In the salary cap era, elite teams typically spend the maximum alloted cap space to maintain their Super Bowl-caliber roster. After all, there is a price that comes with success, albeit one that is surely worthwhile.
The 2017 Patriots, however, might have other plans.
The current ("2016") Patriots team has it all. At 12-2, they control their own destiny for the AFC's top seed, and the right to face every conference playoff opponent at Gillette Stadium, where they've been virtually unbeatable. The offense ranks No. 4 in the league, while the Patriots' scoring defense is No. 1 overall. Bottom line: a Patriots' Super Bowl LI berth looks inevitable.
No matter what happens this season, however, this upcoming offseason will provide no shortage of intrigue. Including an almost certain Danny Amendola cut ($6.5 million) and perhaps Jonathan Freeny as well ($1 million), the Patriots would have roughly $78.7 million in cap space, good for 3rd most in the NFL.
As you may have figured, this comes before several crucial extensions. Salary cap tracking site Spotrac has designed "Market Value Trackers" for some of the league's marquee free agents, so let's take a fun look at what new contracts for some of the Patriots' stars would likely command:
Note: AAV here is equivalent to projected cap hit for 2017 season (even though it would likely be less)
Dont'a Hightower: 5 years, $45.3 million ($9.1 million AAV)
Martellus Bennett: 3 years, $25.1 million ($8.4 million AAV)
And just for fun, as a "what if?" scenario...
Chandler Jones: 5 years, $62.9 million ($12.5 million AAV)
Jamie Collins: 5 years, $51.8 million ($10.4 million AAV)
Unfortunately, they did not come up with a projection for Malcolm Butler, given his status as a Restricted Free Agent. However, if the Patriots do the obvious and place a first-round tender on him, a contract extension could be somewhere in the range of 4 years, $46 million. This is a very fair price to pay for one of the league's best corners, and I do believe he'd take a slight discount here ($11.5 million AAV) to stay in New England.
Now, let's assume the Patriots re-sign Hightower, Bennett and Butler to the exact contracts stated above, with the AAV matching their respective cap hits for 2017. The Patriots would STILL have just under $50 million in cap space, with their core free agents locked up and countless options available for the most brilliant football minds in the game.
From there, here is my personal list of most important Patriots free agents remaining:
1. Alan Branch
2. Chris Long
3. Jabaal Sheard
4. LeGarrette Blount
5. Duron Harmon
6. James Develin
7. Logan Ryan
8. Barkevious Mingo
9. Cameron Fleming
10. Brandon Bolden
There are a few others remaining, and some (Brandon King) provide invaluable special teams experience at a cheap price, making them more likely to be resigned. Others, like newly-acquired Michael Floyd, have yet to establish a true value to the organization.
I believe that Floyd, Ryan and Fleming will leave in free agency; the former two should net some nice compensatory picks, and a desperate team like the 49ers or Browns could scoop up Fleming with the promise of a starting role. Harmon, Long and Sheard will need to take discounts to stay, but I'd be shocked if more than one of them returns next season. Bolden should re-sign for a similar deal to his current one (2 years, $2.3 million), and Develin also stays under a slight pay raise from his current $750,000 salary.
This leaves Branch, Blount and Mingo remaining. Part of me sees Branch as this year's version of Akiem Hicks, but given his scheme value to the team and the off-field issues, I'm not sure his market value will be as high as some may think. Belichick is well aware of his run-stuffing prowess, and it wouldn't surpise me to see Branch return on a deal in the range of 2 years, $9 million, nearly double his current salary.
Blount's future is very tricky to predict. This reminds me far too much of the 2014 offseason; boosting his value in the 2013 postseason (166 yards, 4 TDs against the Colts), then letting some team overpay for his services. Fortunately, things worked out very well for both Blount and the Patriots in the middle of the 2014 season (shoutout to Le'Veon Bell too). But despite his record-setting 2016 campaign and almost certain Pro Bowl bid, there are other factors to consider. He's over 30 years old, and power-run backs are a dime a dozen in the NFL. He'd need to agree to a deal of about 2 years, $5 million at most to return to Foxboro, and if he doesn't agree to that due to a better offer, I can't blame him.
Mingo has intrigued me since he was first dealt to the Patriots. Don't forget, when he was selected No. 6 overall by the Browns in the 2013 Draft, he was supposed to become what Collins ended up being; a hybrid, athletic freak as capable of rushing the passer as he was in coverage. But to date, his primary value has been special teams with very limited playing time at linebacker. It all comes down to whether another team sees him as a starting linebacker in their future. It's certainly possible, but believe it or not, I actually see Mingo re-signing with New England on a 1-year, $2 million deal with incentives thrown in.
