What does $100 million buy you in the NFL? The Bills and Patriots are about to find out.
The Bills are spending $301 million on their team in 2023. That’s not their salary-cap number, that’s $301 million in cold, hard cash, straight from owner Terry Pegula’s pocket. It ranks second in the NFL behind the Browns ($302.2 million).
The Patriots, meanwhile, are spending $201.6 million in cash on their 2023 roster, which ranks 31st in the NFL.
One organization is showing urgency to win the Super Bowl, throwing every possible resource at improving the roster. And it’s not the Patriots, even though they finished 8-9 last year and haven’t won a playoff game in four seasons. The Patriots have spent more than only the rebuilding Rams ($189.4 million), and just behind the rebuilding Packers ($205.8 million). League average is $245.6 million, per the NFL Players Association.
The issue came to a head last week when receiver DeAndre Hopkins chose the Titans over the Patriots. The decision likely came down to money — the Titans offered Hopkins a $12 million base salary and $3 million in incentives, and the Patriots reportedly weren’t close.
The Patriots should have plenty of cash — the NFL’s TV deals practically print money for the 32 teams. All it would have taken is increasing their offer by a few extra million dollars, and the Patriots would have had a legitimate No. 1 receiver.
Yet the Patriots passed once again, leaving Mac Jones with one of the more underwhelming receiving corps in the AFC.
The Patriots’ cash spending has been near the bottom of the NFL since Tom Brady left after 2019, when they ranked 11th. In 2020, they hit the reset button with Cam Newton and ranked 32nd in cash spending. In 2021, they splurged on free agents to make up for years of poor drafts, and ranked third. But the Patriots ranked 27th in 2022, and now 31st in 2023.
That’s a bottom-six ranking in three of four years. That’s not doing what it takes to field a championship roster. And it’s potentially wasting the extraordinarily cheap contract of Jones, who will make only $2 million this year and next. You’re supposed to spend big on the rest of the roster when you have a quarterback on a rookie deal, not sit on your stockpile of cash.
Robert Kraft talked a big game at the owners’ meetings in March about Bill Belichick needing to turn things around immediately, but the Patriots’ actions this offseason say otherwise.
Replacing Jakobi Meyers with JuJu Smith-Schuster is at best a modest upgrade. Tight end Mike Gesicki might be a nice option in the red zone. But it’s tough to argue that those moves, plus the addition of offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien, will help the Patriots close the gap with the Chiefs, Bengals or Bills, or keep pace with the Dolphins and Jets. In fact, there’s now a $100 million chasm between the Patriots and Bills. The Dolphins and Jets are outspending the Patriots by $68 million and $41 million, respectively.
It’s hard to know who is responsible for keeping the Patriots’ checkbook clamped shut. The Hopkins decision felt like classic Belichick, who never invests big money in wide receivers, especially those who are 31 years old and don’t like to practice.
But at his end-of-season news conference this past January, Belichick defended the 2021 free agency splurge: “I think when you look at the aggregate of all those players, that we improved our team quite a bit with that group of players, yes.”
And he potentially fired a shot at Kraft, pointing out that “over a three-year period, we are one of the lowest-spending teams in the league.”
Kraft responded in March that Belichick “has never come to me and not gotten everything he wanted from cash spending. We have never set limits . . . Ownership has always made the cash available. Money spending will never be the issue. I promise you.”
Kraft, though, is the one who has said that the 2021 spending — $175 million in full guarantees to 25 players — wasn’t worth it. The Patriots spent an extra $70 million on their team from 2020 to 2021, yet it resulted in just three more wins and a blowout loss in the playoffs.
“I think we spent more cash than any team or the two or three teams in the history of spending, and it didn’t get the value we hoped it would,” Kraft said at the owners’ meetings.
It’s also possible that the Patriots are spending their cash reserves the past two years not on the team, but on upgrading Gillette Stadium so the Krafts can continue to rake in the profits. The team may not be a top contender, but at least there will be a Bud Light Party Deck and 360-degree views from atop the new lighthouse.
To be fair, the narrative of whether a team is spending enough cash can be a little overrated. The NFL has minimum spending requirements, per Article 12.9 of the collective bargaining agreement. Teams must spend in cash at least 90 percent of the salary cap for the periods 2021-23, 2024-26, and 2027-30 (or pay any shortfalls directly to the players). So all 32 teams will generally spend the same amount in those periods.
But when a team decides to splurge is still important. The Bills, for instance, know their Super Bowl window is closing and are going all-in this offseason, pushing cap dollars into the future to pay veterans such as Stefon Diggs, Matt Milano, Ed Oliver, and Dawson Knox. Thanks to the NFL’s soft salary-cap rules, that $301 million cash counts $227.8 million against the cap.
The Patriots, meanwhile, seem like they are just looking to fulfill CBA requirements. They spent big in 2021, so now they can afford to be thrifty in 2022 or 2023.
Maybe the Bills are the foolish ones, spending $300 million on a team that still has flaws. On a cost-per-win basis, the Patriots will probably come out ahead in 2023.
But the NFL doesn’t award the Lombardi Trophy to the team with the best cost-per-win ratio. The Patriots may be balancing their budgets well, but they aren’t spending like a team that is urgent to get back on top.
Ben Volin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.