The Patriots don’t rebuild, they reload. These are the steps that I think both can, and should, happen to keep the Patriot Super Bowl dream alive. These steps are based on several key assumptions. Unfortunately I am not a fly on the wall in Foxborough, so those assumptions could be inaccurate. Therefore, I will try to note the major ones when warranted and also mention possible alternative avenues if those assumptions are wrong.
This is a fickle forecast and should be read as such. I will be updating this column as the offseason gets rolling. Let’s get started.
(All cap calculations are based on Spotrac figures.)
The Patriots should take the following steps regarding their existing roster and pending free agents.
Restructure Dwayne Allen
I would restructure Allen to $2.4 million saving the Patriots $5 million against the cap. This is about a million less than he would be making in 2018 but given his uselessness as a receiving threat (outside of the red zone target you just freaking know McDaniels is planning in the playoffs) it’s not an unreasonable sum of money. Allen is essentially a fullback and this restructure would still pay him $700,000 more than James Develin. The Patriots use Allen quite a bit and seem to like him. That would indicate they’d rather restructure than cut him. Furthermore, the team does need a blocking tight end so I don’t think cutting him is necessarily the best option even in a vacuum. If Allen is willing to undergo a stiff restructure like this, keeping him is probably the best decision.
Extend Tom Brady
Extend Tom Brady to lower his cap hit to $24 million. This would make him the ninth highest-paid quarterback in the NFL, just below Andrew Luck and just above Alex Smith. I would hope we could get that cap hit a little lower but since this thought experiment is supposed to be realistic I kept it conservative. This would save the Patriots $3 million against the cap. Extending Brady makes a world of sense: even if the Patriots plan on drafting a quarterback high, none of their options would be close to a sure thing. Brady has played well this year even if he has regressed. He is the GOAT. Nuff said.
Restructure and/or Extend Devin McCourty
I would restructure McCourty’s contract from $13.435 million to $11.435 million to save the Patriots $2 million against the cap. I think there was an extremely valid world where New England could have captured significantly greater savings than this. They could have achieved it either by having leverage against McCourty for a restructure or by cutting him, but unfortunately nothing seems to be able to keep the Patriots from bungling their second-round capital. Instead, this restructure would push McCourty from being the NFL’s third highest-paid safety to its fifth highest. The veteran clearly regressed from his 2016 All-Pro season and is going to be 32 next year. $9.5 million can be saved by cutting him which means there should be leverage for a minor restructure. The fact that the money will help resign his brother will also help grease the wheels.
Devin McCourty could also lower his cap as part of a contract extension. Safeties tend to have better shelf lives than other positions. The extension would make a lot of sense in terms of now and the future. Assuming the future cap hits and guarantees are reasonable for a player that will be 33 in 2020. The reason I don’t want to cut him is that he has still played well, he’s a team captain, and there is no viable replacement for his skill set. I think the chances of McCourty getting cut are very low, and the chances of him agreeing to a minor restructure are strong. He has always been Belichick’s guy, I don’t see either of them turning on each other in 2019.
Cut Rob Gronkowski
This assumes Gronkowsksi will not retire but will not agree to an aggressive restructure. It also assumes there are no high probability health fixes that will get him back to form. Finally it assumes that he will refuse a trade.
If Gronk retires it’s a moot point and functionally works like a cut. If he agrees to an aggressive restructure, keeping him makes sense. Even though Gronk has clearly had a down year he still produced 700 yards and three touchdowns, with a lot of that coming against man coverage. You can pay for that — you just can’t pay $12 million dollars. If the Patriots are confident that they can get Gronk to return to his old level of play, then he is a minor bargain at $12 million and should be kept at that price. I remember Rodney Harrison talking about how he could still play when the Chargers cut him, he was just playing hurt. It’s possible that is the case for Gronk.
If Gronkowski is willing to be traded you should obviously get what you can for him. Anything is better than nothing. The rationale for cutting Gronk is that $10 million saved by cutting him would get you awfully close to signing player that will impact the game significantly more. Think Trey Flowers, for example.
The big issue with not keeping Gronkowski on board is that the only decent free agent wide receiver is Golden Tate. Tate would be great in New England but primarily plays in the slot which is a bit redundant given Julian Edelman’s skill set. That is only magnified by the fact that the Patriots will likely have to pay hand over fist to secure his services. The wide receiver market was blown up in 2018 and I see Tate cashing in very much like Nate Solder did, in excess of his actual abilities, due the low supply of options. Yes, it is possible the Patriots could patch the ship but receiver is going to be a big problem in 2019. Can the Patriots afford to let Gronk go? If they don’t you can almost certainly kiss Trey Flowers goodbye.
