8 Cost-Effective Moves the Patriots Should Make This Offseason
The New England Patriots' season ended in the AFC Championship game for the second straight season, but simply reaching this game was far more impressive this time around given the amount of turnover and injuries the Pats faced throughout the year.
The Patriots have one of the youngest teams in the NFL and will look toward the development of their young players as much as offseason additions to get the team to the next level.
Still, the Patriots have some decisions to make.
A number of players are returning from serious injuries. Can they be counted on? There are also some holes on the roster that could becoming glaring if certain players leave via free agency. With limited cap space to work with, the Pats might have to get creative to free up enough space to make any impact acquisitions.
Here are eight moves the Pats could make to give themselves some more flexibility in free agency this offseason.
All salary cap information courtesy of OverTheCap.com.
Cut Isaac Sopoaga
Isaac Sopoaga was brought in via trade at the deadline this season in order to help a struggling run defense that was relying almost entirely upon rookies Chris Jones and Joe Vellano after both Tommy Kelly and Vince Wilfork were lost for the season.
Sopoaga played just 17 total snaps in Weeks 14 and 15, and he did not see any more game action for the rest of the season, including both playoff games. The emergence of Sealver Siliga made Sopoaga expendable, and with a $3.5 million cap number in 2014, it's a safe bet that Sopoaga will be one of the first cuts of the offseason.
The move would open up $2.5 million in cap space.
Cut Adrian Wilson
Adrian Wilson was one of the more exciting signings of the 2013 offseason, but whether it was due to injuries or age, Wilson didn't appear to have much left in the tank in the preseason.
He ended up on IR during the final round of cuts after playing most of the preseason finale, which is usually a sign of players being on the roster bubble. It was reported that he was battling a hamstring injury.
Was that really it? Or is Wilson's career done? The Pats would open up $1.17 million in cap space by cutting him.
The Pats do have good depth at safety, and with the rise of rookie linebacker Jamie Collins, they might no longer need a safety to play the "Money" dime linebacker spot. There just might not be a need for Wilson, even if he can squeeze one last season out.
After Isaac Sopoaga, this looks like one of the more obvious cuts that should happen early in the offseason.
Cut or Re-Structure Dan Connolly
Dan Connolly enters the last year of his deal after serving as the starting center in 2011 and the starting right guard in 2012 and 2013.
Connolly and center Ryan Wendell were the two lowest-rated offensive linemen on the Patriots this season, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required). Their combined -29.3 pass-block rating has to be an area the Pats target to improve this offseason.
But with Wendell scheduled to hit free agency, can the Pats afford to simply jettison Connolly in the last year of his deal, even if it would save them $3 million in cap space?
Perhaps the best course of action would be to extend Connolly. However, they should do so at a salary that is reflective of him returning to the swing interior lineman role rather than the type of money he was paid in his last deal.
Connolly has great experience at center and guard, and with no viable swing player behind him on the roster, it might be wise to keep him around.
Cut Tommy Kelly
Losing Tommy Kelly for the season only a game after losing Vince Wilfork was a devastating knockout punch to the heart of the Patriots defense.
Kelly and Wilfork looked like the most promising pair of defensive tackles the Patriots had featured in some time, but they didnt't make it past Week 5.
Kelly just turned 33 and has another year on his deal left with the Pats. However, cutting him would open up $2.5 million in cap space.
Details of Kelly's knee injury are uncertain—though he alluded to it being an ACL tear—but he still feels like he has something to prove with the Pats. If his prognosis is good, the Pats should keep him, but if his recovery stalls, that money might be better spent elsewhere.
Extend Stephen Gostkowski
Stephen Gostkowski is coming off arguably the best season of his career, and he now enters the last year of his contract.
His five 50-plus yard field goals this season were a career best, as he had never hit more than two of those in any previous season. He was also perfect inside 40 yards, a career first. Furthermore, he missed just three field goals all season.
A perfectly executed onside kick against the Cleveland Browns was also a game-saving play and a nice feather in Gostkowski's cap. Add in his constant touchbacks, and it's easy to see that Gostkowski was a huge key to the Pats' stellar special teams play this season.
Gostkowski is due for a $3.8 million cap hit this season, but he is one of the elite kickers in the game, so while that's a big number, cutting him is probably off the table.
It might be the perfect time to sign him to another five-year deal in order to bring his cap hit down a bit this season. Clearly, he's the kind of kicker you want to hang on to.
Extend Nate Solder
Nate Solder enters the final year of his rookie contract, and while he showed some inconsistency in his second season as the starting left tackle, there are few young left tackles in the league that are more promising.
Solder fits the Patriots' offensive scheme perfectly, as he has the size to hold up against bull-rushers and the athleticism to get out in space against the speedier guys. With three seasons under his belt, Solder is just hitting his prime.
Solder's cap hit is $2.7 million this season, but it would be wise to not let him hit free agency. With more open cap space down the road, the time is perfect to lock up Solder.
Solder is a prototypical left tackle, and signing him to a new contract will prevent some major issues next offseason.
Extend Devin McCourty
The Patriots don't have a lot of cap space heading into free agency, but Devin McCourty is a good candidate to be extended along with Solder.
McCourty elevated his play after moving to safety full time this season, and he was a big factor in settling the back end of a Patriots defense that was torched deep, early and often, in 2012.
McCourty's cap hit for 2014 is a manageable $2.12 million, and any kind of extension would likely increase that hit. But over the long term, it would be most cost-effective to give McCourty a new contract now.
If he hits free agency next offseason, the Pats' hand could be forced by other suitors, and they could end up spending even more money to either retain him or find a replacement.
Cut or Extend Vince Wilfork
It might be sacrilegious to suggest the Patriots should cut Vince Wilfork after the first major injury of his career, but it's hard to ignore an Achilles tear, especially given Wilfork's size and mileage. That's not an easy injury to return from, and only two-thirds of NFLers do.
Even those who do come back from it still have issues going forward.
Wilfork enters the final year of his contract, and the Pats would open up $8 million in cap space if they were to cut him. Or maybe the better decision would be to extend Wilfork and spread out his contract hit over the next two seasons, during which time they will have a lot more open cap space to work with.
The Pats are in a tough position. If Wilfork does recover 100 percent, they likely wouldn't mind the large cap hit; he's that good. But if this will be the beginning of the end of Wilfork's dominance, the sooner they know, the better.