As things stand right now, the New England Patriots are approximately $9.9 million under the NFL’s salary cap. This puts the reigning world champion in the bottom third league-wide when it comes to financial flexibility — and that is with both their punter and their kicker still on the open market and six other free agents remaining unsigned. In short: the Patriots have seen better financial days, at least when their cap space is concerned.
So how did we get to this point? A recent breakdown by salary cap expert Miguel Benzan of the Boston Sports Journal offers one explanation: the Patriots are too top-heavy at the moment when it comes to the construction of their pay roll. A quick look at the list of New England’s current contracts confirms this, as the team has more players with cap hits of $10 million or more than they have had in the past.
A total of five players are above this mark at the moment: quarterback Tom Brady ($27.0 million), cornerback Stephon Gilmore ($14.8 million), safety Devin McCourty ($13.4 million), tight end Rob Gronkowski ($11.9 million) and linebacker Dont’a Hightower ($10.9 million). All five of them are core members of the club both on and off the field, but seeing all of them hit the team’s cap with $10 or more million is a bit out of character.
Since 2014, the Patriots never had more than three players over the threshold at the same time — something that is also true when it comes to players with a cap number of more than $5 million, of which there are currently ten in New England. Last year, the club had seven such players, compared to nine the year before that and ten in 2016. But of course there is one fundamental difference between all those years: the salary cap itself.
The NFL has set the number at $188.2 million in 2019, a $10 million increase compared to last season. Of course there will be more contracts with higher cap hits: there is more cap space available after all. But while that is all true, it does not quite tell the whole story of the Patriots’ current situation. A closer look at how much percent of the total cap space is taken up by the top-10 contracts is therefore necessary.
According to Miguel, the breakdown over the last six years shows that 2019 stands out:
As can be seen, New England’s richest ten contracts make up more than half of the club’s available salary cap space — the five named above plus the ones owned by offensive tackle Marcus Cannon ($7.5 million), guard Shaq Mason ($7.3 million), defensive edge Michael Bennett ($7.2 million), linebacker Kyle Van Noy ($6.3 million) and wide receiver and the MVP of Super Bowl 53 Julian Edelman (5.4 million).
This is also where plenty of potential lies for New England to create space through possible restructures, extensions or cuts. As resident cap expert Brian Phillips pointed out previously, New England could free up additional cap space by converting parts of Stephon Gilmore’s salary into a signing bonus spread out over the remainder of his contract, or by extending Kyle Van Noy or Tom Brady. All three moves combined could create an additional $10+ million for the Patriots to work with.
So while they currently have their backs a bit against the proverbial wall, in parts because of the top-heavy nature of the salary cap list, the Patriots can still create additional wiggle room — room that could be used to bring back punter Ryan Allen, kicker Stephen Gostkowski, and other free agents let alone those rookies qualifying for a top-51 contract.
One additional note on Tom Brady and his contract, to address some misconceptions: there are rumors that his deal cannot be touched until August. However, according to both ex-NFL agent Joel Curry and the aforementioned Miguel Benzan, this does not seem to be the case. Why? Because Brady did not earn any of his 2018 incentives and his salary did therefore not increase. As a result, his deal is eligible to be altered right now.