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Tank? The Patriots’ offseason moves suggest anything but tanking

Aside from tanking being the most anti-Belichick move ever, New England’s offseason actions say everything about their expectations for 2020.

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NFL: New England Patriots at Philadelphia Eagles Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

With all due respect, and I mean with ALL due respect (that means I can say whatever I want) to Clemson superstar quarterback Trevor Lawrence, if the Patriots are calling his name in the draft next year, there has either been a trade the likes of which we’ve never seen before, or something has gone horribly wrong.

Like, Simba turning around and seeing an incoming warp-speed stampede of wildebeests-level wrong.

Since Tom Brady joined the Buccaneers approximately six months ago (editor’s note: it was actually 18 days ago), you’ve surely seen some version of the idea that the Patriots are punting on the 2020 season by rolling with incoming sophomore Jarrett Stidham at quarterback. That they’re setting themselves up to be a bad enough football team to be picking at the top of the 2021 draft, high enough that they’ll be able to snag one of those blue-chip elite quarterback prospects that can save a franchise for a decade. Maybe even 2 decades if you’re lucky!

Or, to put it another way, the 2019 Miami Dolphins.

There’s a lot of reasons this tanking idea is preposterous on a philosophical/semantic level, which can range from anything to “Bill Belichick had to be convinced by Tom Brady to not go for it on 4th-and-inches and kick a field goal in the 4th quarter of the Super Bowl instead, the only thing he hates more than losing is talking to the press after losing” to Bill Respects the Game too much to disgrace the great game of football by purposely losing game after grueling, humiliating game for 4 months just to set up some draft picks. And you’d be correct. Belichick getting on board with a tank job of Dolphins or Sashi Brown-era Browns-esque proportions is only approximately as likely as him actually figuring out how to set the clock in his car.

But we’re not here for that, if for no other reason than since I’ve dubbed the unofficial motto of Pats Pulpit to be “Pats Pulpit: Cut the Sh*t”, we try and traffic in facts only around these parts. And fortunately, the Patriots, and Bill specifically, since he’s the GM and all, have left us plenty of torches along the path that show us the way. And that way is the ass-kicking and name-taking New England’s been known for since the Lord of the Rings came out in theaters. How? Their offseason moves. In the same way you can tell a lot about someone by their budget spreadsheet, Bill’s roster moves and salary cap management are, without fail, geared towards making the 2020 Patriots the best football team they can be while also setting up for the future of the team.

(this is also where I have to take a lap and admit that I completely misread the Tom Brady situation all the way from October until he actually peaced out, so, I very possibly could be wrong here as well. At some point, you’d think all these laps for freezing cold takes would result in Brad Pitt Fight Club abs, but alas)

First things first: you may have heard from our number-crunching buddy PatsCap that the Patriots have an extremely low amount of cap space available at the moment.

Granted, somewhere around $23,000,000.00 is dead money from Brady, Antonio Brown, and a handful of other dudes that (obviously) aren’t on the team any more, but the way Bill’s spent the rest of it is where we can see him making sure the core of the post-Brady Patriots stays put in Foxboro.

Let’s start with the second-most unexpected move of the offseason: using the franchise tag for the first time since 2015 on ironman left guard Joe Thuney.

Tagging OG Joe Thuney

You’re welcome to point out that this was, in hindsight, when anyone who doesn’t sleep in Brady PJs should’ve known that Tom was gone, since tagging Joe took the Patriots down to a hair under $5.5 million in space on the same day the legal tampering period starts:

The theory at the time was New England wanted to swing a trade and get something better than the comp pick they’d get if they let Thuney walk, which makes a ton of sense given that Joe ended 2019 as a first-time All-Pro and may or may not have an adamantium skeleton after playing 99.22% of the Patriots’ offensive snaps in 2019. Given that half of the offensive linemen coming out of college now seem to have to be taught how to block from the ground up like your average bachelor in a cooking class, the possible return for an elite guard hitting his prime as a second-team All-Pro could be a Halloween Trick-Or-Treat candy haul chock full of Reese’s and Snickers, right?

