The Patriots have a quick turnaround this week, facing the Giants on Thursday night in their preseason finale just six days after facing the Panthers.
And frankly, getting ready for this Giants game is the least of Bill Belichick’s worries.
“There’s about 20 things going on at this time of year,” Belichick said this past week. “Preseason games, regular-season games, another preseason game next week, evaluating players, making roster decisions, talking with other teams in the league. That’s the way it is every preseason, every training camp. That’s the way it is now and that’s the way it’ll be through the next couple of weeks. So yeah, it’s a juggling act.”
The NFL preseason officially ends after Thursday night’s games, and leads into one of the busiest weekends of the year as teams pare their rosters to 53 players. And while Belichick and his staff are busy evaluating tape, lighting up the phones, and scouring the waiver wire, they also have to get ready for the regular-season opener against Houston on Sept. 9.
The Patriots will, of course, be preparing this coming week for Thursday’s game against the Giants, but with minimal game-planning involved, and with most key players sitting out the game entirely.
Let’s take a look at what else the Patriots will be doing as they wrap up the preseason:
■ Roster cuts. The NFL now has just one massive cut at the end of camp, and the Patriots must reduce their roster from 90 to 53 players by 4 p.m. Eastern on Saturday. That’s 1,184 roster spots across the NFL that will vanish, although 320 players can be signed to practice squads (10 per team). Still, 864 players will be out of work and returning home come Saturday, forced to train on their own and hope their agent can land them a tryout.
Nick Caserio, Belichick, and the Patriots’ front office will spend Labor Day weekend sorting through the massive pile of free agents and rely on their vast database of scouting reports compiled during the pre-draft process to find a handful of players they want to add to the practice squad or the bottom of the 53-man roster. These spots remain fluid through the first few weeks of the regular season, and are often filled based on the Patriots’ injury situation and where they need depth.
■ Trades. The trade market has become an increasingly popular option for teams to tweak the bottom of their rosters, and of course the Patriots have led the charge.
The NFL saw more roster-deadline trades last year (26) than in the previous three years combined (25), per the Spotrac database. All but five teams executed at least one trade, 14 teams swung multiple trades, and the Seahawks and Patriots led the way with five each (including two with each other).
The Patriots also have swung at least one roster deadline trade for four years in a row. I defined the roster deadline time period as the final Sunday of the preseason until the day of the NFL’s first regular-season game.
Here are the league-wide numbers, with the Patriots in parentheses:
2017: 26 trades involving 31 players (Patriots five trades, giving up Jacoby Brissett and Justin Coleman and acquiring Phillip Dorsett, Johnson Bademosi, Cassius Marsh, and Marquis Flowers).
2016: nine trades involving 11 players (Patriots one trade, acquiring Eric Rowe).
2015: 15 trades involving 16 players (Patriots one trade, acquiring Jalen Saunders).
2014: one trade involving one player (Patriots one trade, giving up Ryan Mallett).
2013: eight trades involving nine players (Patriots zero trades).
While Belichick has executed trades with a few of his AFC rivals in recent years — two trades with Houston, one with Cincinnati, and one with Indianapolis — the bulk of his deals are made with NFC teams, particularly when including trades made during the regular season.
“There’s no question it’s always easier to talk to a team you’re not in direct competition with, either that’s not on your schedule, certainly not in your division,” Belichick said this past week. “Trades are theoretically maneuvers that will help both teams. When two teams make a trade, both teams think that they’re improving. That’s why they make it, right? So, if you can find a trade partner and you’re helping your team, then that’s usually a good thing. But certainly it’s a lot more common and easier to deal with teams that you’re not in direct competition with. I don’t think you see a lot of trades with teams within the division trading players back and forth.”
■ Quarterback trades. This might not involve the Patriots this year, because they appear set for now with Tom Brady and Brian Hoyer. But league-wide, a quarterback has been traded at the roster deadline for four consecutive years, twice involving the Patriots:
2017 — Patriots’ Brissett for Colts’ Dorsett.
2016 — Eagles’ Sam Bradford for Vikings’ 2017 first- and 2018 fourth-round picks.
