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Pumping the brakes on some popular Patriots cap space creating maneuvers

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Not all potential cost-cutting moves make sense.

NFL: AFC Championship Game-New England Patriots at Kansas City Chiefs Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Last March, just weeks after a Super Bowl 52 loss to Philadelphia, the 2018 roster construction process began in New England. With limited cap resources (around $15 million in space) and a host of key contributors set to hit the free agent market, Bill Belichick started making transactions.

On March 6th, he declined Alan Branch’s 2018 option. The next day, the team announced it had released veteran tight end Martellus Bennett — who would retire two weeks later — and return specialist Bernard Reedy. The moves increased the Patriots’ available cap space to around $23.6 million.

It was the highest that figure would get for the entire 2018 season.

Fast forward almost one year later and the Patriots are just over three weeks removed from having hoisted their sixth Lombardi Trophy since 2001. And, as they begin the process of building a roster to mount their title defense in 2019, their salary cap and free agent situation is remarkably similar to last spring’s.

There is, however, a faction of the fan base whose fear of another potentially “boring” offseason grows stronger with each passing day. The fact that the Patriots overcame similar salary cap and personnel hurdles last season en route to a championship isn’t enough to suppress their anxiety until September. This contingent is fueled by splash signings and big-named trades, and the lack thereof embroils them in a perpetual state of foreboding about the organization’s future.

Many in this group possess at least a basic knowledge of the NFL salary cap system, and they are generally aware of the team’s offseason tenancies and constraints. Yet, they often craft theoretical offseason agendas to shield themselves from realities like the increased likelihood that Trey Flowers and Trent Brown find more lucrative landing spots in free agency, or that the acquisition of Odell Beckham Jr.’s contract is a complete impracticality.

Knowing that the team only has around $18 million in projected cap space heading into March, these cravers of offseason chaos begin a torrid trimming and reshaping of New England’s cap sheet with a laser focus on the creation of cap space at all costs — with some of the most popular items of this offseason being:

  • The release of Dwayne Allen.
  • Extending Tom Brady.
  • The retirement of Rob Gronkowski — or forcing him take a pay cut if he plays.
  • Making Devin McCourty take a pay cut, now that he’s not retiring.
  • Making Dont’a Hightower take a pay cut.
  • The release of Marcus Cannon.
  • The release of Adrian Clayborn.

A few of the items on this list — such as the release of Dwayne Allen and the extension of quarterback Tom Brady — are feasible, pragmatic undertakings. Others simply haven’t been given enough thought.

First, pay cuts are a two-way street. Players have to agree to them. If you are among those who believe the Patriots should ask key contributors like Devin McCourty and Dont’a Hightower to take pay cuts, are you prepared to release them if they fail to comply?

Next, why cut productive veterans with manageable cap hits like Marcus Cannon and Adrian Clayborn?

Cannon is two years removed from an All-Pro season and was fantastic in 2018. He’s still under contract through 2021, and he carries a $7,456,250 cap hit into this season — which is the eighth-highest among right tackles in 2019. It’s also painfully obvious, but it bears mentioning that Trent Brown will be getting big money in free agency, and 2018 first round pick Isaiah Wynn red-shirted his rookie season with an Achilles tear, so cutting or trading Cannon would be a baffler.

Finally we arrive at Clayborn.

The key to New England’s defensive success last season was their depth, which can largely be attributed to their health. That depth afforded them the opportunity to have their personnel develop into more defined roles. A player like Clayborn — who was brought in on a reasonable two-year, $10 million deal last March — wasn’t asked to be multifaceted. Instead, he carved out a niche role for himself on the sub-rushing unit alongside second-year interior defensive lineman Adam Butler.

Unfortunately, a small handful of plays where Blake Bortles or Mitchell Trubisky were allowed to scramble for first downs after Clayborn lost contain are what stick in the minds of those looking to cut him strictly for the purposes of cap space. But if they looked more closely, they’d see that, according to NFL’s Next Gen Stats, no edge rusher in the NFL generated a higher pressure rate on pass rushing snaps (17.3% — minimum 200 snaps, including playoffs) last season. In fact, on an impact-play percentage basis (percentage of snaps where a sack, QB hit, forced fumble, or tackle for loss was logged), Clayborn had the most productive season of his career in 2018.

While the loss of an excellent player like Trey Flowers may seem devastating, the Patriots have been preparing for this situation for a while by layering depth behind him on the roster. Deatrich Wise has shown he’s more than capable of handling early or passing down roles, and Derek Rivers flashed in brief stints after being buried on the depth chart all season — a circumstance that resulted from the unit’s run of good health as opposed to an indictment of his skill set. The team also likes what they have in former UDFA Keionta Davis and the big-bodied Ufomba Kamalu. They’ve also got 12 picks in the upcoming draft and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see them add more young talent to the group.

Adrian Clayborn’s skill set is the perfect compliment to this collection of personnel, and with the 31st-highest 2019 cap hit at the edge rusher position, he’s a considerable bargain. However, for those who simply can’t stomach a cap hit of less than $6 million for a veteran presence at a high-dollar position, perhaps some common ground can be found in the form of an extension. Here’s what it could potentially look like:

In this scenario, it’s a two year extension worth a maximum of $10.5 million in new money. $3.5 million of the $4 million that Clayborn was set to earn in 2019 becomes fully guaranteed. $2.57 million of his 2019 salary is converted to a signing bonus, and the remaining $930,000 is guaranteed. The $500,000 in per-game roster bonuses are replaced with play time incentives beginning at 35% of the team’s defensive snaps — which would classify them as not like to be earned for 2019.

The extension creates $2,150,834 in 2019 cap space. It would also drop Clayborn’s 2019 cap hit from 31st-highest at the edge rusher position to the 36th-highest.

Moving forward, the Patriots would have to pick up a $500,000 roster bonus in March 2020 to keep Clayborn, and in doing so, half of his $3 million 2020 salary would become guaranteed. In the worst case scenario — should he have a terrible 2019 season — the team could let him walk and still create $2,286,666 in 2020 cap space with $1,713,334 in dead money. If he continues to produce, then the team has the opportunity to secure his services for two more years at economical cap figures — even for an age-32 and 33 player.

Regardless of whether or not his cap figure changes, Adrian Clayborn will be a valuable asset in 2019. Will he fill the void left behind by Trey Flowers? No — not completely. But rest easy — this team won just won the Super Bowl without ever exceeding $24 million in cap space.

Anyone think they can’t do it again?

Follow Brian Phillips on Twitter — @BPhillips_SB