5 Cap-Friendly Moves New England Patriots Must Make This Offseason
By building depth and emphasizing a strong middle class over a few flashy headliners, the Patriots have minimized their risk and allowed superior coaching and quarterback play to carry them to perennially excellent regular-season records and legitimate Super Bowl opportunities.
Constructing such a roster in 2014 might be a bit harder, considering that they rank 20th in the league with roughly $12.7 million in free cap space. Thus, New England faces more difficult choices in whether they should keep veterans with big cap numbers and re-sign free agents set to cash in.
One thing to keep in mind is that the team is not necessarily in poor shape. The $130 million salary cap for 2014 came in higher than expected, and per Pro Football Talk's Mike Florio, the cap numbers could grow as high as $160 million by 2016.
Thus, the Patriots and the rest of the NFL have a bit more margin for error. Nevertheless, possessing flexibility is absolutely vital when making personnel decisions, and New England could stand to improve in that regard.
Not all of these suggestions will directly make the Patriots a better team. But they won't make the team considerably worse, and more importantly, they provide the front office with an opportunity to once again build a low-variability roster that should establish New England as a prime championship contender.
5. Cut Dan Connolly and Tommy Kelly
Even after releasing Steve Gregory, the Patriots could stand to carve out more cap space. Players like Isaac Sopoaga and Adrian Wilson will likely need to agree to take the veteran minimum, or else the Pats will pocket the savings from sending them packing.
However, New England could free up more room by cutting two more similarly borderline veteran starters: right guard Dan Connolly and defensive tackle Tommy Kelly. Shedding them would save the Pats a tad more than $5.1 million this year, and because both are entering the final years of their contracts, they wouldn't carry any dead money beyond 2014.
This is not to suggest that Connolly and Kelly are not potentially useful players. With starting center Ryan Wendell being a free agent, Connolly's experience at center, where he started the entire 2011 season, provides the Pats an internal insurance plan.
Moreover, Kelly was one of the league's best interior pass-rushers during his time in Oakland—a presence that the defense has lacked since Richard Seymour's departure.
However, there are also signs that both are declining and thus not worth their cap hits. Connolly turned into one of the league's worst pass-blockers last season, with a minus-14.5 grade that was ninth-worst among all guards. Moreover, per KFFL.com, the 31-year-old has had a multitude of injuries in recent seasons, including three concussions in the past four years that make him a significant health risk going forward.
Kelly was solid over 223 snaps last season, generating three sacks, five hits and six hurries. However, he accrued just 12 hurries over 776 snaps in 2012. He is 33 years old and coming off a major knee injury, so it is fair to wonder if his 2014 season will bear a closer resemblance to the 2012 rendition.
In reality, the Pats might try negotiating pay cuts with both, as it never hurts to have veteran depth. But with Marcus Cannon, Josh Kline, Armond Armstead and Chris Jones looming as cheaper and younger in-house replacements, do not be surprised if Connolly and Kelly receive the ax this offseason.
4. Extend Devin McCourty and Stephen Gostkowski
I've already touted the pros of re-signing safety Devin McCourty here, so I won't re-hash his case too much. It's worth noting, though, that with Bills safety Jairus Byrd asking for $9 million per year in free agency, per ESPN.com's James Walker, McCourty's price tag could rise quickly.
Like Byrd, McCourty is one of the league's best center-field free safeties. If Byrd sets the new bar for safeties, McCourty will likely seek something similar.
Currently, he has the sixth-highest cap hit on the roster at $5.12 million, and by extending him now, the Patriots might not only reduce that number in 2014 but also save some cash over the long haul.
Stephen Gostkowski's case should be simpler to handle. The 30-year-old kicker is showing no signs of slowing down after hitting a career-best 38 of 41 field goals last season. In addition, his near-automatic touchbacks on kickoffs are a field-position weapon. Per FootballOutsiders.com, the average starting position for Pats' opponents in 2013 was approximately the 24-yard line, which was the third-best mark in the league.
Nonetheless, his $3.8 million cap hit is fourth-highest in the league among kickers and does not provide great value considering his position. There's no sense in cutting a premier kicker who has been reliable his entire career, so the Pats could seek to extend him and reduce his cap hit.
His last contract was a five-year deal worth $15.79 million, with a $4 million signing bonus. If he signs something similar—which is likely, given his steady performance—the Patriots could convert some of his $2.9 million base salary into a signing bonus that is spread out evenly over the length of his contract.
For example, if Gostkowski signed the same deal, the Patriots could reduce his base salary to $1 million. The $1.9 million leftover could be converted into a bonus that is spread evenly over the six years on his contract. In this example, his cap hit would be $2.21 million, saving the Pats $1.6 million in 2014.
3. Draft a Young Edge-Rusher
While the Patriots can tinker with contracts that already exist on the roster, the best way to escape cap trouble is to find cheaper solutions. The draft offers the best avenue for roster construction, especially with the cap on first-round contracts as part of the last collective bargaining agreement.
