The rest of the AFC East has invested their cap space into their defenses in hopes that they can slow down the vaunted New England Patriots offense. The Patriots devote more of the cap to key offensive players than anyone else in the division. The opposite holds true for the defensive side.
I looked at the cap hits for the top three players at each defensive position- defensive tackle, edge defender, linebacker, cornerback, and safety- to see how the Patriots, Bills, Dolphins, and Jets manage their cap space. No one spends less than the Patriots, but this will be the last year we can say that.
The Bills have Marcell Dareus. The Dolphins have Ndamukong Suh. The Jets have Muhammad Wilkerson. That trio averages $14.3 million in cap space. Then the Bills add Kyle Williams and his $6.25 million cap hit, the Dolphins have Earl Mitchell and his $3.5 million cap hit, and the Jets have both Leonard Williams and Sheldon Richardson with their $4.23 million and $3.2 million cap hits, respectively.
That's a lot of cheddar. The Patriots largest cap hit at defensive tackle is Alan Branch at $2.75 million, followed by Terrance Knighton at $2.02 million and Malcom Brown at $1.73 million. The other teams are investing a lot at a position where the Patriots can mitigate the impact with a quick passing game.
The Jets have five defensive tackles with cap hits of $2.25 million or greater.
The Dolphins are the only team to spend more on their defensive edges than the Patriots, but the Jets use of their defensive lineman compensates for their complete refusal to invest cap space at the position. It's not a rare sight for Sheldon Richardson or Muhammad Wilkerson to play on the edge, just like how the Texans use J.J. Watt.
New England's top three edge defenders will be free agents after this season and all three have cap hits greater than all but one pass rusher from Buffalo or New Jersey (looking at you, Bills ED Jerry Hughes with a $7.58 million cap hit). Jabaal Sheard ($6.8 million), Rob Ninkovich ($4.75 million), and Chris Long ($2.38 million) are going to be due for some cash after this season.
The Patriots spend more on linebackers than any other team in the division. Dont'a Hightower carries the largest cap hit at $7.751 million- edging out Jets LB David Harris at $7.5 million- and the team's 4th linebacker on the depth chart Jonathan Freeny has a larger cap hit than all but four rival linebackers.
It's also important to note that while Freeny ranks 4th on the depth chart, Jamie Collins has the 4th ranked cap hit on the roster- and a larger cap hit than any other team's #3 linebacker cap hit. It's clear that head coach Bill Belichick loves investing in linebackers and it seems like there's an inefficiency that the Patriots are trying to exploit.
Of course Hightower and Collins are going to receive super-mega-ultra paydays over the course of the next nine months, so look for the Patriots' expenditures to skyrocket.
What if I told you that Logan Ryan had the Patriots largest cap hit at the position at $1.8 million, and that no other cornerback on the roster came within $1 million in cap usage? 2nd round rookie Cyrus Jones actually has the 2nd largest cap hit on the team at $728,491.
This is in stark contrast to the Jets, who have Darrelle Revis at a $17 million cap hit, and two other cornerbacks with cap hits larger than $4 million. The Bills and Dolphins both have cornerbacks with caps hits of $11.1 million and $8.5 million, respectively, and it wouldn't be a surprise to see Malcolm Butler join them at that level in the near future.
Oh, and Malcolm Butler has a cap hit of $600,000, which is too low to register on the Patriots cap math. In other words, Butler doesn't take up any cap space at this point in time.
If the Patriots are cheap at cornerback, they're compensating at safety. No team invests more at the position than the Patriots, with Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung eating up good chunks of the salary cap. It's important to highlight Duron Harmon, as the Patriots #3 safety, has a cap hit of $1.8 million, over $1 million more than any other team's #3 safety.
I think the cap expenditure at the safety position highlights how Belichick likes to build his roster with reasonable depth- which is the same way he divides his cap on the offensive side of the ball.
The Jets can sustain injuries at defensive tackle and cornerback. The Bills can take a hit at linebacker and cornerback. The Dolphins are struggling to fill out a starting defense, never mind try to account for depth.
The Patriots can handle injuries at every position, and they're spending the least amount of cap space in order to field a roster.
All three division rivals have been spending heavily at defensive tackle to try and influence the pocket granted to Patriots QB Tom Brady. The Jets and Bills have focused their attention on their secondaries- likely a reflection of head coach Rex Ryan- while the Dolphins have spent money on pass rushers.
The Patriots, as the inverse, have the least amount of cap space tied up in the defensive tackle and cornerback position, but have the most at linebacker and safety, and second most at edge defender. I think this is the perfect way to highlight how Belichick zigs while every other team zags.
While all other teams are vying for the expensive services of defensive tackles, Belichick will spend little on cheap veterans- and while teams ignore the linebacker spot, that is where Belichick will turn his focus.