The New England Patriots project to have $18.6 million in free cap space this offseason, good enough for eighth best in the NFL. However, the Pats are more top heavy than when the team built its savvy cap management reputation with a balanced roster without overpaying even its stars.
With major holes at wide receiver and cornerback, and no depth at either position, the Patriots will be plenty busy this offseason.
Let's break down the current cap numbers by position, and find where some adjustments might be possible.
Cap numbers via spotrac.com.
The Patriots are reaping the benefits of relying on a stable of young running backs, all of whom are on their first contracts, whether they were drafted or signed as rookie free agents by the Patriots, with the exception of Spencer Larson.
Danny Woodhead is slated for free agency, but the Patriots should not be handcuffed by the amount of money they're already spending at the running back position. Still, it's unquestionable that if Woodhead returns it would be as the highest paid back on the roster. So the Pats must be asking themselves now if he's worth it, especially with the rest of the backs due for free agency in 2015.
This will be one of the most interesting positions to watch in training camp. If Woodhead returns the Patriots could carry five running backs on their roster, but all are versatile and bring different skills sets.
- Shane Vereen: $943K
- Spencer Larson: $875K
- Stevan Ridley: $805K
- Brandon Bolden: $485K
- Jeff Demps: $405K
A lot of Patriots fans have wondered if Stephen Gostkowski's high cap hit and inconsistency early in the 2012 campaign could make him vulnerable to be cut. Gostkowski missed six field goals this year, tying a career high from his rookie year, but he also hit a career-high 15 from 40-plus yards.
If anything, the Patriots will try to re-work Gostkowski's deal. $3.4 million is just too big of a hit for a kicker. Expect them to be able to work something out, while also potentially adding a year or two onto Gostkowski's contract.
Mesko enters the final year of his rookie deal in 2013. He could be in line for an extension, though waiting until next offseason shouldn't be too much of a risk.
- Stephen Gostkowski: $3.4 million
- Zoltan Mesko: $1.37 million
- Danny Aiken: $555k
Just a $6 million cap hit is actually pretty good for what most people might consider the premiere position on defense.
Ninkovich is entering the last year of his deal, which was part of the third contract he received from the Patriots, after getting extensions in both 2009 and 2011. Ninkovich is likely aiming for a big season to earn an impressive fourth contract; his performance in 2013 will determine just how much he can get from what would likely be his final big payday.
Chandler Jones' manageable rookie contract should keep him happy for the next few seasons, but a big year from him in 2013 could likely put him on the extension map, like big second years did for Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski.
Jermaine Cunningham enters the final year of his deal and will once again have his back against the wall in training camp trying to find a role.
- Rob Ninkovich: $2.17 million
- Chandler Jones: $1.86 million
- Jermaine Cunningham: $960k
- Jake Bequette: $619k
- Justin Francis: $482k
This is a cap number that is sure to rise shortly into free agency, but as it stands now the Patriots have just two experienced NFL receivers under contract for 2013.
What the Patriots can't afford to do is use the franchise tag on Wes Welker again, which would balloon the receiver cap hit number to over $18 million. Some, like Greg Bedard of the Boston Globe, have even wondered if Brandon Lloyd could end up a cap casualty. If that's the case the Patriots will have a full makeover at the receiver position in 2013.
Expect multiple veteran free-agent signings, with Julian Edelman likely leading the way, along with at least one rookie draft pick to be developed.
Slater's primary value is on special teams, where he's been a Pro Bowler and captain for the last two seasons. A $2.26 million cap hit might seem high to some, but you need guys like him.
- Brandon Lloyd: $4.5 million
- Matthew Slater: $2.26 million
The biggest thing that jumps off the page about the defensive back cap numbers is Steve Gregory's $2.18 million hit. Gregory was okay for the Pats and could really make a jump with a year's experience playing in Bill Belichick's cerebral system.
Still, he could be on the chopping block or at least restructured if his play isn't close enough to his salary. The rest of the group is still on their rookie deals and thus have manageable numbers. Devin McCourty could be in line for an extension as he's due for free agency in 2015.
It would cost the Patriots to cut Ras-I Dowling so he'll get every opportunity to make the club again, but he's one more trip to IR away from seeing his career in Foxboro ended. He'll be a free agent in 2015.
Alfonzo Dennard looks like the bargain of the century and, along with McCourty, should make up the only two sure bets of the Patriots secondary in 2013. Unless he's in prison.
