7 ways for the Patriots to create more cap space

What are some moves the team can make to create some financial wiggle room in 2020?

Joe Thuney Patriots Lineman NFL
Should the Patriots trade Joe Thuney? –AP Photo/Darron Cummings

COMMENTARY

As the Patriots move to sign their entire draft class, one issue the team is running into is available cap space to slot their draft picks into. As it currently stands, according to top Patriots salary cap expert Miguel Benzan (@patscap), the team has just $708,618 left in cap space for 2020. That’s not enough room to sign their top draft pick, Kyle Dugger, whose 2020 cap number will be $1,514,891, according to Benzan.

Salary cap space is also likely one of the reasons why New England has not made any moves to bring in another veteran quarterback to compete with Jarrett Stidham and Brian Hoyer for the starting job this summer. The team had no flexibility to make a strong offer to Andy Dalton after he was released by the Bengals, despite being reportedly interested in the veteran signal caller, and would have to make several maneuvers to add enough space to sign free agent quarterback Cam Newton.

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Compounding New England’s sticky financial situation right now is the effect that games being delayed or cancelled could have on the 2021 salary cap. If games are played without fans, or even delayed/canceled, the league salary cap for the 2021 season could be reduced drastically, due to a reduction in revenue for the league and its teams.

Jason Fitzgerald of Over the Cap wrote an informative article detailing how the 2021 cap could be affected by the coronavirus pandemic. According to Fitzgerald, the cap could drop “anywhere from $40 million from projections to $85 million from projections for 2021.”

New England has a lot of money coming off its books in 2021, when it is currently projected to have close to $100 million in cap space to work with. A reduction in the salary cap, however, would limit the team’s ability to rework its roster next year, as it looks to build a new foundation of talent to usher in a new era of Patriots football.

So the Patriots are faced with two problems:

  1. Entering 2020 with enough salary cap room to sign their draft class and be able to field a competitive team from start to finish
  2. Needing to account for a potentially devastating reduction in the 2021 salary cap for all NFL teams that could have significant ramifications in the free agent market both players and teams.

So what are some moves the team can make to create some financial wiggle room in 2020, and also protect themselves in the event of a salary cap reduction in 2021?

Trade or extend Joe Thuney

After signing his franchise tag tender, Thuney is on the Patriots’ books for a $14 million cap hit in 2020, a steep increase from the $803,000 average annual salary he made on his rookie contract.

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With Shaq Mason already taking up a good amount of cap space in 2020 with a cap hit of $9.6 million, the Patriots would be wise to lower Thuney’s cap hit in some form or fashion.

The quickest way to do that would be through a trade, although the chances of that happening were higher before the draft, when the team could have received draft compensation in exchange. Trading Thuney would free up $14 million in cap space with no dead money, and would provide all the financial flexibility the team needs for 2020 in one fell swoop.

Now, however, an extension is the best option for the team. New England could offer Thuney a long-term deal with a lower base salary, coupled with a big signing bonus that could be spread out over the course of the deal, which would lower the annual cap hit for Thuney.

Extend Stephon Gilmore

The reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year carries an enormous cap hit of $18.7 million for 2020, in part because the team already restructured his contract in 2019, converting $8.5 million of Gilmore’s salary into a signing bonus.

The team would be best served by extending Gilmore, who is 29, by a few more years, to spread out that cap hit, and reduce that inflated 2020 cap number. An extension for Gilmore would lock up one of the cornerstones of the Patriots defense for years to come, and help improve the team’s cap room as well.

Restructure Mohamed Sanu’s contract

Sanu, 31, was thought to be a candidate to be released or traded this offseason after a disappointing 2020 season with the Patriots, coupled with the fact that the team can trade or release him and his $6.5 million 2020 cap hit without incurring any dead money.

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Recent comments made by Bill Belichick after the NFL Draft seemed to indicate that the team is going to be counting on Sanu as part of the team’s receiver corps in 2020.

“I think that will be a very good group,” Belichick said, when asked about the team’s receiving corps. “There’s a lot of different ways and times to build your team. The draft is one of them. As I mentioned, whether it’s Sanu or free agents signing like [Damiere] Byrd, whatever the case might be, there’s multiple ways to build your roster, and this is one of them.”

With that being said, Sanu’s level of production, combined with his age and injury history, make him an overpriced player with his base salary of $6.5 million. With the team needing financial relief, and Sanu unlikely to get that much money from another NFL team if he were to be released, a contract restructure for 2020, with a lower salary included, makes sense for both sides.

Extend Lawrence Guy

Guy, 30, was a home run free agent signing by Belichick in 2017. Guy, who was just named to the Patriots’ All-Decade Team, showed in 2019 that he still has plenty of good football left in him, and with depth on the Patriots’ defensive line weak right now, it would be smart to lock up one your starting tackles.

Ripping up the last year of Guy’s contract for 2020 and replacing it with a two- or three-year extension with a lower cap hit in 2020 would benefit both sides.

Restructure Shaq Mason’s contract

Like Gilmore, Mason is a high-salary player who has already restructured his contract with the team once already. In October, the team created $1.4 million in cap space by converting $1.75 million of Mason’s base salary into a signing bonus, clearing the way for the team to acquire Sanu from the Falcons.

A second contract restructure this offseason would help the team again. Mason has a base salary of $5 million in 2020, and by converting $3 million of that base salary into a signing bonus, New England could give themselves $3 million in 2020 cap space while spreading out that same amount over the next three years of Mason’s contract.

Extend Dont’a Hightower

After dealing with several injuries at the start of the contract he signed in 2017, Hightower, 30, has shown improved ability in staying healthy on the field, and is one of the leaders of the Patriots defense. With the team lacking a successor for Hightower at his position currently, the team should try and extend the physical thumper and lower his cap hit for 2020 in the process by offering an extension with a low base salary for 2020, escalating salaries in the following years, and a $6-7 million signing bonus.

Consider releasing players with non-guaranteed contracts with one year left on deal

As detailed in Fitzgerald’s piece on Over the Cap, as teams prepare for a scenario with a reduced salary cap in 2021, one way for them to preserve some level of cap space in 2021 without needing to make drastic player cuts is to get in front of those cuts now by releasing some players with non-guaranteed contracts who are free agents after this season. This strategy will be the most effective way to carry over some cap space into 2021, and as Fitzgerald writes, “If there is no season, there is no reason to even consider paying players in the last year of their contract if their contracts will expire anyway.”

Players like Rex Burkhead ($2.9 million in cap savings), Brandon Bolden ($1.5 million), Matt LaCosse ($1.3 million), or Jason McCourty ($3.8 million) are all players who are free agents after the 2020 season who could be cap casualties in order for New England to create a financial buffer of sorts as the league enters uncertain financial times due to the coronavirus.

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