Getting fiscally fit
A look at the economics of the Pats off-season
Each Patriots off-season over the last few years has seemingly had a theme. Last season, for example, it was about aggressiveness. The Patriots jumped out early and landed some top targets in free agency, a group headlined by linebacker Adalius Thomas.
When considering this year's theme, I came up with two choices: 1) The return of Randy Moss; 2) The role that economics play in today's NFL.
The more I considered economics, the more the thought gained momentum as to how I view the Patriots' approach this off-season.
Mainly, it's the idea that having the No. 7 overall pick -- and budgeting for the exorbitant cost of that -- has dictated the team's free-agent approach.
Consider that if the Patriots keep the No. 7 pick, they will be paying a prospect about $18 million in bonuses and guarantees. That's more than they just paid for Moss, who by my calculations received $14.1 million in bonuses and guarantees.
So looking solely at Moss and the No. 7 pick alone, that's $32 million in bonuses and guarantees on two players. It's no wonder the Patriots have been relatively quiet in free agency, working to build depth with lower-cost signings.
In the final analysis, the more I thought about it, having the No. 7 pick has handcuffed the team in some ways.
While some might counter that view by looking at the Jets and saying, "They have the No. 6 pick and they still opened the free-agent vault,'' I'd put the Jets in the exception category. Their spending spree is near unprecedented, and dangerous in the sense that it could negatively impact the ability to sustain a strong team over a consistent period of time.
With that in mind, transitioning into this week's mailbag, there are quite a few questions that tie into the economic side of football.
Mike, do you think the Pats might trade down from the 7 spot. If so, then whom would they trade with?
Jeremy, Manchester, N.H.
A: Jeremy, I think the Patriots will work hard to shop the pick, but they're not alone. It seems more and more, every year, teams are trying to move out of the Top 10 range, but fewer teams want to move up because of the exorbitant cost of the picks. You make a bad pick in the Top 10 and it can handcuff your team for a few years. As far as possible trade partners, Dallas, with two first-round selections, should get a lot of calls from teams looking to move down. I'd also put teams potentially looking for a quarterback on the radar, such as Carolina (13), Chicago (14), Detroit (15), and maybe even Tampa Bay (20). A lot will depend on how the draft unfolds. Interestingly, Boston College quarterback Matt Ryan could be indirectly tied to what type of market the Patriots potentially see for their No. 7 pick. If there is one position teams will trade up for, it's probably quarterback. If Ryan is available at 7, that would figure to drum up some action for the pick.
Now that the draft is almost here, I looked up the trade value chart and found out that the No. 7 pick is worth 1,500 points. The Cowboys have Nos. 22 and 28 worth 1,440 points, which leaves 60 points left over. The 60 points would be the No. 117 pick in the fourth round. Is that at all a good trade?
A: I think the Patriots would be fortunate to get that much for the No. 7 pick, Matthew. That trade value chart was created before the salaries for Top 10 picks escalated to the levels they are now, and thus I don't feel it's the best barometer for gauging the current trade market because it doesn't factor in the economic risk of making a Top 10 pick. Dan Pompei of the Chicago Tribune wrote about this topic last week, noting how the high salaries at the top of the draft have been a major point of discussion between owners and the players' union.
Some Internet reports are speculating that the Oakland Raiders may remove the franchise tag from DB Nnamdi Asomugha. If so, does that open him up to the other teams in the league? Would the Patriots have interest? How much cap room do they have left?
A: Hi, Kevin. Here are some answers from this view: 1) If the Raiders remove the tag on Asomugha, he would be free to sign with any team; 2) I do think the Patriots would have interest, but I question how aggressively they could pursue him given their cap situation; 3) The Patriots are about $10 million under the salary cap, which they'll need a significant chunk of to sign draft picks, especially the No. 7 selection, while also leaving themselves flexibility for the future; 4) The Patriots could always move some money around by restructuring an existing contract, which is a reminder that the cap is fluid. Asomugha is the type of player who would warrant consideration to do that with; 5) From a big-picture standpoint, this is the type of situation that reflects why some teams like to leave themselves with an abundance of cap space, so they have flexibility to make moves, or be in position to make moves if a player like Asomugha becomes available.
If Darren McFadden falls to the No. 7 spot, what are the chances that the Pats will take him? Also, if Pats see only value in Gholston, then why don't they trade up and get him?
