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BEN VOLIN | ON FOOTBALL

Where did all the Patriots’ salary cap space go?

Bill Belichick (pictured on the phone at Georgia’s Pro Day this week) and the Patriots had $6.55 million in salary cap space as of Thursday.
Bill Belichick (pictured on the phone at Georgia’s Pro Day this week) and the Patriots had $6.55 million in salary cap space as of Thursday.(John Amis/AP)

The first wave of free agency is complete, and Patriots still have a few glaring needs: starting-caliber receivers and tight ends, and depth on both lines.

But filling those needs may require some creative accounting.

The Patriots enter this weekend as one of the most cap-strapped teams in the NFL. As of Thursday morning, NFL Players Association records showed the Patriots with just $6.55 million in salary cap space, fourth-lowest among the 32 teams. This number doesn’t include the two most recent signings, Phillip Dorsett and Ryan Allen, who should account for $2 million-$3 million more.

With their lack of funds, the Patriots already lost out on two free agents — receiver Adam Humphries to the Titans and receiver Cole Beasley to the Bills. The Patriots will have to create salary cap space at some point soon, via a veteran release or contract restructure, just so they can continue to fill out the roster.

Yet it’s not as though the Patriots have been throwing big money around this offseason. They let their two prime free agents, Trey Flowers and Trent Brown, sign mega-deals with other teams.

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Their big addition was a trade for Michael Bennett, which really was a cost-saving move. They re-signed a few key depth players (Jason McCourty, John Simon, Dorsett), added three special teamers (Brandon Bolden, Terrence Brooks, and Allen), and signed a few veteran backups, some of whom may not make the team (Mike Pennel, Matt LaCosse, Maurice Harris, Bruce Ellington).

So where did all the money go? How did the Patriots, who are never known as big spenders, get themselves in a perilous salary cap situation?

To answer this, we analyzed their salary cap spending by player and by position, and compared the numbers with the rest of the league. All numbers are via the NFLPA and OverTheCap.com. Here are some findings:

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1. Tom Brady is expensive.

From a cash perspective, Brady is a bargain — just $14 million in salary for 2019, plus $1 million in per-game bonuses. But Brady has a $27 million salary cap hit this year, the fourth-highest in the NFL behind Matthew Stafford ($29.5 million), Kirk Cousins ($29 million), and Andrew Luck ($27.525 million).

The $12 million difference between Brady’s salary and his cap number is the largest of any player in the NFL, and is owed to Brady renegotiating his contract twice in the last four years. He restructured his deal in 2016, when he was suspended four games following Deflategate, taking a $28 million signing bonus and $1 million in salary that pushed a lot of cap money into the future but minimized the financial impact of his suspension.

He renegotiated again last August to add incentives in his contract, which also included a conversion of $10 million in salary into a signing bonus, which pushed $5 million of cap dollars into 2019.

Brady is such an obvious candidate for a contract extension and/or restructure that it’s a little baffling why it hasn’t happened already. The Patriots can easily create $7 million-$10 million in cap space by giving Brady a new multiyear deal with a big signing bonus — and that’s money that could have helped them in the first wave of free agency. Instead, they have held off.

But common sense dictates that Brady’s extension is coming soon. There’s no reason to have him as the fourth-highest cap hit in the NFL.

