Q&A: Pro Football Focus cap expert Brad Spielberger talks state of the Patriots, big offseason questions

How will Bill Belichick and the Patriots build on their surprising 2021 season? And will they retain one of their biggest budding stars for the long haul?

J.C. Jackson Patriots
New England Patriots J.C. Jackson intercepts a pass intended for Jacksonville Jaguars' receiver Tavon Austin. (AP Photo/Paul Connors)

Whether not they’re true contenders, the Patriots will officially be in the hunt for a Super Bowl title in a few weeks when the playoffs begin, which is a welcome sight after missing the postseason last year.

But they also have a big 2022 offseason ahead of them that includes big decisions on important players like star cornerback J.C. Jackson, and a need to build around rookie quarterback Mac Jones.

How will Bill Belichick and the Patriots follow up last March’s epic free-agent spending spree and stellar draft in a couple of months? broke down the Patriots’ most pressing future questions with Brad Spielberger, a salary cap analyst with Pro Football Focus. Here are highlights of the interview, lightly edited for clarity.

Now that the Patriots have made the playoffs, can we say their record spending spree in free agency was money well-spent?

The reason for this resurgence it’s more the fact that the last two draft classes now have produced some really good players. Mac Jones obviously is a big upgrade compared to a Cam Newton that, maybe now that we’ve seen him outside of New England, we see how much they really were getting out of him in the first place.


But if you go down the list, yes, Hunter Henry has a ton of touchdowns and is an important part of this offense, but to make two guys the co-third highest-paid tight end doesn’t really look that good in hindsight. Nelson Agholor isn’t even top-three in receiving yards on this roster.

But I don’t attack the Kendrick Bourne deal because it’s like a modest $5 million per year deal. And even Matt Judon, I didn’t have any issue with that deal either because you’re getting a guy coming off a franchise tag, and you sign him for about $13.4 million per year. That is not a lot of money to spend on an edge rusher.

There’s a reason the Patriots don’t normally do that because you don’t tend to win in free agency. But, of course, Jalen Mills, Kendrick Bourne, they’ve gotten some important contributors, and they’re back in the playoffs.

Has Mills’s solid play justified the decision to trade Stephon Gilmore rather than pay him?

It’s a super interesting scenario, and of course, we’ve now come to connect Bill Belichick with not re-signing those aging veterans and, more often than not, looking smart in hindsight.

Gilmore obviously has been good in Carolina so far. They’re having him trailing No. 1 wide receivers. They’re having him play a ton of man coverage and doing a lot of things they weren’t doing before he got there.


So obviously, he still is a lockdown No. 1 corner. But without him there, the Patriots still have a very good defense, and the odds he continues to play at this high of a level — he’s 31 years old now — the odds he keeps doing that are not very high.

From a “dollars and cents” standpoint, it’s hard to argue against them. He probably wants top-end cornerback money, and they don’t really need to do it.

The Patriots did just re-sign 29-year-old Adrian Phillips to an extension after an excellent year. How do you grade that move?

The crazy thing about him is last year, with Dont’a Hightower opting out, the Patriots tried to just play as few snaps as possible with off-ball linebackers on the field. Ja’Whaun Bentley led the team at snaps at off-ball linebacker and was not top-40 in the NFL in snaps among off-ball linebackers.

It just shows how valuable Adrian Phillips is: to be that versatile, to be able to play down in the box as a true linebacker, play in the slot, do all these different things. I think they are realizing, how big a difference is there between Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah and Adrian Philips? These are the modern linebackers we’re going to get in football.

And they’re again exploiting this deal. Three years and about $14 million is nothing for a really productive, really good player.

Speaking of good players … J.C. Jackson is about to get paid this offseason after proving himself as the Patriots’ No. 1 cornerback. What is his market going to be in free agency, and do you think the Patriots will even let him test it?

So that can be fascinating because you look at this cornerback group, and if you want to find a young corner that can play press-man corner, the list is one player. It’s J.C. Jackson.


Even when teams, even the Patriots themselves, didn’t necessarily view them as a No. 1, he was still having that ball production (nine interceptions in 2020). Now incorporate the fact that he has been No. 1 the entire season. Is he Stephon Gilmore? No. But he is a player that teams can probably feel comfortable as their No. 1 guy.

It’s hard to imagine him reaching unrestricted free agency, frankly. I think a franchise tag, which is gonna be worth about $17-18 million, is probably a foregone conclusion. I think the more interesting question is, can they find a long-term deal that works for both parties? He made more on his restricted free-agent tender this year than he made in his entire career before that. His earnings are still low to the point where one injury at the wrong time could be a catastrophic injury.

My pitch would be like, “Look, J.C., we think Tre’Davious White in our division ($17.25 million per year) is a little bit better than you. But we think you’re a really, really good player. We’re willing to make you the fifth-highest paid cornerback in the NFL at $17 million per year with very strong guarantees.” I think J.C. and his agent, if they’re smart, they’re listening to that.

In a tweet earlier this week, you crowned Belichick the top general manager in the NFL. What makes him the best, and has this season added to that legacy in your opinion?

I do think that for others’ perception, [this year] is a massive benefit. It just erodes any argument of, “you know, without Tom Brady, he would have been nothing.” They have a rookie quarterback, and they’re second in point differential in the NFL. It’s insane.

But the reason Bill Belichick is the best general manager in the history of organized sports is, it’s so hard to sustain what they had with Tom Brady. There’s a reason other elite quarterbacks have down years, even if teams are willing to spend and do all these things. Drew Brees went 7-9 three years in a row of the middle of his prime.


What the Patriots did — letting Chandler Jones go, letting Darrelle Revis leave, getting draft picks back, letting Nate Solder go — when they make these difficult decisions, it might have a slight negative impact in the near future. But in the long run, it is going to enable you to sustain a dynasty, and that’s what he’s done for 20 years.

The Patriots may have hit a gold mine with Mac Jones playing well on his rookie deal. Could the Patriots be big spenders again as they build around him in Year 2?

That’s the crazy thing. They’ve just set the record for the most guaranteed money given out to unrestricted free agents in the history of the NFL in one offseason. And this is before they even had Mac Jones on the roster.

Now, you have Mac Jones on this rookie deal. Trevor Lawrence’s rookie contract is for about $37 million. Mac Jones’s is for about $15.5. He’s not even making half of Trevor Lawrence’s money for the next four years.

You could again have another free agency, and I’m sure Robert Kraft has no issue with this, where you’re spending a ton of money again and fixing all those spots. Maybe you might move on from some guys like Nelson Agholor and spend again elsewhere. They have every right and every ability to do that again.

They are in the top half in the NFL in projected cap space for this upcoming offseason. They’re going to be saving $40 million a year on a quarterback for the next three seasons so. Outside of quarterback, Christian Barmore is also saving you a lot of money every year.

Think about a guy like [Los Angeles Chargers receiver] Mike Williams stretching the field for New England. Maybe Mac Jones can’t hit him downfield much as they would like, but just think of how much room Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry would have to operate if they had Mike Williams running go-balls a lot of the time. I still think you might as well dedicate your resources to the offensive side of the ball.

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