The NFL’s most dominant team of the last two decades, the New England Patriots, went 7-9 in 2020, and found they didn’t like losing very much. De facto general manager Bill Belichick went on an epic spending spree, running up a tab of $351.6 million with $193.9 MM guaranteed. That expenditure, along with promising rookie quarterback Mac Jones, helped the Pats keep their playoff drought at one season, as the team rebounded to a 10-7 record and a playoff berth. Although the season ended in a disappointing loss to the division rival Buffalo Bills in the Wild Card round, the future looks bright.
Or does it? A closer inspection shows a number of key upcoming free agents, a cap laden with escalating charges, and a series of disappointing drafts that are going to make it a challenge to build on their 2021 success.
About That Spree
The Patriots often play in free agency, but typically they stick to the middle class of contracts, building depth and avoiding the risk that high-end deals present. They signed a few of their typical deals in the offseason, bringing aboard Kendrick Bourne, Jalen Mills, and Henry Anderson, while re-signing David Andrews, Kyle Van Noy (after a sabbatical with the Miami Dolphins), Deatrich Wise, and Lawrence Guy. But they spent in the rarified air they typically avoid, signing Matt Judon, Hunter Henry, Nelson Agholor, and Jonnu Smith to deals averaging eight figures per year, and Davon Godchaux to a high-end deal for a nose tackle.
While the Patriots had quite a bit to spend against a 2021 cap depressed by COVID revenue losses, most of the spending hit the 2022 cap:
These dozen players will average more than twice as much on the 2022 cap than they did in 2021, and they will take up more than half of the $208.2 MM cap. The Patriots have not really begun to pay the bill for their 2021 spending, and that means they’ll have less room to work with in the coming offseason.
Holes To Fill
The GOAT Tom Brady left for greener pastures in the 2020 offseason, but he’s not the only Patriots legend nearing the end of his New England tenure. Devin McCourty, Dont’a Hightower, and Matthew Slater are just three of the key players who are scheduled to hit free agency this offseason:
That’s a lot of snaps to replace. J.C. Jackson earned Pro Bowl honors with an eight-interception season, while Brown and Karras were starters on the offensive line. Hightower and Ja’Whaun Bentley started at off-ball linebacker, and Jamie Collins, also a FA, served as the third LB. This chart doesn’t even include key Restricted Free Agents in wide receiver Jakobi Meyers, fullback Jakob Johnson, and returner / receiver Gunner Olszewski. It will cost valuable cap space to re-sign or replace all these players.
The team also faces a major leadership void in addition to the on-field impact of losing these players. Slater, McCourty, and Hightower have been captains for years, as has James White, who missed most of the 2021 season. When Hightower opted out in 2020, Bentley was named a captain, and Karras served as captain with the Miami Dolphins that year. The team will not only have to replace these players on the field, but also their presence in the locker room.
Finding Money Under the Couch Cushions
The Patriots will want to bring some of these key free agents back and augment in some other areas, such as shoring up a run defense that faltered down the stretch. But doing so will involve some creative cap manipulation. As of this writing, Miguel Benzan (aka Patscap) estimates New England’s cap space at $3,684,556, while OverTheCap.com, missing some incentive information and with a different set of assumptions, puts it at $9,747,827. Either way, it’s not a lot to work with; neither figure will accommodate putting the $17.28 MM franchise tag on shutdown cornerback Jackson, for instance.
That’s where cap manipulation comes in. There are a number of ways teams can clear cap space, but the simplest is shifting money from this year’s cap to future seasons by converting salary to bonus. Bonus money can be spread across the remaining length of the deal, so this technique lets the team reduce the 2022 cap hit of any veteran signed through at least 2023:
The team can move about $28.5 MM from the 2021 cap to the 2022 ($18.5 MM) and 2023 ($10 MM) caps. Bonus money is guaranteed, so this will increase dead money if the team decides to move on from these players in future seasons, but in a lot of these cases we’re talking about money that is guaranteed anyway. All of the 2022 salary for Smith, Judon, and Henry is already guaranteed, and all but $1 MM of Mills’ is. I don’t love what the future hits for some of these players look like, but it seems unavoidable at this point that the team will clear cap space in this fashion.
