We’ll excuse Bill Belichick if he’s a little behind in his preparations for the 2019 season. He has been a little busy the past month, what with winning a Super Bowl and parading through the streets of Boston. He’s probably taking a well-deserved vacation now.
Fortunately, Bill, we’re here to help.
We analyzed the Patriots roster, scoured the list of free agents (both for the Patriots and the rest of the NFL), and crunched the numbers on the salary cap to come up with the team’s offseason road map. So once free agency begins at 4 p.m. on March 13, all Belichick has to do is read this article, then start clearing room for that seventh Lombardi Trophy.
But before we begin, a side note: This is one of the more difficult Patriots offseasons to project because two crucial players are considering retirement: Rob Gronkowski and Devin McCourty. Without knowing each player’s plan, it’s harder to assess the roster needs and salary-cap situation. For the purposes of this exercise, we’ll assume both players will return.
Salary cap: The 2019 salary cap is projected to be between $187 million and $191 million, so let’s call it $190 million. The Patriots are carrying over about $3.17 million in unused cap space from last season. They Patriots currently have 56 players under contract for next year, with their top 51 accounting for approximately $176 million in cap commitments, giving them about $17 million in cap space as of this writing.
Top needs: WR, DE, DT, TE, OL, LB, QB.
Wide receiver and defensive line are the two clear needs. Julian Edelman is the only receiver on the current roster who has caught an NFL pass. And two starters on the defensive line (Trey Flowers, Malcom Brown) are free agents.
1. Give Tom Brady a new contract.
Brady is entering the final year of his deal, and if you haven’t heard, he wants to keep playing beyond 2019. Brady is scheduled to earn $15 million in cash next season with a cap number of $27 million. The Patriots should tear up Brady’s current deal and give him, say, a three-year deal through the 2021 season, which would give him a raise while also lowering his cap number.
For example, a $21 million signing bonus and minimum $1.03 million salary would increase Brady’s actual pay from $15 million to $22 million in 2019, while lowering his cap number to $20 million from $27 million. Win-win.
2. Restructure the contracts of Gronkowski, Dont’a Hightower, and Dwayne Allen to create cap space. Keep McCourty as is.
Assuming Gronkowski comes back, the Patriots need to do something with his contract, as his $10 million salary and $12 million cap number are too high, given his injury history. The Patriots should cut the salary in half and tack on a few million in incentives.
Hightower was durable and productive in 2018, and definitely deserves to be back. But his $7.875 million salary is a little high, and the Patriots should try to cut it down and replace it with incentives.
Allen is an obvious candidate for a contract restructuring, with $7.4 million in salary and bonuses and no dead money. But he was a great blocking tight end last season, and played for $3 million plus $2 million in incentives/bonuses, and the Patriots should bring him back on a similar deal.
McCourty’s numbers are high for 2019 — $9.5 million salary, $13.435 million cap hit — but I’d let him come back at that. He’s your defensive leader, still an excellent player, and is everything right about the Patriots program. There are plenty of other ways to create cap space.
3. Create $6 million in cap space by releasing Elandon Roberts and Adrian Clayborn.
Roberts is a decent enough backup linebacker, but the Patriots have Ja’Whaun Bentley and Christian Sam returning from injured reserve, and Roberts may be hurt by a rule in the collective bargaining agreement that is intended to help him. Roberts earns an automatic salary bump in 2019 to $2.02 million from $720,000 for outperforming his rookie contract, but that comes with no dead money, so all of a sudden he’s a more expensive player with no cap protection.
The Patriots can also save $4 million in cash and cap space by releasing Clayborn, who had just 2.5 sacks last season and was a healthy scratch twice. Even with a lack of depth on the line, the Patriots can do better than Clayborn.
4. Set firm prices for Flowers and Trent Brown, and be prepared to let them walk.
Brown was a great find last year who cost the Patriots only $1.9 million, but now he’s the top offensive tackle on the free agent market and is looking at a big payday. Isaiah Wynn, who is recovering from a torn Achilles’ tendon, is available to step in at left tackle, so the Patriots don’t need to break the bank for Brown.
As for Flowers, he has developed into a key player on the defense. But if he has a robust free agent market, the Patriots should let another team pay him top dollar. Flowers is not a dominant one-on-one pass rusher, and the Patriots have a well-established history of letting star defensive players go — Chandler Jones, Jamie Collins, Logan Ryan, and Malcolm Butler in recent history — and being just fine the next year.
The Patriots need bodies on the defensive line, and have options between free agency and trade candidates. But their defense is built more on scheme than talent. They shouldn’t overpay to bring back Flowers.
