Bill Belichick is notoriously tight-lipped about team matters, often refusing to divulge specifics when it comes to X’s and O’s, free agency decisions, the inner workings of the Patriots, and more.
So it was certainly noteworthy when Belichick spoke up Saturday about the team’s depleted roster. The Patriots, now 2-5, have the 29th-ranked scoring offense this season and the worst group of receivers and tight ends in the league, and Belichick said the team has been hamstrung by the salary cap.
“We were pretty heavily invested in our team the past few years,” he said to host and former Patriots coach Charlie Weis on SiriusXM Radio. “From a salary-cap standpoint, we didn’t have much flexibility at all. I think that was obvious on the Cam Newton contract.
“This is kind of the year that we’ve taken to, I would say, adjust our cap from the spending that we’ve had in accumulation of prior years. We just haven’t been able to have the kind of depth on our roster that we’ve had in some other years.”
Oh my. Is the mighty Belichick, he of six Lombardi Trophies, “Do Your Job,” and “No Days Off,” already making excuses? Just seven games into a post-Tom Brady world?
“This year, we had less to work with. It’s not an excuse. It’s just a fact,” Belichick said Monday on WEEI. “It’s obvious that we didn’t have any money. It’s nobody’s fault. That’s what we did the last five years. We sold out, and we won three Super Bowls, played in a fourth, and played in an AFC Championship game.”
No, it’s an excuse — and a disingenuous one at that. Let’s break down the ways:
▪ The NFL has a soft salary cap, and there are millions of ways to play with cap dollars. You can make two plus two equal five if you want. Belichick knows this better than anyone.
“Bill Belichick blaming the salary cap for his team’s issues is a good one,” said former Packers executive Andrew Brandt, now a player agent. “Not surprised he would say it, but surprised anyone would believe it.”
Mohamed Sanu was on the books for $6 million all offseason, but the Patriots could have easily brought his number down with a pay cut. They had other options to create cap space, too.
▪ The Patriots actually had salary-cap space in March — more than $29 million after Brady’s contract voided, which is plenty to make moves.
They had no problem finding $14.781 million for left guard Joe Thuney with the franchise tag, or $14 million cash and a $5.4 million cap hit for Devin McCourty. And they didn’t give Thuney a long-term deal, which would have lowered his cap hit significantly.
The Patriots could have signed a few tight ends or receivers in free agency. Instead they are using $23.5 million in cap dollars on two guards (Thuney and Shaq Mason). That’s called poor asset allocation.
▪ There has not been a developmental pipeline at the offensive skill positions. The salary cap didn’t force the Patriots to draft one wide receiver higher than the fourth round between 2014-19. Or no tight ends higher than the fifth round between 2011-19. Or no quarterbacks in the year after Jimmy Garoppolo left and in the year when Brady left.
And the salary cap didn’t make the Patriots trade down in this year’s draft and take a safety and two linebackers with their first three picks. The Patriots had an obvious need at receiver, but didn’t draft a single one.
▪ The Patriots have been going cheap at receiver for multiple seasons. They used to give decent free agent contracts to guys such as Danny Amendola, Brandon LaFell, and Chris Hogan, or trade for guys such as Randy Moss or Brandin Cooks.
But for the past two years, they have signed nothing but veteran journeymen to minimum deals, and almost none have stuck. The big moves of signing Antonio Brown and Josh Gordon and trading for Sanu were done out of desperation, because they had done nothing during the offseason.
The Patriots’ receivers were weak in 2019, but Brady never had it as bad as Newton did this past Sunday. All four of his receivers entered the NFL as undrafted rookies.
▪ The Patriots haven’t been big cash spenders, despite Belichick’s claim that they “sold out” to get to Super Bowls. They have spent below the league average in seven of the last 10 years, per NFL Players Association records, including in Super Bowl years of 2014, 2016, 2017, and 2018.
This year, the Patriots are 31st in cash spending, ahead of only the Jaguars. They are spending $158.6 million on the roster, while the league average is $205.9 million. This is likely a reaction to last year, when the Patriots spent $204 million, about $8 million above the league average. The Patriots wasted $5 million on Brown and spent $3.6 million on Sanu, which probably didn’t make the Krafts very happy.
In the grand scheme, there’s nothing wrong with the Patriots taking a year to clear out their books and prepare for the future after 20 years of success.
They picked up a ton of cap space in July with their eight opt-outs, and they have been smart not to spend it on patchwork veterans. The Patriots currently have $33.19 million in cap space, and can roll every dollar of it over to next year when the salary cap may drop from $198 million to as low as $175 million because of the pandemic.
That extra cap space will be important. It’s OK to take a few lumps this year if the Patriots plan to be opportunistic in free agency next spring.
But don’t tell us they are in their current predicament because of the salary cap.
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Ben Volin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.