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Patriots currently projected to have the most cap space in the NFL in 2017

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Things are looking up, according to the salary cap!

The New England Patriots will have a long list of free agents at the end of the season, particularly on the defensive side of the ball.

Edge defenders Jabaal Sheard, Rob Ninkovich, and Chris Long will need deals. Defensive tackles Alan Branch and Terrance Knighton will be free agents. Linebackers Jamie Collins, Dont’a Hightower, and Jonathan Freeny will be up for contracts. Cornerbacks Logan Ryan and Malcolm Butler will be unrestricted and restricted free agents, respectively. Safety Duron Harmon will also be a free agent.

And that’s okay because the Patriots will have a ton of cap space to use in 2017- and they can just that space to sign players now.

According to OverTheCap.com, the Patriots are projected to have the most open cap space in the entire NFL for 2017. Of course, the Patriots only have 46 players projected to be under contract, so the cap space will decline if you factor in players on minimum salaries. Point is, the Patriots are in one of the best positions to sign players for the future.

Veterans like Ninkovich, Long, Branch, and Knighton will be of lower demand because of their age- and they’ll probably be happy to stick around in the system to compete for titles for the remainder of their careers- and it’s unlikely that too many teams will be kicking down their doors to sign them. It’s why Long and Knighton joined the Patriots this offseason.

Players like Sheard, Hightower, Collins, Butler, Ryan, and Harmon are just entering their primes and they are all starting caliber players. I wouldn’t be shocked if Harmon left in order to find more playing time with another franchise- I am also curious to see where Ryan winds up as I could see a team outbidding the Patriots for his services.

There’s no question that Sheard, Hightower, Collins, and Butler are the Big Four of the Patriots free agents and there’s an easy way to take advantage of the 2017 cap space: roster bonuses that kick in at the start of the 2017 league year.

Sometimes bonuses are used as poison pills, such as the $20 million option bonus the Patriots gave cornerback Darrelle Revis to inspire the two sides to come to a long-term agreement.

Other times, roster bonuses are given to players at the start of the regular to reward and compensate players that actually make the team- like what the Patriots gave edge defender Chris Long for this upcoming season. Long gets an additional $625,000 just by making the team.

And then there are roster bonuses that are handed out in March at the start of the new league year, which allows teams to effectively spread signing bonuses across future seasons.

One of the most interesting cases would with Rams edge defender Robert Quinn, who essentially has a “pay as you go” deal. He signed a deal in September 2014 that granted him a $10.2 million roster bonus on the 5th day of the 2015 league year. This helped the Rams spread out his guaranteed money without impacting the 2014 salary cap.

The Patriots currently do not have a lot of cap space. Extending the likes of Sheard and Hightower will likely free up additional cap space, while new contracts for bargain players like Collins and Butler will increase their cap hits.

If the Patriots want to retain all of these players, they could extend Sheard and Hightower in the normal fashion, and then turn focus towards Collins and Butler. Both Collins and Butler would like to receive money now as a hedge against injuries, and the Patriots could likely bake the rest of the expected bonuses into the contracts that kick in early in the 2017 league year.

This might not be the last year this group of defensive players will line up together. It’s possible for the Patriots to bring a lot of them back for the long term.