Re-sign Trey Flowers
I think the Patriots can re-sign Trey Flowers for an average of $12 million per year. Every single edge defender paid over $11 million had at least one double digit sack season prior to their contract. Flowers has never even posted eight sacks in a single season. Look, you never know how much other teams will value players. The Colts strike me as a team that could potentially blow any Patriots offer out of the water, while also providing a playoff caliber team to play on. But the fact that I couldn’t find a single player without a double digit sack total being paid over $11 million should indicate that there is a soft ceiling around that number.
Flowers can play the run and he has youth on his side, which is why I think he gets paid more than Jabaal Sheard and around what Carlos Dunlap has made. Traditionally, the Patriots like to put the big cap numbers at the back of the contract. For example Stephon Gilmore’s cap hit clocked for less than $9 million his first two years before skyrocketing to $14.5 million. I am going to have the Patriots resign Flowers for an average of $12 million and an $8.5 million cap hit in 2019.
Franchise and Trade Trent Brown
Occasionally, even the Dolphins do something right. Miami tagged and traded Jarvis Landry last season in a surprisingly canny move. The Patriots should follow suit with an asset that should be just as, or even more, enticing: Trent Brown. This is based on the assumption that they think Isaiah Wynn will not sink their season in 2019. If they do think that, they need to franchise and keep him. Damn the price. I am also assuming they don’t think Brown will be an All-Pro talent. Rest assured he will get paid like one. There are a lot of teams with awful offensive lines and loads of cap space.
If the Patriots truly believe in Brown then they simply need to find a way to pay him. Cap is flexible. It can be done. But I think it is far more likely they view him as a good but not great tackle. In that case, and again assuming they trust Wynn, the best option is to take advantage of the cap relief created by having a rookie left tackle. Not to mention the benefit of the additional draft capital from the trade. And they would almost certainly get something. The market will be somewhat limited by who Belichick is willing to trade with. The Cardinals are the perfect target. The Raiders are a juicy option if the Patriots don’t mind dealing inter-conference. The Vikings are another one if they can make the cap work. Dallas will have the cap to splurge on a major acquisition and have been looking for a competent right tackle for years.
Resign Ryan Allen and Stephen Gostkowski
Resigning them at their current rate would cost the Patriots a combined $7 million. While Gostkowski and Allen might make more than that, they also might make a little less. Either way, I don’t think it will be by much in either direction. Let’s assume the Patriots do what they normally do and lower their cap hit in the first year to conserve cap. We will just leave their cap hit where it currently is.
Resign Jason McCourty
At their age my guess is that the McCourty twins will want to play together and that Jason is willing to play for less than his market rate. He’s also old and won’t command that much on the market to begin with. The Patriots will seal his services with a two-year extension that includes a $3.5 million cap hit in 2019. You can never have too many cornerbacks and grabbing security for Stephon Gilmore and J.C. Jackson is a must.
By following these moves the Patriots will create around $25 million in cap space. They will have done this while also securing the services of a franchise building block in Trey Flowers, a competent punter, an above average kicker and solidified the cornerback core for another season. The exact breakdown of these millions could vary allowing, or not allowing, additional moves. I do think they are all in the ballpark for what is possible.
Reasonable Potential Moves
Cut Adrian Clayborn
Ideally, Derek Rivers would be ready to step into a full time role next year a la Trey Flowers. In reality it seems the Patriots lack a third capable edge rusher after Deatrich Wise Jr. and Flowers. If Rivers can grow, this move becomes a lot more viable, but even then, cutting Clayborn will only save the team $4 million. Having a fourth competent edge defender has value.
Cut Kyle Van Noy
This assumes the Patriots think Ja’Whaun Bentley can step in after a season-ending injury and replace Kyle Van Noy his sophomore year. That seems unlikely. Furthermore, it assumes they think Christian Sam is acceptable depth. Cutting Van Noy would save the team $5.1 million against the cap. Combined with Clayborn, that would be enough to get awfully close to a major player. But it seems unlikely Belichick will see that as being worth the cost.
Resign “Insert Wide Receiver Here”
It’s a passing league and right now the Patriots have nothing at receiver. Resigning Phillip Dorsett makes sense but remember the free agent class for wide receivers is extremely thin: Dorsett could be difficult to retain given his age and speed. The former first-round pick has played with two of the best quarterbacks in the NFL and his production has never matched his draft pedigree. I like Dorsett more than Chris Hogan but I’m not going to splurge for him.
Speaking of Hogan. He is another likely move considering the state of the 2019 wide receiver core. Hogan’s age and limitations will likely keep his price down but it’s those same elements that keep me from wanting to make re-signing him a must happen move.
