The Patriots got an unexpected bit of good news last week, receiving a salary cap credit of $6.55 million as a result of settling outstanding compensation grievances with ex-Patriot Antonio Brown and the estate of the late Aaron Hernandez.
For the cash-strapped Patriots, such an announcement was a fortuitous occasion, considering the salary cap gymnastics they would have had to perform to create some more wiggle room underneath the cap for the 2020 season. Now, according to Patriots cap expert Miguel Benzan, the team has $7,794,739 in cap space to work with.
For a team that had to wait for Cam Newton to drastically reduce his asking price before they could afford to bring him onboard, having nearly $8 million in cap space now gives the Patriots the ability to sign a veteran free agent, or swing a trade for a player who could help the team in 2020. Alternatively, they could decide to stand pat and do nothing.
The following are some ideas for how New England can leverage its newfound financial flexibility to improve its team for 2020.
Sign Jadeveon Clowney
The last time New England pushed all of its chips in the middle of the table to go all in for a season was in 2014, when it signed cornerback Darrelle Revis to a one-year, $12 million deal with an option for a second year at $20 million. It worked out pretty well, to put it mildly, as Revis helped elevate the Patriots’ defense to an elite level, and was a key piece of 2014’s Super Bowl-winning team.
With each day that passes with free agent edge defender Jadeveon Clowney on the open market, the possibility of Clowney taking a one year “prove it”-type deal with a contender to re-establish his market value becomes increasingly likely.
The Patriots lack a real threat on the edges of their defense right now from a pass-rushing perspective. Chase Winovich, who showed promise as a rookie, and veteran edge defender John Simon are the likely starters, and are certainly no slouches as pass-rushers, but the Patriots defense lacks a true game-changer on its defensive line. While the New England secondary is still one of the best in the league, the defensive line could use a boost.
Adding Clowney for one year would likely require some cap maneuvering still, but with $7.9 million to work with now, the Patriots can offer the former Seattle Seahawk the chance to learn under Bill Belichick for a year, and be put in the best position to succeed on the field, at a modest salary level for a player of his caliber. A productive 2020 could help reset Clowney’s market and put him in a better position to cash in in 2021.
Clowney is the kind of hybrid edge rusher who would wreak havoc in New England’s defensive scheme, similar to what Chandler Jones did when he was with the Patriots. With his combination of length and power, Clowney is a force against the run as well as the pass, and could be used like a chess piece by Belichick, lining up in several positions on the defensive line as a Patriot.
Clowney’s presence would allow Winovich to slot back in as a situational pass rusher, the role he did well in as a rookie, and would provide some much-needed oomph on the New England D-line.
According to NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport, however, such a move is considered unlikely, because in Rapoport’s words, “I think Clowney would just like to make a lot of money. […] I don’t think he would take just a short, tiny deal from the Patriots.”
Sign Tim Jernigan
The Patriots are still thin at defensive tackle heading into 2020. Lawrence Guy is still one of the better defensive tackles in the NFL, but after that, the team has Beau Allen, who was signed to replace Danny Shelton, Adam Butler, an undersized player for his position, and a collection of unproven players behind them.
Jernigan, 27, had a deal with the Texans fall through earlier this offseason, after spending the last three seasons as a member of the Philadelphia Eagles. While also on the smaller side for his position, like Butler, at 6-feet-2-inches, 295 pounds, Jernigan has some versatility and would improve the team’s depth at defensive tackle.
As a member of the 2017 Eagles team that won the Super Bowl, Jernigan started 15 games, registering 34 tackles, 18 quarterback pressures, and 2.5 sacks in 492 snaps. He suffered a broken foot in 2019, causing him to miss six games, which led to a decline in production, only making 10 tackles and two sacks.
Houston originally signed Jernigan for one year at $3.75 million this offseason. With Jernigan still unsigned this late in the offseason, New England could look to sign him for even less to bolster its defensive line.
Trade for David Njoku
Yes, the Patriots selected two tight ends in this year’s NFL Draft, but Belichick has a knack for trading for talented players when their value is at a low point, and Njoku certainly fits that category, having played just 99 offensive snaps over four games in 2019 due to an injured wrist.
For a team that is lacking red zone targets for whoever starts at quarterback, Njoku would help greatly in that area. Still just 24 years old, the 6-foot-4-inch, 247-pound tight end runs well for his size and has good hands. He would immediately become the top option on the depth chart at the tight end position for New England, and his presence would help rookie tight ends Dalton Keene and Devin Asiasi develop and learn at a more reasonable pace in 2020.
The likeliest scenario, and the most fiscally conservative option, is to sit tight and make no moves with their newfound cash flow.
Every NFL season brings with it uncertainty in many forms. Players could show signs of decline, or get injured, and team flaws that weren’t apparent in training camp could need to be addressed in-season.
Despite being the least entertaining of the options at the team’s disposal, the smartest thing to do, especially with the league finances looking shaky due to economic effects from the coronavirus, is to carry the cap space into the season.
If the team is in contention at the midseason point, it could make sense to swing a trade for an offensive weapon to help down the stretch. If so, any upgrade wouldn’t likely come cheap, and the team should maintain a financial buffer to allow itself some flexibility if such a need arises.
Uncertainty over how badly the league’s revenue will be affected by the coronavirus will lead to many teams needing to make difficult financial decisions in 2020 and beyond. While the Patriots will be flush with cap space heading into 2021 (although the exact amount depends on how the cap is impacted by decreases in revenue during the 2020 season), there is a chance that the cap for 2020 could still be affected, if reports from Friday that the NFL proposed a $40 million reduction in the 2020 salary cap are true. This gives even more reason to stand pat and not make any moves to prepare for the economic hits that the league and its teams will soon be taking on.