Then we got this, which, since NFL free agency breaks our brains every year, was easy to read as “well of COURSE that what’s someone who’s trying to trade their superstar left guard immediately before he becomes a free agent and will almost certainly become the highest-paid IOL in football would say”:

And now, a few weeks later, they’re apparently still working on it. Meaning Joe’s $14-point-whatever million dollar cap hit is still on the books, and given the Patriots’ (eventual) success signing their stars after tagging them in recent history (the Big Vince holdout back in the day in particular stands out as having more twists than Lost, but unlike that show, everything eventually worked out), New England wouldn’t have pulled the trigger on tagging Thuney if they weren’t confident they could give him that golden-goose second contract.

Meanwhile, with an increasing number of NFL teams employing defensive linemen that specialize in attacking from the interior of the line, Belichick dishing out top dollar for a battle-tested trio of interior offensive linemen that can maul in the run game and keep the QB’s jersey clean in pass pro seems... well, very Belichick.

Extending S Devin McCourty

Wild how the franchise that (in)famously lets their players leave town a year too early instead of a year too late just re-signed a 32-year-old safety if their plan is to lose tragically in 2020, right?

Especially when that safety continues to ball at an AFC Defensive Player of the Month level and must be eating his veggies, cause DMac’s still logging 91% of the defensive snaps and chipping in on a cool 31% of special teams. Giving Devin $23 million over two years, well, there’s only one way to read it: he’s THAT important to keeping the NFL’s #1 defense of 2019 running like a Ferrari and ruining quarterbacks’ lives for the immediate future.

There’s not much to write about how under-the-radar great of a safety McCourty is that hasn’t been done already, so let’s put it this way: when you’re the brains of the back-end, regularly rank in the top-3 on the team in tackles, and you still execute your assignments like you’ve been there since your rookie year, DMac is both the grizzled vet and the multiple-Pro-Bowl baller, and Bill’s defense quite frankly is incapable of functioning the same Do Your Job way without him.

If it was, then Duron Harmon probably could’ve assumed the lion’s share of center-field duties for the 2020 squad while Devin cashed in elsewhere, and instead Harmon’s taking intro pics for the team that currently holds the #3 pick in a couple weeks.

Coincidentally, (and by that I mean absolutely not coincidentally), assuming that DPOY cornerback Stephon Gilmore’s contract remains as-is, that keeps both DMac and every wide receiver’s worst nightmare both in New England through the 2021 season. Undrafted gem Jonathan Jones is also signed through 2022, the team’s already picked up Super Bowl savior Jason McCourty’s option for 2020, fellow undrafted gem JC Jackson is here for 2020 and then hits restricted free agency in ‘21, and finally, second-round WR1-sized cornerback JoeJuan Williams is waiting in the wings for whenever his chance to start comes in the next 3 years.

It’s almost like Bill already knows all that nerd stuff about coverage being more important in the modern game than having a couple Jadeveon Clowneys. Almost!

Mohamed Sanu was not cut

Avert your eyes, everyone who sounds like CBS Boston’s Matt Dolloff doing his Felger & Mazz impression in real life, it’s time to talk Mo Sanu:

As has been reiterated approximately 6.5 million times by people trying to finagle ways to create cap space, cutting Mohamed Sanu would free up $5,750,000.00 in salary cap room due to none of his 2020 salary being guaranteed.

To the dismay of the “Sanu SUCKS, Mike!” Patriots Nation crowd across the country, though, he remains on the Patriots’ roster as of the writing of this piece, along with his $6.5 million salary.

Why? Well, this whole piece is tea-leaf-reading, after all, so let’s guess.

1) Mo sprained his ankle on November 17th, one game after his 10-catch, 14-target, 81-yard, 1-TD game against the Baltimore Ravens.

2) Mo played through it, with greatly diminished results, till the Patriots’ 2019 campaign ended in disappointment to the team that, as my Tennessee friends are fond of pointing out, the Patriots have never beaten in the Mike Vrabel Era™.

3) The injury ended up being so bad Mo had to get offseason surgery a month ago after trying to let his ankle heal up on its own, which, seems like a pretty gnarly and bad injury!

4) Prior to that, Mo had only missed 2 games in 7 seasons. For reference purposes, Devin McCourty has missed 3 games in the last 7 seasons.

5) Did we mention Sanu’s cap hit is just $6.5 million?

It’s easy to be frustrated with his 2019 production, especially with the sting of the AFC Wild Card Game still fresh; it’s also easy to see that not only should he should probably get the benefit of a doubt for stretching and/or tearing his ankle ligaments apart playing football, he’s also a salary-cap bargain given that most wide receivers on the free agent market are coming up on eight-figure salaries every year.