So unless Belichick falls in love with the idea of an overpaid Logan Ryan, the Patriots should still have, conservatively, $40 million-plus in cap space after re-signing their most valuable players. From there, I'd like to propose three potential options for Belichick to spend that money:
1. A round of well-deserved raises and extensions
This is a likely option, although the players for whom this reward will be brought may differ from my projections. First and foremost, if the Patriots do sign Bennett to that proposed deal, Rob Gronkowski likely won't be so calm about it, and rightly so. Injuries or not, The Gronk is the best tight end EVER, and deserves top-tier money. Giving Gronk about a $2 million annual raise over the next 2-3 years would be a sign of good faith for the New England icon who has helped win countless games...and will hopefully continue to do so in a Patriots uniform.
Along the offensive line, Nate Solder and David Andrews (restricted) will enter free agency in 2018. Both have been excellent this season, and Andrews in particular will almost surely take a discount from his already low price to stay with the organization that gave him a chance. For Solder, a 3-year, $33 million deal in line with his current annual salary would certainly suffice.
In addition, Julian Edelman could stand for a raise or extension, even if it's only one year more. Belichick knows better than to get into a pissing contest with a star player when there's so much cap space left, and a extra $1 million in 2018 is a small price to pay for Tommy's security blanket.
2. Jimmy Garoppolo gets a new contract, and we get the AFC East's two best QBs on the same team...but for how long?
Ok yes, this is a REALLY big shot in the dark, one that would rank as one of Bill's top 5 most unexpected moves. I actually wrote a piece earlier about Garoppolo's hefty trade value, which could easily return a top-10 pick in the upcoming draft. While the offer is tempting, I can't shake the feeling that Jimmy G really is Belichick's next franchise QB. But with his 2018 free agency fast approaching, and Brady's desire to play for several more years appearing nothing short of realistic, an impasse is imminent in Foxboro. This begs the question: How will the Patriots handle this situation?
In 2018, that might mean paying two QBs. I really have no idea what Garoppolo would command in a new contract, but something like 3 years, $45 million with incentives sounds reasonable. And selling him on being a highly-paid backup for a year wouldn't be difficult at all.
Promise him the keys to the kingdom; the 21st century's best team and most prolific offense. Tutelage under the greatest coach to ever man the NFL sidelines. The ability to become the Young to Brady's Montana; the Rodgers to his Favre. Establish a legacy as the third in a consecutive trio of elite Patriots QBs, loved by an entire region and enshrined in Patriot immortality.
After the 2018 season, you give Brady a choice. He can retire, or respectfully release him and allow him to pick his final team, a la Peyton Manning. Belichick could trade him for a pick to the Browns/Siberia, but even he isn't THAT much of a cold-hearted bastard, right?
This is, simply put, highly unlikely. But hey, "unlikely" is where Belichick lives.
3. Go all-out on marquee free agent weapons for Brady, answering the prayers of Patriots fans everywhere
How many times have we looked at a free agent and said, "Man, this guy would dominate with the Patriots"? Well, now's their chance to actually act on that theory. Alshon Jeffrey and Le'Veon Bell headline a loaded skill position class (can you imagine Bell scoring touchdowns with the No. 26 emblasoned on his navy blue Patriots jersey?), and even guys like Eddie Lacy and Terrelle Pryor could pique the Patriots' interest.
Yes, there's a strong possibility of some franchise tags being thrown around, but you never know how contract negotiations turn out. Lacy actually could be an under-the-radar Patriots target, and Kenny Britt or DeSean Jackson could be as well.
4. (Bonus) Re-sign Jones and Collins as a major "F-you" to the teams that spend draft picks on one-year rentals
If you were looking for an option even less likely than extending Garoppolo or signing Bell, you've just found it. In total, the contracts would cost roughly $23 million annually, as mentioned above. But imagine how much of a power move it would be to acquire Joe Thuney, Malcolm Mitchell, a 3rd round pick (and perhaps still a fifth Super Bowl ring?) for two players spending the season on incredibly underwhelming teams. Only Belichick...
All in all, the 2017 Patriots offseason should start where it always does. Belichick assesses his roster, makes a few obvious signings and some not-so-obvious ones. He lets a mid-season acquisition leave for a heavily-inflated contract and a nice compensatory pick, and swings a pre-draft deal for an overlooked player on a God-forsaken team. But with an unseen amount of cap space, THIS offseason could be the one we look back on fondly as Belichick's best.
By Will Brabrook