New England Patriots

Patriots Must Use 2016 Offseason to Prepare for Big 2017 Free-Agent Class

New England Patriots outside linebacker Dont'a Hightower (54) and outside linebacker Jamie Collins (91) warm up on the field during an NFL football practice, Thursday, Jan. 21, 2016, in Foxborough, Mass. The Patriots are to play the Denver Broncos in the AFC Championship on Sunday in Denver. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)
Steven Senne/Associated Press
Erik FrenzSenior Writer IJanuary 29, 2016

The New England Patriots don't have a lot to worry about for 2016. It's 2017 where they will have quite a few hurdles to clear.

The only big-name free agents this year are running back LeGarrette Blount, fullback James Develin, defensive tackle Sealver Siliga and defensive end Akiem Hicks. In 2017, though, that list grows a bit. There are a lot of big names to lock up, from Jabaal Sheard to Chandler Jones to Dont'a Hightower to Rob Ninkovich to Logan Ryan to Sebastian Vollmer to Jamie Collins.

This might seem like an easygoing offseason on the surface, but beneath that surface, the wheels have to be in motion to prepare for a major offseason in the near future.

Patriots 2017 key free agents
PlayerPositionCurrent average/yearAge in 2017
Jabaal SheardDE/OLB$5,500,00027
Marcus CannonOT$4,250,00028
Sebastian VollmerOT$4,187,50032
Rob NinkovichDE/OLB$3,500,00032
Brandon LaFellWR$3,000,00030
Scott ChandlerTE$2,650,00031
Alan BranchDT$2,150,00032
Chandler JonesDE$2,043,37526
Matt SlaterWR$2,000,00031
Dont'a HightowerLB$1,931,00126
Jamie CollinsLB$940,25127
Logan RyanCB$693,31325
Duron HarmonS$677,77526
Malcolm ButlerCB$510,00026
Source: OverTheCap.com

Right now, the Patriots are sitting just $4 million below the 2016 salary cap, according to sports contracts website OverTheCap.com. They may not need a lot of cap space now, but they will need some room in order to sign their own draft picks as well as their free agents. Whatever they don't use can be rolled over into the 2017 offseason, when they'll need as much space as they can get.

The Patriots should be thinking of ways to save money for 2017, whether it's shedding dead weight this offseason, signing extensions that will free up money next offseason or even looking ahead to high cap numbers down the line that could help create some wiggle room.

The first move is to make a decision on Jerod Mayo. The veteran linebacker has a $11.4 million cap hit for the 2016 season, and the Patriots could save $7 million of that by cutting him. They could also try to restructure his contract for a second straight offseason. It would make sense for him to take a pay cut, given that this is his third straight year ending the season on injured reserve.

Mayo's cap number in 2017 would be $10.5 million, and if the Patriots move on from Mayo this year, they would save all of that money.

There's also Danny Amendola, who has a $6.8 million cap hit for 2016. The Patriots could save $5.4 million of that by cutting him, but with their lack of depth at wide receiver, it might be better to try to restructure his deal as well—though it would also be a second straight offseason with a restructured contract for Amendola. Right now, his cap hit is set to be higher than both Julian Edelman and Rob Gronkowski

Amendola's cap number in 2017 will be north of $7.8 million unless the Patriots do something to lower that number. Patscap.com believes the seventh-year receiver will indeed restructure his deal:

There's also the possibility that the Patriots could get a jump-start on their 2017 free-agency class this year by signing some key players to early extensions, which could create some additional cap room for 2016. 

In that respect, Chandler Jones and Dont'a Hightower are among the two biggest cap hits in 2016, and an extension for one or both of them could reduce that number while also locking up one of the key players for years to come. Both men are entering the option (fifth) year of their rookie contracts. Going one name down the list, the Patriots could also lock up Jabaal Sheard to a long-term deal. Sheard is 26 years old, just one year older than Jones.

Signing Jamie Collins to a long-term extension would increase his 2016 cap number, but that doesn't mean it shouldn't still be a high priority for the Patriots. Collins is also 26 years old, and has grown as a player in each of his first three years in the league. 

The harsh reality is that the Patriots may not have the room to save all of their key free agents from hitting the open market in 2017, so they will have to prioritize. 

Patriots biggest cap hits, 2016
PlayerPositionCap hit
Tom BradyQB$15,000,000
Jerod MayoLB$11,400,000
Nate SolderOT$10,332,666
Devin McCourtyS$7,937,500
Chandler JonesDE/OLB$7,799,000
Dont'a HightowerLB$7,751,000
Jabaal SheardDE/OLB$6,812,500
Danny AmendolaWR$6,804,166
Rob GronkowskiTE$6,618,750
Sebastian VollmerOT$6,208,334
Source: OverTheCap.com

Rob Ninkovich and Sebastian Vollmer are both on the wrong side of 30, and it would be a shock for either of them to be brought back on a long-term deal at a high contract figure. The Patriots have begun a youth movement with Jones and Sheard at defensive end, and while their efforts to develop talent at offensive tackle have been less successful, Vollmer has been susceptible to injuries throughout his career.

There's also a free-agent class to sift through this year, a draft class (though no first-round pick for the Patriots) to be selected in April and a full year for young players to develop into quality backups or starters at their positions.

The Patriots have plenty of time to sort through their options and find ways to keep their most important players without strapping themselves with bad contracts.

Recently, the Patriots have been good about signing their key players to contracts before they are set to hit the open market. They'll need some more of that foresight if they want to avoid a stressful situation in 2017.

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