In part one of this two-part feature detailing my discussion with Patriots cap expert Miguel Benzan, I tried focusing on the man behind the work. The man who doesn’t want credit. The man who won’t take money for his work, and instead directs it to The Bread of Life soup kitchen. The man who, despite his flourishing popularity, maintains as much anonymity as possible, so as not to disrupt the finite balance he has achieved between his professional life and his passion. The man who freely gives all the knowledge he receives.
This half of the feature is about football. After combing through the audio, it became apparent that no less than 95% of our conversation was centered around football-related topics. Those who are rabid NFL fans can sympathize that when a passionate exchange about football takes hold, there simply is not enough hours in the day. Thus, there was no real rhythm, organization, or pattern to the 95% of football-related subject matter. You football fanatics can understand.
Miguel is one of you.
He would begin answering one of my questions. At a certain point in his response he would excitedly recall a stone he had left unturned from an earlier subject and quickly shift gears, yet he would find an avenue that allowed him to merge the two seemingly unrelated topics to bring the dialogue back on course. That avenue was the Patriots' system (and mastery) of salary cap management.
That is the beautiful thing about having salary cap acumen. It provides a beautifully pragmatic and all-encompassing platform for which to have a nuanced conversation regarding the comprehensive subjects of today's NFL.
In what became bit of an exercise in post-conversation audio forensics, here is a loose collection of inquiries and responses from our discussion. Unable to do so at the time of our phone call (due to the fact that I too am a rabid NFL fan who loses all frame of reference when engrossed in a dialogue about the sport), this is my belated attempt at keeping the train (somewhat) on the tracks for you, the reader.
***3/1 note - Keep in mind that this conversation took place on Saturday 2/25, before news of the league cap being set, Hightower avoiding the franchise tag and being allowed to test free agency, and the rumors that Jimmy Garoppolo will stay put in Foxborough.***
So the NFL league year begins on March 9th. I read that you take the day off from work on that day every year. I imagine that will be the same in 2017?
“Oh yes, absolutely. There’s just so much to keep track of and so much going on. It’s exciting. I do wish it would coincide with March Madness every year to get kind of a two-fer, but oh well.”
Looking back to July 2016, you were on the 4th and Two Podcast, and you were brought on to discuss why the Patriots need to create more cap space. A couple of interesting things came up. First, I have you quoted as saying "I'd be very surprised if Marcus Cannon makes this team."
"Yea, I remember looking at the roster and knowing we needed to create some cap room. They had around $9.5 million. But remember, you have a few injuries and those players go on IR, that cap space dries up really quickly. So looking around the roster I saw Cannon, and his release would have created, on his old deal of course, around $3.5 million. With the way he played the year before...and at that time there were no reports anywhere of how healthy he was looking, nothing like that. So, I thought there was no way he'd make the club."
In that interview you also expressed regret for not tweeting about your prediction that Mankins would be traded. Tell me about that.
"Oh man, yea I wish I would've jotted that down or tweeted or said it somewhere, but yes, I was looking at the roster and knew the Patriots were still trying to get to their comfortable cap space cushion for the year, and I saw the guys like Dan Connolly that were on the roster behind him and I thought to myself: You know what? Mankins might be gone. That absolutely wouldn't surprise me at all.”
Obviously this offseason is a completely different story. $61.5 million in cap space, the most in the Patriots’ history, etc. We know how quickly fans can spend that money, and they’ll spend almost all of it if you let them — but should they be bracing themselves for the reality that the team won't be spending a large portion of that money?
"I think so. And it's something I say all the time: the Patriots don't spend a lot of money. They were in the bottom five teams in the previous four years in cash spending. The team that spent the most in the cash was Philadelphia, and look where they're at. The Patriots have two Super Bowls over that time. So I would ask this: Why would you change something that has worked? Just because you have the money, why would you mess with the formula?
So with that, let me pin you down to a number. How much cap space will the Patriots have heading into the first week of the season?
"If I have to get pinned down to a number, I'd say...I would have to say $20-25 million. I’ll go with $20 million, and that would include the franchise tag for Hightower, so obviously almost $15 million more if they don’t. So yea, they'll spend a little bit, but yes, I'm comfortable saying $20 million. Who knows? It's the Patriots."
Is there a free agent from another club that you would like to see the Patriots bring in?
"I don't have a ton of time to keep up with other teams and their player because of work, the Patriots cap stuff, etc. But, I do like Calais Campbell from Arizona. It’ll be interesting to see his pricetag, but the guy looks pretty awesome."
My personal feeling is that the Patriots will get something in the area of a second or third-rounder in 2017 and a 2018 first-rounder for Jimmy Garoppolo. What are your thoughts on the potential haul for Jimmy G?
“I've been saying for a while that it's about equivalent value. Something equivalent to a first and a fourth, however you want to get to that value. I think you're right about the fact that a good portion of the value they could get back would come in 2018 as opposed to this year. I think you could also see something with a conditional pick, where if Jimmy G is on their roster in 2018, so he would've been good enough to earn a contract, then a pick goes up to a first rounder, something like that."
When people talk about Jimmy G's value, why don't we hear about his sub-$900k 2017 cap figure he would have with a new team? With today's starting quarterback market being in the eight-figure range, that amount of cap value there is amazing.
"You know, I think it's because people just look down the road and say, 'Oh, but you're going to have to give him a huge extension, etc...'. But you're right, he is really cheap right now, and people should be talking about it. You can take that money and use it to build an extension for him, knowing that the first year of a deal typically has the lowest cap number. You can could also use it to franchise him."
"The one thing I hear, and it makes no sense to me, is that the Patriots could franchise Jimmy in 2018. That would be very odd to me, but take this for example. Malcom Butler - we expect him to get the first-round tender this year and play for around $4 million. Say he has another excellent year like he has the past couple, and the two sides still haven't agreed to an extension. What then? Do you tag Jimmy G. over Butler? I can't see the Patriots doing that.”
"Going back to his value, I just think they'll get that equivalent of a first and a fourth because, I mean, look around -- there just aren't many guys that can play the position well. I remember in the 70's and 80's and watching games. It seemed like just about every team had a good quarterback. That's just not the case anymore. Does he have value as insurance? Yes, of course, but at a certain point you have to weigh the value of that insurance against what you could get back. Plus, there are rumors Brady could get an extension! So who knows. Again, it’s the Patriots."
You mentioned earlier that the Patriots don’t spend a lot of cash. I’ll shamelessly plug a story I wrote that was inspired by a thread of Tweets you sent out last year regarding the NFL’s “middle class”, and how only a handful of teams had more players making $1+ million than the Patriots in 2016.
“I think that’s an excellent point, because in my opinion, one of the biggest issues facing the league. The player aren’t getting a big enough share, and the middle class of the league is disapearing. The Patriots reward their players at the bottom of the roster, especially the guys on the practice squad, it’s all part of their process.”
Follow Brian Phillips on Twitter - @b7phillips