5. Let Chris Hogan, Danny Shelton, Jeremy Hill, and Eric Rowe walk.
All four players will be unrestricted free agents. Hogan had a nice three-year tenure in New England, but it became clear in 2018 that Brady didn’t have much of a connection with him, and the Patriots can upgrade the No. 2 receiver spot. Shelton was a mostly a bust and a healthy scratch three times. Rowe was a decent enough cornerback for three years, but the Patriots have good enough depth at the position. Hill, who tore an ACL in Week 1, probably could be re-signed for league minimum, but the Patriots should instead look for younger, healthier legs.
6. Add one receiver in free agency, and one through the draft.
As of now, the receiver depth chart is: Edelman, Braxton Berrios, Darren Andrews, Cody Hollister, and Damoun Patterson. So, yeah, they need to add some pieces.
I would love to see Adam Humphries in New England. Humphries had 76 catches for 816 yards and five touchdowns for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last season. Solid production for a 26-year-old who has missed only one game in three years.
But Humphries should have suitors, and if the Patriots sign him, they may also need to give Edelman a raise from $3 million to keep order in the locker room.
The top free agent at the position is Golden Tate, who has been a physical, productive receiver. But he’ll be 31 in August and will want a salary close to the $7 million he made last year, so he may not be the best investment.
For a value signing, I like Rishard Matthews, a physical receiver who is only 29 and had great production from 2015-17 in stints with the Dolphins and Titans. Donte Moncrief is another decent buy-low option; He’ll be 26 in August, is 6-feet-2-inches and 220 pounds, and had 48 catches for 668 yards and three touchdowns with Jacksonville last season.
The Patriots also could trade for a receiver entering the final year of his contract. The Raiders’ Seth Roberts ($4.45 million salary) and the Saints’ Cam Meredith ($5.05 million) look like decent options.
And one name to keep an eye on: Emmanuel Sanders. The Broncos have an option year on him for $10.15 million. The Patriots almost signed Sanders to a restricted free agent offer sheet in 2013, and would likely be interested if he becomes available as an unrestricted free agent.
If Gronkowski retires, here are two names to watch at tight end: The Steelers’ Jesse James is an unrestricted free agent, and the Jaguars may decline the option year on Austin Seferian-Jenkins.
7. Draft a quarterback if one comes to you, but don’t force it.
Yes, even though Brady is probably going to play until he’s eligible for AARP, the Patriots would be well-suited to draft a quarterback this year and start developing him. They should have plenty of picks: six in the first three rounds and 12 total. If a quarterback is there with one of their second-round picks, or if a QB they want can be acquired for a modest draft trade, they should do it.
But the Patriots shouldn’t force it, either. Brady should be playing a few more years, and Brian Hoyer is under contract for 2019 at just $3 million ($1.51 million fully guaranteed). They need to refresh the roster with young talent, and I don’t know if trading the farm for a quarterback is the best use of assets. They can always go for a QB in 2020.
8. Bring back Phillip Dorsett, Cordarrelle Patterson, LaAdrian Waddle, Malcom Brown, Jason McCourty, John Simon, Stephen Gostkowski, and Ryan Allen.
I’m assuming none of these players will have a robust free agent market and can be had for reasonable prices. Dorsett is young, fast, knows the offense, and likely can be had on the cheap. Patterson was great as a kickoff returner and is a versatile offensive weapon, and should be brought back if the Patriots can get him in the $4 million-$5 million range. Waddle is a solid enough backup tackle.
Brown didn’t live up to the first-round hype, but he’s good enough against the run and knows the system. Jason McCourty was terrific this year, has the versatility and smarts to play several positions in the secondary, and probably can be brought back for about $3 million. Simon was a nice midseason addition and has the versatility to play linebacker or defensive end.
The Patriots won’t find a better kicker than Gostkowski, and should sign him to a multiyear deal (and even use the franchise tag if they have to). Allen had a terrific punting season and should be brought back on a new multiyear deal.
9. Give Jonathan Jones an original-round tender, and non-tender Josh Gordon (but bring him back).
Both players will be restricted free agents this year. The speedster Jones has developed into a special teams stalwart in his three years, and was a crucial cornerback in the AFC Championship game and Super Bowl, playing all but one snap. An original-round tender for Jones would cost the Patriots approximately $2 million for 2019, which seems like money well spent for a quality depth player.
Gordon also will be a restricted free agent if/when he returns from suspension. The Patriots don’t really have to worry about another team signing Gordon — who could trust him to stay clean at this point? — and don’t need to spend $2 million on an RFA tender to keep him. They should non-tender Gordon, bring him back on a minimum $805,000 salary, and hope he can contribute. But they should not count on Gordon being a big part of their offense.