I’ve always been involved to whatever capacity that they wanted or needed me to do. And at the same time, if they’ll let me do that, if they’ll let me be a part of anything -- I think all coaches would agree -- we’d all like to learn as much as we can from every opportunity that we have to be around Bill, Nick, Robert, the scouting staff.”

So, maybe McDaniels was in there this year because the Patriots had done so much work on this year's quarterback class. If that was the focus of this particular year, then it would make sense to have him in. 

But in 2014, when the Patriots were in on the quarterback class and selected one in the second round, it was assistant to the coaching staff Mike Lombardi who was at the head table (he was there in 2016 and 2015 as well), not McDaniels.

Again, those videos are edited. It's a little ridiculous to go too far down the rabbit hole and refer back to those as evidence of anything. But the perception at draft weekend was that McDaniels had graduated to the draft-day inner circle. And Breer's report would support that perception. Plus it stands to reason that if a media-conscious team like the Patriots wanted to hammer home the message that McDaniels' role is what it was last year, then they could've done a better job of illustrating that. They didn't.

From an ownership perspective, it would make sense to have an eye toward the future as it wonders what's next for the franchise. It would make sense if the Krafts wanted to put a little more on McDaniels' plate or to give him more forward-facing opportunities to see how he'll handle them. As much experience at the head table as possible for McDaniels -- during the draft or anything else -- might give the Krafts a better idea of how he'd make the transition to the head job if they ever wanted him to make it.

McDaniels was asked last week, was his decision to stick helped at all by an understanding that he might one day succeed Belichick?

"Nope, nope," he said. "I mean, my role is the same. Look, I think if you’re here, you have an opportunity to work with and for the best people in our game -- maybe some of the best people that have ever done those things in our game.

"Whatever happens in the future is going to happen. I just know that I’m grateful to have the opportunity to be the offensive coordinator here, coach quarterbacks, work with the offense, and work for the people that I work for."

McDaniels may be able to make his head-coaching dreams come true elsewhere at some point. Even though the wound he left in Indy is fresh, the league is annually desperate for good head coaches and McDaniels is still just 42. 

"I’ll say this: I’ve stated again and again that I definitely want to be a head coach again," McDaniels said. "At the same time, I love being here. This is where my kids were born and raised. We’ve made a pretty special life here, and that’s not an easy thing to leave."

If he can accomplish his goal of becoming a head coach without leaving, going through a more hands-on apprenticeship under Belichick as he waits for his next shot, that would seem like a win-win both for McDaniels and the family that encouraged him to stay. He'll learn, and the Krafts can learn more about him. And if the Krafts' are already planning on leaning in McDaniels' direction when the time comes, even if they haven't promised him anything, then it would make even more sense for them to encourage him to take on as much as he can.

We may not know exactly how, if at all, McDaniels' role will change this year. But draft weekend was an instance where the Patriots were perfectly fine with at least giving the appearance that more had been put on his plate. It was right there on their homepage. 

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