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Is the Patriots’ salary cap prowess overrated?

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Canvassing the two sides of a long standing debate.

NFL: Super Bowl LI-New England Patriots Press Conference Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

“The cap is crap.”

It’s fun to say, right? Many Patriots fans have probably heard the compact, pithy adage before — likely by Andy Hart or Paul Perillo of PFW In Progress — the popular round-table-style radio show and podcast on Patriots.com.

Of course, the phrase itself is rather broad and lacks context. So what does Hart mean when he says “the cap is crap”?

“I don’t think the cap keeps teams from doing virtually anything, especially the modern cap.” Hart said last Wednesday evening on Patriots Central Radio. “With the modern cap going up $10 million dollars plus every year you end up with endless teams having literally more money than they can spend.”

“I’ve had a number of (NFL) front office types tell me that all teams have budgets and cash issues and things of that nature,” Hart went on to say, “but if you have even an ounce of intelligence, the cap never keeps you from doing anything you want to do.”

Hart is certainly accurate in that respect. The annual increase in the league-wide salary cap each year has certainly helped level the playing field from a cap management perspective. Two factors that are even more useful to teams in easing the burden of staying under the cap is the lack of mandated cap minimums each year, along with the ability to roll over one hundred percent of a team’s unused cap space.

“You look around at the number of teams, I think over half of them had over $25 million in cap space coming into this year,” said Hart. “There weren’t enough (free agents) to spend it on. They literally couldn’t spend it all.”

Miguel Benzan (@patscap) of patscap.com agrees with Hart in that respect as well. He says that compared to years past, NFL front offices are finding it easier than ever to stay under the cap.

“Back then the cap was going by a couple of million dollars a year, forcing a good numbers of teams to release several players in order to get under the cap.” Benzan says, referring back to the early 2000’s. Benzan starting tracking the Patriots’ salary cap in 2001. “These days the cap is increasing by over $10 million a year making it far easier for teams to manage their cap.”

According to the NFLPA, teams carried over an average of $9,141,347 in cap space from last season. The average NFL team is currently operating with $20,047,755 in 2017 cap space.


The fatal flaw in the argument presented by the “cap is crap” contingent lies in their belief that any advantage gained by an organization who effectively manages its cap is negated by factors like the one hundred percent cap space rollover provision, and annual league-wide salary cap increases — along with the assumption that anyone with an “ounce of intelligence” can manage it.

If all thirty-two teams operate within the same framework of the CBA, then it’s naive to think that smarter teams wouldn’t benefit from those same advantages. It’s a rising tide lifts all boats scenario — including the “boats” that are already sailing the highest.

The effects of the technological advancements in golf equipment on the PGA Tour over the past two decades provides an interesting analogy. Drastic improvements to the golf ball and massive 460cc driver faces have changed the way the game is played. Shorter and less accurate drivers of the golf ball have gained enough distance and seen the magnitude of their misses mitigated to the point where they can make it to the tour and stick around.

However, while the equipment has made it easier for so many to compete on tour, it’s tough to argue that the game’s elite players haven’t gained even more of an edge. Look no further than the NASA-style launch party world number one Dustin Johnson brings to any par-five tee box.

The fact is, when advantages are presented to a group that operates under the same system of rules and restrictions, whether it be golfers or NFL organizations, the cream still rises to the top.

Miguel Benzan has been hearing the “cap is crap” catchphrase since 2001. You can likely guess his thoughts on it.

“(The phrase) is often used by those who do not understand the cap.” Benzan says. “It diminishes the accomplishments of the best team of the salary cap era - the New England Patriots.”


What exactly, from a cap management perspective, separates the proficient teams from the deficient ones?

First, quantifying just how productive teams are at operating within the confines of the salary cap couldn't be simpler — just look at who is winning. Yes, it's as obvious a statement as one could make, but winning is the reason behind every single decision an NFL team makes. It's the ultimate benchmark -- the final determination of the success or failure of a team's entire process — including how their cap is managed. From a wins and losses standpoint, the Patriots' record in the salary cap era clearly speaks for itself.

Looking at the league’s recent successful teams and working backwards from there, a common trait they share is their ability to identify and acquire scheme-specific college and professional personnel which they develop and implement into their systems. These teams continually develop younger, cheaper personnel options, giving them even more flexibility in how they chose to distribute their cap resources.

This is an area where the Patriots are unmatched. No team in the NFL utilizes every method of roster building available to them like New England does. They are constantly churning their roster through the draft, trades, free agency, waivers, practice squad development and promotion, etc. This has allowed them to assemble a roster containing the largest “middle class” in the NFL.

