NEPD Editor: Mike Loyko
Now that the 2013 season is officially in the books, it means the entire football world turns their attention to the off-season. Player movement, trades, free agency, and the draft will all be front and center for the next four months.
For the Patriots it’s as important of an off-season that I can remember, at least as important as 2007 and 2009 when the Patriots completely retooled their offense.
Any plans and changes for the organization are contingent on cap space and the money available to be flexible. Here is a look inside the Patriots cap situation, where they stand, and how they can create money.
*This is part I in my off-season previews where I will lay out the game plan for what needs to happen, the available resources, my predictions, and a mock off-season blueprint.
Every off-season it seems comical when fans of NFL teams begin freaking out because their team only has “a few million” to spend in free agency or that they believe the lack of cap space will handicap the teams ability to improve. That’s just not the case. In the NFL the salary cap is a defined number that can’t be surpassed (likely to be 126.3 million this year), but unlike other sports it can be much easier to manipulate the cap and contracts than in a sport that has guaranteed contracts.
As the 2014 off-season starts, I’ve already been bombarded with e-mails and tweets complaining that the Patriots don’t have the cap space to make a “big move” or get better. False. The available cap space numbers right now mean very little and as you’ll see in this article there are plenty of ways to create more space by restructuring contracts and cutting players.
It’s important to remember in the NFL that guaranteed contracts don’t exist. The only money a player is guaranteed is the money they receive in signing, roster, or workout bonuses. This makes is possible for teams to restructure player contracts by converting base salary to signing bonuses which can be spread out among the remaining years of a deal (up to 5 years). This will be important to keep in mind this off-season as the Patriots have a few players likely to be restructured, and a few players that don’t make sense to restructure for various reasons.
Where they stand today:
According to Miguel’s Patriots Salary Cap page, which can be seen (here), the Patriots will enter the 2014 off-season with just about 7.3 million in cap space. This number includes carry over from 2013 and is based on a final cap number of 126.3 million dollars. That 7 million is before any cuts, signings, or tendering of contracts.
The exact number of these contracts and their cap savings are available on other sites, but due to rules like top 51, and more complex rules all of these numbers are general estimates just to give readers an idea of where the Patriots stand.
Where they Can Create Space:
As discussed above, restructuring contracts and cutting a player doesn’t mean that all of the players money comes off the cap. What ever guaranteed money is left on the contract will remain and be spread out over the life of the contract. It’s also important to remember that only the Top 51 contracts count against the cap at this point of the league year.
So if a player in the top 51 is released, another contract takes it’s place which is usually $495,000 dollars. With that being said, there are some very obvious and likely roster moves that can be made to free up easy money.
1) Release Isaac Sopoaga
Cap Hit: 3,500,000 – Dead Money: 1,000,000 – Top 51: $495,000 = Cap Savings: $ 2.005 million dollars
2) Release Dan Connolly
Cap Hit: $4,083,000 – Dead Money: $1,083,000 – Top 51: $495,000 = Cap Savings: $2.500 million dollars
3) Release Adrian Wilson
Cap Hit: $1,883,000 – Dead Money: $666,000 – Top 51: $495,000 = Cap Savings: $722,000
Total Savings: $5,227,00 + $7,330,000 = Total Cap Space: $12,557,000
There are another couple players that can be released to create cap space, whether they are released or not these contracts are likely to be altered.
1) Release Tommy Kelly
Cap Hit: $3,000,000 – Dead Money: $500,000 – Top 51: $495,000 = Cap Savings: $2,005,000
2) Release Steve Gregory
Cap Hit: $3,183,000 – Dead Money: $833,000 – Top 51: $495,000 = Cap Savings: $1,855,000
Total Savings: $3,860,000 + $12,557,000 = Total Cap Space: $16,417,000
Just by releasing those five players the Patriots more than double their available cap space. While they’d have to replace five roster players, none of those players would greatly change the structure or success of the team.
The next set of roster moves are a bit tougher to project and breakdown. I’ll try to run through them quickly.
