The NFL world has been full steam ahead the past two days despite the coronavirus, and the Patriots have been busy spending their money and taking care of their own players.
Devin McCourty got a nice chunk of money. Joe Thuney surprisingly got the franchise tag. Matthew Slater reupped for two years, and Adam Butler and Jermaine Eluemunor were given restricted free agent tenders.
And while the Patriots are quickly spending their money on everyone else, there is one player who notably hasn’t signed yet.
If the Patriots want Tom Brady back for 2020, they will have to get creative with their salary cap space. And the more they spend right now, the more you wonder how much they want to spend on Brady.
As of Monday afternoon, the Patriots had approximately $32.3 million in salary cap space, per the NFL Players Association website. But that doesn’t account for several recent signings.
McCourty’s contract, reported to be for $23 million over two years, will likely account for about $10 million in cap space. Thuney’s franchise tag will take up $14.781 million. Slater counts $2.875 million. Butler’s second-round tender will count $3.259 million. And Eluemunor’s original-round tender will count $2.133 million.
Then we have to consider that another $6.75 million of dead money for Brady will hit the salary cap on Wednesday at 4 p.m. if Brady doesn’t have a new contract with the Patriots by then.
It’s not a dire salary-cap situation. There are several ways to create space and push the money around. The Patriots know what they’re doing.
Perhaps spending all of their money on players other than Brady is part of the plan — so they can tell him at the negotiating table, “We’d like to do more for you, but this is all we’ve got right now.”
But if they actually do want Brady back, as Robert Kraft has said, then that doesn’t seem like a winning strategy, especially if the Buccaneers are ready to offer the moon.
Perhaps the Patriots are just ready to move on from Brady. If so, it probably would make sense to bring back two top locker room leaders (McCourty and Slater) to help usher in the next era. It would also make sense to beef up the offensive line (giving Thuney the franchise tag), to make sure the next quarterback has plenty of protection.
Moving on from Brady wouldn’t be popular. But it wouldn’t be the worst idea for the Patriots to go cheap at the quarterback position for a year or two. Jarrett Stidham, last year’s fourth-round pick, has a cap number of $744,028. The Patriots could draft another quarterback in the first or third round, and let him and Stidham duke it out during training camp. They would be spending only a few million total on the quarterback position, and can spread out more to positions such as offensive line and the front seven.
But if the Patriots do want to re-sign Brady, they have some work to do. They don’t even have the space right now to trade for a veteran like Andy Dalton (currently on the books for $17.7 million) or sign a veteran like Marcus Mariota for $12 million-$15 million.
They have to release, trade, restructure, or extend a few other contracts. They probably have to get Brady to agree to a below-market deal, perhaps in the $15 million-$20 million annual range. Ryan Tannehill just got $29.5 million per year from the Titans.
All of which is easier said than done. Brady wants respect from the Patriots, not another cold shoulder. He also will have the Buccaneers kissing his feet — with money, respect, and an easygoing coach.
The Patriots have several ways of creating cap space. The easiest would be to give Thuney a long-term extension, which potentially could cut his $14.7 million cap number in half.
Receiver Mohamed Sanu is another obvious candidate, though he may get the Danny Amendola Memorial Haircut. Sanu, under contract for one more season, has a $6.5 million cap hit, with no dead money. The Patriots could turn some of his pay into incentives, or get him to agree to a straight-up pay cut, and potentially save $2 million-$3 million.
Duron Harmon and James White could get extensions to free up a couple of million. Stephon Gilmore could renegotiate his contract again, and create more than $4 million in space.
Dont’a Hightower’s contract has a major bull’s-eye on it, with a $12.45 million cap number in the final year. The Patriots could save $9.9 million in cash and cap space by trading Hightower, or they could save more in the $4 million-$5 million range with a contract extension.
Finally, they could create some cap space by making a few tough veteran cuts. Marcus Cannon recently switched agents, and I wonder if it is because he is feeling the heat; the Patriots could save more than $7 million in cash and cap space if they made him a post-June 1 cut. The Patriots could release Stephen Gostkowski, draft a kicker, and create about $3 million in cap space. And Deatrich Wise could be released or traded, saving $2.133 million.
It can all be done. But it’s also a lot of work. And it makes you wonder whether the Patriots are purposely spending all of their cap dollars on players not named Tom Brady.