Restructuring is fairly straight forward; more complicated are extensions, which extend the player’s contract into the future (letting the team spread the bonus over more years), but require the team and player to agree on terms. Players such as Isaiah Wynn, Jonathan Jones, Agholor, and Godhaux—all FA after the 2022 season—are potential candidates. Restricted free agents Meyers, Johnson, and Olszewski could also work out longer deals in lieu of the RFA tenders. Punter Jake Bailey, who figures to get a significant pay hike via the Proven Performance Escalator, could instead net a longer deal.
The Patriots can also use void years to spread bonus money into future seasons, even if the true length of the contract is much shorter. They did this with McCourty’s most recent extension for instance, spreading his $10.75 MM bonus over five years (three of them void years) to make his 2020 and 2021 cap hits more manageable. If they bring back some older players like McCourty and Hightower, they figure to use void years to reduce the short-term cap impact.
Tough Cuts (and Trades)
Restructuring is the easy part. The Patriots can free up enough space to franchise Jackson, at least, and maybe bring back another couple key pieces. To explore the free agent market, however, they’ll have to make some more difficult decisions. That means cutting or trading players:
I’ve included some unreasonable scenarios here. Smith disappointed in his first year with the Patriots, but cutting him is a non-starter, and he’s unlikely to have much trade value on what remains of his contract, which doesn’t save the team much 2022 cap space anyway.
What stands out, looking at this list, is how much these players contributed in 2021. Agholor, Smith, Van Noy, Godchaux, Wynn, and Guy all played at least 500 snaps. Jones easily would have as well, had injuries not limited him to six games. Davis finished third on the team in special teams snaps. Only N’Keal Harry, Joejuan Williams, and Anderson will be easy to replace, and cutting those three saves only about $3.6 MM.
To go beyond that gets tricky, especially in conjunction with the holes opened by the pending free agents mentioned above. It’s tough to cut Jones when two other key secondary pieces in Jackson and McCourty are hitting free agency, or to part with Van Noy with Hightower and Bentley potentially leaving. Davis’ special teams contributions are more essential with Slater and Bolden hitting free agency. Maybe you could find a replacement for Godchaux for less than $5 MM, but probably not much less. It’s going to be tough to make the team better by cutting contributors for cap space.
The specter hanging over all this analysis, and a lot of the team’s trajectory since the last Super Bowl season, is the failure of recent draft picks to develop into contributors. The 2017 to 2019 drafts were particularly barren, producing only Wise, Wynn, Bentley, and running back Damien Harris. This helped drive some of last offseason’s free agent spending spree—does the team sign Henry and Smith if 2020 3rd round picks Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene show more as rookies?— and also leaves things uncertain when it comes to replacing departing free agents or potential cap casualties.
Looking at the list of pending free agents above, it’s hard to see where young players can slide in and replace them. The team has been loathe to use 2020 2nd rounder Josh Uche in a true LB role, preferring to keep him as a pass down edge rush specialist even when injuries struck the off ball linebackers, and 3rd-rounder Anfernee Jennings spent all of 2021 on injured reserve after a uninspiring rookie campaign. Linebacker Cameron McGrone and safety Joshuah Bledsoe, both day three 2021 picks, were injured for their rookie campaigns and did not play. It’s tough to pencil them into an extensive role in 2022. Top 2019 picks Harry and Williams should have emerged as starters by this point, but both have disappointed. One youngster can figure on a bigger role in 2022: Michael Onwenu can replace one of Karras or Brown, as he’s worked at both left guard and right tackle in his career. A youth movement is likely going to have to come via the 2022 draft and trade targets; there aren’t a lot of internal candidates who’ve shown they’re ready for more.
It’s a cliché to say the Patriots (or any team) need to draft and develop better … but the Patriots need to draft and develop better. The free agent spending spree of the 2021 offseason was in part a reaction to poor drafts, and the only way to get off the spending merry-go-round is by acquiring underpaid talent. That’s tough to do in free agency. The best avenue is the draft, but the draft has been hit-or-miss for New England of late.
It will be interesting to see how aggressively the Patriots play free agency. They have routes to open more cap space, but there is a cost to all of these avenues, whether they compromise 2023/2024 cap space, guarantee more money to underperformers, or get rid of players who played significant roles in 2021. Belichick stands as perhaps the greatest team-builder of the last 20 years, but his acumen will be stretched to its maximum as the Patriots face the challenges of the 2022 offseason.
Note: thanks to Miguel Benzan for suggesting a couple edits to the original published piece.