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NFL salary cap reduction will also impact franchise tag figures, and what this means for the Patriots

Related: New report suggests NFL salary cap might drop to $180 million in 2021

Baltimore Ravens v New England Patriots Photo by Billie Weiss/Getty Images

While no official number has been communicated to the 32 clubs just yet, the expectation is that the NFL will set its salary cap for the 2021 season significantly below last year’s $198.2 million. The economic fallout of the Coronavirus pandemic — most teams did not have fans in their stadiums throughout 2020, for example — is expected to force the league-wide cap go down to somewhere between $175 million and $180 million per team.

This decrease will have a major impact on the league, and force numerous organizations to do some major cap gymnastics in order to get below the threshold by March 17. The cap reduction, however, will not just be felt by teams’ books but also by those players who are set to enter the open market as unrestricted free agents.

New contracts will have to look differently with less wiggle room available in the short term, and even franchise tag figures are not immune to the drop: after steadily going up throughout the years, they too will go down as a result of the lowered spending ceiling.

By how much will, again, depend on where the cap ends up being set, but early projections see a reduction of up to almost 20 percent depending on the position.

CBS Sports salary cap expert Joel Corry did the math to come up with those numbers. During the late stages of the regular season, he shared the following table based on a league-wide cap of $175 million. And while those figures are merely a projection at this point in time, they do illustrate just how big the impact could be:

2021 Franchise Tag projection

Position 2020 Figures 2021 Projection Change
Position 2020 Figures 2021 Projection Change
Quarterback $26,824,000 $24,072,000 -10.3%
Wide receiver $17,865,000 $15,326,000 -14.2%
Defensive end $17,788,000 $15,409,000 -13.4%
Cornerback $16,338,000 $14,441,000 -11.6%
Defensive tackle $16,126,000 $13,317,000 -17.4%
Linebacker $15,828,000 $14,184,000 -10.4%
Offensive line $14,781,000 $13,188,000 -10.8%
Safety $11,441,000 $10,176,000 -11.1%
Tight end $10,607,000 $9,206,000 -13.2%
Running back $10,278,000 $8,300,000 -19.2%
Punter/kicker $5,019,000 $4,298,000 -14.4%
Joel Corry/CBS

While some positions such as quarterback or linebacker are less impacted by a decreased salary cap, others such as running back or defensive tackle will be hit harder. How come? Those positions have been devalued as of late, and since the franchise tags are not just calculated based on the overall cap but also historical precedent — the last five seasons are used as the basis — they see their numbers drop more than others.

What does this mean for the New England Patriots, though?

As has been pointed out before, the team will not feel the salary cap decrease as much as others: New England is in comparatively good shape and projected to have approximately $60 million in cap space available — fourth most in the league behind only the Jacksonville Jaguars, Indianapolis Colts and New York Jets. That said, given their long list of free-agents-to-be, the Patriots will need every dollar they can get.

A total of 23 players is currently headed for the open market, including some long-time cornerstones. Offensive linemen David Andrews and Joe Thuney are unrestricted free agents, as are running back James White, defensive tackles Lawrence Guy and Adam Butler, and cornerback Jason McCourty. Also on that list is New England’s starting quarterback of the 2020 season, Cam Newton.

All of them, as well as the other 16 unrestricted free agents, are theoretical candidates to receive the franchise tag. Not all of them are in the same boat, though, for obvious reasons.

With that said, let’s take a look at the most realistic candidates to be tagged this year and what their numbers would look like — all while keeping in mind that a club can only designate one of its free agents as a franchise player per year.

DT Adam Butler: $13.3 million. Adam Butler has been a starter-level defensive tackle for the Patriots the last two years, and as such could be highly regarded in free agency. While $13.3 million is a considerable sum invested in him, the tag could simply be used to work out a long-term deal.

K Nick Folk: $4.3 million. Arguably the most realistic candidate to be tagged this year, Nick Folk played on a $1.05 million base salary in 2020. The increase would be significant, but the veteran proved himself one of New England’s most reliable players last year. And even with a cap hit of $4.3 million, he would still be only he eighth highest paid kicker in the NFL next season.

DT Lawrence Guy: $13.3 million. Lawrence Guy is in the same basic situation as Adam Butler, not just because he is playing the same position: he too is in need of a new contract, and has been a highly valuable member of New England’s defensive line in year’s past. $13.3 million is a lot of money to invest in a soon-to-be 31-year-old, but it again could serve as a foundation if no new deal is reached by the end of the tagging period.

QB Cam Newton: $24.1 million. Even though he is coming off a disappointing first season as New England’s starter, Cam Newton is a candidate to be brought back as a potential bridge quarterback into the future. As such, he too appears to be a candidate for the franchise tag, even though a $24.1 million salary would make him the 14th highest paid QB in the league.

G Joe Thuney: $17.7 million. After already getting tagged last season, Joe Thuney’s situation differs from other players on the Patriots’ roster. His franchise tag figure would go up to correlate with the Collective Bargaining Agreement: the tag number is either the calculated average of franchise tags at a position for the last five years, or 120 percent of a player’s salary the previous year depending on which sum is greater. Thuney would fall under the 120 percent rule, and thus become the highest paid guard in football in 2021 if playing under the tag again.

At this point in time, there is no telling what the Patriots will do and whether or not they will apply the franchise tag for a second year in a row. But even if they do, it seems as if Folk is the most realistic candidate to get it based on positional need in combination with past performance and financial impact.

From a big picture perspective, however, the lower franchise tag figures again create a unique dynamic for a financially potent club.