The Patriots’ 2020 offseason has been highlighted by departures, not additions. They let most of their top free agents walk away, and are also starting to shed veteran salaries, like Harmon and Gostkowski.
The Patriots did spend $37 million on two of their own free agents — Devin McCourty and Joe Thuney. Otherwise, nine of their 14 signings have gotten less than $1 million guaranteed. And the Patriots are spending less than $3 million on their three quarterbacks (Brian Hoyer leads the way at $1.05 million).
They still have plenty of roster holes to fill — another receiver, a couple of tight ends, help at linebacker, young faces across the defense, and, oh yeah, maybe a quarterback.
But the Patriots currently have less than $1 million in salary cap space, the second-least among all NFL teams (only the Chiefs have less). Right now, they can’t even afford to sign their draft class, let alone fill more holes in free agency.
The Patriots aren’t in a great position for the draft, either. Because they traded away their second-round pick for Mohamed Sanu last season, the Patriots have just two of the top 96 picks — No. 23 and No. 87 (plus Nos. 98 and 100). I’d wager that Bill Belichick will do whatever he can to acquire more picks and close that gap.
There are only three ways to create cap space and acquire draft picks: Trades, releases, or restructures. Let’s take a look at five Patriots’ key veteran players, and what the team should do:
CB Stephon Gilmore
Because of previous contract restructures, Gilmore has the highest cap number among all NFL cornerbacks in 2020 ($18.67 million) and the highest on the Patriots. It’s significantly higher than his actual compensation — $11 million this fall (and $23 million over the final two years of his deal). Gilmore has the second-highest salary on the Patriots, but will make significantly less than the $15 million-$17 million the top cornerbacks got in free agency.
Gilmore, the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year, certainly deserves to be paid at the top of the market. He hasn’t made his contract an issue, but I’m keeping an eye on it.
If the Patriots keep Gilmore, I certainly wouldn’t complain, because he has been phenomenal. But I do believe the Patriots should consider trading Gilmore, a perfect candidate for Bill Belichick’s "trade a player a year early instead of a year late” ethos.
Gilmore will be 30 this fall, and the Patriots have excellent depth at cornerback, with J.C. Jackson, Jonathan Jones, Jason McCourty and Joejuan Williams. The decision to exercise McCourty’s option this year, despite already having good depth, makes me wonder if the Patriots intend to move Gilmore. And if he does want a pay raise, that could give the Patriots even more incentive to trade him.
Trading Gilmore would undoubtedly make the Patriots worse in 2020. But think of the smorgasbord of picks Gilmore could net for a team that is likely rebuilding for the next couple of years. The Rams gave up two first-round picks, plus a fourth-rounder, for Jalen Ramsey. If the Patriots can get a plunder of picks that includes a first-rounder, they should jump all over it.
A pre-June 1 trade would result in a $15.3 million dead cap hit and only save $3.3 million in cap space. But I would still do this trade, because the Patriots could capitalize on the picks this year. A post-June 1 trade would result in a $7.6 million dead cap hit this year, and free up $11 million in cap space. This is better cap management, but the Patriots wouldn’t get the draft picks until 2021.
One action they shouldn’t consider is another contract extension for Gilmore to create cap space. The Patriots have already kicked enough money down the road with two previous extensions (hence the $7.6 million gap between his salary and cap number) for Gilmore. They’re going to have a large dead money cap hit at some point with Gilmore, and I don’t see a need to make that hit even larger.
WR Julian Edelman
Now that Brady is gone, the knee-jerk reaction is to assume that Edelman will be traded. But I think the Patriots should stand pat with Edelman this year and keep him on his current deal.
Edelman’s salary is quite reasonable — a $3.3 million salary ($3 million fully guaranteed), $1.2 million in workout and per-game bonuses, and $2.5 million in incentives. His $9.66 million cap number is fourth-highest on the team, but isn’t too unwieldy. And Edelman is still a productive player and one of the Patriots’ hardest workers.
A pre-June 1 trade would save $4.33 million in cap space, and a post-June 1 trade would save $7 million. But the Patriots need veteran leadership, and Edelman would be a great example and mentor for the younger players (not to mention, he’s still a good player).
A soon-to-be 34-year-old slot receiver who has taken a ton of hits also probably doesn’t have the best trade value. I would keep Edelman at least another year.
LB Dont’a Hightower
Entering the last year of his contract, Hightower can make from $8 million to $10.875 million in 2020. His cap number of $12.445 million is third-highest on the Patriots. But even though those numbers are a little high, the Patriots should stand pat and let Hightower play out his contract as it stands.
Trading or releasing Hightower this offseason would save all that cash, and create nearly $9.5 million in cap space. But I believe they need Hightower as an on- and off-field leader this season, especially with the departures of Van Noy and Collins.
Hightower is too valuable to simply release, and I have a hard time seeing the Patriots getting a trade offer for Hightower that would make it worth it. As good as he has been in his eight NFL seasons, Hightower is still 30, expensive, doesn't have great speed, and has a fairly extensive injury history.
Those are the same reasons the Patriots shouldn’t extend him now, either. They need some cap space, but there are other ways to create it. And I’d wait to see how Hightower’s 2020 season unfolds before deciding to commit to him for 2021 and beyond.
G Joe Thuney
The Patriots gave him the franchise tag, which guarantees Thuney a salary of $14.781 million. But it would be ridiculous for the Patriots to keep him at that number.
They have until July 15 to work out a long-term contract extension, and that should be a no-brainer. The Patriots could lock in Thuney for multiple years, while also lowering his cap number this year, potentially cutting it in half. Win-win.
But I wouldn’t discount a trade, either. Thuney was going to be one of the hottest free agents available before the Patriots tagged him, and I would expect his trade market to be robust. The Patriots could also save the entire $14.781 million in cash and cap space with a trade. And guard is probably one of the easier positions to find a replacement.
If the Patriots could get a second-round pick this year for Thuney (or even a high third), they should do it.
RT Marcus Cannon
Cannon, who turns 32 in May, had a decent 2019 season, and isn’t a glaring problem for the Patriots. He has two years remaining on his contract, with reasonable salaries for a starting tackle — between $4.7 million and $8 million each season.
And the Patriots don’t have an obvious replacement behind Cannon. They have Korey Cunningham and Yodny Cajuste (who has never played an NFL snap), and of course they could certainly draft another tackle next month, but otherwise they don’t have great depth at the position.
But Cannon also has no guaranteed money, and the Patriots can save nearly $4.5 million in cap space with a pre-June 1 release, or $7 million with a post-June 1 release. I’d probably keep Cannon for another season, but Cannon switched agents recently, which is often a sign that the player believes he will have to negotiate a contract soon (i.e. because he is going to be released).