What happened to the Patriots' salary cap space?
It's the last place you'd expect to find the Patriots.
And yet according to the NFLPA's salary cap report Friday, that's exactly where their front office sits this offseason. Cornered.
Pushed up against the 2020 cap, the Pats own roughly $1.75 million in space, the second-lowest figure in the league. They're positioned far closer to the basement — the Chiefs have less than $700,000 to spend — than the team above them, Pittsburgh, which is swimming in room comparatively at $6.2 million. For such a disciplined franchise, which for years has capitalized on its opponents' frivolous free-agent spending, the lack of wiggle room is fairly shocking.
Already, it's tied the Patriots' hands in free agency. It's likely undercut their leverage in trade talks. And probably in contract negotiations, too, with agents who represent their top players.
For once, the Patriots are staring up at the rest of the league, and there's no doubt the 30 other teams can't get enough of the view. How did this happen?
First, it's important to know the Pats will eventually carve out enough financial breathing room. The ethos of the organization is finding a way. In Foxboro, Bill Belichick has fostered football's version of ruthless pragmatism, meaning the Patriots are open to any strategy, method or means necessary to win without much care about what happens beyond victory.
It's what makes them the NFL's best problem solvers.
So in the end, the Pats will climb the cap room leaderboard. Signing their upcoming draft class is expected to cost around $9 million in space for 2020. The Patriots can trim that number by dealing their picks for future selections, which is a safe bet considering their history of draft-day wheeling and dealing.
For now, they're staring at a crammed cap sheet for the same reasons any franchise ever has: they rolled over minimal cap room from the previous year ($3.55 million), the scheduled cap hits of their current players and the guaranteed money they paid or committed to pay former players that has yet to be charged to the cap AKA "dead money." Dead money is where this story starts.
When Tom Brady's contract voided in mid-March, most of his signing bonus, which was supposed to be spread over future cap sheets, moved onto the Pats' 2020 books. The team were instantly stuck with $13.5 million in dead money. Some franchises don't carry that much dead money total in a given season.
When Brady left, his parting gift was a financial ball and chain.
Brady's dead money added to the $4.75 million that releasing Antonio Brown had cost the Patriots back in September, plus the $2 million in dead money they absorbed upon trading Michael Bennett in November and the $1 million they paid to cut ties with Mike Pennel and Duke Dawson last summer.
Then, after Brady left, the Pats dealt safety Duron Harmon to Detroit and cut kicker Stephen Gostkowski, and their dead money climbed to around $25 million, where it sits now. Within months, nearly 13% of their 2020 cap became occupied by players no longer on the team.
Brady's exit was not entirely unexpected, however, so waving goodbye at the price of $13.5 million surely meant holding a backup plan in the opposite hand. Apparently, left guard Joe Thuney was a major part of that plan, because retaining him has cost the Patriots even more than watching Brady leave.
When Pats placed their franchise tag on Thuney hours before free agency, they devoted $14.78 million in cap space to keeping him. Thuney signed the 1-year deal days later, which turned all his money into guarantees and allowed the two sides to begin negotiating a long-term contract. The Pats can lower his 2020 cap hit — now the second-largest on the team — at any time with such a deal.
But, because his agent understands the team's salary-cap situation and will likely set a floor of at least $15 million per year given the Pats are basically paying that much for 2020 — those negotiations will be harder than most for the front office.
So until a deal is reached, the Patriots' dead money, Thuney and two other offensive linemen (Shaq Mason and Marcus Cannon) will soak up almost 30% of their cap space. The three O-linemen represent half of the Pats' top six cap hits, none of which are easily disposed. The other three hits belong to reigning Defensive Player of the Year Stephon Gilmore, Dont'a Hightower, a captain, playmaker and the last experienced linebacker around, and Julian Edelman.
Even worse for the Patriots, only seven players among their 20 highest cap hits would provide reasonable relief if released or traded, according to Over The Cap. And they all come with question marks.
Shipping Cannon out would result in more dead money than cap savings ($4.49 million) and leave the Pats without an obvious in-house replacement at right tackle. Cutting ties with Mohamed Sanu ($6.5 million) would isolate Edelman, entering his age-34 season, as the only starting-caliber wideout on the roster. Trading cornerback Jason McCourty ($3.75 million) or defensive tackle Adam Butler ($3.29 million) at the close of free agency makes zero sense when they were both retained at its start.
And unloading center David Andrews ($3 million), running back James White ($3.69 million) or defensive tackle Lawrence Guy ($4 million) would burn serious holes in a roster now fighting an uphill talent battle.
Bottom line: It's much easier to trace how the Patriots arrived here than it is to illuminate a path out. Over the past few weeks, they've trimmed salary on the fringes of their roster — Gostkowski, third-string quarterback Cody Kessler — but it hasn't amounted to much.
Less than three weeks out from the NFL draft, the Pats' scouting efforts may be nearing completion. But their offseason work is far from over.
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