As I outlined in my previous article on the Patriots roster situation, Bill Belichick has not had a tremendous run of success drafting premium rookie talent. Still, he remains one of the most fiscally responsible GM’s, with numerous team friendly contracts on the roster. Let’s examine the best of those, the steals, today. I will not be including rookie contracts simply because, by design, all rookie contracts tend to be steals.
Cap hit: $3,696,078
Julian Edelman’s cap hit places him at 40th overall among wide receivers. At first glance this is an unbelievable steal. But my investigation revealed very specific reasons that could help explain how Belichick managed to make this deal happen and why it’s not quite as great as you may think at first.
The first reason is the inaccurate perspective that Julian Edelman represents a poor man’s WR1, or at least, my perception of Julian as a poor mans WR1. That perception is wrong. Julian is really a rich mans WR2.
What am I basing that on? Production. Nothing else. I am not saying that because he works out of the slot. Wes Welker may not have done a lot of work outside but his production easily matched or exceeded most team’s outside wide receivers. Julian has never produced a single WR1 caliber season. He has only two 1,000+ yard seasons and only two 5+ TD seasons on his résumé. His 5+ TD seasons have never coincided with a 1,000+ plus yard season. Welker’s 2011 career high of 1569 yards and 9 TDs would have surpassed Julio Jones production for the last two years. Edelman has never even sniffed that level of production. And from what I can tell it’s that lack of a career high that really dampened Edelman market.
Alshon Jeffrey might be disgustingly overpaid based on his production the last few years but he also produced two 1200+ yards, 10+ TD seasons with terrible quarterbacks. Allen Robinson is another example of this. He posted a career high 1400 yards and 14 TDs season. Despite only producing sub-1,000 yards season the other 3 years, the Bears signed him to a 14 million a year contract. Randall Cobb is another great example having produced a superior 2014 season before declining every year since. You need a big year of production like that to get paid in this league.
When you combine that lack of a career high with the fact that he does most of his work in the slot and he catches balls from Tom Brady it’s easier to see how other GM’s could have been hesitant to give him money and how the Patriots were able to lock him up.
But let me make this clear. Even if you don’t think Edelman is a top 20 receiver, he is most definitely a top 30 talent which places his contract well below his skill level. He’s a dependable chain mover who shows up in big moments. Just look at Brandin Cooks’ $16.2 million AVPY contract: Cooks has posted 1,000-yard seasons more consistently than Edelman but they are not that far off in yardage production. The big difference is Cooks has been consistently getting high TD totals in addition to his yardage. He can also take the top of defenses and is a home run threat on every play. If I had a choice between Edelman and Cooks on rookie contracts would I choose Cooks? Probably. But if I had to pick between Edelman at $3.6 million and Cooks at $16.2 million, I am picking Edelman every damn day. He may not be an All Pro talent but he absolutely signed a team friendly deal and unlike say, Marcus Cannon, there was not necessarily a lot of external factors driving him to that decision. It’s hard to believe he did not leave at least some money on the table. So regardless of how this season turns out with coming back from injury and being busted for performance enhancing drugs, I think he deserves a tip of the hat from Pats fans.
Cap hit: $5,768,750
I personally think this has the potential to be the best contract on the roster from an economic standpoint. Marcus Cannon has the highest proven ceiling to cap hit ratio. To be fair, he doesn’t have the same consistency of Julian Edelman, with really only one year of good production. But that one year of production earned him a 2nd team All Pro nod at one of the most important positions in the NFL. Cannon’s current AVPY contract stands at 30th overall but the best part of the contract is that it locks him up through 2021. In that time period, his cap will never rise higher than $7.75 million which means if no other tackle is signed for a new contract in four years (HA!) the highest he would go is 23rd overall. To make matters even better, his guaranteed money dries up after this season. He would have a $2.8 million hit in 2019, $1.4 in million 2020, and $0 in 2021.
