What would you consider a perfect offseason for the Patriots? The team's two most important free agents are defensive tackle Akiem Hicks and running back LeGarrette Blount. The biggest needs on the roster are running back and...that might be about it. The team could use depth at tackle, wide receiver, cornerback, and linebacker, but if depth is the team's biggest need, then the franchise is doing very well.
A perfect offseason, for me at least, would involve the team extending linebackers Dont'a Hightower and Jamie Collins, edge rushers Chandler Jones and Jabaal Sheard, and cornerbacks Logan Ryan and Malcolm Butler. The team would be able to sign Akiem Hicks, improve the running back position over Blount, and possibly add a young wide receiver with upside in free agency.
That seems like a lot to do for a team that has some of the least cap space in the league. With some help from Miguel from PatsCap.com, we can see if this type of offseason is even possible.
Per Miguel, the Patriots currently have $13.6 million in cap space, which ranks the team in the bottom third of the league. We can divide the Patriots contract decisions into two categories: restructures and extensions. The restructures can be viewed as the building blocks for a fantastic offseason.
1) Extend QB Tom Brady. We've discussed the possible outcomes of this restructure, but using Miguel's prediction we can pencil in this extension to free up roughly $5 milion in cap space.
2) Restructure WR Danny Amendola. The Patriots and Amendola want to remain together, but Amendola's base salary of $5 million makes him the 6th largest cap hit on the roster. A restructure of Amendola's deal that lowers his base salary, with the chance to recuperate the difference in not likely to be earned incentives could save roughly $2.5 million in cap space.
3) Cut OT Marcus Cannon. This would save $3.2 million in cap space and the Patriots. Cannon could also be restructured.
4) Cut TE Scott Chandler. Chandler ended the season as the #3 tight end on the roster and lost the trust of Brady. The Patriots could save $1.5 million.
5) Cut WR Brandon LaFell. While I support retaining LaFell because his contract is still very cheap when compared to other wide receivers in his salary tier, cutting him would save $2.2 million in cap space.
In total, these five moves could generate an additional $14.3 million in cap space, bringing the team cap space to roughly $28 million, which is around the league average.
6) Sign DT Akiem Hicks. Hicks is the Patriots top free agent and will likely fetch anywhere between $3-$5 million on the open market. His value depends on how deep the teams view the position in the draft, as well as the serious top talent available in free agency. Let's split the difference and, based upon recent contracts for DTs Stephen Paea, Kendall Langford, and Tyson Jackson, say that Hicks' year one cap hit will be roughly $4 million.
7) Extend LB Dont'a Hightower. As Hightower is in the final year of his contract, based on the Patriots picking up his option, his base salary is extremely high. An extension with a nice signing bonus would reduce Hightower's cap hit in 2016 and spread the value over the length of his contract. Extending Hightower will save the Patriots $1.3 million on the salary cap, per Miguel. Hightower currently has the 5th largest cap hit on the roster.
8) Extend LB Jamie Collins. Since Collins is a 2nd round pick, the final year of his contract is a bargain without the option season. Any extension of Collins would increase his cap hit, with Miguel's proposal costing the Patriots roughly $4.3 million in cap space.
9) Extend ED Chandler Jones. While Jones hasn't been very consistent, he's still one of the more promising defensive ends in the league. He might never reach the level of a DeMarcus Ware or a Jared Allen, but he fits the Patriots well with his flexibility. Like Hightower, a Jones extension would free up cap space, with Miguel proposing a structure that would open $1.2 million in cap space. My guess would be a lower value contract, resulting in even more cap space. Jones currently has the 4th largest cap hit on the roster.
10) Extend ED Jabaal Sheard. Sheard has the consistency and Jones needs to strive to attain. Sheard currently has the 7th largest cap hit on the roster and the Patriots would love to have him around for years to come. Extending Sheard could open up roughly $1 million in additional cap space by converting his base salary to a signing bonus.
11) Extend CB Malcolm Butler. Butler is the reason I looked into this exercise because I thought that he would be the last contract since the Patriots effectively control his rights in 2017 as a restricted free agent. Butler's under a dirt cheap contract for the next two seasons, so any contract extension would likely appear to be below market value because these two seasons will be factored in to the calculation. Miguel proposed an offseason deal that would increase Butler's 2016 cap hit by roughly $3.9 million.
12) Extend CB Logan Ryan. Ryan is the most replaceable of these extension players, but he is a valuable player to have on the roster. He's a good #2 cornerback and every single position can't feature an elite talent. He's a leader in the locker room and he performs well against bigger receivers like Andre Johnson, Brandon Marshall, and Demaryius Thomas. Using recent contracts for CBs Brandon Browner, Justin Bethel, and Perrish Cox, we can see that Ryan's 2016 cap hit would likely increase by roughly $1.4 million.
These contracts would cost the Patriots a total sum of $10.1 million in cap space, making their post-spending cap space roughly $17.9 million. That's still an increase in $4.3 million in cap space, after all of these moves. The Patriots could keep LaFell and have $15.7 million in cap space- still ahead of where they currently stand.
These calculations don't include the Rule of 51, which means that Hicks' contract probably won't actually eat up a full $4 million in space, but instead closer to $3.4 million since he'll bump the roster's lowest contract off of the books.
These moves would also take care of a lot of defensive question marks for the foreseeable future, except for maybe one depth linebacker and another veteran cornerback (if the team deems those necessities). The rest of the offseason can focus on adding offensive players to bolster the other side of the ball.
Let's assume that the Patriots retain LaFell and have $15.7 million in cap space. The Patriots would be in need of a swing tackle to replace Cannon and a 2nd tight end to replace Chandler.
Cannon shouldn't be too difficult to replace since he was one of the worst tackles in the league, alongside Cameron Fleming and LaAdrian Waddle. A veteran like Chris Clark or even the recently cut Jermon Bushrod would be an improvement. Even if the Patriots choose one of these players in free agency, there would still be a need to bring in a young, high upside tackle in the draft to be Sebastian Vollmer's eventual replacement.
Maybe moving on from Cannon might have to wait until after free agency or the draft, so the Patriots can ensure the player they find is an improvement- or maybe Cannon will restructure to a more justifiable contract.
Replacing Chandler also probably won't come in free agency, where there's a total dearth of talent. The team could try to reclaim oft-injured Dwayne Allen, but the number of tight ends better than Chandler is shockingly low.
The 36-year-old Antonio Gates won't be leaving the Chargers, while the Bears hope to retain 31-year-old Zach Miller after he tests the market. The Colts will try to keep Coby Fleener (although he could fetch near $6 million per season and would be out of the Patriots price range), and that really leaves the Chargers Ladarius Green as the only other option, unless the team wants to make a lateral move with Jared Cook. Green is coming off a season-ending ankle injury and the Chargers want him to be the eventual replacement for Gates, who is expected to retire in the next season or two.
Perhaps cutting Chandler might also have to wait until after the draft, to see if the Patriots can address the position with a mid-round pick like Western Kentucky's Tyler Higbee, South Carolina's Jerell Adams, or Stanford's Austin Hooper.
And if the Patriots are forced to the draft to find depth at tackle and tight end, and if LeGarrette Blount returns as the team hopes, then that leaves the Patriots with really just the wide receiver position to address in free agency. While Bears WR Alshon Jeffery is out of the question, a player like the Dolphins Rishard Matthews, the Seahawks Jermaine Kearse, or even the Bengals Marvin Jones would absolutely be in play.
A fantastic offseason for the Patriots is just getting started.