The Patriots announced last night they declined to exercise the 2004 option on running back Antowain Smith, making him a free agent.
The $500,000 payment was due one week after the season. Smith, who will turn 32 next month, was scheduled to receive $2.4 million in base salary next year, the third of a five-year, $20 million contract he signed in March 2002.
The team's leading rusher each of the past three seasons, Smith also carried a cap charge of $3.972 million. By declining the option, New England will absorb a cap hit of $2.025 million -- the remaining prorated portion of Smith's $3.375 million signing bonus. That equals a savings of close to $2 million on next year's cap, estimated to be around $79 million. Smith could re-sign with the team later in the offseason, but it's unlikely the Patriots would sign him to a new deal on top of the $2 million in "dead money" from Smith's old contract.
New England could have kept Smith for at least another season by picking up the option, guaranteeing part of his 2004 base salary, and prorating it over the remaining three years of the contract, thereby lowering his cap number. But apparently the Patriots decided that a $3 million commitment for next year was too much for Smith, who gained 83 yards and scored a touchdown on 26 carries in New England's 32-29 win over the Carolina Panthers in Super Bowl XXXVIII Feb. 1.
"In his three seasons with the Patriots, Antowain played a significant role in our team's overall success," coach Bill Belichick said in a release. "He is a true professional. On behalf of the entire organization, we wish him continued success in the future."
Smith helped New England win two championships in three seasons. Signed in June 2001 after four seasons with the Bills, he helped carry the Patriots to their first title by rushing for 1,157 yards and 12 touchdowns that year, and the team rewarded him with a long-term contract. Last season Smith ran for 982 yards and six touchdowns. He began this season splitting time with Kevin Faulk but came on strong down the stretch and finished the regular season with a team-high 642 yards.
The decision leaves the Patriots with one running back under contract -- fullback Fred McCrary. Larry Centers, Michael Cloud, Patrick Pass, and Faulk all are unrestricted free agents. Centers may retire after 14 seasons.
New England, still an estimated $2 million over the cap, will address the running back position in free agency, which begins next month, or April's draft, in which they have seven selections in the first four rounds, including Nos. 21 and 32 overall.