I think there were a few forces that allowed the Patriots to sign this deal. For one, Marcus Cannon was absolutely a one hit wonder at the time he signed this contract. He was not good in 2015. It’s very clear Dante Scarnecchia played a huge role in making him the player he could be instead of the player he was. That had to be a worrying consideration for both Cannon and another GM looking to sign him. Furthermore, Cannon has had cancer concerns and that probably led him to be more risk averse than a lot of professional players tend to be. Finally, I think the Patriots can thank John Dorsey for his 2016 Mitchell Schwartz contract. Like Marcus Cannon, he was coming off a second team All Pro stint. Schwartz, who has family in Kansas City, may have taken a bit of a discount to play for an up and coming team near his loved ones. I find it impossible to believe that Bill did not use the Schwartz contract as leverage in the Cannon negotiations. It should also be noted that Cannon’s contract is slightly more team friendly and includes an additional year of control.
If Cannon is healthy and continues to play well, Bill will probably have signed the single best offensive tackle contract in the NFL.
Cap hit: $10,906,250
You might think its crazy to include the league’s fourth highest paid tight end as a steal. You might think that goes double considering a single million is what separates Gronk for being the highest paid TE in the NFL. But you would be wrong.
I understand why Gronk’s agent keeps wanting to see Gronk paid like a wide receiver. Because there are no tight ends you can compare to Gronk. The only tight end worth comparing him to in terms of consistent year to year production is Travis Kelce and it’s not a terribly close comparison. In his four years in the league, Kelce has produced comparably to Gronk only once, which was this last year. The only real comparisons are wide receivers in terms of production. Since leading the league in TDs in 2011, Gronk has been in the top 10 in TDs every year he has been healthy. His yardage has been less impressive, only posting in the top 5 once in 2011 and generally outside of the top 20 every year therein. He definitely does not produce at the level of top tier wide receivers but when healthy he has been one of the most consistent receiving threats in the NFL, especially in the end zone.
The league has yet to really produce a player that can restrain Gronk in man coverage. Perennial All Pro Eric Berry is the only player I can really think of who managed to not only contain Gronk but arguably defeat him. But with that bare exception, Gronk has proven to be unstoppable, regularly devouring even All Pro level talent. He’s faced off against two of the best secondaries of the modern era in the Legion of Boom and the No Fly Zone. He came out not only good but dominant in both exchanges.
You might have heard the term “take over a game” when talking about football. You don’t hear the word used for non-quarterbacks very often but every so occasionally you will hear it associated with pass catchers, running backs, and pass rushers. It’s used to describe players that are so dominant they cannot be stopped and power a team to victory. Gronk is the only player on this team, besides Tom Brady, who can “take over a game”. He did it against the Steelers in a must-win match up and he did it again against the Eagles in the Super Bowl, albeit in a losing effort. Gronk is good in the playoffs which is why he is currently tied for 2nd of all time (!) in playoff TD receptions.
With a $12.9 million AVP contract, he would only rank 14th among receivers. Would I take Antonio Brown over Gronk? Yeah, I would. Would I take 14 other receivers? Hell, I’d be hard pressed to take one or two. I think his cap hit would be especially provocative next year where receivers with higher cap hits will include Amari Cooper, Jarvis Landry, Allen Robinson and Alshon Jeffrey. Players with significantly higher cap hits will include Brandin Cooks and Damarius Thomas. Sammy Watkins will have a 19.2 million dollar cap hit. Now none of those guys are bad but none of those guys are Gronk.
Honorable Mention: Adrian Clayborn
Cap hit: $4,000,000
I think there is a chance the Clayborn contract could be a steal but we will have to wait and see. If he can replicate the success he had last year, not necessarily the sack totals but the strong run defense and pressures, I think this year’s $4 million would be a bargain. He’s going to be a rotational player so I am hesitant to put him here but it is possible.
I think my biggest takeaway from researching this column has been the value of locking up good talent on long term deals. Gronk may have signed a record breaking deal, and he may have lost a couple seasons to injury, but there really is no way to cut that contract and not be happy about the result. If you have confidence a player can continue to play well, then pay the big bucks now. Even record setting contracts can look like steals after a few years of cap inflation and reckless spending from cap heavy teams.