With the dawn of the new league year nearing, the New England Patriots are in a comfortable financial position. While the team has multiple players about to hit free agency, it also has more than $60 million in salary cap space – one of the biggest numbers in the NFL.
Therefore it is hardly surprising that a recent story by ESPN’s Kevin Seifert rates the Patriots salary cap flexibility "A+". New England is one of five teams – alongside the Cleveland Browns, Jacksonville Jaguars, Tennessee Titans and San Francisco 49ers – to receive the top grade. There is a major difference compared to those teams, though.
While the Patriots won 17 games and the Super Bowl in 2016, the four others rated "A+" have combined to win 15 contests last season. Naturally, Seifert starts his paragraph about New England with the following sentence: "It’s just not fair, is it?" He then proceeds to take a look at the team’s quarterback and general contract situations, as well as its number one free agent:
The defending Super Bowl champions have one of the NFL's cleanest cap ledgers. It starts with quarterback Tom Brady's absurdly friendly contract, which counts just $14 million against the cap in 2017. (It rises to $22 million for 2018, which suggests a possible renegotiation.) Even with Jimmy Garoppolo and Jacoby Brissett on the roster, the Patriots use 5.1 percent less cap space for quarterbacks than the average NFL team. Other than Brady, the only players with cap charges higher than $10 million are left tackle Nate Solder ($11.2 million) and safety Devin McCourty ($10.9 million). It's possible that linebacker Dont'a Hightower, a pending free agent on whom the Patriots declined to use the franchise tag, could add to that list if he re-signs.
Of course, as noted by Seifert, Tom Brady’s contract is a major plus for the Patriots’ salary cap situation. It was already touched on yesterday, but is worth repeating for emphasis: The five-time Super Bowl champion’s 2017 cap hit of $14.0 million ranks 22nd in the NFL among quarterbacks. He is a bargain if the league has ever seen one – one which allows the Patriots to build a deeper team around him.
It remains to be seen whether or not defensive captain Dont’a Hightower (and backup quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo as well) will be part of it. The Patriots certainly have the financial firepower to make it work but the question is if the market will push the asking price beyond the team’s liking. After all, New England’s salary cap flexibility and success is the result of smart spending – not abundant one.