When the Patriots cut Aaron Hernandez 90 minutes after he was arrested on live television Wednesday morning, many people assumed the team knew Hernandez was about to be charged with first-degree murder, as well as five other weapons charges.
Not so, according to a high-ranking Patriots executive, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation.
The source reiterated to the Globe late Friday that the Patriots’ brain trust, led by Robert Kraft and Bill Belichick, decided late last week to cut Hernandez if he were to be arrested in connection with the murder in any way. The source said the team’s leaders expected Hernandez to be arrested for obstruction of justice, and were “taken aback” when he was charged with murder later that afternoon.
“We had no inside knowledge,” the source said. “Did it matter to us? No. We were not going to have somebody on the team that’s close to a murder.”
The Patriots will carry significant cap charges for Hernandez over the next two years, but NFL Players Association records show — and the source confirmed — that the team has voided all of Hernandez’s remaining guaranteed money, which totals $5.91 million. They will also take a smaller salary cap hit this year — just $2.55 million — but will have a sizable hit in 2014 before Hernandez completely disappears from the books starting in 2015.
Hernandez signed a seven-year, $39.768 million contract with $16 million guaranteed in August 2012, with a $12.5 million signing bonus that for salary cap purposes is prorated over five years. Nearly $24 million of the contract was not guaranteed until Hernandez made the team each season from 2015-18. Hernandez has already collected $10 million.
But the Patriots believe the NFL’s bylaws and collective bargaining agreement have specific language about “conduct detrimental to the best interests of professional football” that works in favor of them voiding all future payments to Hernandez, including an installment of his signing bonus.
“It was guaranteed for skill and injury, but it wasn’t guaranteed for personal conduct that cast the club in a negative light, and that’s why we cut him,” the source said. “We know the CBA. We are well within our rights.”
Hernandez was supposed to receive $2.46 million in guaranteed base salary in 2013-14, $200,000 in roster and workout bonuses this year, and a $3.25 million payment to complete his signing bonus on March 31, 2014 (he received a similar payment this past March 31). The money was fully guaranteed for skill, injury, and cap purposes — in other words, if his skill level dropped off, he became significantly hurt, or if the Patriots wanted to create salary cap space.
The source said the Patriots didn’t confer with the NFL about voiding Hernandez’s remaining guaranteed money, and as of late Friday the NFL Players Association hadn’t responded to a request asking if they will fight for Hernandez to receive the rest of his money.
The source said the team probably could have made it easier to recoup more cash and salary cap space had it waited for commissioner Roger Goodell to suspend Hernandez, but leadership wasn’t 100 percent confident that would happen when they made the decision to release Hernandez around 10:30 a.m. Wednesday. Hernandez was formerly charged around 2:30 p.m.
The source also said the team will try to recoup previous bonus money awarded to Hernandez, though it could be tough given Hernandez’s significant legal fees.
Salary cap-wise, the Patriots will do better this year than was widely reported on Wednesday, but will still take a significant hit in 2014.
NFLPA records show — and the Patriots source confirmed — that Hernandez’s 2013 salary cap number will be $2.55 million.
That number is equal to his two signing bonus prorations — $2.5 million from his new contract, and $50,000 from his rookie deal signed in 2010.
His 2013 salary cap number was supposed to be $4.073 million, but the Patriots picked up $1.5 million in cap space. Many reports assumed that Hernandez’s cap number would be $5.092 million because it was not believed that the Patriots could void the guaranteed money. Instead it will be half of that.
Hernandez’s 2014 cap number was supposed to be $4.2 million, but now it will be significantly higher — $7.5 million. The $1.173 guaranteed salary and $500,000 workout bonus are wiped out, but because the cut occurred after June 1, the Patriots have to account for the other three-fifths of the signing bonus on the 2014 salary cap. The Patriots will also look to ask the NFL to lower that salary cap number on the grounds that Hernandez violated league rules, but that could be an uphill battle.
NFL teams are also allowed to roll over any unused cap space from year to year. Current records show that the Patriots have $9.215 million in cap space for 2013 that can be pushed into next year to help cover Hernandez.Ben Volin can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin