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2020 NFL free agency: Patriots are currently among the league leaders in dead salary cap space

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New England Patriots vMiami Dolphins Photo by Eric Espada/Getty Images

One of the pillars of the New England Patriots’ dynasty has been the club’s ability to manage its finances. While the Patriots were — as opposed to a popular myth — never afraid to pay market value to keep or acquire talent, they are arguably the smartest organization in the NFL year-in and year-out when it comes to spending cash and evaluating cost based on a players’ possible contributions in the team’s system.

As a result of this, New England has also generally been able to keep its so-called dead money — resources invested in players that are no longer with the team — to a minimum. This year is an exception, however, and it contributed to the Patriots’ comparative inflexibility during this year’s free agency: according to salary cap expert Miguel Benzan, the club currently has a dead pay roll of $25,998,491.

For comparison, only two other teams in the NFL have a higher dead cap number at the moment: the Carolina Panthers have roughly $36.5 million invested in players that will wear different uniforms this season, the Jacksonville Jaguars approximately $34 million. Both teams, of course, moved on from their previous starting quarterbacks — Cam Newton and Nick Foles, respectively — resulting in guarantees hitting the teams’ books in 2020.

The Patriots are no exception in this area, even though their own quarterback departee is only one part of the reason for their relatively high dead cap number. A look at the full list illustrates this:

QB Tom Brady: $13,500,000

WR Antonio Brown: $4,750,000

K Stephen Gostkowski: $3,200,000

DE Michael Bennett: $2,000,000

FS Duron Harmon: $1,250,000

CB Duke Dawson Jr: $765,410

DT Mike Pennel: $250,000

Tom Brady stands out above the rest due to his $13.5 million dead cap number. The story behind it is well-known: the future Hall of Famer had two void years left on a restructured contract he signed with the Patriots in 2019, that would be triggered on the first day of the 2020 league year if he was not re-signed at that point. Brady was not — he instead left the team and will play in Tampa Bay next season — forcing his entire signing bonus proration to hit the club’s books this year.

The other players, meanwhile, are not quite on Brady’s level in terms of star power but big names nevertheless.

Stephen Gostkowski was the Patriots’ kicker for 14 seasons before being released earlier this week. Michael Bennett was acquired last offseason but traded to the Dallas Cowboys just a few months later after failing to carve out a consistent role. Duron Harmon served as New England’s number three safety since 2013 but was moved to Detroit last week in an apparent salary dump. Duke Dawson is a former second-round draft pick that was traded to Denver after only one year. Mike Pennel failed to make the roster as a free agency signing in 2019.

And then, there is Antonio Brown. After his unceremonious release from the then-Oakland Raiders in 2019, the Patriots picked him up on a one-year contract with a second-year option. The talented but troubled wideout was released after just one game, however, after sexual assault allegations emerged against him. The guarantees remaining on his deal are still subject of a $9 million grievance, with half of which counting against New England’s 2020 salary cap for the time being.

Add it all up and you get a team that will not have a single player on its roster this year that counts against the books as much as those no longer with the team.

As a result, the Patriots currently rank near the bottom of the league when it comes to available salary cap space a little more than one week into free agency: according to Miguel’s calculations, the team is a mere $803,834 under the league’ $198.2 million cap, meaning that it will need to find a way to create more wiggle room in order to sign draft picks and be prepared for any in-season moves that need to be made.