How quickly we all forget how difficult it is for wide receivers to get acclimated in the New England Patriots offense.
During the 2016 offseason thus far, the focus has shifted heavily to the players whose contracts don't appear to match up with their value. For the Patriots, two of those players are wide receivers: Danny Amendola, set to count $6.8 million against the 2016 salary cap, and Brandon LaFell, whose 2016 cap number is $3.675 million.
The Patriots could save more than $4 million by cutting Amendola and $2 million by cutting LaFell. But should they?
If possible, it would be better if the Patriots found a way to renegotiate, extend or rework Amendola and LaFell's contracts to make them more affordable. It might mean they have to make provisions at other positions, but the value of receivers who are experienced in the Patriots offense is markedly higher than the value of other positions.
Want proof? Look at the parade of receivers who have used Gillette Stadium as a revolving door, no sooner entering the spinning apparatus than they are spit out on the other side.
Veterans such as Chad Johnson and Joey Galloway, as well as young draft picks such as Brandon Tate, Taylor Price, and Josh Boyce, were not necessarily lacking talent but more so the acumen to pull off the mental gymnastics of the Patriots offense—as well as the process of building rapport and trust with quarterback Tom Brady.
It's worth investing in receivers to avoid the headache of trying to find new ones.
According to Tom Curran of CSN New England, the Patriots are on-board with the line of thinking and are unlikely to cut Amendola. LaFell's future, however, is a little less certain. He was virtually a nonfactor in the AFC Championship Game with a season-low 33 snaps, according to Pro Football Focus; he had the fewest snaps in that game of any receiver on the team besides special teams ace Matthew Slater.
It feels like this is the point at which the tired cliche "the writing is on the wall" should be brought out, but it's really not. He had a bad case of the drops in 2015 (10 led the team), but LaFell had a great season in 2014—perhaps the best first year by a free-agent wide receiver in New England in the Belichick era, and perhaps the best year for an X-receiver not named Randy Moss in the Belichick era.
Beyond that, who would take his place on the current roster? Keshawn Martin made some progress in 2015, but he's never been more than a complementary piece throughout his career—but then again, so had Julian Edelman until 2013.
Other than Martin becoming a starting-caliber receiver, the Patriots have two options: draft someone or sign a free agent.
Each presents a problem. They don't have a first-round pick to draft a truly top-end wide receiver (not that they would have been able to get one at the 29th overall pick, anyway). And if they sign a free-agent receiver, they might end up paying him a contract similar to LaFell's in addition to the dead money they would owe LaFell in that hypothetical situation.
The Patriots' track record with mid-round wide receivers has not been great (Tate, Price, etc.), and most of the viable replacement candidates, such as Cincinnati Bengals receiver Marvin Jones and New York Giants wide receiver Rueben Randle, will be out of the Patriots' price range.
It's not as easy as cutting bait with old players to sign new ones. The Patriots have to have a backup plan in place if they're going to get rid of someone. Right now, they have no stable backup plan for releasing Amendola, LaFell or both.
Their contracts may be a little overvalued, relative to other players on the team, but they have both demonstrated a level of knowledge of the Patriots offense that hasn't always been present at that position.
Jerod Mayo's retirement gives the Patriots $7 million in cap space, which leaves them with an estimated $10 million in cap space. The Patriots could use a little breathing room—they'll need roughly $5 million to sign their draft picks, and they'll want to have some money left over for free-agent signings and an in-season emergency fund as well.
But what are the aforementioned "other positions" where the Patriots can make provisions?
One of the most disproportionate contracts on the roster is Marcus Cannon's. The backup right tackle is slated to count $4.75 million against the salary cap in 2016, which ranks him 31st in the NFL. That should, at the very least, make him a starting tackle. When both Sebastian Vollmer and Nate Solder are healthy, though, Cannon is firmly on the bench.
Thus, there's also the possibility of looking into Vollmer's contract. With a $6.2 million cap hit and only $2 million in dead money if they cut him, the Patriots could save a lot by cutting Vollmer, but that would entail making Cannon a starting tackle—not a pleasant proposition given his performance in 2015 (52nd out of 75 offensive tackles in pass protection).
Long story short: There are other options the Patriots could consider instead of eliminating one or two of their most experienced receivers from the payroll. If possible, the Patriots should try to hang onto at least one of them.
If not, the Patriots could find themselves in transition once again, as their 38-year-old franchise quarterback nears the end of his career.
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