The New England Patriots will do little in free agency. That will be disappointing to a lot of people but it’s just a fact. According to Over the Cap the Patriots currently have $16.5 million in cap space. Guys, that just not a lot of money. Their cap situation is tight. They may sign a low level free agent who turns into a key contributor a la Alan Branch or Lawrence Guy but they will not be signing a premier agent. Why? They simply do not have the money.
There is a reason the Kansas City Chiefs cut Justin Houston and have put Dee Ford on the trade block despite them accounting for a combined 22 regular season sacks. The Chiefs just don’t have the money. Some may describe the cap as “fake” due to the numerous ways of circumventing the ceiling, but these tricks are not sustainable. As quickly as a good draft or spree of free agent signings can raise a team, so too can negative decisions torpedo a teams success.
Bill Belichick knows this, which is why he manages the personnel with such ruthless efficiency. There is a reason the Patriots have gone to eight straight AFC title games and a team like the Jacksonville Jaguars craters into the bottom ten after reaching it for the first time in years. Belichick the GM may not be as talented as Belichick the HC but after six Super Bowls victories it’s clear the man has an effective philosophy for team building.
That philosophy does not advocate cap tricks to slot an expensive free agent unto a team fresh off a successful Super Bowl run. What does Belichick’s philosophical history suggest he will do? That’s what we will investigate today. Let’s get started.
Value is the most important word in the Belichick dictionary. It’s the sharpest sword in his armory and the most priceless relic in his treasury. Not the best player, not the cheapest player, the player that represents the best value to the team.
Generally speaking that means Belichick does not engage in major free agent acquisitions. Why? Because the nature of free agency generally means that the price you pay outweighs the production of the player. It’s intrinsic to the system. In other words, it’s bad value. You know who doesn’t care about bad value? General managers who can’t draft good talent, head coaches that can’t coach talent up, and franchises swimming in cap space because they don’t have any good players on their team worth paying.
Now that doesn’t mean there is not a time and a place to engage in free agency. Stephon Gilmore and Darrelle Revis were both very expensive players but both represented good value you the team and played major roles in successful Super Bowl runs. Sometimes if you have managed your cap well it can still be valuable to “splurge” on players to push your team over the top. But those circumstances are rare.
Generally speaking, the best way to find value in free agency is to buy lower and produce higher. What do I mean by that? Players that you think can be coached or used better so as to produce more. You might think that only applies to inexpensive free agents like Alan Branch, but it can apply to expensive free agents too. Stephon Gilmore is being paid to produce like a top ten cornerback but has been the best corner in the league. That is value too. Even if it comes with a big cap hit. Still, as a general rule of thumb teams that are overly reliant on free agency to gain talent on their roster will not be successful because those players rarely represent the best value. So what is another way to find value?
Another way to find value is through trades. Belichick is arguably the best wheeler and dealer in the game. The Michael Bennett trade is a perfect example of that. Bennett is not quite as good of an overall player as Trey Flowers. He is significantly older, and supposedly was given limited practice reps during the regular season in order to maintain his conditioning. He certainly does not represent a long-term solution for the team.
But he could easily cost only half of what Flowers will demand as a free agent and provide more upside as a pass rusher. Bennett was dominant in the playoffs last year and only Aaron Donald, the best defensive player in the NFL, had more quarterback hits. In other words Bennett could easily provide 80% (or more) of Flowers’ production at half the cap price. And keep in mind all this cost the Patriots next to zero draft capital. That’s Belichick’s value system at work.
The final and best way to create value is through the draft. Consider this: the Chiefs’ Tyreek Hill and Patrick Mahomes combined cap hit in 2019 will be $6.5 million. Two first-team All-Pros combining for a cap hit of only $6.5 million? You will never find that in free agency. Heck, you probably can’t find a single first-team All-Pro even close to that low a cap hit. How is it possible? Rookie contracts. In the same way that free agency intrinsically inflates the cost of players, rookie costs are intrinsically deflated.
As I mentioned before it’s possible to get free agents that are great deals. If you buy low and then get high production it can create a steal. The issue is probability and magnitude. There are not only fewer free agent contracts that possess good value but the degree of the positive value is usually less. What do I mean by the positive value being less? Take the Stephon Gilmore example above. He has outplayed his contract. That’s value. But is the value of being the best cornerback in the NFL and getting paid like the eighth best comparable to Patrick Mahomes being the league’s best quarterback and only getting paid a little over $4 million? Not even close.
So with these strategies for attaining value in mind what do we think the Patriots are liable to do?
One of Belichick’s best traits as a GM is pro evaluation. The Patriots draft record may have some big misses but generally speaking their trades have been incredibly effective. While Sony Michel may not have presented a massive steal in the draft, the trades for Trent Brown and Jason McCourty certainly did. The Patriots traditionally pick very low in the draft which reduces the probability of getting rookie steals. Trades have been a massive element of how Belichick has managed to keep the dynasty alive despite that fact.
We’ve already seen him execute one trade this offseason — it’s probable more trades are to come. But what form will those take? Fortunately, we possess some context for what types of players the Patriots would need to trade for. The first context is cap restrictions. Even after a hypothetical restructuring of Tom Brady’s contract, Devin McCourty’s contract, and cutting Adrian Clayborn, the Patriots would have little cap space to spare. So we can assume they will not be making trades for any high priced players. Trading a third and a fifth for the chance that the Patriots could control Antonio Brown? I’d make that trade. But Brown’s cap hit made such a trade improbable at best. If the Patriots make a trade it will probably be for a player on a very reasonable contract. But given how tight they are against the cap it’s probably even more likely that they trade for rookie contracts.
