As soon as the clock strikes 4 p.m. ET on March 16, the entire NFL has to be under the salary cap. That means that the sum of the 51st top cap hits on a team’s roster is not allow to exceed the recently announced $208.2 million.
The New England Patriots are already below this number, but barely. After releasing veteran linebacker Kyle Van Noy in a cost-cutting move on Monday, the club has around $10.21 million available, according to salary cap expert Miguel Benzan.
While those $10.21 million would allow the Patriots to fulfill the NFL’s top-51 rule, they puts them in a challenging situation when it comes to being competitive in free agency. Whether that means re-signing a significant portion of in-house free agents — a group that includes four team captains, two starting offensive linemen and Pro Bowl cornerback J.C. Jackson — or bringing in outside reinforcements, New England needs to create more cap space.
Luckily for the team, there is plenty of potential to do that without gutting the current 57-man roster (compromising of players either under contract for 2022 or signed to futures deals). There are different ways to do that besides cutting players: New England can also sign select players to contract extensions, make trades to free up cap space, or convert salary into fully-guaranteed signing bonuses.
The Patriots have used all of these in the past, and might very well do that again between now and the start of free agency. Which players might be the ones impacted by those measures? Let’s take a look at some candidates as listed by Miguel, broken down into the categories outlined above.
Obviously, this list includes only realistic transactions. While cutting a player like wide receiver Kendrick Bourne would create considerable savings, for example, that will not happen. Likewise, one player might fall into more than one category but the list below features our best guesses as to what will happen.
DE Henry Anderson: The Patriots signed Anderson to a two-year contract last March, but a pectoral injury forced him to end his season in early October. Up until that point, he was mainly used as a package player and had a limited impact on the team’s defensive fortunes. The 30-year-old might be a trade candidate, but a cut seems more likely. | Net cap savings: $1.85 million | Dead money: $1 million
S Cody Davis: Davis led the Patriots in special teams tackles last season, but his return is no guarantee. Not only is he carrying a $2.3 million salary cap charge, he also might be partly at fault for the team’s struggles in punt protection last year: as the personal protector, Davis is responsible for setting the blocking. On his watch, New England allowed a league-high three punts to get blocked. | Net cap savings: $1.1 million | Dead money: $500,000
CB Joejuan Williams: Williams was a second-round pick just three years ago, so the Patriots might be able to find a trade partner for him. However, his inconsistent performance ever since arriving in the NFL will make it hard for the team to move him via trade. Hence, he is projected as a release — one that would create a higher dead cap number than net savings but still free up almost $700,000. | Net cap savings: $693,636 | Dead money: $709,846
WR Nelson Agholor: Wait, what? Yes, Nelson Agholor is actually a candidate for a contract extension heading into the second and final year of the deal he signed last spring. While he did not live up to his price tag in 2021 — catching just 38 passes for 491 yards and three scores — an extension makes more sense than a release: cutting Agholor would save only roughly more money while also creating a $10 million dead cap number. Trading Agholor would solve those issues, but it seems unlikely a team would be willing to give up assets to take on the 28-year-old. Either way, Agholor playing on a $14.88 million cap number seems unlikely. | Net cap savings: $3.94 million | Dead money: --
P Jake Bailey: The Patriots could make the surprising move and either cut or trade Bailey to save $3.28 million versus a minimal dead cap charge ($72,520), but it all depends on how they view his most recent performance compared to his 2020 All-Pro season. If they think the more inconsistent 2021 was an outlier, Bailey will likely stay put and is a realistic candidate to see a new deal come his way. If not, a release or trade is indeed an option. For our purposes, however, we are going with the first scenario. | Net cap savings: $2.41 million | Dead money: --
WR Kendrick Bourne: Signing players to extensions is putting more pressure on the 2023 payroll, but it would make sense in a lot of cases. Kendrick Bourne, who was just signed to a three-year deal last offseason, is one of those. He made an immediate impact in Year 1 as a Patriot, establishing himself as one of quarterback Mac Jones’ favorite targets and a popular locker room presence. Bourne will not be going anywhere in 2022; in fact, adding another year to his deal would make sense. | Net cap savings: $1.8 million | Dead money: --
DT Davon Godchaux: Another player added last offseason who can be seen as a candidate for an extension, Godchaux played a starter-level role along New England’s defensive line in 2021. However, he is already entering the final season of the two-year pact he signed with the Patriots. Taking care of the 27-year-old at this point in time looks like a good move. | Net cap savings: $2.7 million | Dead money: --
TE Hunter Henry: As opposed to Jonnu Smith, Henry acclimated very well to playing in New England and delivered an impressive first season after signing a three-year, $37.5 million contract last March — a contract that includes a $15 million cap hit this year. Signing Henry to an extension might help bring that number down, and give the Patriots more financial flexibility while keeping him under contract for three (or more) instead of two additional seasons. | Net cap savings: $5 million | Dead money: --
LB Matthew Judon: Possibly one of the most realistic moves on this list, converting parts of Judon’s non-guaranteed $11 million salary into a fully-guaranteed signing bonus spread out over the remaining three years of his contract would save the Patriots considerable cap space. The move would be a win-win: Judon would earn some guarantees, while New England would gain some cap space in 2022. | Net cap savings: $6.64 million | Dead money: --
DB Jalen Mills: Mills and his $4.5 million salary are in the same position as Matthew Judon. Sure, the salary-to-signing bonus conversion would be pushing the can down the road by increasing New England’s payroll in both 2023 and 2024. Nonetheless, with the cap expected to keep increasing by a significant amount over the next few years such a move would not be a short-sighted one. | Net cap savings: $2.31 million | Dead money: --
WR N’Keal Harry: The Patriots are in a difficult spot with their former first-round receiver. Harry will not suddenly turn the corner, which means that a breakup is possible. The question is how it will happen. From New England’s perspective a trade is the most favorable option because it would create more cap savings ($1.87 million) than a release ($1.2 million). That said, it always takes two to tango and finding a partner willing to give up assets to take on the talented but thus far underwhelming wideout is no guarantee. | Net cap savings: $1.17 million | Dead money: $1.34 million
QB Jarrett Stidham: With Mac Jones firmly entrenched as the starting quarterback, the Patriots might decide that now is the time to move on from Stidham: entering the final year of his rookie deal, he is a realistic candidate to be traded. Sending the former fourth-round pick elsewhere will likely not yield the same return, but anything is better than a straight-up release from a compensation perspective — especially because the cap implications would be the same. | Net cap savings: $260,000 | Dead money: $159,028
LB Chase Winovich: The Patriots are thinner than desired along their defensive edge after releasing Kyle Van Noy, but Winovich might also be on his way out. After playing a prominent role in 2019 and 2020, he was saw limited action last season. Just like Harry and Stidham, he is entering the final year of his rookie contract; if New England wants to trade him, despite the depth implications on the edge, now would be the best time. | Net cap savings: $260,000 | Dead money: $249,328
As can be seen, the Patriots have multiple realistic options to increase their current cap space without parting ways with some of their best players. Sure, a number of those moves would put pressure on the team’s depth at some positions, but the financial gain might be worth making them.
If New England decided to follow through with all of them as projected above, the team would create almost $30 million in additional cap space on top of the $10.21 million currently available. That does not mean that all of these transactions are likely to happen, but it shows that the salary cap is still a somewhat flexible construct that can be altered on a short-term basis in order to fit a team’s needs.
Please make sure to give Miguel Benzan a follow (@patscap) and, if possible, to support his chosen charity: Habitat for Humanity of North Central Connecticut. He is trying to raise $120,000 by the end of the year, and every dollar counts. If you can, please donate here. Thank you.