Day 1 of NFL legal tampering thoughts: Patriots’ lack of cap space needs to be addressed

Ryan Hannable
March 17, 2020 - 6:00 am

Unlike some recent years, the Patriots have actually been relatively active at the outset of free agency, particularly with their own players.

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In the last few days, they have agreed to extensions with Matthew Slater and Devin McCourty, placed the franchise tag on Joe Thuney, and tendered Adam Butler and Jermaine Eluemunor. Going into the weekend with just under $30 million in cap space, that number is significantly lower now.

Tom Brady, whether he re-signs or not, needs to be considered as well. If he does not re-sign, or does after Wednesday, his dead cap hit for 2020 is $13.5 million.

So, this leaves the Patriots with between $5-10 million in cap space.

Bottom line, that isn’t enough for much to be done at all. Not only is it not enough to bring back Brady, it’s not enough to put together a competitive roster. Internal moves are likely coming down the pipeline.

For starters, Thuney’s deal likely will be addressed. The franchise number for offensive linemen is just under $15 million. The team released a statement saying it will work towards a long-term deal and if that happens, his 2020 cap number could be cut in half. 

Another possibility could be trading him. Clearly, he was getting quite a bit of interest around the league and Bill Belichick likely was well aware. By getting him under his control and knowing what the interest is league-wide, he could now look to trade him and possibly get a player/high draft selection in return. It would also get the roughly $15 million off the books.

Then there’s always the possibility of restructuring some deals of players already under contract, as well as extending others. Following his lingering ankle injury that required offseason surgery, the team could look to lower Mohamed Sanu’s number, as he’s set to make $6.5 million in 2020. Stephon Gilmore could do the team a solid again by restructuring his deal to lower his $18 million cap hit. And in terms of extensions, there’s James White and Duron Harmon as prime candidates.

And lastly, flat out releasing players is always on the table, and there are a few veterans who could be possibilities. 

Specifically to Brady, with roughly $5-10 million in cap space right now, even if he signs for say $20 million, the team would need to make some drastic moves to free up money to make it happen and then it would be hard to envision more moves to be made.

It feels like in order for Brady to return to New England, he’s going to have have to take significantly less than what he’s looking for. Or, maybe Brady knows he’s gone no matter what and Belichick knows this as well. Going with Jarrett Stidham, or possibly a player on the veteran minimum, would allow the money saved with restructures, extensions, cuts, etc. to be spent on other players who can help the team. 

While everyone will be looking for names to be added to the roster in the coming days, the Patriots may need to address some internal housekeeping matters before any of this can actually occur.

Here are some other quick thoughts following an eventful Day 1 of free agency/legal tampering period.

— The quarterback market is interesting, starting with Brady only seemingly having three teams really interested at the start of the day Monday — the Chargers, Buccaneers and Patriots. Tennessee signed Ryan Tannehill over the weekend and then the Raiders reportedly agreed to terms with Marcus Mariota Monday night. With that being said, there could be a few “new” teams to keep an eye on.

Two teams to monitor are the Colts and Bears. Both are in the quarterback market and now that Brady’s cost isn’t maybe as high as what they envisioned, shouldn’t they re-evaluate their plans?

If Indianapolis was really fully committed to Philip Rivers, wouldn’t a deal have been announced by now? Brady is better than Rivers, so Brady makes more sense for Indy than Rivers. Then Chicago is apparently looking to trade for Nick Foles or Andy Dalton, but if Brady is going to be available, shouldn’t it at least check in and see if a deal could be worked out?

Now that the market has been set and a return to New England doesn’t seem like a lock for Brady, perhaps more teams will now get involved.

— It really wasn’t much of a surprise to see Kyle Van Noy and Jamie Collins sign with other teams, especially when the value of the contracts were released.

Van Noy did very well for himself getting four years and over $50 million, $30 million of which being guaranteed. And same for Collins, three years and $30 million, which isn’t bad for making just over a $1 million in 2019 with New England.

It also isn’t a surprise to see these players go to teams with former Patriots assistants as head coaches. Matt Patricia and Brian Flores know just as well as Belichick how to get the most out of them and that familiarity likely made it an easy decision for both players.

With two of the best linebackers on the roster besides Dont’a Hightower gone, look for Ja’Whaun Bentley to be asked to do more in 2020 and perhaps the team making a push to keep Elandon Roberts.

— The biggest moves in the NFL involved wide receivers with two trades: Stefon Diggs to the Bills and DeAndre Hopkins to the Cardinals. The return on the deals looks really bad for Bill O’Brien.

Buffalo sent a first, a fifth, a sixth and a 2021 fourth-round pick to Minnesota for Diggs, while Houston only received running back David Johnson and a second-round pick in exchange for Hopkins. Relating to the Patriots in the division, Buffalo gets much better with Diggs as Josh Allen has a legitimate No. 1 receiver to throw to. They surely will be able to compete with the Patriots for the division title in 2020.

The number of trades made Monday is good news for the Patriots, as they will need to find ways to add players not just via free agency. The lack of cap space combined with not a great deal of wide receivers/tight ends available, the Patriots will need to get creative to improve their roster.

If teams are willing to deal, expect Belichick to be one of the first to pick up the phone.

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Related: Patriots lose another linebacker, as Jamie Collins reportedly agrees to deal with Lions