With strong coaching, scouting, and player development as the foundation towards building a perennial contender, there is no singular method of salary cap distribution. The Seahawks have been an NFC powerhouse since Pete Carroll’s arrival in 2010, and their strategy in this area is in stark contrast to that of the Patriots.

Not counting players on their rookie contracts, Seattle has 22 players with a 2017 cap hit of $1 million or more, putting them in a tie for 16th in the league. They’ve built around a core of veteran stars and supplemented them with a number of “upper middle class” contributors like Cliff Avril, Ahtyba Rubin, and KJ Wright, leaving a large portion of the roster open for competition each year as they head into camp. They draft well and find great fits for their scheme.

Not including players on their rookie deals, the Patriots have 30 players with a 2017 cap hit of $1 million or more — the most in the league. Not only does this theoretically lessen the impact of injury by spreading the risk more evenly, it also affords them a tremendous amount of additional flexibility. With uncertainty on the horizon at the quarterback and left tackle positions, they are adequately positioned to handle any scenario.

It’s certainly worth mentioning that in the era of the annually skyrocketing league-wide cap, a circumstance which the “cap is crap” contingent would argue negates any advantage that New England’s middle class method could generate, Bill Belichick took to the free agent market this offseason and added a number one cornerback to a roster that is already starting to generate “undefeated” chatter. (Think - Dustin Johnson with his brand new Taylormade M2 driver)

Should the Patriots’ salary cap prowess be discarded simply because the 49ers have the cap space to make free agent fullback Kyle Juszczyk the 9th highest paid running back in terms of average per year value? Or because teams like the Jaguars can go on a spending spree every March and assemble an on-paper AFC South contender?


According to Andy Hart’s paraphrasing of a past Bill Belichick statement, the cap is so malleable and easy to manipulate that all you need to do is just “move some cap around”. So why all the talk about the need to maintain cap flexibility if maneuvering through the loop holes in the system has become so easy?

  1. To ever expect Bill Belichick to publicly address, with any level of detail, the subtle challenges of navigating the complexities within the NFL salary cap system is, at the very least, a dubious idea.***
  2. To allow the previous point to influence, to any degree, ones attitude toward the salary cap is, in itself, a lapse in judgement by a voice in the New England media who ordinarily typifies impartiality.

So why all the talk about the need to maintain cap flexibility if maneuvering through the loop holes in the CBA has become so easy?

Well, it isn’t nearly that simple.

Can a team make just about any move it wants to? Sure. Technically they can. But there are typically repercussions for transactions that create cap space, whether it be the loss of a player (talented or otherwise), dead money cap charges, or both. It’s the degree to which these repercussions have a negative impact on a team’s cap that Hart argues has become negligible.

“That’s where I disagree,” Hart said last week when asked about said cap repercussions catching up with teams, “I don’t think teams are afraid of the cap at all.”

Kansas City’s release of veteran wide receiver Jeremy Maclin last weekend is an appropriate example. Prior to the move, the Chiefs only had roughly $1.75 million in cap space according to overthecap.com — not nearly enough to cover in-season expenses like replacing players that are put on IR, fielding a 10-man practice squad, etc. His release freed up between $9.75-10 million in space in 2017, giving them ample breathing room for the coming year.

Does releasing a number one wide receiver in order to get some breathing room from the cap seem like a negligible repercussion to anyone?

Furthermore, to keep their heads above water this offseason, the Chiefs let talented interior defensive lineman Dontari Poe walk, and signed Eric Berry to a record contract making him the highest paid safety in the game. Berry’s 2017 cap number is a meager $5 million, but that number inflates to $13 million next season, and $16.5 million in 2019.

Couple Berry’s drastic year-two jump with Maclin’s newly created $4.8 million dead money cap charge and poof — there goes the annual league-wide cap increase bailout package that Hart insists makes cap management as easy as balancing a checkbook.

*** If by chance you’re the type that paints pictures in your mind as you read, and you found yourself at this point in the piece imagining Bill, with the cameras on him, cracking that sideways smirk as he internally relishes in the fact that he knows something everyone else doesn’t — you’re spot on.


If the NFL salary cap doesn’t “keep teams from doing virtually anything”, then why are many teams forced to make difficult roster decisions each year? Why ever rebuild?

If the “cap is crap”, then why would the Patriots trade Richard Seymour, Logan Mankins, Chandler Jones, and Jamie Collins?

Why not just “move some cap around”?

Go ahead and follow Brian Phillips on Twitter - @BPhillips_NFL