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How the recent Coronavirus player opt-outs impact the Patriots’ salary cap and contract situations

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Related: Opt-out tracker: Which Patriots will sit out the 2020 NFL season?

Cleveland Browns v New Enlgand Patriots Photo by Timothy Bouwer/ISI Photos/Getty Images

With training camp approaching fast, NFL players have started to exercise their bargained right to opt out of the upcoming season.

Among the men who have so far decided to sit out 2020 over Coronavirus concerns are also six members of the New England Patriots: fullback Danny Vitale was the first to use the opt-out, and was followed shortly thereafter by backup interior offensive lineman Najee Toran and starting right tackle Marcus Cannon. On Tuesday, linebacker Dont’a Hightower, running back Brandon Bolden and safety Patrick Chung joined them.

With the six players opting out of their respective deals for the 2020 campaign, the Patriots’ salary cap situation — one that looked dire for much of the offseason — has also changed quite a bit. With that being said, let’s take a look at how the recent wave of opt-outs impacts the team’s books and contract situations.

New England now has $24.7 million in cap space to work with...

The list of Patriots opt-outs includes some big names: Hightower and Chung are starters on the defensive side of the ball and among the team’s locker room leaders, Cannon has served as the starting right tackle since 2016, and Bolden is one of New England’s core special teamers. The four are also playing on veteran contracts which had a noticeable impact on the team’s salary cap before their respective opt-outs:

  • LB Dont’a Hightower: $12.4 million
  • OT Marcus Cannon: $9.6 million
  • S Patrick Chung: $5.13 million
  • RB Brandon Bolden: $2 million

Add the fact that free agency signing Danny Vitale also carried a $1.29 million cap hit and you get some serious cap savings despite the fact that guaranteed salaries were added to New England’s dead cap number. All in all, however, the Patriots still gained almost $17 million in cap space over the last two days and now have $24.75 million to operate with (according to Miguel Benzan).

While it remains to be seen how the team spends its money — the safe bet is that much of it will be rolled over into 2021 — the team has some roster spots that it could use it on:

...and five open spots on its 80-man roster

Following a series of cuts to bring the roster below the training camp threshold agreed upon by the NFL and the NFLPA, the Patriots entered the week with 80 players under contract. As noted above, six of them decided to opt out of their contract. In combination with the re-signing of recently waived undrafted rookie wide receiver Will Hastings, the latest flurry of moves left the team with five open spots and various options to fill it.

New England could, for example, decide to bring some more players back that it recently released. Another option would be to explore the free agency market to bolster the depth at the positions that saw players opt out.

One player that does not yet appear to be on the Patriots’ radar, however, is star edge rusher Jadeveon Clowney: as Jeff Howe of The Athletic reported earlier on Tuesday, the team has not yet reached out to the former first-overall draft pick. While the fluidity of the current situation could still change this, it seems more likely that the Patriots will invest in depth across the board than one single player.

Four Patriots will not hit free agency next offseason

Under normal circumstances, four members of the Patriots’ opt-out group would have entered free agency next spring: Dont’a Hightower, Brandon Bolden, Danny Vitale and Najee Toran were all in the final year of their respective contracts. Due to them opting out of their deals for 2020, however, their deals will toll into next year. What does this mean? All four of them are still signed through the 2021 season, while incentives and active roster bonuses are now considered non-likely to be earned.

As a result of this, a player’s contract will look different in 2021 than it would have for the 2020 season. Take Hightower as an example: as noted above, he would have hit the Patriots’ books with a salary cap number of $12.4 million this year. With his contract tolling into the next season and all that it entails in terms of bonus money, however, his cap number for next year is projected to be around $7.85 million (per Miguel Benzan).

The opt-outs therefore not just improve New England’s salary cap situation for the 2020 season, but also for next year: all of those opting out will have lower cap numbers in 2021.

More player opt-outs could still follow this week

According to NFL Network’s Tom Pelissero, “dozens of players” have informed their respective teams that they will be opting out of the 2020 season. However, the NFL and the NFLPA is still working on the necessary language to be included in the Collective Bargaining Agreement. Once that side letter is finalized, players will have seven days to either opt in or out — putting the deadline at no sooner than August 4th at the moment. This means that more player opt-outs could still follow over the next few days.