The New England Patriots finished the 2015 season with just $1,347,882 in cap space, the fourth lowest amount of free space in the league behind the Seahawks, Lions, and Bears. While the Patriots don't have any free agents of great importance this off season, the team would do well to generate additional cap space in 2016 in order to sign players that are entering the final season of their contract.
Players like edge defenders Chandler Jones, Rob Ninkovich, and Jabaal Sheard will hit the market in 2017, as will cornerbacks Malcolm Butler and Logan Ryan, safety Duron Harmon, and linebackers Dont'a Hightower, Jamie Collins, and Jonathan Freeny. That's pretty much the defense right there.
On the offensive side, the Patriots are in slightly better shape. Wide receivers Brandon LaFell, Matthew Slater, and Aaron Dobson, tight ends Scott Chandler and Michael Williams, running back Brandon Bolden, and tackle Marcus Cannon will be free agents.
Some of these players will be of an age where the Patriots might look elsewhere- like Ninkovich, Slater, LaFell, and Chandler. Some players might not even make it through this offseason. Some contract extensions will lower 2016 cap hits (Jones, Hightower), while some will definitely increase (Collins, Butler).
Here's how the Patriots can best address the 2016 offseason, to set up for a great 2017.
1. Decline the option in LB Jerod Mayo's contract
Mayo is currently slotted to pick up the 2nd largest cap hit on the team in 2016, with an albatross $11.4 million. His contract is structured so there are two individual options for the Patriots to extend his contract for the 2016 and the 2017 season. If the Patriots pick up the 2016 option, Mayo would be due $4 million as a roster bonus.
He's finished three straight seasons on the injured reserve and while he's head coach Bill Belichick's favorite son, there's zero chance that the Patriots will pick up that option. Declining Mayo's option will free up $6.425 million in cap space, per Miguel of PatsCap.com. That's a lot of cheddar.
2. Restructure WR Danny Amendola's contract
Amendola is a great fit in the Patriots offense as a #3 option, but he's scheduled to create a $6.8 million cap hit in 2016, more than $2 million more than WR Julian Edelman's cap hit. There's no way that Amendola will stay on the roster with his current contract, but the Patriots are currently limited in the number of wide receivers they trust. It's in the mutual best interest of the two teams to restructure since Amendola's market value probably isn't that great.
The wide receiver's base salary is $5 million, which can be lowered with the chance to make back the money with playing time and production incentives. It's been done before and it can be done again.
3. Figure out what to do with WR Brandon LaFell, TE Scott Chandler, and OT Marcus Cannon
All three veterans are scheduled to be free agents after the 2016 season and all three battled serious injuries that impacted their performance. Was LaFell's down season a product of his foot injury? Did Chandler's knee injury play a bigger role in his decline? Was Cannon's foot injury at the core of his terrible performance?
The coaches know better and, technically speaking, LaFell's contract isn't too bad for his performance over half a season. While it's a negative sign that he lost playing time to WR Keshawn Martin, he still projected to pick up 750 yards over the course of a full season- and that doesn't factor in all of the serious foot injuries he was battling. LaFell's 2016 cap hit of $3.675 million is pretty big, and there's probably room for negotiation over his $2.4 million base salary, but outright cutting him might not be the best move.
There are seven receivers on veteran contracts set for between a $3-4 million cap hit in 2016, per Spotrac. Only Chargers WR Stevie Johnson (49.7 yards per game) produced better than LaFell (46.8 YPG), with Texans WR Cecil Shorts III (44.0 YPG) and Browns WR Brian Hartline (43.6 YPG) close behind. Between 40-50 YPG is pretty expected for LaFell's cap hit.
Chandler is in a similar position to LaFell with a knee injury possibly derailing his season and leading to possible drops- but unlike LaFell, Chandler's $3.05 million cap is hard to justify. There are plenty of middle-tier tight ends that will be on the market, like the Colts Dwayne Allen, the Jaguars Clay Harbor, the 49ers Garrett Celek, and the Bears Zach Miller.
Cannon will have to restructure, if he's not outright cut. Cutting all three players would open up $6.8375 million in cap space, per PatsCap.com.
These decisions could free up close to $15 million in cap space for the Patriots to utilize on their future. Since there are multiple 2017 free agents at each position, look for Belichick and Nick Caserio to pick one edge defender and one cornerback to address to this offseason.
Sheard is definitely the best option to replace Ninkovich in the long term, while Jones' value is current depreciated due to his injuries, off the field incidents, and his questionable run defense. Butler is viewed very highly by the staff and will almost certainly be the priority over Ryan, and the fact that Butler will be a restricted free agent after 2016 reduces his negotiating power.
Of course, this could mean that Jones and Ryan would be the easier of the duos to reach a team-friendly extension with, so we'll wait and see.
Don't be surprised if the Patriots try to take care of both Hightower and Collins this offseason due to the importance of the linebacker position in a Belichick defense.
New England is in a great position to attack the 2016 free agency period with just a few simple decisions. Heck, the Patriots could even extend quarterback Tom Brady to lower his $15 million cap hit. There are a lot of options to create bright future, without having to make valuable cuts.