Finally, Cordarrelle Patterson has never been more than a nice fourth option and will continue to be that for the rest of his NFL career. He is, however, a great kickoff returner and can make plays occasionally. He also seems to like playing for the Patriots. I wouldn’t rule him out.
Trade Marcus Cannon and Resign Trent Brown
Brown is much younger and his natural position is right tackle. He is noticeably worse in run blocking but has looked better in pass protection. Cannon’s age and injury history are definitely an issue. I still find this scenario unlikely given the quality of Cannon’s play and the team-friendly nature of his contract. On the flip side, those same qualities could make for attractive trade bait to restock a team desperate for quality rookie contracts.
These are the biggest holes on the roster as I see them based on the moves I made.
The only wide receivers locked on the roster for 2019 are Julian Edelman and Matthew Slater. On paper, the Patriots are completely screwed. Let’s hope the 2019 season of “throw wide receivers at the wall and see what sticks” works out better than it did in 2018. I expect the Patriots to try the spaghetti at the wall strategy and draft a receiver high in the draft.
The Patriots now only have Dwayne “I didn’t realize tight ends could catch footballs” Allen. The Patriots need a tight end that can block and catch the ball.
Lawrence Guy may be having a career year but the Patriots lack a second defensive tackle that can adequately defend the run and rush the passer. New England can’t generate a lot of interior pressure and have been beaten up the middle numerous times. Guy is a prime candidate for regression, but even if he does not, a second defensive tackle should be high on the Patriots priority list.
After resigning Flowers, retaining their punter, kicker, corner, and at least one of the free agent wide receivers from the 2018 team, the Patriots simply won’t have the money to pay a big free agent. I expect the Patriots will make use of their very limited cap to sign low tier free agents they think can fit their system as they have historically. I haven’t had a chance to really study the free agent market too much so expect this be updated in Edition 1.5.
Bill Belichick is the ultimate trade master. The trade for Trent Brown, a quality starter at a premium position on a rookie contract, is proof of his wizardry. Obviously, any coup Belichick is able to summon up will be critical to the 2019 campaign. The Patriots have plenty of draft capital. Trades for talented rookies or savvy veterans on reasonable contracts are going to be in the cards. However, the Patriots don’t have the cap to make any blockbuster trades. I would be deeply hesitant to trade away a top pick like the Patriots did in 2017. If they did I would strongly suggest they mimic 2017 and hunt for a receiver. Like free agency, I will need more time to examine other teams rosters to find some trades that could work for New England.
I believe in drafting the best value available. That being said, it’s a good draft for receivers and interior defensive linemen. Both are critical needs for the Patriots based on my roster moves. Wide receiver, tight end, and defensive tackles should be the focus of the Patriots attention on day one and two. Based on my early assessments there should be plenty of targets in that range.
The Core Issue
The truth is that this roster cap is ruthlessly managed. The two biggest contracts that don’t match the production can be cut for reasonable amounts of dead cap and belong to former All-Pros. The worst contract value can be cut for zero dead money. Are there contracts with a little more dead money than you would prefer? Sure. Van Noy, Clayborn, and Rex Burkhead fall in that category. All three are arguably overpaid. But they are all contributors and can be cut without significant burden to the team.
The worst contract in terms of value and dead money is probably Dont’a Hightower. But even that isn’t that bad. He was directly responsible for two Super Bowl wins, was treated fiercely in free agency, and was coming off a career year. The team’s top paid offensive player and the team’s top paid defensive player are the top players. There just is not a lot to gripe about here in terms of cap management.
So why do the Patriots have so little cap despite fielding arguably their least talented team since 2014?
The answer are rookies. There is simply no getting around this. The Patriots do not have high quality rookie contracts and that is the lifeblood of rock star rosters. It requires a lot of assumptions but there is at least hope the Patriots are headed in the right direction after 2018. It’s very possible the Patriots could field four decent starters (J.C. Jackson, Ja’Whaun Bentley, Isaiah Wynn, Sony Michel) on rookie contracts. That is a great start but the Patriots MUST build on that in 2019. Belichick is going to trade some of the 2019 picks and given his overall success with trades I have extreme confidence in him. But I hope the Patriots are able to retain most of their top picks this year to draft rookies.
At a glance, I would suggest the meat of this draft is between 1-6 and 25-50. Be aggressive. It’s possible the Patriots could exit 2019 draft with a starting tight end, wide receiver, and defensive tackle. That would be a coup for the team and put them in a position for a more aggressive free agency in 2020.
Tom Brady has carried the Patriots for a decade. Let’s cross our fingers and hope they can build a team that carries him to a championship during his last years in the NFL.