2015 — Cardinals’ Matt Barkley for Eagles’ 2016 seventh-round pick.
2014 — Patriots’ Mallett for Texans’ 2016 seventh-round pick.
This year’s prime target is Jets quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, and his roster spot mostly comes down to the financials. The Jets appear set to name rookie Sam Darnold as the Week 1 starter, and already have paid a $5 million signing bonus to backup Josh McCown, who despite his age (39) is still a capable backup and a good mentor for Darnold. Bridgewater, meanwhile, has only been paid $1 million by the Jets so far.
Bridgewater and McCown have the same $5 million base salary, which doesn’t become guaranteed until Week 1, and Bridgewater has an additional $9 million in performance incentives. The Jets could always just release Bridgewater before Saturday and save the $5 million and the roster spot, but there’s no ticking clock here.
The Jets can still trade Bridgewater through the first two months of the regular season, and he played well in the first two preseason games. The Jets might as well hold onto him until they get a decent offer, ostensibly from a team that suffers a quarterback injury.
MIDDLE CLASS VALUED
Patriots spread money around
The Patriots rarely pay top market rates for talent, and for years have gotten by with undervalued contracts for Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski. But I also have long suspected that the Patriots invest more in the “middle class” of their roster than most NFL teams, the $2 million-$4 million players such as Patrick Chung and James White that provide valuable depth.
This past week, a fascinating article by Jason Fitzgerald of Over The Cap essentially confirmed that to be the case. Fitzgerald examined how many “star” players a team could afford, and found that in 2018, the average NFL team is spending $46.6 million on its top three players, or 26 percent of its salary cap. The top 10 players make an average of $102.7 million (58 percent), and the top 15 players account for $124 million, or more than 70 percent of the cap.
It’s the new economic model created by the 2011 collective bargaining agreement, in which teams pay big money to quarterbacks and a few star players, and fill out the majority of the roster with low-cost rookies who are locked into their contracts for four years. The NFL middle class seems to be shrinking significantly.
Except in New England, of course.
The Patriots rank 26th in top-three spending ($43 million), 27th in top-five ($60.9 million), 29th in top-10 ($90.6 million), and 28th in top-15 ($111.4 million).
But they rank much higher when you start to factor in the middle of the roster. They climb to 22nd in spending on players 4-15 ($50.5 million), and jump all the way to No. 7 in spending on players 11-30 ($62.4 million, or about $3.1 million per player).
The Patriots have 29 players with salary-cap numbers of $2 million or higher, though that could decrease after roster cuts.
“I think you could make that argument that they believe in spending more in the lower mid tier than upper tier,” Fitzgerald said via e-mail. “That would go hand in hand with why they moved Chandler Jones and Jamie Collins, didn’t keep Nate Solder, and played hardball with Dont’a Hightower. The exception on the team is Stephon Gilmore.”
There’s nothing to show for it
Some more Patriots-related notes:
■ They doled out more than $750,000 to three veterans who won’t play a snap for them this season. Receiver Kenny Britt, released this past week, walked away with approximately $206,000 from this offseason, while receiver Jordan Matthews made $307,000 and tight end Troy Niklas earned $257,000. Each player would rather have a roster spot, though.
■ And second-year offensive lineman Nate Theaker, released by the Patriots on Aug. 2 with an injury designation, received an injury settlement of $21,352, equal to one week’s pay. NFL rules allow teams to release a player from injured reserve if they negotiate a settlement as to how many weeks this injury would likely keep the player out. Theaker is now free to sign with any team at any time, though he has to wait six weeks of the regular season to re-sign with the Patriots.
■ One last money note: One of the more fascinating angles of attorney Jose Baez’s new book about Aaron Hernandez was the detail about Hernandez having some financial woes early in his NFL career. Hernandez made a total of $620,000 in his first year and $650,000 in his second year, but after taxes, agent fees, training costs, nutrition costs, and more, that money went quickly. Hernandez’s friends thought he was an NFL baller, but Hernandez said he was “broke as [expletive],” per Baez, which was one of the reasons Hernandez sold his No. 85 jersey to Chad Ochocinco and invested it in a drug deal, making $70,000 in profit.
