Each week I am going around the AFC East with a look at the teams roster and salary cap situation. This week I’ll touch on the New England Patriots. I actually see this as a very big decision making year for the Patriots. The team will have two big cap decisions to make in regards to starting QB Tom Brady and WR Wes Welker. I think one of the underlying themes of the Patriots decisions in 2013 will actually be the effect in 2014 where New England already has almost $106.4 million of committed cap dollars for just 37 players and $62.6 million tied up in their top 6 players. As always all figures and details are presented based on media reports and details that I have been given from various sources, so if there are any big errors please let me know and I will correct them accordingly.
As New England enters the 2013 season I have them estimated around $16.1 million in cap room which ties in with the John Clayton cap report of $18.6 million from a few weeks ago. Clayton’s numbers did not include futures contracts or the salary escalators earned by certain players that are just now being accrued by the league. I like to translate these figures into real numbers so there are some adjustments to take into account. Every team is charged $504,000 at the beginning of free agency for workout payments expected to be earned. Teams also need to set aside money for rookie payments. The Patriots hold the 29th slotted pick in rounds 1-3 as well round 7. They also have the Buccaneers 7th round draft pick. Those 5 selections should cost the team a total of $3,311,620 in cap dollars in 2011 with a high of $1,312,918 for their first round pick all the way down to $416,898 assuming no dramatic changes in the calculations. In terms of net cap space that amounts to about $1.69 million as the draft picks replace the bottom of the current roster. For 2014 the total cost should be $4,065,685, which is also the net figure. So realistically before tenders for RFA’s or franchise players the Patriots as of today are looking at a real cap figure of $14 million with $110.5 million for ¾ of a roster in 2014.
The Patriots have 18 free agents going into the 2013 season of which three are probably of the “key” variety and maybe three others are potential retains. The biggest name is Welker, who the Patriots seemed to try to phase out of the game early before realizing he was the best option they had. Welker played last season on the franchise tag. Because Welker played last season on the franchise tag his tag number this year is $11.418 million. That essentially means tagging Welker eliminates the entire real cap pool that the Patriots have this season. Last year I pegged his value on a long term deal at about $8.25 million a year with a chance to earn a bit more in incentives and I don’t think I would change that number much. Realistically if the Patriots are to keep him and keep a healthy cap they need to do a three year contract to fit him comfortably under the salary cap.
The other two big names would be CB Aqib Talib and RT Sebastian Vollmer. Talib has all kinds of off the field issues but is certainly talented. New England needs talent on their defense but they have always been reluctant to give big dollars to players in the secondary. The secondary market has gone haywire with Jason McCourty getting a deal worth $8.6 million a year from the Titans which I think will make Talib too expensive for the Patriots tastes. Vollmer is a terrific talent and should be in the Patriots long term plans. Even with an injury history he makes sense to keep and can play both tackle positions. While some may consider tagging him, which would cost about $9.8 million, I would think extending him makes much more sense. Right now you can pay him as a right tackle where the top market price for pure right tackles is $6-$6.5 million a year. You can protect the players rights by including base salary escalators if the player switches positions, which allows them the cap room they need now and then pay him his market worth if they make the switch to the left side. To me this is a no brainer.
The contributors who may stick around are CB Kyle Arrington, RB Danny Woodhead, and WR Julian Edelman. I would not expect any of them to cost much money though because of the position Arrington could be lost to a team with more cap room or more desire to spend at the position. The Patriots don’t have any restricted free agents that they would likely tender. A tender would immediately count for $1.323 million on the cap.
The million dollar question is what do the Patriots do with Tom Brady. Last year they restructured his contract to gain operating cap room, but it is now time to pay the bill as his cap has risen from about $18 million to $21.8 million in both 2013 and 2014. The team has two options. They could approach Brady again about a restructure, but with just one year remaining on his contract past 2013 could they really gain much? Brady is set to earn $15 million in cash payments in 2013, of which they could turn $14 million or so into a prorated bonus if they desired. That would save the team $7 million in cap room but blow his 2014 figure up to an astronomical $28.5 million. They could convert his $5 million dollar roster bonus into a signing bonus and free up $2.5 million which is more reasonable, but does little to the overall cap in 2013. What makes things even more risky with such a move is that Brady’s 2014 salary fully guarantees if he is on the roster for the final regular season game of the 2013 season so there is no out at all from the $28.5 million number the next year. With Brady approaching 36 years of age he may not want to restructure and instead look for a new contract to give the team cap relief.
