The New England Patriots have added blue chip WR Brandin Cooks. They have acquired a solid back-up TE in Dwayne Allen. They traded for a pass rusher in EDGE Kony Ealy. They signed a great press corner in CB Stephon Gilmore. They have retained their own free agents like FB James Develin and DT Alan Branch and FS Duron Harmon.
The Patriots currently have around $39 million in cap space, which still ranks in the top 10 for cap space in the entire league. The Patriots can and should use this money to retain free agents like LB Dont’a Hightower and CB Malcolm Butler and they should still have well over $20 million in cap space.
Seriously. Gilmore signed the biggest free agent contract you’ll see from the Patriots this offseason and he only counts $8.6 million against the cap in 2017. Hightower and Butler should come in under that amount this year from a salary cap perspective.
And what’s even better is that the Patriots can make a few easy moves to further increase their cap space. Here’s how the Patriots can further free up their salary cap and how they should spend the money.
1. Extend LT Nate Solder
Solder has an $11.2 million cap hit in 2017, partially due to his signing bonus distriution, and will be a free agent after this season. The Patriots could find a way to lower his $6.5 million base salary to reduce his salary cap hit this season, while also adding on years to his contract.
Solder’s current contract values him as the 14th highest paid tackle in the league with a $10.03 million per season average. Solder will be 29 years old at the start of this upcoming season, so the Patriots could probably extend a 4-year offer at $11-$11.5 million per season and both sides would be happy.
This could ultimately be a net-zero from a salary cap perspective- and more likely save the team a couple million in immediate cap space- but it would be huge from a team-building perspective.
2. Figure out what to do with WR Danny Amendola
Amendola carries a crazy $7.79 million cap hit in 2017, the 5th highest on the team. That won’t stand. Amendola is open to a contract restructure and he provides valuable insurance for the offense in high leverage situations like third down and in the red zone. The Patriots would love to have him around, but he might be a victim of the numbers game.
Will the Patriots keep Amendola around as the 5th receiver on the depth chart, behind Julian Edelman, Brandin Cooks, Chris Hogan, and Malcolm Mitchell? Is his skill set now super redundant, with the first three players all capable of playing in the slot?
The Patriots could give Amendola the same contract cut that he received last season and save nearly $5 million in cap space.
3. Extend the 2017 and look to 2018 free agents
The Patriots absolutely should extend Butler and Hightower and the salary cap definitely isn’t an issue. They could also get a head start on the 2018 free agents, beyond just Solder. Special teams stars like Matthew Slater and Nate Ebner could get an extra year tacked on to their contracts. Receiving backs like James White or Dion Lewis could get an extension. Both running backs and special teams players are cheap in the $1-3 million per season range.
Then the Patriots should start thinking about WR Julian Edelman, who is coming off one of the best seasons in his career, but who turns 32 before the start of the 2018 season. The Patriots won’t pay for past production, but Edelman’s playing like a top 15 receiver right now.
Do the Patriots sign him to a 1-year extension in the Jordy Nelson and Pierre Garcon range of $9-10 million per season? Factoring in Edelman’s 2017 salary of $4.5 million, the extension would place Edelman on essentially a 2-year deal at $14 million, which is extremely reasonable.
4. Look at the other available free agents
If the Patriots do all that I’ve listed, the restructuring of Solder should cover the expenses for the special teams players and maybe a running back, while the Amendola cap decision would effectively shift cap money from Amendola to Edelman. And if the Patriots retain Hightower and Butler, well, then the Patriots just accomplished a lot of team building while still having over $20 million in cap space to play with.
Looking at the roster, the Patriots could improve at running back, at pass rusher, at linebacker, and at slot corner.
So why not kick the tires on a high-upside running back like Eddie Lacy or Mike Gillislee? Or would that make the offense unfair?
Maybe a pass rusher like Connor Barwin- who was released and won’t affect compensatory picks- could be a final piece in the Patriots edge defender rotation. Or maybe LB Zach Brown or veteran LB DeAndre Levy could be a perfect complementary linebacker for Hightower.
And maybe Darius Butler would want to come back to New England as a slot player. Or another veteran like Brandon Flowers or Nickell Robey-Coleman could fill the vacancy.
The Patriots can’t afford all of them, but why not add another piece to bolster the league’s reigning #1 defense?
5. Extend Jimmy Garoppolo
And if all else fails, why not just put all of your extra cap space in a cartoonish duffel bag and hand it to Garoppolo so he is willing to stick around until Tom Brady retires?