1) Devin McCourty: Without going into too much detail if the Patriots resign McCourty to a 4-5 year deal, it’s very likely they’d reduce his cap hit anywhere between 2.0 – 3.0 million dollars. For the purpose of this let’s call it $2,500,000 in additional cap space created.
2) Stephen Gostkowski: Gostkowski has a cap hit of 3.8 million dollars and is in the final year of his deal, making it very likely his contract is redone. By extending Gostkowski 3 or 4 years they can reduce his 2014 cap salary by at least $1.2 million dollars. Let’s assume the number is reduced by $1,200,000.
Total Savings: Approx. $3,700,000 + $16,417,000 = Total Cap Space: $20,117,000
Without even restructuring players that are currently signed the Patriots already have over 20 million in cap space. Now this is where it gets tricky. Basically the Patriots have three big salaries they could restructure and possibly a fourth (Gronkowski), but I feel that one is more unlikely. Vince Wilfork, Logan Mankins, and Jerod Mayo are the three biggest contracts that could be restructured.
1) Vince Wilfork: Wilfork is the biggest decision when it comes to creating cap space because A) Has a massive cap hit (11.6 million) and Base Salary (7.5 milion) B) He is in the last year of his deal C) Can free up the most money and D) Is coming off injury. According to PatsCap, there are three possible scenarios to deal with Wilfork.
A) Release Wilfork: Creates just over $7,500,000 million in cap space. If the Patriots want to rebuild this position through free agency, the draft, and they young guys on the roster this is the easiest move to create cap space. Releasing Wilfork and then re-signing him could be a possibility.
B) Extending his Contract: If Wilfork is extended for 2 seasons they could move 6 million of his 7.5 million in salary to future years and frees up $4,000,000 in additional cap space.
C) Convert his 2014 Salary to Performance Bonus: This is an option I initially overlooked and it might be the most plausible, if Wilfork is willing to work with the team. Converting 3.5-4.0 million of his base salary to performance bonuses would save the team between 3.5-4.0 dollars.
For the sake of this article lets say they either resign or convert his salary to bonuses and save $4,000,000 in cap space. That said, I don’t rule out the release scenario.
2) Logan Mankins:
Mankins Base Salary: $6,250,000 + Signing Bonus: $4,000,000 + Misc. Bonus: $250,000 = Cap Hit: $10,500,000
The move here is to have Mankins convert a large chunk of his base salary to signing bonus and push it to future years. I’d estimate if they do this the number would likely be $4,250,000 making his base number $2,000,000 this year.
3) Jerod Mayo
Mayo Base Salary: $3,250,000 + Signing Bonus: $1,200,000 + Misc Bonus: $2,387,500 = Cap Hit: $7,287,500
I’m not convinced that need to or will restructure Mayo this year as his base salary increases greatly in the next few years. If they chose to restructure, they could convert $2,250,00 to bonus money. Creating a cap savings of $2,250,000.
Total Savings (Mankins + Wilfork): $8,250,000 + $20,117,000 = Total Cap Space: $28,367,000
As laid out the Patriots have multiple ways to create plenty of cap space to play with this off-season. If they follow all of the options above they will be under the cap by approx. $28.367 million dollars.
This cap space will go quickly. They need to keep some money aside to sign draft picks (4 million), field a practice squad (1.7 million), and leave some extra room for in-season emergencies or roster moves. When these things are totaled it’s likely 8 million of that money is put aside right away for those purposes.
This leaves them with just about $20.367 million dollars to use as they like. Plenty of money to make any roster moves they need to field a better team in 2014. Signing Aqib Talib will take up 4-6 million in base salary for 2014 and even after that they have plenty of money. Keep in mind when they sign players in the off-season, the numbers aren’t what they seem. The guaranteed money is what matters, teams usually structure the first year with a manageable base salary to fit them in. Based on my calculations and personal feelings, the Patriots have plenty of options and money to be active this off-season.
It’s an entirely different discussion to debate how and if the Patriots choose to use that free money. Stay tuned for my thoughts on that in future off-season previews.