A new contract gives New England more breathing room, but by doing that they will commit to Brady until he is probably 42 years old adding 5 years onto his current contract. With Drew Brees earning $100 million over 5 years that’s the market he has to earn. With 2 years and $30 million remaining you are looking at a deal that will measure 7 years and $130+ million with over $40 million in firm guarantees. I think it’s a decision the Patriots need to make this year because the longer they delay it the more difficult it becomes to justify with the age and the cap hits. Waiting until 38 just doesn’t seem like an option unless they feel that they can shortchange him by waiting the two years. If not they have until mid June to try to reduce his cap charges, but his 2014 salary guarantees after the final game of the 2013 season. I can’t picture Brady in another uniform, but it just feels like this is the year they have to really extend an elite player if they plan on doing it. If they don’t they are probably banking on Brady not going out in free agency in 2 years and just signing with the highest bidder.
The Patriots are extremely cap heavy in their top 3 players, which are Brady, G Logan Mankins, and NT Vince Wilfork, who take up $42.4 million in cap space. Mankins has 4 years remaining on his contract and is probably a candidate to restructure to gain cap room. By reducing his salary to $825,000 this year and guaranteeing his workout bonus they gain $3.675 million in cap space while only adding $1.5 million to the 2014 cap number. That would seem like a no-brainer type move. Wilfork is another interesting case. Wilfork only has two years left on his current contract and trading him saves the team $3.4 million dollars in cap room and removes $11.6 million from the books in 2014. While on its face it sounds like a crazy idea, and Wilfork has never been a problem about his contract the way others have been, the Patriots way has always been to sell high when everyone least expects it. To me this fits the bill and if not this year then next. If they would consider trading him next year the Patriots would be wise to guarantee a portion of his 2014 base salary and shift a corresponding amount of salary from 2013 into 2014. The could probably save $3 million in cap room by doing that and force that $3 million dollar bill onto another team next season.
Beyond that group the Patriots have limited options for cap relief. Brandon Lloyd is due a $3 million dollar option bonus which the Patriots should be able to decline by releasing him. That would save the team $2 million in cap room. Jerod Mayo has one of the higher cap hits on the team both minimal pay in 2013, meaning he can’t do much to help the team with its cap. Releasing K Stephen Gostkowki saves $1.8 million on cap while the release of LB Rob Ninkovich saves $1.5 million. In general I’m not sure these moves would be productive at all.
The Patriots are in a bit of a strange position. Their contractual decisions the last few years have really had a negative impact on the team. On one hand they are very progressive with their planning by locking up players like Aaron Hernandez, Rob Gronkowski, and Jerod Mayo where they get them in their prime years at reasonable costs with low walk away costs later on and they have always sold high on players like Richard Seymour, but the bad decisions have been out of hand. The Patriots went into last seasons opening game with around $18 million in dead money and already have $4.5 million in dead money in 2013, assuming no recovery was made on the Jonathan Fanene contract, before the season even begins. Numbers like this don’t even include the completely wasted costs on past players like Shaun Ellis, given a $4 million dollar deal when his next best offer seemed to be a qualifying contract from the Jets, Chad Ochocinco, $2.583 million in 2011 and still counting all the way in 2013, and Fanene who never played even a preseason down for the team. Sometimes we turn a blind eye because of the results every year, which are 12-14 wins, but the underlying numbers show a team that would have likely had more playoff success had that money been spent in a better manner. To clear out that kind of dead money last year and still only be within $15 million of the cap with big free agents waiting to be tagged is not what should happen. The cap room should be double that figure.
In fairness I think you have to view the Patriots as a win now team with a window only open as long as Brady can keep playing at this level. It puts a team in a position where they may have to make some moves that are not in the best long term interests of the franchise to try to get one last championship in the Brady era. But that bill is coming due very soon. In hindsight not extending Welker proved to be a mistake. He wasn’t asking for obscene money and the Patriots refused to give in. That decision has probably cost them at least $5 million in cap room this year. Maybe restructuring Brady last year to bring in a handful of mid level guys was not the best decision either.
I think whatever you see them do with Brady will tell you a lot about what they think of the long term prospects for the team. If Brady does in fact restructure to create some cap room I have to think that they view this as a two year window where they will deal with Brady’s enormous cap hit in 2014 when they get there. If they do give him that payday they will probably build to make a run over the next 4 years and do whatever they can to start getting pieces in place on the defense and maybe even make a few changes on offense removing Lloyd and Welker from the equation and getting a bigger name player in free agency. If everything remains status quo I would not expect a big spending year out of the Patriots and they will most likely go into next year relying on the continued growth from their 2012 draft picks and contributions from the 2013 class to be the additional help that Brady needs to win a Super Bowl in 2013.