It also was why Hernandez liked hanging out with Alexander Bradley, the drug dealer who later turned against him. Bradley had money of his own from selling drugs and didn’t rely on Hernandez to open up his wallet.
Hernandez’s financial troubles aren’t uncommon in the NFL. Rookies picked in the third round and later make a good living but certainly aren’t the multimillionaire athletes they are portrayed to be.
■ The most interesting revelation from the Channel Media Market & Research survey wasn’t that the Malcolm Butler benching in the Super Bowl was the least-popular decision made by the Patriots last season (36 percent). It’s that nearly the same number (34 percent) believed the Jimmy Garoppolo trade was the worst call. For an area that loves Tom Brady, it is surprising, to say the least, that a third of the fan base considers the Garoppolo trade worse than the Butler benching.
Cowboys have taken some hits
Life comes at you fast in the NFL, as the Cowboys learned this past week. They have spent years building one of the best offensive lines in the league, yet have seen it fall into disarray.
All-Pro guard Zack Martin suffered a hyperextended knee in the second preseason game, and his availability for the start of the regular season is unclear. Right tackle La’el Collins is dealing with an ankle injury. Left tackle Tyron Smith hasn’t been practicing after an injury-plagued 2017.
And now center Travis Frederick has announced that he has been diagnosed with Guillain-Barre syndrome, in which the body’s immune system attacks part of the nervous system. Frederick hopes to return “as soon as possible,” but no one knows if that will be as soon as September or not until the 2019 season.
Vrabel nailed the interview
Mike Vrabel became a head coach after just seven years as an assistant, and only one year as a defensive coordinator (last year with the Texans). I asked Titans general manager Jon Robinson what he saw in Vrabel that made him overlook his comparative lack of coaching experience.
“He was an extremely smart football player, astute in all three phases of the game, and that came across in the interview,” Robinson said. “He commanded the room when we sat down and interviewed him, which I think is important for a head football coach. He’s going to stand in front of 90 men and they’ve got to buy into the direction that he’s trying to preach. And I thought that he showed that, had a ton of energy, and it was just a good fit for us.”
Robert Kraft will get into the Pro Football Hall of Fame eventually, but his quest will have to wait another year. The Hall of Fame announced on Thursday that its two candidates for the “contributor” category for the class of 2019 are Broncos owner Pat Bowlen (who no longer has control of the team) and former longtime Cowboys personnel executive Gil Brandt. Both candidates are more than worthy, and it’s a nice gesture for Bowlen, 74, who relinquished control of the Broncos in 2014 because of his battle with Alzheimer’s . . . These big, fancy NFL stadiums don’t just pay for themselves. The Patriots have been cramming concerts into Gillette Stadium every spare minute this summer, with Taylor Swift, Jay-Z and Beyonce, Kenny Chesney, and Ed Sheeran booked for eight total nights. And arriving in my inbox on Thursday: an e-mail from the Dolphins advertising that Hard Rock Stadium is now available for event hosting. “Event concepts are limited only by the imagination in the 20+ private spaces of various and flexible sizes,” the e-mail states. “It is the only facility where you can host a special function within the Miami Dolphins locker room or on the field.” . . . The NFL tried to slip one by us on Wednesday, announcing no changes to the new helmet policy but quietly adding that “inadvertent or incidental contact with the helmet and/or facemask is not a foul.” The league’s new helmet rule still doesn’t have this language written into it, but this is an important clarification that should reduce the number of flags this fall . . . Interesting to see the Ravens stick by cornerback Jimmy Smith, who was suspended for the first four games of the season for violating the NFL’s personal conduct policy. The league found “evidence of threatening and emotionally abusive behaviors by Jimmy toward his former girlfriend,” but stopped short of calling it domestic abuse. The Ravens, who took a lot of heat for originally sticking by Ray Rice in 2014, are keeping Smith on the team.
The Jets entered into an unusual partnership for this fall — with Def Jam Records. Per Billboard.com, the MetLife Stadium DJ will have access to Def Jam’s entire catalogue of music, and Jets players are collaborating with Def Jam artists for recording sessions. The first one is a project between safeties Jamal Adams and Marcus Maye and the rapper Jadakiss.