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How could the Patriots gain $3 million in additional salary cap space?

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The Patriots now have more money to play with.

The New England Patriots have gained $3 million in cap space, increasing the team’s available amount to $29.7 million, the 8th most in the NFL. The move was first noticed by Pats Cap’s Miguel Benzan, who recognized the change over Friday night into Saturday morning.

Per Benzan, there are three main possibilities for why the Patriots now have this additional cap space. One of those justifications would be a simple error by the NFL Players Association, which provides the daily salary cap report.

Benzan believes the NFLPA is simply not including DT Alan Branch into their calculations and that the NFLPA might have accidentally attributed the dead cap space for TE Dwayne Allen to the Patriots, instead of to the Colts.

That’s not a fun explanation. Instead, let’s look at the other two reasons: that the Patriots either signed a player to an extension or a player agreed to a pay cut; both actions would result in additional cap space for New England. There are a limited number of players on the roster that can free such a large chunk of change right out of the gate.

First, we can already narrow down the possibilities to the 17 players with a cap hit of $3 million or greater. Then we can eliminate players that just signed with the team, like CB Stephon Gilmore, LB Dont’a Hightower, DT Alan Branch, FS Duron Harmon, and RB Rex Burkhead, and players like QB Tom Brady and CB Malcolm Butler that would likely see an increase in cap usage if they signed a new contract.

Now there’s a chance that the Patriots modified multiple contracts over the same evening, but for this exercise we will instead focus on the players with base salaries of greater than $3 million as the options to create such a large chunk of cap space in one transaction.

Those players are LT Nate Solder ($6.5 million), FS Devin McCourty ($6.5 million), WR Danny Amendola ($6 million), and TE Rob Gronkowski ($4.25 million). TE Rob Gronkowski has a base salary of $4.25 million, but has 3 years left on his deal; he would need a minimum of $4.5 million base salary to pull of the “convert base salary to signing bonus” trick. WR Julian Edelman has a base salary of $3 million, but would be unable to free all of that up to account for the new cap space.

Here’s how those three players could have freed up the cap space.

1. LT Nate Solder: Solder is a free agent after the 2017 season and it would make sense for the Patriots to try and reach a contract extension. Solder signed a 2-year, $20.1 million extension for the 2016-17 seasons and the team is unable to use the franchise tag after 2017 as part of the current contract.

Solder will likely be in line for a $12 million per season extension, which would place him in a 4-way tie for 5th largest in the NFL. The nearly 29-year-old Solder could sign a 3-year extension through 2020 and his age-32 season that: a) reduces his base salary from $6.5 million to $1 million; b) includes $2.5 million in prorated guarantees; c) also includes guaranteed future base salaries, like in 2017 and 2018, to bring up the guaranteed total for Solder.

Perhaps Solder would take a small discount to remain in New England. He is currently the 13th highest paid tackle in the league at $10.03 million. An extension that is valued at $9 million per season would rank him 15th, which seems low, although guaranteed money might offset those concerns. A contract would have to come in around $11 million per season to crack the top 10.

2. FS Devin McCourty: McCourty is under contract through 2019, so he presents a different scenario from Solder. The Patriots restructured McCourty in September of the 2016 season and converted part of his base salary into a signing bonus to free up $2.8 million in cap space for 2016. This subsequently increased his cap hit for the final three years of his contract.

There is no limit on how many times a player can restructure his contract, so McCourty and his $6.5 million base salary are in play again.

McCourty could convert $4.5 million of his 2017 base salary into a signing bonus, which would distribute $1.5 million into the cap hit for 2017, 2018, and 2019. This would reduce McCourty’s cap hit by $3 million in 2017, but would increase it to $13.4 million and $14.9 million in the subsequent two years.

This is really poor use of cap management, so I would be surprised if the Patriots handled a McCourty restructure in this manner. Additionally, McCourty turns 30 years old in August and any years tacked on at the end of his contract would involve his age-33 season. McCourty is an unlikely source of the $3 million in cap space.

3. WR Danny Amendola: Amendola has restructured his contract in 2015 and 2016, by cutting his base salary in exchange for a small signing bonus with Not Likely To Be Earned (NLTBE) incentives that could allow him to regain the funds he gave up.

Amendola has nearly $20 million in career earnings, per Spotrac, and even his reduced value to the Patriots is probably more than what he would get on the open market. There isn’t a big market for a slot receiver that will turn 32 years old in November that has averaged 434 yards from scrimmage over the past four years.

Amendola has a $6 million base salary for 2017, which would easily be trimmed down to $3 million with NLTBE incentives. Amendola only recorded 23 receptions for 243 yards and 4 touchdowns in 2016, so the Patriots could set incentives at 30 receptions for 250 yards and 5 touchdowns and it wouldn’t yet count against the cap.

That said, $3 million still seems high for Amendola’s base salary. He had reduced his base salary to $1.25 million in each of the past two years. WR Julian Edelman has a $3 million base salary, while WR Chris Hogan has a $2.5 million base.

Additionally, the Patriots freed up $3.9 million in cap savings when the restructured Amendola down from a $5 million base salary a week after the 2016 NFL Draft (for timing reference). It would make sense for any Amendola restructure to free up more than “just” $3 million in space.

Perhaps the Patriots negotiated Amendola down to a $1.25 million base, with $1.75 million of his incentives considered LTBE, such as 20 receptions, 200 yards, and 4 touchdowns. The Patriots might not be expecting Amendola to reach those marks again in 2017- and if he does, then perhaps the team is okay with paying such a big price for Edelman insurance.

And that’s it. It’s either Solder, McCourty, or Amendola. McCourty is highly unlikely, which would leave either Solder or Amendola- and the fact that the cap savings are “only” $3 million, it would make Amendola a curious candidate. If the Patriots were to free up $3 million, then a Solder extension would be where I placed my money.

Of course, if Benzan is right, then the NFLPA just dropped the ball and forgot to include DT Alan Branch in their calculations. That would just be an annoying end to a potentially exciting series of salary cap mathematics.