A: In the end, I don't think McFadden will be on the Patriots' draft board, so I'm going to rate it as a zero-percent chance, Rajesh. Talking with scouts who have studied McFadden a lot closer than I have, I have found there are just too many off-field questions. So I don't believe he's a consideration for New England. As for Gholston and a possible trade up, that would also seem unlikely from this view. The prices are quite high at the top of the draft, and I think the team is more apt to trade down than up if it is seeking true value.
Assuming the Pats don't trade their No. 7 pick, do you think they might surprise people and take a best-player-available type of pick and take offensive tackle Ryan Clady? I don't see this as necessary, but it seems like something Belichick and Pioli would do.
A: Nothing would surprise me, Brett, although I don't think Clady will have a high enough rating on the Patriots' board to go No. 7. While it was only one opinion, I did ask one personnel evaluator who has studied Clady a lot closer than I have and was told he wouldn't be a good fit in New England. Of course, the only opinions that ultimately matter are Scott Pioli's and Bill Belichick's, and I don't know what they're thinking regarding Clady. Overall, the reason I say nothing will surprise me is that I've tried to narrow things down in the past and been burned. In 2005, I said "We don't know who the Patriots will select in the first round, but we can assume -- based on their past history and the way they view the position -- that it won't be a guard." Then they took Logan Mankins. Since that point, I've taken the nothing-will-surprise-me approach.
Assuming the Pats somehow, some way don't trade their pick, and Vernon Gholston isn't there, what CB have you heard the Patriots are looking at the most? I would love to see McKelvin or Rodgers -- Cromartie taken by the Pats.
A: I haven't heard a peep as to how the Patriots rank the cornerbacks, but what I can share, Alexander, is the thoughts of a few scouts who have studied the cornerbacks a lot more closely than I have. They tell me that Talib is the top corner, but teams must get comfortable with some off-field questions if they are to select him. They like his size (6-1, 202) and athletic ability, as it's hard to find big corners these days. McKelvin would be second. Jenkins was deemed to be a bit up and down, while Rodgers-Cromartie was put into the riser category, a player who is picking up momentum because of his combine workouts. The constant theme I hear is that this is a deep corner draft, so it's a good time to be looking to stock up in that area.
Should the Patriots' drafting strategy be under the microscope given the lack of 'immediate' production of the past two drafts?
Shriram, Chennai, India
A: I guess it depends which way you look at it, Shriram. I can see someone saying the 2007 draft produced only Brandon Meriweather, but I'd argue otherwise. Wes Welker (acquired for a second-round pick) and Randy Moss (acquired for a fourth-round pick) also were part of that haul, and cornerback Mike Richardson (sixth round) still has a chance. Meanwhile, the 2006 draft looks fine to me, so I wouldn't lump that one in there. Overall, when assessing the Patriots' draft history under the Scott Pioli/Bill Belichick regime, you'd have to look pretty hard to find clubs who consistently rate as highly as they do. I'm not saying they don't make their share of mistakes (Bethel Johnson comes to mind), but the track record -- when compared with others -- speaks for itself.
In retrospect, the Patriots were in position to draft David Harris last year. After Patrick Willis, there was a big dropoff in inside linebacker prospects. Harris, a second-round pick, did so well with the Jets that they were able to trade Jonathan Vilma for two draft picks. Did the Patriots make a bad decision by not taking Harris? Speros, Salem
A: I think the answer to this one, Speros, will come when we see what Brandon Meriweather contributes to the team this year and beyond. If Meriweather emerges as a Top 3 safety, I don't think it could be said that it was a mistake to draft him over Harris. The Patriots would have had to take Harris at the 24th spot of the first round, or at 28, the pick they traded to the 49ers (which also netted the pick to acquire Randy Moss). I appreciate you bringing it up, as I always enjoy looking back on the way drafts unfolded and wondering whether teams made the right choice after seeing the rookies play a few seasons.
What about trading the No. 7 pick for DeAngelo Hall? Deion Sanders has said he really is a good teammate, and no one came out of Atlanta last year looking sane. Or maybe even a second-rounder? The guy is the fastest DB in football -- as we have learned, winning changes a lot of players' attitudes. He once said on the radio that the hardest person he ever covered in NFL was Randy Moss -- a freak of nature: strong, fast, and big. Or maybe if we traded down with Dallas and got a couple more picks and still traded for him, that would help. We need a corner who can cover to allow our pass rush to develop. Asante always played too far off his guy so the dumpoffs were always there -- and we need a linebacker who can cover a back/tight end.
