When breaking down the New England Patriots' 2014 salary cap, you need to know a diverse set of characters. Superstars, role players, starters—they all count against the cap. However, it is important to note that some of the lead roles in this novel are not even in New England.
According to OverTheCap.com—referenced throughout this article whenever cap numbers are used—the Patriots will have over $8 million in so-called "dead money." That cap space has to be used for players that are no longer with the team due to the escalation of prorated signing bonuses.
The lion's share of that money—$7.5 million—is due to Aaron Hernandez. Former cornerback Ras-I Dowling will count an additional $589,382 against the cap, with multiple others bringing the total amount to $8,536,054.
Enough with the villains of this story, here is how the Patriots can best spend the money available to them—currently $7.6 million—in 2014.
With only $7.6 million in cap space available, the Patriots are going to have to get creative to fill some looming holes on the team. They can start by restructuring some veteran contracts, similar to going to the bank and taking out a loan. You get some cash now but will have to pay the piper someday.
Vince Wilfork, Logan Mankins, Dan Connolly and Isaac Sopoaga are the primary candidates for a restructure, extension or—in Connolly and Sopoaga's case—outright release. The quartet's 2014 salary cap figure looms large at nearly $30 million—over 20 percent of the total cap.
Extensions of Wilfork and Mankins, paired with the release of Connolly and Sopoaga could save the Patriots well north of $10 million. They'll likely need it.
The Patriots have three major free agents that are going to receive some attention on the open market. It remains to be seen if Patriots owner Robert Kraft will be signing their checks next season.
The Slot Machine
One hundred catches, 1000 yards? Done. Julian Edelman has earned a big contract. Unfortunately for Edelman fans in New England, he might get paid by another team.
I expect the Houston Texans—with former Patriots offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien at the helm—to make a big run at Edelman. If he wants a top-dollar deal, the Patriots might let him walk.
Which player should the Patriots prioritize this offseason?
Danny Amendola, Josh Boyce and even T.J. Moe—placed on injured reserve before the season started—would be the favorites to receive additional snaps in 2014.
Verdict: Edelman is gone, unless willing to give a big hometown discount.
Before Brandon Spikes was placed on injured reserve, I didn't foresee any chance of him re-signing in New England. His physical play has endeared himself to teammates, but his against-the-grain behavior—watching him in training camp is a trip—might preclude Bill Belichick from granting him a long-term deal.
Dont'a Hightower and Jamie Collins have stepped up in Jerod Mayo's absence. If Mayo is able to return to the starting lineup after suffering a pectoral injury earlier this year, the need for Spikes might not be as high.
Verdict: Spikes won't be coming back, barring his injury preventing other teams from investing in him.
If the Patriots aren't going to invest in Edelman and Spikes, what are they going to spend their money on? The defensive backfield is a good place to start.
Aqib Talib has proven his worth after playing on a one-year deal in 2013. The Patriots should extend an offer in the four-year, $30 million dollar range. If Talib wants to break the bank, he won't do it in New England. Other teams might shy away from Talib—given his past transgressions—softening the market.
If the Patriots fail to land Talib, the cupboard is far from bare. Logan Ryan, Alfonzo Dennard and Kyle Arrington have all had good seasons, although they do benefit from Talib's presence.
Extending Devin McCourty—who will be a free agent following the 2014 season—should also be a priority.
Verdict: Sign Talib, but have a limit.