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Patriots salary cap look-in: New England's homegrown, emerging young core

With patience and a commitment to player development, the often criticized Patriots draft classes of 2014 and 2015 are beginning to bear the fruit of the team’s labor.

NFL: Baltimore Ravens at New England Patriots Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

If early in the 2016 season you happened upon a loyal contingent of well-informed Patriots fans and asked their thoughts on New England’s 2014 and 2015 draft classes, you would presumably encounter a few of them harboring a substantial amount of criticism. Laden with irritation and resentment, they would shout over each other example after example of early round draft day blunder and misstep.

"Dominque Easley!?! Two bum knees and an attitude problem..." one critic would lament.

"Sure he's a potential trade chip, but come on, a backup QB in the second round?! And don't get me started on Geneo Grissom and Jordan Richards!..." another would bemoan.

If you requested 2014 and 2015 draft class assessments from that very same delegation after Sunday’s miraculous Super Bowl victory, would the same gripes and grievances persist? Would the emergence of core contributors like Trey Flowers and James White quell those questioners’ qualms?

The answer is that a draft class can’t be defined by the success of its top round selections. It takes years for a class’ full value to materialize. Those players that remain on the roster for the full four-year duration of their contracts only begin to display their value when they integrate into the roles of the team’s system.

Once these roles develop, questions of whether or not a player’s value to the team matches their draft slot can then be asked. Does the player’s production keep in line with their cap obligations? How does his production per cap dollar stack up with other players at his position on the roster? But the ultimate determinant for judging the success of any roster move is this: What did this player help the team accomplish?

Obtaining notable contributions from mid-round draft picks (just one of the numerous methods the Patriots utilize to acquire low-cost talent) has been a staple of the Bill Belichick era. The principle is simple. The quality of a player drafted in the third or fourth round is typically in line with, or exceeds the salary cap obligation that comes with that player’s draft slot, especially when the team identifies him as one who possesses the traits and qualities it deems a “fit” for its system.

In the context of team salary cap management, the ability to not only identify and draft these players, but to cultivate key production from them, creates an unburdening effect at the player’s position. While under team control for four years, and at salary levels well below their more experienced free agent colleagues, these third and fourth-round draftees give their teams the ability to allocate resources to other positions where the need for investment is dire. These players’ salary cap hits are also manageable enough that they allow teams to cut them with only minor cap repercussions, or "dead money”, should the player fail to meet the team expectations (see: Geneo Grissom).

New England's proficiency in identifying and developing these mid-round draft bargains played an essential role in their 2016 Championship season. Players drafted in the 2014 and 2015 drafts accounted for just 7.1% of the team’s total 2016 salary cap. That number includes all players currently still on the roster, as well as any dead money from the release or trade of those players.

Approximately 46% of the team’s cap consisted of all players originally drafted by Bill Belichick. And along with homegrown household names at like Brady, Solder, McCourty, Edelman, and Hightower, came the emergence of a young stable of players from the aforementioned 2014 and 2015 draft classes that took up such little cap space. Each of these players played a crucial role in bringing a fifth title to Foxborough. And as they inch closer and closer to their eventual free agencies, the once-narrow gap between the monetary value assigned by their cookie-cutter CBA-designated rookie contracts and the value their current production commands, is quickly widening.

James White - RB

Drafted: Pick #130, 4th round in 2014. 12th RB taken.

Cash earned to date: $1,933,328

2017 cap hit: $789,272 - 2017 cash: $690,000

2018: Unrestricted Free Agent

Coming off a Conan appearance which saw the pass-catching running back rewarded with a new truck for his record-setting Super Bowl performance in which he scored the winning touchdown, the former Wisconsin Badger is entering the final year of his rookie deal. Drafted in 2014 to be groomed behind Shane Vereen, White was forced into action in 2015 after injuries ravaged the team’s running back depth. In 2016, White was allowed to work more exclusively in his niche role with the return of LeGarrette Blount and Dion Lewis taking more carries. White tallied 60 catches (second on the team) for 551 yards and 5 receiving touchdowns (also second on the team).

Future potential free agent contract value: A few comparable pass-catching RB contracts like the ones signed by Giovani Bernard, Shane Vereen, Theo Riddick, Danny Woodhead, and Bilal Powell should be a solid barometer of White’s earning potential in his first bout with free agency. The averages of these deals: 2.8 years, $11.2 million, with $4.52 million guaranteed. Even setting aside his Super Bowl heroics, if in 2017 White can mirror the production from his 2016 campaign, there is no reason to believe that he wouldn’t command these figures (or more) on the open market.