A: I see two issues that wouldn't make it a possibility, Rick. First, any team acquiring Hall is going to have to pay him an Asante Samuel-like contract. I don't see the Patriots doing that. Second, Hall is a player who showed up at the NFL combine on his own this year and held an impromptu press conference to basically rip the Falcons. It just struck me as the type of move that did not reflect well on the player, and because of that and other incidents regarding Hall, I just don't think the Patriots would be interested in him.
What has happened to Adam Seward? Are the Pats not interested? Also there appears to be little talent left for the defensive backfield (Ty Law?) in free agency, so where will the help come from -- the draft? Even younger linebackers who fit the Pats scheme seem few and far between. Am I missing something or do the Pats have a talent we are not aware of?
Chuck, Temple, N.H.
A: I still think there is interest in Seward, but nothing is imminent. The Panthers started their off-season program Monday, so Seward is proceeding as a member of the Panthers. I thought an offer would be forthcoming from the Patriots, but the interest wasn't as intense as I thought it would be. This might be a stretch, but it looks to me that economics could be playing a role in the situation. Until the Patriots have a more clear economic picture -- which will be more apparent after the draft -- I could see them holding pat. In terms of help for the defensive backfield, I'd say the top source will be the draft as cornerback is probably the deepest position (along with offensive tackle). There are still options in free agency -- I'll be interested to see what happens with Law specifically -- and the trade market is always a possibility. At linebacker, there seem to be some more options in free agency, so what I envision happening is that the team sees what it comes up with in the draft, then fills in the remaining areas through free agency.
Since everyone knows the Patriots need linebackers, many had assumed that the Pats and former Steelers 'backer Clark Haggans was a natural fit. Yet, I don't recall ever reading if Haggans has made a visit. Do you know if the Patriots are interested in him?
A: Haggans has not made a visit to New England, Mike. At this time, the Patriots have not expressed interest in that regard. Haggans is reportedly visiting with the Browns this week.
Hey Mike, last week there were a lot of questions on Takeo Spikes. My thoughts: While being on several good teams, his squads have never made the playoffs. And besides being a jinx, I personally don't think he's a good fit for the 3-4. Just call it a hunch.
Craig, Southington, Conn.
A: From what I understand, the Patriots feel the same way, Craig. There is no interest in Spikes.
Mike, although Colvin's stock fell in my eyes this year, mostly due to his mouth and unsportsmanlike attitude on the field (Hobbs is another offender in this category), I was surprised by his release as he seemed to be playing at a high level until the injury. Any news on why he was released? Was he more injured than we knew or is he just too expensive for the production the Pats would receive?
Jeff, New Ipswich, N.H.
A: Hi, Jeff. I think it was a combination of the two. His salary cap charge of $7.6 million was too rich to absorb, plus you have a situation where he is coming off an injury and can't pass a physical right now (hence the lack of activity for Colvin on the market). The Patriots could have asked for him to take a pay cut, but then you get into a sticky situation like what happened with linebacker Takeo Spikes in Philadelphia, where there are some hard feelings. So the idea is to just make a clean break.
Why aren't the Patriots showing interest in Al Wilson? He is fast, has good size and experience, and is one of the hardest guys to block and will come cheap.
Nishan, Auckland, New Zealand
A: Nishan, any team looking at Wilson right now has to be comfortable from a health/injury perspective. I don't have any inside information on the Patriots' feelings on Wilson, but my feeling is that their lack of interest is tied to that aspect of things.
Mike, what is the penalty for exceeding the salary cap? In the MLB league you pay a fine that doesn't deter teams, like the Yankees as an example.
A: Teams can never exceed the salary cap, William, as all contracts must be filed with the NFL. A contract will be rejected if it means the team has gone over the cap. That is partially why reports surfaced Monday night that the Falcons-Raiders trade for DeAngelo Hall has stalled. The Raiders are tight to the salary cap and must create some space for Hall.
Hey Mike, did Bill Belichick make a cameo appearance in the show "Rescue Me"? I know Denis Leary's a big Boston sports fan, as Cam Neely has been in previous episodes; is Bill a fan of the show?
A: Hi, Tim. You're thinking back to 2006 when Belichick did appear on the show. A Google search popped up this article from WBZ-TV on the appearance.
Do you know when the 2008 schedule comes out? I know last year it was on April 12th. I'm very interested in going to the Pats/49ers game in San Francisco if the game is during September or October.
A: The NFL has not officially announced the date, Mario. At one point, there was an item on NFL.com that April 3 would be the date, but I have not been able to confirm that. An April 3 release would be a bit early for the schedule to come out. Mid-April is usually the range for the schedule release.