$2.5 million is a lot of money, even for an NFL franchise. Salary cap space is a limited resource and added financial flexibility can help a team tremendously when it comes to either keeping the core of a team intact or pursuing free agents. That is exactly the reason why the roster spot of Patriots wide receiver Brandon LaFell, himself a free agent signee in 2014, may be in jeopardy.
When LaFell joined the Patriots in March 2014, he signed a three-year deal worth a total of $9.0 million. The veteran wideout lived up to his contract in his first year in Foxboro and was an integral member of New England's Super Bowl-winning receiving corps. His second season with the team was not as successful. After starting the year on the physically unable to perform list, LaFell couldn't fully integrate himself into the offense and fell to number four on the depth chart for the AFC Championship game.
With Rob Gronkowski, Julian Edelman and, more probably than not, Danny Amendola returning as the top targets, and with Keshawn Martin signing a two-year extension in January, LaFell might find himself on the outside looking in - especially considering the $2.5 million the Patriots would save if the 29-year old gets released or traded.
In 2016, LaFell's cap hit is $3.675 million, consisting of a $2.4 million salary, a $1.0 million signing bonus proration and a likely to be earned roster bonus of $275,000 (in case LaFell plays 11 games in 2016) (as usual, all numbers via patscap.com). The cap number itself is reasonable and reflects the wide receiver's standing on the roster: number four target. However, it still might be too high for the front office's liking after a sub-par 2015 season.
Because only the signing bonus proration is guaranteed, New England can save the aforementioned $2.5 million if the team decides to move on from the six-year veteran, who enters the final year of his contract. Such a move would weaken the team's wide receiver depth but simultaneously give the team more financial firepower to be aggressive in free agency (possibly trying to acquire another wide receiver like Mohamed Sanu or Rueben Randle) or to sign a member of the defense to a long-term deal.
The question, the Patriots have to ask themselves, is which scenario they prefer: having the veteran wide receiver on the roster or having more cap space available. How this question is answered depends on a variety of factors, among them the impact LaFell's foot injury had on his 2015 campaign, Danny Amendola's contract status and possible return, and the projected growth and role of Keshawn Martin.
If the team feels good about its receiving corps moving forward without LaFell, he will likely be let go. If not, he will play another year in New England. Right now, it is hard to project how the team feels but neither scenario would be a surprise.
Do you think Brandon LaFell returns in 2016? Or would you rather see his snaps go to Martin or a potential free agent signee like Sanu?