NFL free agency starts March 17, and the Patriots are in great salary-cap position.
They currently have more than $60 million in cap space, the third-most in the NFL. That figure even accounts for the eight players who opted out of the 2020 season but are back for 2021.
But the Patriots still will probably make a few salary-cap cuts or trades over the next few weeks. Let’s take a look at the salary-cap situations for their highest-paid players, plus all eight of the returning opt-outs, some of whom probably won’t make the team. (For a primer on dead salary-cap money, read this.)
1. CB Stephon Gilmore
Contract status: Last year of deal. Cash: $7.5 million. Cap number: $16,264,584. Dead money: $8,920,834. Cap savings: $7,343,750.
Analysis: It’s hard to envision Gilmore wanting to play for $7.5 million when he earned $14.7 million last year and made the Pro Bowl. The Patriots could give him another three-year deal that gives him a raise this year and pushes cap money into the future.
Or, more likely, they will look to trade Gilmore to a team looking to make a Super Bowl run in 2021, and save more than $7 million in cash and cap space. Considering Gilmore’s age (31) and likely desire for a new contract from his new team, the Patriots may have to accept less than a first-round pick.
2. LB Dont’a Hightower (opt out)
Contract status: Last year of deal. Cash: $10.875 million. Cap number: $12,445,313. Dead money: $2.5 million. Cap savings: $9,945,313.
Analysis: There is always the risk that a year away from football could make it tough for Hightower, who turns 31 next week, to return to form. And his contract doesn’t really work in his favor, with a high salary and cap number, and a low dead number. But Bill Belichick needs veteran leaders, and few are better than Hightower. Considering the Patriots are in good cap shape, keeping Hightower is money well-spent.
3. S Devin McCourty
Contract status: Last year of deal (has three void years). Cash: $9 million. Cap number: $11.15 million. Dead money: $8.6 million. Cap savings: $2.55 million.
Analysis: McCourty is an important leader in the locker room and still one of the Patriots’ best players. Only a post-June 1 release would make any sense, but they would be crazy not to bring him back this year.
4. RT Marcus Cannon (opt out)
Contract status: Last year of deal. Cash: $7.15 million. Cap number: $9,622,918. Dead money: $2,566,668. Cap savings: $7,056,250.
Analysis: Cannon is certainly at risk of being a cap cut. He will be 33 in May, and the Patriots found a great replacement in Mike Onwenu, last year’s sixth-round pick who costs only $780,000 this year. One thing that may save Cannon’s job is if the Patriots decide Onwenu is better off at left guard than right tackle.
5. RG Shaq Mason
Contract status: Three years left. Cash: $7 million. Cap number: $9.5875 million. Dead money: $7.518 million. Cap savings: $2.0695 million.
Analysis: Mason is a downright bargain compared with Joe Thuney, who is on the verge of getting a $17 million franchise tag or, more likely, a massive contract extension on the open market. Assuming the Patriots lose Thuney, it’s imperative they keep Mason and also re-sign center David Andrews.
6. CB Jonathan Jones
Contract status: Two years left. Cash: $5.4 million. Cap number $7,418,750. Dead money: $4.0375 million. Cap savings: $3,381,250.
Analysis: No need to move on from a productive slot cornerback who has missed just one game in five seasons and also plays about 10 special teams snaps per game.
7. WR Julian Edelman
Contract status: Last year of deal. Cash: $4 million (plus $3.25 million incentives). Cap number: $6,104,168. Dead money: $2,666,668. Cap savings: $3,437,500.
Analysis: The condition of Edelman’s knee will likely dictate his status. If he’s healthy and wants to play, the Patriots should want him back, even at age 35. Edelman is relatively inexpensive, one of their hardest workers, and could still be an effective receiver. But it all will depend on the cooperation of his knee and other body parts.
8. S Patrick Chung (opt out)
Contract status: Four years left. Cash: $2 million. Cap number: $5,133,333. Dead money: $6,116,667. Cap savings: minus-$983,334.
Analysis: Chung signed a new contract last May before opting out, collecting $3 million of the approximately $6 million he was going to earn last year (including incentives). Considering he is low-cost and doesn’t create any cap savings, I see no reason not to have him back, even with the emergence of Adrian Phillips and Kyle Dugger in the secondary. The three have a combined cap hit of $11.28 million.
Now for the rest of the opt-outs:
9. RB/ST Brandon Bolden
Contract status: Last year of deal. Cash: $1.5 million. Cap number: $1.9875 million. Dead money: $500,000. Cap savings: $1.4875 million.
Assuming he’s still in good shape, there’s no reason not to bring back Bolden, 31, as a special teams contributor, locker room leader, and occasional weapon on offense.
10. TE Matt LaCosse
Contract status: Last year of deal. Cash: $1.4 million. Cap number: $1.45 million. Dead money: $150,000. Cap savings: $1.3 million.
Analysis: He’s inexpensive enough that it’s worth giving him a shot to make the team, in case someone gets injured or either of last year’s rookie tight ends doesn’t develop as expected. But it also won’t cost much to cut him.
11. FB Dan Vitale
Contract status: Last year of deal. Cash: $1.2 million. Cap number: $1.2875 million. Dead money: $100,000. Cap savings: $1.1875 million.
Analysis: Vitale was going to be a roster bubble player when he signed last year, and that doesn’t change this year. He’ll have to unseat fullback Jakob Johnson.
12. WR Marqise Lee
Contract status: Last year of deal. Cash: $990,000. Cap number: $987,500. Dead money: $300,000. Cap savings: $687,500.
Analysis: Lee is playing on a minimum contract and will need a strong training camp to win a roster spot.
13. G Najee Toran
Contract status: Last year of deal. Cash: $780,000. Cap number: $780,000. Dead money: $0. Cap savings: $780,000.
Analysis: Toran was a practice squad player in 2018 and 2019, and will be battling for a similar role this year.