Thus, while positions like defensive tackle and tight end could use long-term solutions, the Patriots should also look for an edge-rusher in the early rounds. Though New England has been linked to various veteran free agents like Jared Allen and Shaun Phillips, per the Boston Herald, there's no guarantee they will translate to the Pats system, making them potential sunk costs.
Of course, draft picks come with even less of a guarantee, but the penalty for whiffing on a second- or third-round pick is not particularly prohibitive. And as the Seattle Seahawks have demonstrated, striking gold on mid-round picks like Russell Wilson and Richard Sherman are invaluable toward building deep rosters.
The Patriots might want to consider a pair of defensive ends: Missouri's Kony Ealy and South Florida's Aaron Lynch. Ealy would be a first-rounder, but as a prototypical 4-3 end, he could fulfill a role similar to what Chandler Jones provides.
The Pats would have several options from this spot—they could move Rob Ninkovich back to his old outside linebacker role, or, more intriguingly, play more packages with three defensive ends, as Jones gave interior linemen fits last season with his long arms and quickness.
Lynch would be more of a mid- to late-round selection, and he represents a lottery ticket. As Greg Gabriel of National Football Post illustrates, Lynch possesses early-round talent, but questions about his effort and commitment have sent his stock plummeting.
If the Patriots can keep him engaged, especially as a situational pass-rusher, he could be an excellent Day 2 or 3 steal.
2. Restructure Vince Wilfork's Contract
Vince Wilfork is the first area that most observers point to when suggesting how the Patriots can improve their cap situation, so it might be a bit strange to see him ranked second here. In reality, though, the salary-cap bump allows the Patriots to absorb his contract if need be, making him less of a pressing priority.
And make no mistake: Cutting Wilfork and pocketing an extra $8 million does not make the Patriots a better team, as New England is highly unlikely to convert those savings into players who could equal his impact. Most fans understand his on-field importance, but as ESPNBoston.com's Mike Reiss opines, removing a respected leader from the locker room could create a toxic environment that was similar to the one that surrounded the underachieving 2009 Patriots squad:
If we remember, Robert Kraft talked the next offseason about how some games are won/lost before the team takes the field. They move on from Vince Wilfork this year, and I believe they are potentially putting themselves in a spot where history could repeat itself. I'm not saying it will, but I do think it's important when we talk about cutting players that we don't overlook that human element too.
Restructuring Wilfork's contract looks like the clear route. Indeed, Reiss reports that the Pats have already approached the 32-year-old about reworking his pact to reduce some of his $11.6 million cap hit.
Even if he is unwilling to take a pay cut, the Patriots could extend him for a short number of years (likely two) and convert some of his huge $7.5 million base salary into a signing bonus that they can spread over the length of the contract. The Patriots would almost certainly work in some injury protection, likely basing guarantees on the number of games he is on the active roster.
If the Pats can strike a deal that saves them money in 2014 while also providing Wilfork the opportunity to prove he can remain one of the league's elite defensive tackles, such a compromise seems like a no-brainer.
1. Choose Between Danny Amendola and Julian Edelman
As Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk notes, most of Amendola's salary became guaranteed at the start of free agency. The Patriots could still cut him after the deadline and designate him as a post-June 1 cut, which would result in cap charges of $1.2 million in 2014 and $3.6 million in 2015.
Regardless, one aspect is clear: It makes little sense to make both Amendola and Julian Edelman two of the 10 highest-paid players on the roster—something that would likely occur if the Pats re-signed Edelman.
The Pats can save money and incur more unknown risk by relying on Amendola, or they can reward Edelman for his breakout 2013 season but worsen their cap situation in the process.
Yes, the Patriots offense would be better in a vacuum with both, but remember the mantra at the beginning of this slideshow. The Pats pride themselves on depth in all facets of the roster, and building that depth would be significantly more difficult with so much money committed to two players who occupy similar roles.
New England could stomach having both in 2014, but they may compromise Tom Brady's receiving corps in the subsequent years. If any of Aaron Dobson, Kenbrell Thompkins or Josh Boyce break out and warrant a big extension, it would be much more difficult to fit those contracts into the budget. Moreover, Rob Gronkowski is due a $10 million option after the 2015 season—one the Pats would surely pick up if he stays healthy over the next two seasons.
It is also fallacious to suggest Edelman is the clearly superior option because of Amendola's injury history. As I have previously pointed out, the two have eerily similar (and discouraging) injury histories. Edelman might be a better option, but it is because of his familiarity with the system and added value as a punt returner, not because he is likelier to stay healthy over the long haul.
Ultimately, the Patriots need to choose. Of all their offseason agendas, the Edelman-Amendola situation has the most far-reaching impact on the long-term cap outlook, making it the most important cap-related decision the Pats will make.