After failing to qualify for the postseason because of their 7-9 record, the New England Patriots will have to set their sights on what lies ahead. Free agency will begin in mid-March, and it will be a big one for the team: the Patriots, after declining to sign four of their practice squad members to future contract, have 30 players set to hit the open market unless either re-signed or tendered at the appropriate level.
That list is filled with big names — from four members of the most recent All-Decade team (David Andrews, Lawrence Guy, Joe Thuney, James White), to starting quarterback Cam Newton, to valuable starters or rotational players in all three phases. The Patriots’ front office will therefore have its work cut out for it not just because director of player personnel Nick Caserio left town to take over as the Houston Texans’ next general manager.
Luckily for the Patriots, they are in a good financial shape entering the offseason — something that was not the case last year.
Regardless on where the league sets the salary cap next year, New England will be among the most financially potent clubs in the league. Cap expert Miguel Benzan, for example, projects the Patriots to have around $60 million available before accounting for potential moves to clear up even more room under the yet-to-be-set threshold mandated by the NFL.
Not every team is in as comfortable a position, though, as a recent Tweet by Over the Cap’s Jason Fitzgerald illustrates. While only the 1-15 Jacksonville Jaguars and the 2-14 New York Jets are projected to have more space available than New England, a significant portion of the league could be under the cap depending on where it will be set:
Here is a quick look at every teams estimated 2021 salary cap space against their 2020 record— Jason_OTC (@Jason_OTC) January 11, 2021
Top right= good record, good cap position
Top left= good record, bad cap position
Bottom right= bad record, good cap position
Bottom left= disaster pic.twitter.com/3Wo7luqCJg
The New Orleans Saints are obviously standing out. While they have not yet turned their focus to 2021 given that they are still competing for the Super Bowl — they will go up against Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on divisional weekend — they will face a significant challenge whenever their season is coming to an end (although Drew Brees’ expected retirement will help a bit).
No other team is in as bad a situation as the Saints, but given that the league is expected to set the cap lower than this year’s $198.2 million numerous other clubs might also be forced to trim weight before the start of the 2021 league year on March 17. In turn, opportunities to acquire quality players either via trade or through the open market could come around at a higher rate than in normal offseasons not impacted by the Coronavirus.
The Patriots and their approximately $60 million in cap space therefore certainly could be quite aggressive, even though Bill Belichick downplayed this during his season-ending media conference call.
“I think we always try to do what’s best for the football team, and that’s a combination of long-term and short-term. Honestly, I don’t know how we could be any more aggressive than we were for the last five years — I’m talking about the ‘14 to ‘18 period. Well, I’ll throw last year in there, too, so for the last six years, really, and so there’s a residual to that,” New England’s head coach and de facto general manager said.
Aggressiveness or not, Belichick and company are in a much better situation than they were a year ago. Accordingly, they should be much more active when it comes not just to keeping in-house talent but also bringing players aboard from the outside.
Given how well they are positioned relative to the rest of the league, this could result in moves that can be characterized as aggressive even if Belichick would not categorize them as such.
“I would say we’re always trying to be aggressive,” he said earlier this month. “We’re always trying to improve the team in any way we can, whether that’s a play, a technique, a personnel decision, whatever it is, and we evaluate every single thing that we do. We evaluate it on a regular basis. Some things are done weekly, some things are done monthly, some things are done at the end of a particular period of activity as we go through a normal year cycle.
“So, I wouldn’t characterize it as anything different than what we’ve always done, which is to try to do the best that we can for our football team. Now, again, that takes into consideration some long-range planning, which we have to have, but a lot of short-range planning, too.”
No matter the approach the Patriots will make, and what decisions come from it, they are well-equipped from a financial standpoint to make some big moves — moves that are certainly needed given how the team finished the 2020 season.