And at the risk of being Captain Freezing Cold Takes in the near future, sunk cost be damned, you don’t cut and/or trade a 30-year-old proven WR2 with half a decade of check-my-stats production after an injury clearly derailed his progress in the offense if your goal is to win double-digit football games.

.....or maybe Mo just needs to stay put in New England to preserve the magic number of Rutgers players on the team after Duron Harmon got traded. Your guess is as good as mine.

Dont’a Hightower still hasn’t been extended or restructured

Speaking of cap moves that could free up cap space, you may have heard that Super Bowl BAMF Dont’a Hightower is hitting the books for $12,445,305.00 this year, while the team would save a cool $9.4 million and enough change for a Sonic Route 44 by getting rid of him:

That... is a lot of cheddar, and given that both Jamie Collins and Kyle Van Noy are now very rich men and playing for two of the objectively worst teams in football, it’s a pretty good bet that Boomtower isn’t going anywhere. Also notable is the fact that this is the last year of Dont’a’s contract; he’ll be an unrestricted free agent after the 2020 season. At which point he will also be 31 years old, which doesn’t seem possible that he’s even hit Club 30 yet, but here we are.

Here’s where the win-now aspect comes in: they could extend Hightower and presumably spread some of the cap hit over the next few seasons, but it’s hard to see Bill doing that when Dont’a plays one of the game’s most physically punishing positions and is coming up on 1,000 career tackles in his Patriots career alone. He’s also far, FAR too crucial to the Patriots’ newly-ferocious defense to either cut or trade him now, again, assuming your goal is to win football games and not to lose them. Keeping a 2-time Pro Bowler and 3-time Super Bowl Mr. Clutch in the house when he’s coming up on upper-echelon pass-rusher money is a win-now move. Like we saw in 2017, without High, the defense gets discombobulated to the point where... well, you saw that season, you know.

And on that same note, let’s take a look at one more guy that’d be easy cap savings, and he’s still here too:

RT Marcus Cannon is (presumably) staying for 2020

Marcus Cannon, who, need I remind you, was a second team All-Pro in 2016, is another one of those players that’s hitting the books hard this season due to a well-deserved extension midway through the Tom Brady Revenge Tour season. As we noted last summer, Marcus also restructured his deal with the classic Patriots move of converting salary to fully guaranteed buck$ (technical term), so that made his cap hits a bit easier for the team to swallow.

That being said, he’s still hitting the books for almost $10 million in 2020, and the team could theoretically free up about $6 million of that if he was cut or traded:

So if the tank was on, then New England could easily generate some much-needed cap breathing room and presumably get at least something back in a trade, and increase their odds of a top-10 pick all in one shot if they wanted to. And while 2019 certainly wasn’t All-Pro-worthy, Marcus still started 15 games on a banged-up line missing center and captain David Andrews and held it down well enough to get some of that sweet, elusive PFF love as recently as Thanksgiving.

Like Boomtower’s role(s) on defense, Cannon’s simply too valuable in today’s game to let go, even if he’s hitting the most expensive years of his contract. As we saw with D-Mac earlier this year, Bill’s perfectly fine with letting a proven vet play out their contract even with a monster cap hit if they bring it on Sundays, and Marcus is no exception. Especially with cream-of-the-crop AFC teams like the current heavyweight champion Chiefs apparently in an arms race to see who can acquire the most pass-rushers on both ends of the line of scrimmage.

So what have we learned?

Put simply, this squad is built to put the best possible team on the field in 2020, not end up in the Trevor Lawrence short list. They’ve kept as much high-caliber talent and veteran leadership as possible, even if the guys are making the salary cap seriously top-heavy with the guys that make highlight reels on Sundays and keep the program rolling on Mondays. If the goal was to tank out in 2020, a la Suck For Luck or the Sashi Brown, er, Browns, this is the exact opposite of how you’d do it.

Instead, Belichick’s come to the conclusion that his best shot at winning ring number 9 is rolling with a second-year rookie at quarterback that more than a few people think was way underdrafted and stacking as much talent as the team can afford everywhere else, at every level of the offense and defense and, of course, who could forget, special teams.

Now we can only hope football’s back in time to prove Bill right.