- Steve Gregory: $2.18 million
- Devin McCourty: $1.85 million
- Ras-I Dowling: $1.45 million
- Tavon Wilson: $958k
- Nate Ebner: $504k
- Alfonzo Dennard: $494k
Jerod Mayo has the fourth-highest cap hit on the Patriots just below Brady, Wilfork and Mankins, but it's hard to say he's not worth it. And as the leader of the defense it's safe to say he's not going anywhere.
The Patriots could afford to add another coverage linebacker to this group, but with Brandon Spikes entering the last year of his rookie deal, he could be in line for a new contract. He'll have to impress on passing downs to get "three-down linebacker" money.
Fletcher re-signed for a minimum contract, and he'll have a lot to prove this season. This group should continue to gel with more playing time together, but keeping their salary numbers manageable will get complicated next offseason when Hightower and Mayo alone will put their linebacker cap number close to $10 million.
- Jerod Mayo: $5.6 million
- Dont'a Hightower: $1.76 million
- Brandon Spikes: $870k
- Dane Fletcher: $620k
The Patriots have an excellent collection of tight ends and the cap number reflects that. Both Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski earned contract extensions last offseason but neither of their cap hits this year are that big.
Daniel Fells will be in for the fight of his life if he even makes it to training camp. He was unspectacular in 2012 and now with the cheaper and better Jake Ballard ready to step back on the field, it could make Fells expendable while also opening up some cap space.
- Aaron Hernandez: $4.07 million
- Rob Gronkowski: $2.7 million
- Daniel Fells: $1.66 million
- Jake Ballard: $630K
With scheduled cap hits of $10.6 million and $11.6 million for the last two seasons of his Patriots pact, there isn't a lot that can be done with restructuring Vince Wilfork's deal. Wilfork's value to the defense is undeniable, and if anyone has earned a hefty salary it's Big Vince.
The Patriots have been able to keep the defensive tackle cap hit from being astronomical because they just haven't carried that many defensive tackles. Brandon Deaderick is still on his rookie deal as a seventh-rounder, and even he could technically be considered a defensive end.
Kyle Love earned an extension in 2012, but neither he nor Deaderick have the kind of talent to command another early contract, much less one that will come close to the size of Wilfork's.
The Patriots could make a splash in free agency at defensive tackle. They certainly need to add depth at the very least, but they're likely to leave Wilfork's contract alone regardless.
- Vince Wilfork: $10.6 million
- Kyle Love: $1.1 million
- Brandon Deaderick: $640k
- Armond Armstead: $405K
Logan Mankins is schedule to have his cap hits all exceed $10 million over the next three seasons. There's really no way around it. The Patriots could try to restructure him but it will certainly inflate his cap hit even more down the road.
The more interesting factor is just how the Patriots see Dan Connolly. Connolly is a solid and versatile lineman, but is he really a starting right guard in the NFL? If not, $3.33 million is a little rich to be paying someone who should be your utility interior lineman.
With Sebastian Vollmer hitting free agency in March the Patriots will undoubtedly have to add to their cap hit for offensive linemen. Some tweaks to Mankins' and Connolly's contracts could be what they need to open a little more room to bring Vollmer back.
- Logan Mankins: $10.0 million
- Dan Connolly: $3.33 million
- Nate Solder: $2.33 million
- Ryan Wendell: $1.02 million
- Marcus Cannon: $638K
The Patriots restructured Tom Brady's contract last offseason, pushing his cap hits up over $21 million in both 2013 and 2014, which are the final years of his deal. Even if the Pats could restructure him again, which they'd have to wait until April to do, there's just nowhere to push the money.
Brady should be able to earn one final contract from the Patriots based on his performance in 2011 and 2012, so perhaps a new deal is in line to take Brady to 40-years-old. A four-year pact would give the Patriots more leeway to deal with his excessive cap hits scheduled for the next two seasons, but also give the Pats a chance to tailor the contract to the end of Brady's career.
There's no question Brady will want to play past 2014, and though the Pats might want to wait as long as possible to see if he begins to decline, they could get far better value with an extension now rather than taking the huge cap hits the next two seasons.
But at the end of the day this is Tom Brady we're talking about, he's earned every penny and will continue to get a monster paycheck until he really shows legitimate signs of decline.
- Tom Brady: $21.8 million
- Ryan Mallett: $803K