The New England Patriots are an interesting case study in building a team- and quarterback Tom Brady is the cornerstone. The Patriots are joined by the Colts, Jaguars, Raiders, and Titans as the only teams in the league without a player under a contract earning $10 million or more per year. The Colts will soon leave this group as Andrew Luck is still under his rookie contract and wants to be the highest paid player in the NFL.
The Jaguars, Raiders, and Titans are just terrible, with the 32nd, 31st, and 29th worst records over the past three seasons (the Buccaneers are 30th, but DT Gerald McCoy has a contract for $15.9 million per season and WR Vincent Jackson has one for $11.1 million per season).
A roster built with cheap contracts implies a total rebuild with plenty of draft picks and cheap veterans in free agency. It doesn't seem to make sense for the Patriots as reigning Super Bowl Champions.
But this is why Tom Brady is so unique and why he's so important for the team's success. His 3-year, $27 million contract through 2018, $9 million average per year (APY), allows the Patriots to invest in higher quality depth across other positions. Sure, his cap hit is greater because of a prior signing bonus, but he recently converted his contract from fully guaranteed to guaranteed only for injury, in exchange for an extra $1 million per season. He's helping this team in the long term.
In fact, Brady isn't even the highest paid player on the roster on a per season basis. Safety Devin McCourty, with his new 5-year, $47.5 million deal is worth $9.5 million APY. Brady is tied with tight end Rob Gronkowski (6-year, $54 million) for second place.
No other player on the Patriots has a contract for greater than $5.5 million APY- in a surprise, free agent signing Jabaal Sheard ranks fourth on the team. Back-up right tackle Marcus Cannon is fifth with $4.5 million APY.
The Patriots are the only team in the league with just four players on contracts for $5+ million APY.
This is not a normal way to build a team, but when people ask why the Patriots didn't fight with the Jets for the services of Darrelle Revis, it's because that's not how the Patriots are built. Building a team's depth is important.
It's not that the Patriots aren't willing to pay big money (they have a history of record-setting contracts), but it's that no one player is allowed to break the team's bank- and that New England just happens to have a quarterback that is willing to play below his market value.