With the franchise tag window closed and the salary cap for the 2021 season set, we are entering crunch time when it comes to teams’ preparations for the start of the new league year on March 17 — and with it free agency. This year’s free agency has the potential to be a time of considerable change for the New England Patriots given that the club has numerous holes to fill as well as a total of 22 players headed for the open market.
In order to put themselves in the best possible position to re-sign some of them, and also improve a team that is coming of a 7-9 season, the Patriots will have to wisely spend their $64.5 million in salary cap space (according to Miguel Benzan). That number is already one of the biggest in the league, but New England could add almost $9 million to it without making any major changes to the current structure of the roster.
In fact, there are five easy cuts the Patriots could make before next week to increase their cap space to $73.4 million. Let’s take a look at them.
OT Marcus Cannon
2021 salary cap hit: $9.62 million
2021 dead money: $2.57 million
2021 net savings: $6.28 million
Before his Coronavirus opt-out in 2020, Marcus Cannon was a cornerstone of the Patriots’ offensive line at the starting right tackle position. He is still a serviceable player in the NFL, but one who has a hefty salary cap hit attached to his name given his age — he will turn 33 in May — and injury history. His cap number of $9.62 million is the fourth highest on the team, which makes him a realistic candidate to be let go over the course of the offseason.
After all, the Patriots do have plenty of depth at the offensive tackle position. They recently re-acquired Trent Brown via trade to add to a group that also includes both of last year’s starters — Isaiah Wynn and Michael Onwenu — as well as second-year swing tackle Justin Herron and former third-round draft pick Yodny Cajuste.
While the position is expected to see some change given that Onwenu might be moved to guard, Cannon is more of a luxury than a need right now. New England might not let him go immediately given that he still has value due to his experience and ability to align on both the left and the right side of the line, but it would not be surprising if he has played his last down in a Patriots uniform.
DT Beau Allen
2021 salary cap hit: $3.05 million
2021 dead money: $1.1 million
2021 net savings: $1.17 million
Allen originally arrived in New England last spring, when he signed a two-year, $7 million contract with the club. Originally expected to help replace free agency departee Danny Shelton, the big-bodied defender was a non-factor after already missing the entire full-team portion of training camp for undisclosed reasons. He made the team’s initial 53-man roster but was moved to injured reserve shortly thereafter.
Allen returned to the practice field in late October, opening a 21-day window in which he could either be activated or remain on IR for the remainder of the season, but he never made it back. His first year with the team ended with zero in-game appearances, and one big question mark next to his name heading into 2021.
While his dead cap hit of $1.1 million is almost as much as the team’s net savings — Allen’s savings minus the player that replaces him on the top-51 payroll — letting the veteran go after a lost season would still give the Patriots more financial flexibility. Would they be willing to go that route? Everything seems possible, but with fellow defensive tackles Lawrence Guy, Adam Butler and Deatrich Wise Jr. all headed for free agency the team might want to keep its depth intact as much as possible for the time being.
TE Matt LaCosse
2021 salary cap hit: $1.45 million
2021 dead money: $150,000
2021 net savings: $520,000
Matt LaCosse’s tenure with the Patriots has been a relatively quiet one so far. He was limited to just 12 in-game appearances during the 2019 season — his first in New England — due to injuries, and failed to make a consistent impact as a pass catcher and blocker even when on the field. The following year, he exercised the Coronavirus opt-out clause and sat out the entire season.
With his contract tolling into 2021, LaCosse is scheduled to play on the same terms as he would have been last year. This means, that the Patriots can part ways with him while only taking on a minimal dead money charge plus net savings of $520,000. Given that they invested two third-round selections in the tight end position in last year’s draft, and have the financial means to make a big splash in free agency as well, seeing them part ways with the 28-year-old would not come as a shocker.
FB Danny Vitale
2021 salary cap hit: $1.29 million
2021 dead money: $100,000
2021 net savings: $407,500
The Patriots brought Danny Vitale in last offseason to compete with Jakob Johnson for the vacant fullback position after James Develin’s retirement. The competition was over before it even began, though: Vitale opted out of the 2020 season and has yet to play in a game for the team.
As was the case with Marcus Cannon, Matt LaCosse and every other opt-out, his contract also tolled into the following season. As a result, Vitale carries a cap charge of $1.29 million — a big number considering that teams normally only carry one fullback on their active roster, and that Johnson looked promising in this role last year. New England parting ways with Vitale and officially handing over the keys to Johnson seems to be a realistic outcome.
DT Akeem Spence
2021 salary cap hit: $1.23 million
2021 dead money: $62,500
2021 net savings: $388,750
New England added Akeem Spence midway through the season in order to bolster a struggling defensive tackle group. The former fourth-round draft pick certainly had his moments, but with the Patriots possibly overhauling the position over the offseason could be on the outs when all is said and done.
The team could speed up that process by releasing the 29-year-old before the start of the new league year, taking on just $62,500 in dead money while creating net savings of $388,750. While the questions about the overall composition of his position also apply to Spence — Guy, Butler and Wise Jr. are all free agents — Spence’s contract situation and projected role in 2021 make him a bit easier a cut than Beau Allen.
All in all, the Patriots have some ways to create additional cap space without weakening the current roster too much. Of course, however, there are other players that could be released as well in order to generate more space as well.
Linebacker Dont’a Hightower, who would create net savings of $9.17 million if cut, is the biggest name on that list. However, moving on from him seems rather unlikely when looking at New England’s current roster and its questions at the linebacker position. Parting ways with the long-time team captain would certainly not fall under the “easy cut” category the five players listed above are in.
The combination of uncertain projections for 2021 and comparatively high cap hits is what makes the five men listed above the most likely candidates to get the axe in order for New England to gain additional money to work with. As noted above, the team would create roughly $8.9 in additional salary cap space by letting all of them go — a number clearly above the savings another speculated move would create: trading star cornerback Stephon Gilmore would clear “only” $6.98 million off the Patriots’ books.