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2020 NFL free agency: Four potential Patriots salary cap casualties

Related: Patriots reportedly expected to make a run at tight end Eric Ebron in free agency

NFL: JAN 04 AFC Wild Card - Titans at Patriots Photo by Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Unless the current Coronavirus pandemic does change the NFL’s plans for the upcoming days, the 2020 league year is only five days away. This means that we are entering crunch time when it comes to teams’ preparations for the start of free agency on March 18 — one that has the potential to be a time of considerable change for the New England Patriots given that the club has a total of 19 players headed for the open market.

In order to put themselves in the best possible position to re-sign at least some of them, and improve a team that struggled on the offensive side of the ball in 2019, the Patriots will therefore likely have to make some personnel moves to increase their current salary cap space of only $29.07 million (according to Miguel Benzan). Letting the following four players still under contract go in the upcoming days would help the team do just that:

WR Mohamed Sanu

2020 salary cap hit: $6.5 million

2020 gross savings: $6.5 million

Sanu started the 2019 season with the Atlanta Falcons, but was moved to the Patriots in exchange for a second-round draft selection prior to the league’s trade deadline in October. Once in New England, the veteran pass catcher immediately made an impact by filling the second receiver role alongside Julian Edelman and catching 12 passes for 104 yards and a touchdown in his first two games with the club.

An ankle injury suffered in Week 11, however, forced Sanu to miss one game and limited him for the rest of the season. He eventually improved again towards the end of the regular season, but failed to get on the same page as Tom Brady on numerous occasions. Despite his quick start, therefore, he ultimately finished his first half-season in New England with nine in-game appearances and only 27 receptions for 218 yards and one touchdown.

Coming off a mostly disappointing season and having to undergo surgery on his ankle, the team could opt to part ways with Sanu and in turn save $6.5 million against its cap: the 30-year-old has no guarantees in his deal, which means that no dead money would be added in case of a cut. While such a move would be a minor surprise given that the Patriots invested a second-round draft pick in him just five months ago, they might be willing to take that route if it helps their short-term flexibility.

Realistically, Sanu will likely get a full offseason to prove his value to the club before any decisions are being made. But nothing is set in stone given his contract situation and disappointing 2019 campaign.

K Stephen Gostkowski

2020 salary cap hit: $4.89 million

2020 gross savings: $3.49 million

Gostkowski’s 14th year in the NFL did not go as planned. Not only did he continue his stretch of inconsistent play and ended up missing five of his first 23 kicks of the regular season — going seven of eight on field goals and 11 of 15 on extra points — the veteran also hurt his hip in late September and was placed him on season-ending injured reserve shortly afterwards. The kicker question will therefore be a big one for the Patriots this year.

Could this mean that the team moves on from him without a replacement under contract (fellow kicker Nick Folk, the third and final replacement for Gostkowski in 2019, is also a free agent)? It certainly seems possible considering that the Patriots would save roughly $3 million — his gross savings minus another player taking the 51st roster spot counting against the salary cap — by waiving goodbye to the 36-year-old.

DE Deatrich Wise Jr.

2020 salary cap hit: $2.29 million

2020 gross savings: $2.14 million

A rotational player ever since his arrival in New England as a fourth-round draft pick in 2017, Wise Jr. saw his playing time decrease for the third straight year in 2019: while he did appear in 15 of the Patriots’ 17 games, he was on the field for just 268 of a possible 1,070 defensive snaps (25%). The team tried to give him more looks as a run defender along the way, but he had his fair share of issues on a defense that moved away from a 4-3 base look.

Wise’s one-dimensionality and limited scheme fit in a 3-4 front in combination with some inconsistent play and frequent penalties — he was flagged seven times in 2019, tying wide receiver Julian Edelman and cornerback J.C. Jackson for the team-lead despite playing considerably fewer snaps — contributed to his comparatively limited usage last year and might cause the team to pull the plug on his tenure.

After all, releasing the 25-year-old would create around $2 million in additional salary cap space. While this is not much, the Patriots need every dollar they can get heading into the new league year. If this means moving on from a player that showed some promise early in his career, but seemingly took a step back in 2019, so be it.

TE Matt LaCosse

2020 salary cap hit: $1.45 million

2020 gross savings: $1.3 million

One of the Patriots’ free agency signings last March, LaCosse struggled with an ankle injury for much of the summer and also hurt his knee during the regular season. As a result, he was limited to just 12 in-game appearances in his first year in New England. But even when he was on the field, the 27-year-old failed to make a consistent impact as a pass catcher and blocker — contributing to the Patriots’ offensive struggles in year one after Rob Gronkowski.

While LaCosse is one of just two tight ends under contract heading into 2020, the Patriots would save $1.3 million when parting ways with him versus a dead salary cap hit of only $150,000. Seeing the team go that route would therefore not be surprising: LaCosse never established himself as a true number one tight end or a player capable of making consistent plays in the running and in the passing game.

If New England plans on investing in its tight end position via free agency and/or the draft further down the line — and all indications are that the team will do just that — he might therefore be on the outside looking in soon. As is the case with Wise Jr, the savings are not necessarily big compared to what Sanu or Gostkowski would bring, but they can still help.

There are of course other players that could be released in order to generate more salary cap space like linebacker Dont’a Hightower (gross savings of $9.95 million) or safety Duron Harmon (gross savings of $4.5 million). However, neither move seems likely when looking at the current composition of the Patriots’ roster. The combination of limited contributions in 2019 and comparatively high cap hits therefore makes the four men listed above the most likely candidates to get the axe in order for New England to gain additional money to work with.

Overall, the team would create roughly $11.39 in additional salary cap space (considering that four other players would take their spots on the top-51 roster counting against the cap). Combined with the $29.07 million currently projected to be available, the Patriots would consequently have around $40.46 million to work with entering free agency before any additional cuts, trades or restructures — the 19th biggest cap space in the NFL. While still not idea, this would also not be the worst spot to be in.