Shaq Mason - RG

Drafted: Pick # 131, 4th round in the 2015 Draft. 11th guard taken.

Cash earned to date: $1,409,569

2017 cap hit: $725,881 - 2017 cash: $615,000

2018 cap hit: $815,881* - 2018 cash: $705,000*

Drafted in the same round as fellow guard Tre’ Jackson, Mason spent his rookie season rotating in and out of the lineup (at times on per-drive basis) as part of Dave DeGuglielmo’s attempt at keeping his personnel fresh in the wake of key injuries. Mason remained the healthier of the team’s two rookie fourth-round guards, and solidified his starting spot in training camp as the team released guard Josh Kline.

Mason, at 6’1” 310 pounds, could be the team’s best pound-for-pound athlete. He used that athleticism in 2016 to finish 15th overall (and 7th in the AFC) in PFF’s guard rankings, and was their highest rated guard in the second half of the season.

Future potential free agent contract value: If we are to assume that Mason’s tremendous year-two jump is a trend and not an anomaly, then the only factor capping his earning potential is that he plays the wrong position. Nonetheless, the top of the right guard market still has two players (David Decastro and Kyle Long) commanding $10 million per year on average. Pro Bowl right guards TJ Lang Kevin Zeitler will hit the open market in 2017, adding more top-level contract precedents to the right guard market. Mason is schedule to hit free agency in 2019.

*Mason has already qualified for the 2018 Proven Performance Escalator. His 2018 salary will mirror that season’s low restricted free agent tender amount.

Malcom Brown - DT

Drafted: Pick #32, 1st round in the 2015 Draft. 6th DL taken.

Cash earned to date: $5,018,022

2017 cap hit: $2,076,336 - 2017 cash: $1,127,112

2018 cap hit: $2,442,392 - 2018 Cash: $1,493,168

Yes, Brown was a first selection, but falling to the Patriots with the 32nd pick was a value in and of its own. With the departure of Vince Wilfork, Brown was thrust into a prominent role along the interior of the defensive line in 2015. His snap percentage increased from 46.5% to 54.2% in 2016 with the departure of Akeem Hicks and Dominique Easley. PFF ranked him 31st among all interior defensive lineman, primarily a result of his strong presence against the run in 2016.

Future potential free agent contract value: Assuming Brown avoids having his fifth-year option picked up, and the 2019 Franchise Tag, one factor will ultimately determine his eventual open market value; his pass rushing ability. Brown is rarely asked to provide much on third downs in the Patriots’ system, however the upper echelon of the market at his position (per year salaries in the eight figures) require pass rushing production on the level of players like Fletcher Cox, Geno Atkins, etc. Contract values for interior defenders dramatically decrease without it. One factor certainly in Brown’s favor is that time will be on his side. The former Texas Longhorn will turn 25 only a month before he is scheduled to hit free agency.

Trey Flowers - DL

Drafted: Pick # 101, 4th round in the 2015 Draft. 21st DL taken.

Cash earned to date: $1,525,172

2017 cap hit: $754,733 - 2017 cash: $615,000

2018 cap hit: $844,733* - 2018 cash: $705,000*

After missing his entire rookie season to injury, Flowers made up for lost time in 2016. He did so just in time with the team trading Chandler Jones to Arizona last offseason. Working as much from the three-technique spot than on the end of the line, Flowers was a constant disturbance against both the pass and run. Playing just over 54% of the team’s defensive snaps, he totaled 7 sacks during the regular season. He also added 2.5 critical sacks in Super Bowl 51. Not only has Flowers helped fill the shoes of Jones, but it’s easy to forget that he also carries the distinction of being New England’s eventual return (via Tampa Bay’s 2015 4th round pick) in the trade of Logan Mankins.

Future potential free agent contract value: If Flowers carries his breakout performance into 2017 and 2018, his value range could be anywhere from an Everson Griffen/Jerry Hughes level ($8.5-9 million per year), to a Cameron Jordan/Ryan Kerrigan level ($11 million+ per year). Much will depend on how his role develops within New England’s system.

*Will earn the Proven Performance Escalator in 2018 if he plays 35% of the team’s defensive snaps in 2017. If earned, Flower’s salary will mirror that season’s low restricted free agent tender amount.