Surprise Cuts or Trades
The Patriots’ tough cap situation leaves the door wide open for some surprising cuts. At the top of my list? Rob Gronkowski, Devin McCourty and Adrian Clayborn. McCourty and Gronk are both expensive aged veterans on the last year of their contracts with a minimal dead money hit. Clayborn’s contract is not that bad but it probably represents the worst deal out of top ten contracts on the roster. New England doesn’t really have replacements for any of these guys so I’d be hesitant to make the move. But if the Patriots make surprise cuts I think this is where they come from. Mike Reiss is already reporting that he thinks Clayborn is a goner. The only other move that makes sense is Marcus Cannon, but it would absolutely require a corresponding move like drafting an offensive tackle.
Predicting the draft is a crapshoot. Just trying to pick the moves of the Patriots is difficult. Predicting the moves of the other 31 franchises? Effectively impossible unless you make it a full-time job. And even then there are numerous surprises in every draft. I won’t posit what players the Patriots draft before free agency is concluded but I will posit that they pick a number of players this year. The Patriots need rookie steals. It’s as simple as that. If the Patriots really are committed to Tom Brady playing until 45 than stock piling picks for a quarterback are not necessary.
This draft is not nearly as good as I thought it might be heading into the combine. A slew of wide receivers, tight ends, and defensive linemen fell off the map due to poor testing. And that was after a slew of players I thought would declare did not. Still there will be talent available for the Patriots at positions of need and they will need to get some home runs. I really wish they had the foresight to draft Justin Reid last year. He was a great culture fit and a player I actually mocked to the Patriots at 32 last year. He was ranked by PFF as a top 20 FS his freshman season and the Texans got him in the 3rd round last year...
Anyways, I digress. I would not be shocked to see a safety selection in this draft even though it appears to be a minor need compared to other holes on the roster. Belichick has always valued the safety position: Devin McCourty is old and only under contract for one more season — it has to be on Belichick’s radar. That prospect of course sends chills down my spine. Dread memories of second round DB busts dance in my brain but just because you’ve missed before doesn’t mean you stop swinging. That being said, I hope the Patriots just extend McCourty and push that concern down the line. I’d like to see them draft defensive linemen, receivers or an offensive tackle. I think those have a higher probability of being the best value. But we will just to have to see.
As I stated above, I don’t see Belichick being aggressive in free agency. The money simply is not there. It’s not that the team won’t sign free agents but don’t expect any big deals. That’s why all this talk of Justin Houston or Marlon Humphrey seems silly to me. Yeah, if the Patriots can strike some incredible bargain then I am sure Bill will bite. Maybe something with a very low upfront cap hit than skyrockets next year. But is that probable to happen with big name free agents? No. It’s not.
Tying it Together
I think Belichick is going to have minimal free agency action, swing a few trades for cheap contracts, and then head full steam into the draft. Some surprise cuts (or retirement, in Gronk’s case) could change that equation but it will take a surprise move for that to happen. The core of this team is going to be churned over and the only way to do that is through the draft. That may be unsettling with the Brady era so close to ending but it’s a fact. I wrote last year that 2018 was the Patriots’ last best chance for a Super Bowl. That assessment was based on the state of the roster.
That does not mean I don’t think the Patriots will be a bad team in 2019. What it means is that the best players on this roster are old and replacing them is not close to a guarantee. Watching how Bill manages to do it will be an exciting venture. This roster is still the most talented in the division and obviously the best coached. For the Patriots even a “disappointing” season likely means winning the division and losing in the AFC Championship Game. Woe is us.
There are going to be a lot of front offices annoyed at the Pittsburgh Steelers this year. With Le’Veon Bell sitting out and Antonio Brown taking the front office behind the woodshed there are going to be a lot of players looking at the Steelers’ stars and wondering if they should not be doing the same. You have already heard Frank Clark and DeMarcus Lawrence suggesting they won’t play for the franchise tag. Who knows what will happen. That being said, players sitting out is nothing new. Patriots fans rightfully wish to snicker at the Steelers but let’s not forget that Logan Mankins and Richard Seymour held out on the Patriots too. It’s a part of the NFL.
The Chiefs really need to hope switching defensive coordinators and the move to a base 4-3 helps them. They also need to pray that Brett Veach drafts well. That offense will remain explosive but one of the worst defenses in the NFL is probably heading into the 2019 season sans its two best edge rushers. That’s 22.0 sacks of production they will need to replace on a defense that wasn’t that productive to begin with.
The Browns are on the rise. They are coming off what appear to be two home run drafts. They have found eight legitimate starters through the draft the last two years. They have a stud corner, edge rusher, and most importantly, quarterback. They have a mountain of cap space and are picking in the middle of the draft. Most importantly they seem to have a GM and a HC that at least have an idea of what they are doing. Heading into 2019 there is a lot for fans of the Factory of Sadness to be excited about.
The Packers’ star could be resurrected this year. They have a decent chunk of cap space and some high draft picks. There are no guarantees of course but with a new coaching staff and an influx of talent I suspect the team will be back in contention for the top of the division once more.
The Colts are another team to look at. They don’t have a ton of draft capital but they have a GM coming off a nice draft and a mountain of cap space to spend. The early returns on Frank Reich as a coach are extremely impressive as he led a team many thought would not be competitive to the divisional round of the playoffs. This team still has plenty of issues but I expect them to be in the thick of it this year.
Nick Foles to the Jaguars could be a problem. The Jags don’t have the offensive line or weapons the Eagles did nor is their defense as stout as it was in 2017. The offensive line had bad luck with injuries and should be better this year. Even mediocre quarterback play combined with that still stout defense could pose a dangerous combination on any given Sunday.