One of the more consistently annoying tropes about Bill Belichick's management style is the concept he doesn't like to pay for top quality players. Ignoring the fact that Belichick and the Patriots have willingly set records on the quarterback, tight end, offensive guard, and nose tackle markets, there is always a lingering notion that New England just won't open up their wallet.
It's an idea that spawns from the fact that the Patriots will generally sit out during the frenzy of free agency signing and won't break the bank to bring in elite talent. This is entirely true. You'll notice that all of those record setting contracts have been for players (Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski, Logan Mankins, Vince Wilfork, respectively) brought up in the Patriots system.
With the Patriots giving Devin McCourty the second largest contract for a safety just a couple weeks ago, the justification is clear: pay those you know can and will thrive in the system. The Patriots will not have the same degree of understanding about any player from the outside.
It was just noted that the Patriots have restructured stalwart edge defender Rob Ninkovich. This wasn't a move to save money or cap space; they're actually paying him an extra $750,000 total over the next two seasons and his 2015 cap hit will grow from $3.95 million to $4.65 million (his 2016 cap hit decreases by $150k).
Instead, it's just the Patriots rewarding one of the most consistent players in the entire NFL. Ninkovich has led the league in defensive linemen snaps over the past three seasons. His prior contract had playing time incentives linked to his playing 75+% of the snaps, a level he's greatly exceeded.
So the Patriots have opted to converted those playing time incentives (as well as $500k from his base salary) into a signing bonus on his new deal, meaning that he no longer will be expected to hit that 75% level to receive his money.
This is a direct link to the acquisition of Jabaal Sheard on two levels:
1) In conjunction with the contract restructure, it seems clear that New England doesn't want to rely on their defensive ends to play over 1,000 snaps in 2015
2) Sheard was signed for a 2015 cap hit of $4 million, slightly ahead of Ninkovich's $3.95 million cap hit. With the restructure, Ninkovich gets a little tip of the cap as his deal places him back ahead of Sheard for 2015.
If this restructure sounds familiar, it's because the Patriots did the same thing with Sebastian Vollmer's playing time incentives back in November. Originally, the oft-injued Vollmer needed to play 90% of his snaps to hit his maximum playing time incentives. Due to an early season rotation with Marcus Cannon and an extra Week 17 Bye Week, the Patriots reduced the max playing time incentive to just 80% of the snaps.
With the absence of Vince Wilfork, Ninkovich will likely be elected as a team captain next season and he'll be one of the more important players on the roster. He's been a part of the Patriots since 2009 and, as a home grown talent, New England will reward him accordingly.