Breaking Down Patriots' 2013 Salary Cap: Where Is Money Best Spent?

Mike Dussault@PatsPropagandaSenior Analyst IJanuary 16, 2013

Breaking Down Patriots' 2013 Salary Cap: Where Is Money Best Spent?

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    The New England Patriots are not only dominant on the field but also with their salary cap management. According to John Clayton, the Patriots will carry over $5.6 million in space from 2012 and have a total of $18.6 million in cap space for the 2013 season.

    Only seven teams will have more space than New England, which is a testament to the kind of value they've been able to get out of the contracts they've given out, which includes recent lucrative extensions given to Jerod Mayo, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.

    Even with Tom Brady set to have a $20.8 million cap hit in the new year, the Pats will still have some breathing room to sign some free agents and perhaps extend some of their own players.

    Let's break down how the money would be best spent.

Interior Free Agents

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    The top of the Patriots' own free-agent list includes Wes Welker and Sebastian Vollmer, but there are plenty of other players who have played important roles recently.

    The franchise tag for Welker would cost $11.6 million, which would eat 61 percent of the Pats' free cap space and leave just $7.2 million to re-sign, or replace, the following significant internal players who are hitting free agency themselves:

    • Sebastian Vollmer
    • Aqib Talib
    • Danny Woodhead
    • Kyle Arrington
    • Julian Edelman
    • Deion Branch
    • Tracy White

    That also doesn't include any of the depth guys who have been valuable like Donald Thomas, Nick MacDonald and even Patrick Chung.

    Expect the Pats to make a push to re-sign Welker to a deal where they can creatively keep his cap number down. Having to tag him again would force the Patriots to make some difficult decisions elsewhere on the roster and would stifle their maneuverability with such a huge cap hit.

    For a full breakdown on what we think the Patriots should do with their own free agents, check out this previous article.

Early Extensions?

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    There are some interesting players who will also be free agents after the 2013 season, including Brandon Spikes, Rob Ninkovich, Ryan Wendell, Kyle Love, and Brandon Deaderick.

    Ninkovich has already earned two contract extensions from the Patriots, including a two-year deal for $4 million in 2011. His interception and onside-kick recovery against the Houston Texans in the Divisional Round are just the latest examples of Ninkovich's clutch play. He'll be 29 in February, and should still have another four years of peak performance left at least.

    Spikes has shown a new level of dominance this year and made a case that he's a player to be built around. Spikes would draw interest on the open market next offseason, but he's limited in what schemes he can play in. The Pats can likely wait on him.

    Ryan Wendell played more snaps than anyone else in the NFL this year, but is he the long-term answer at center? The Patriots had wanted Brian Waters back, which would have likely slid Dan Connolly back to the starting center job, and sent Wendell back to the interior line utility role. It's hard to say right now if he will be the center the Patriots build around. Wendell will likely have to prove his worth in 2013 again.

    The same goes for Deaderick and Love. They have been solid over the past few seasons, with Deaderick surpassing Love late in 2012 as the starter next to Vince Wilfork.

    However, neither has elevated their game to the level that might deem them worthy of an early extension, unless the Patriots thought they could get them cheaper now than next offseason.

    The Patriots will likely wait until this year's interior free agents' situations are determined before extending anyone early, but Ninkovich could be one to get a third contract from the Pats.

Exterior Free Agents

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    The Patriots will likely have to look outside for some exterior free agents to fill some holes and improve in spots.

    Of course the first priority will be whichever positions are vacated by their own free agents but regardless of the fates of Welker, Edelman and Deion Branch, the depth at wide receiver is already thin and could really use a young talent upgrade.

    As long rumored, they could look at Danny Amendola, whom Josh McDaniels is familiar with and is a good fit for the Patriots system. He would also be affordable due to his injury history.

    Vince Wilfork is past 30 and both Kyle Love and Brandon Deaderick are free agents after 2013, so defensive tackle is another spot they could look to address. Specifically a player like penetrating defensive tackle Chicago Bears Henry Melton would be an excellent fit to go alongside Vince Wilfork.

    But perhaps most tempting of all could be Ed Reed, who Bill Belichick has long held as the best free safety to ever play the game. If Reed hits the market, you can guarantee the Patriots will consider making him an offer.

    The Patriots have a lot of youth on their roster, so there will not be many starting holes to fill. As always look for them to target low-priced veteran free agents looking for a shot at a Super Bowl.

    The Patriots have an excellent history with guys like that, including Rob Ninkovich, Andre Carter, and Mark Anderson recently.

Restructure Brady's Contract Again?

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    Tom Brady's 2013 cap number will be more than double the next highest hit at $21.8 million. Could the Patriots approach him about restructuring?

    Brady just restructured his deal in March 2012 to open up space for the Pats, and the monstrous cap hit for this coming season is a result of that restructuring. So it might be a tall order to ask him to do it again, and they'd have to wait until well into the offseason before they were allowed to tweak his deal again.

    But perhaps nothing would be a better motivator than keeping Wes Welker in town. The Patriots are not about to cut Brady, so they will most likely just have to bite the bullet on his nearly $22 million number.

The Plan

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    The Pats will need to keep $2 million-$3 million in space for their rookie class, however at this time they only have five selections (first, second, third, seventh, seventh) so they should not have any problems, especially under the new CBA. Let's say that gives them approximately $15 million to play with.

    Welker, Vollmer and Talib are the priorities and could take up a significant portion of the Pats' free cap space. Once their fates are determined, the Pats can move on to contingency plans and/or rounding out the roster depth.

    If they can't mend the bridge with Welker, they'll have to invest that money into multiple receivers both in free agency and the draft, and hope that Tom Brady finds a connection with one of them. But a significant portion of the free cap space must go to the receiver position one way or another, with only Brandon Lloyd currently under contract for next year.

    There will be a little more freedom with Sebastian Vollmer since he's in line for a long-term deal. This will enable the Pats to push the biggest parts of his cap hit out a few seasons after Brady's deal is no longer so restrictive.

    Vollmer could get a left-tackle offer from another team should he hit the open market, so the Pats would be wise to move quickly on him.

    Aqib Talib is in a similar situation, and given his past his deal would likely be heavily incentive-laden. The Pats won't overpay him, so look for them to try and retain him for around $2 million-$3 million. He seems to be blossoming in New England, but never rule out the power of a substantially richer offer elsewhere.

    Luckily there are not many significant immediate holes to fill outside of those three players' positions, so the Patriots should be in good shape next season even if they do go through some roster turnover lower down the depth chart.

    Any remaining significant cap space should address the interior of the defensive line, where the depth and talent behind Vince Wilfork is suspect. It doesn't look like they'll have the cap space to make any big free-agency splashes, but as always with the Patriots, never rule anything out.