For most of the NFL, "Black Monday" is the day after the final game of the regular season, on which coaches of losing teams often get fired. For the Patriots, it takes on a different meaning. Their Black Monday comes next week.
The Patriots have several franchise-altering decisions to make this offseason, and they pretty much all come to a head early next week. The NFL flips its calendar to 2015 on Tuesday at 4 p.m., and Bill Belichick and Co. will be plenty busy in the 24 hours leading up to the new league year.
The Patriots have $25.438 million in option bonuses and salaries coming due on five players on Tuesday at 4 p.m. Devin McCourty officially becomes a free agent then, although he can start talking to other teams on Saturday. The Patriots also have to be compliant with the salary cap at 4 p.m., meaning some tough decisions on pay cuts and releases will need to be made on Monday and Tuesday morning. As of Wednesday afternoon, the Patriots were about $11 million over the salary cap.
While the Super Bowl victory still feels fresh, Patriots fans have to quickly recalibrate their emotions and face the reality that Monday could be the final day in a Patriots uniform for some of their most beloved players.
Here's a look at the decisions the Patriots have to make in the next few days:
1. Cornerback Darrelle Revis — $12 million. Priority No. 1 is figuring out the Revis situation. He has a $12 million option bonus that must be exercised "prior to the end of the 2014 league year," or before 4 p.m. Tuesday. Picking up the option would trigger his $7.5 million salary and $25 million salary cap number, and it is widely believed that the Patriots do not intend to pick it up.
So the clock is ticking for the Patriots to come to an agreement with Revis before they'd have to release him on Tuesday and make him a free agent. The Patriots could still re-sign Revis if forced to release him, but letting him get to the open market is obviously risky.
If the Patriots release Revis and don't re-sign him, they will still carry a $5 million salary cap charge for him in 2015, but it will put them under the salary cap threshold.
2. Nose tackle Vince Wilfork — $4 million. For the second year in a row, the Patriots have a potentially ugly contract situation brewing with Wilfork, their beloved nose tackle. Last year, it was a month-long squabble in which Wilfork publicly requested a trade before agreeing to a new incentive-laden contract with a lower salary.
This year, the situation has a hard deadline of Tuesday at 4 p.m. Wilfork has a $4 million roster bonus due then, which will trigger both 2015 and 2016 on his contract for a total compensation of $14 million.
Wilfork had as good a 2014 season as could have been expected for a 350-pound 33-year-old coming off a torn Achilles'. He played in all 19 games and 73 percent of snaps, earning every penny of his $5.4 million in incentives.
Even still, it's doubtful the Patriots want a 34-year-old defensive tackle playing at an $8.93 million cap number this fall, fourth highest on the team. If Wilfork and the Patriots don't figure out a restructured deal and a pay cut by Monday evening, his time on the team could be coming to a swift end.
3. Offensive tackle Nate Solder — $7.438 million. The Patriots triggered Solder's fifth-year option last May for $7.438 million, but they aren't on the hook for it until 4 p.m. Tuesday. At that point his entire salary becomes guaranteed for 2015, but technically they can release him before then for no salary cap or cash hit, although that seems highly unlikely. In a much likelier scenario, expect the Patriots work on a contract extension for him this offseason to keep him in the plans for the foreseeable future and lower that salary cap number.
4. Cornerback Brandon Browner — $2 million. Browner was very effective for the Patriots last season. But if they need to tinker with some salary cap space, he's a candidate, as Browner has a $2 million roster bonus due at 4 p.m. Tuesday. Browner also has a $1.9 million base salary, per-game roster bonuses up to $1.6 million, and a playing time bonus of $500,000. I wouldn't expect the Patriots to cut him, but a reworked deal before Tuesday isn't out of the question.
5. Offensive tackle Sebastian Vollmer — $1 million. Vollmer's deadline isn't until the third day of the league year — March 12 at 4 p.m. — but he's got a $1 million roster bonus due to him at that time. Vollmer is due $4.25 million in cash with a cap number just north of $7 million, making him a restructure candidate.
6. Other roster moves. If the Patriots plan on keeping Revis, they need to find other ways to create salary cap space before Tuesday at 4 p.m.:
■ Linebacker Jerod Mayo is a prime candidate to have his contract restructured in the next few days. He has the third-highest cap number on the team ($10.6 million) and is due a $6.25 million base salary, both of which are way too high. Mayo’s roster spot will likely be saved by his current knee injury — his contract calls for $4.5 million of his salary to be guaranteed for injury — but the Patriots can certainly approach him about a pay cut.
■ Wide receiver Danny Amendola is another prime candidate for a release or pay cut in the next few days. If the Patriots release him, he will count $3.6 million against the salary cap (or $1.2 million if they designate him a post-June 1 cut). If Amendola is willing to lower his $4 million salary, it might save his roster spot.
■ Cornerback Kyle Arrington is another candidate for a release, but only as a post-June 1 cut. The Patriots would carry $3.25 million in dead money if they cut him outright, but only $1.625 million if they do it post-June 1, which would net them $3 million in cap savings.
7. Free agents hit the market. At 4 p.m. Tuesday, McCourty and running backs Shane Vereen and Stevan Ridley become free agents. The only priority is McCourty, who will likely be allowed to test the market and come back to the Patriots with an offer.
8. Draft preparation. Oh yeah, there's also the draft. Belichick and his henchmen — Nick Caserio and Michael Lombardi — were at Auburn's pro day on Tuesday leading the players in individual drills and spending a healthy amount of time with speedy receiver Sammie Coates. After checking out the Georgia-Kentucky basketball game on Tuesday night, they reportedly put Georgia center David Andrews through a private workout on Wednesday. Don't be surprised if they pop up at Clemson's pro day on Thursday.