clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Dissecting the financial side of the Patriots’ wide receiver competition

New, comments

Related: Patriots remove Demaryius Thomas from their PUP list

New England Patriots Practice Photo by John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Just last week, the New England Patriots’ situation at the pass catching positions looked bleak: at one point during joint practices with the Tennessee Titans, quarterback Tom Brady had to play with a wide receiver group consisting of youngsters Jakobi Meyers, Braxton Berrios and Gunner Olszewski, and since-released veteran Dontrelle Inman. Needless to say that the group would not exactly strike fear in the hearts of defensive coordinators.

Fast forward just a couple of days and you will find a rebuilt receiver depth chart: Julian Edelman is back from the non-football injury list (NFI); Demaryius Thomas is back from the physically unable to perform list (PUP); Josh Gordon has been reinstated from his indefinite suspension; N’Keal Harry and Maurice Harris returned to practice after previously missing some time due to minor injuries. The group suddenly looks pretty deep.

Realistically, however, the Patriots have but four spots available on their 53-man roster when it comes to wide receivers: Edelman and first-round rookie Harry are locks to be on the squad come opening day (as is special teamer Matthew Slater), with the other spots open to be competed for. The on-field performance will be the biggest deciding factor, of course, but the financial and contractual aspects behind the competition cannot be underestimated either.

Let’s therefore dig a bit deeper into the numbers to find out who stands out among the eight receivers fighting for the remaining spots on the team. We will start by taking a look at the numbers in case of a release: how much dead cap would moving on from a player produce, and how much would the team ultimately save without putting the Rule of 51 — only the top 51 contracts count against a team’s cap during the offseason — into account?

Patriots wide receivers, salary cap numbers (release)

Player Signed through 2019 cap hit Dead money Cap savings
Player Signed through 2019 cap hit Dead money Cap savings
Demaryius Thomas 2019 $2,906,250 $150,000 $2,756,250
Matthew Slater 2019 $2,900,000 $500,000 $2,400,000
Phillip Dorsett 2019 $2,600,000 $500,000 $2,100,000
Josh Gordon 2019 $2,025,000 $0 $2,025,000
Maurice Harris 2019 $962,500 $90,000 $872,500
Braxton Berrios 2021 $524,602 $29,602 $495,000
Gunner Olszewski 2021 $495,000 $0 $495,000
Jakobi Meyers 2021 $498,333 $53,333 $445,000
Ryan Davis 2021 $498,333 $63,333 $435,000
N'Keal Harry 2021* $1,836,063 $4,877,048 -$3,040,985
Julian Edelman 2021 $6,077,615 $8,202,615 -$5,718,000
*not including 5th-year option OverTheCap.com

The Patriots’ veterans naturally carry the highest salary cap hits, and no player at the wide receiver position other than Julian Edelman has a bigger impact on the team’s cap than free agency acquisition Demaryius Thomas. Playing on a one-year contract and coming back from season-ending Achilles injury, Thomas projects to have solid upside in New England’s system but the circumstances certainly make him no lock to survive cutdown day.

After all, the Patriots would create gross savings of $2.76 million in case they part ways with the 31-year-old — significantly more than moving on from the younger players, who are all under contract beyond this year and have so far shown more than Thomas. The same also goes for the other veterans, though: Phillip Dorsett has been a reliable albeit at times unspectacular option, while Maurice Harris started camp well but has since cooled off a bit.

Putting this in consideration and combining it with their salary cap numbers, the two appear to have better chances than Thomas at this point in time. Of course, things can change quickly as the sudden reinstatement of Josh Gordon shows: even though he is currently still on NFI, Gordon’s presence changes the entire complexion of the wide receiver group as he can be considered to be as close to a roster lock as there is beyond Edelman and Harry.

What speaks against Gordon is his track record combined with his contractual situation: playing on a restricted free agent tender, he is scheduled to hit the open market next year and does not have any guarantees in his deal. The Patriots could move on from the 28-year-old without producing any dead cap. That being said, such a move would be an enormous surprise considering Gordon’s role in the offense last year, his tremendous skillset, and his obvious chemistry with quarterback Tom Brady.

Jakobi Meyers also has good odds when it comes to making the team — certainly better ones than the other first or second year wide receivers on the roster. Not only does the undrafted rookie have a minimal salary cap hit, he also was the Patriots’ best pass catcher this summer and excelled no matter the situation he was put in. Anything but him being on the team would be a major surprise at this point in time.

It therefore appears that only two spots are really open for competition: Edelman, Harry, Gordon and Meyers will likely be on the 53-man squad on opening day. The rest of the players will fight for the other spots, with Harris’ minimal cap impact certainly a factor to consider when comparing him to Thomas or Dorsett. The same goes with Braxton Berrios’ special teams abilities in combination with a cheap contract.

Of course, releasing a player is not the only way to get him off the roster to get under the regular season threshold. Let’s therefore take a look at how potential trades would impact salary cap numbers:

Patriots wide receivers, salary cap numbers (trade)

Player Signed through 2019 cap hit Dead money Cap savings
Player Signed through 2019 cap hit Dead money Cap savings
Demaryius Thomas 2019 $2,906,250 $150,000 $2,756,250
Matthew Slater 2019 $2,900,000 $500,000 $2,400,000
Phillip Dorsett 2019 $2,600,000 $500,000 $2,100,000
Josh Gordon 2019 $2,025,000 $0 $2,025,000
Julian Edelman 2021 $6,077,615 $4,202,615 $1,875,000
Maurice Harris 2019 $962,500 $90,000 $872,500
Braxton Berrios 2021 $524,602 $29,602 $495,000
Gunner Olszewski 2021 $495,000 $0 $495,000
Jakobi Meyers 2021 $498,333 $3,333 $495,000
Ryan Davis 2021 $498,333 $3,333 $495,000
N'Keal Harry 2021* $1,836,063 $1,341,063 $495,000
*not including 5th-year option OverTheCap.com

As can be seen, there is hardly any difference from the Patriots’ perspective between trading players or straight-up releasing them. Only two of the undrafted rookies — Jakobi Meyers and Ryan Davis — have guarantees in their deals that would change their cap savings in case one of them gets traded to another team as opposed to getting cut. Trading roster locks Julian Edelman and N’Keal Harry would be different than releasing them as well, but neither of the moves is going to happen. Other than that, trades and releases have the same impact on New England’s books.

Ultimately, though, money alone will not decide the wide receiver competition: players need to show their value on the field and build a chemistry with Brady — something Meyers, for example, seems to have done well so far. All things being equal, however, long-term outlook and financial commitment will still play a role in the team’s decision-making one way or the other.