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Top 51 A look at the Patriots' top 51 players in cash and cap spending*
Position Player Cash Cap
QB Tom Brady $15,000,000 $27,000,000
CB Stephon Gilmore $10,000,000 $14,837,500
S Devin McCourty $9,500,000 $13,435,000
TE Rob Gronkowski $10,000,000 $11,859,375
LB Donta Hightower $7,875,000 $10,945,313
OL Marcus Cannon $6,150,000 $7,456,250
OL Shaq Mason $5,000,000 $7,275,000
DL Michael Bennett $7,200,000 $7,200,000
LB Kyle Van Noy $4,750,000 $6,291,668
WR Julian Edelman $3,000,000 $5,410,949
S Duron Harmon $3,250,000 $4,750,000
RB James White $3,250,000 $4,625,000
DL Lawrence Guy $3,500,000 $4,466,666
CB Jason McCourty $6,000,000 $4,250,000
S Patrick Chung $2,400,000 $4,175,000
OL David Andrews $2,400,000 $3,500,000
CB Jonathan Jones $3,095,000 $3,095,000
QB Brian Hoyer $3,000,000 $3,000,000
RB Rex Burkhead $2,250,000 $3,000,000
ST Matt Slater $2,400,000 $2,900,000
ST Nate Ebner $2,200,000 $2,787,500
OL Isaiah Wynn $1,000,087 $2,600,434
OL Joe Thuney $2,025,000 $2,218,357
RB Sony Michel $917,577 $2,187,885
DL Mike Pennel $2,400,000 $2,150,000
LB Elandon Roberts $2,025,000 $2,050,089
WR Josh Gordon $2,025,000 $2,025,000
LB John Simon $2,150,000 $1,775,000
ST Brandon Bolden $2,200,000 $1,700,000
RB James Develin $1,400,000 $1,600,000
ST Terrence Brooks $1,700,000 $1,450,000
ST Brandon King $1,175,000 $1,359,375
TE Matt Lacosse $1,400,000 $1,225,000
CB Duke Dawson $695,676 $1,078,381
WR Maurice Harris $1,000,000 $962,500
ST Joe Cardona $825,000 $955,000
DL Derek Rivers $680,000 $880,724
DL Deatrich Wise $645,000 $790,140
DL David Parry $760,000 $743,750
WR Bruce Ellington $895,000 $735,000
OL James Ferentz $720,000 $720,000
OL Ted Karras $720,000 $720,000
S Obi Melifonwu $825,000 $693,438
OL Brian Schwenke $895,000 $686,250
DL Ufomba Kamalu $745,000 $657,500
TE Stephen Anderson $650,000 $655,000
TE Jacob Hollister $645,000 $648,334
DL Adam Butler $645,000 $646,668
LB Ja'Whaun Bentley $570,000 $645,988
OL Cole Croston $645,000 $645,000
CB Keion Crossen $570,000 $588,598
SOURCE: NFLPA, OverTheCap.com; *as of Thursday, March 21

2. They have other high-priced players.

The Patriots have five players with a salary cap hit of at least $10 million, tied for sixth-most in the NFL. Rob Gronkowski has the third-highest cap hit among tight ends ($11.86 million). Devin McCourty is third-highest among safeties ($13.44 million). Stephon Gilmore is fourth at cornerback ($14.84 million). Dont’a Hightower is eighth among traditional linebackers ($10.95 million).

Cap numbers for Gilmore and McCourty are high because of previous contract tinkering. The Patriots in recent years converted some of their base salary into signing bonuses to create cap space in the current year, but it pushed extra cap money into this year (nearly $4 million for McCourty, and $4.8 million for Gilmore).

Position-wise, the Patriots have the second-highest-paid secondary in the NFL (more than $52 million in cap dollars), trailing only the Ravens. They’re also spending the fifth-most on running backs ($11.1 million).

Cap money
Breaking down the Patriots' spending on the top 51 by position
QB
$30,000,000
OL
$25,821,291
CB
$23,849,479
S
$23,053,438
LB
$21,708,058
DL
$17,535,448
TE
$14,387,709
RB
$11,412,885
ST
$11,151,875
WR
$9,133,449
SOURCE: NFLPA, OverTheCap.com

3. Their rookies haven’t hit.

Players on their rookie contracts are the backbone of many successful teams because they are cheap and locked in for four or five years. Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield, last year’s No. 1 pick, has a cap number of $7.4 million this year. Ja’whaun Bentley, a promising young linebacker who could have a big role for the Patriots this year, has a cap number of $646,000.

But the Patriots don’t have enough Bentleys on the team, through some questionable drafting and a concerted effort to eschew rookies for veterans. When looking at top 51 spending around the league (in the offseason, only a team’s top 51 contracts count toward the salary cap), the Patriots are tied with the Browns for the fewest players accounting for less than $1 million, with 18 out of the 51. League average is 24.2 players out of 51 at less than $1 million.

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The Patriots have 12 draft picks this year, and need several of them to hit because the team needs a youth infusion and more cheap players.

4. They spend a lot on the middle class.

I looked at all 32 rosters, and sorted players into groups by salary cap number: $10 million and up, $7 million-$10 million, $5 million-$7 million, $3 million-$5 million, $1 million-$3 million, and less than $1 million.

The Patriots are pretty much right at league average for the three highest groups, with 10 players carrying a cap number of at least $5 million. But they are loaded with players in the $1 million-$5 million range — 23 such players, second in the NFL behind Buffalo (24). League average is 16.6 players per team. Included in this list are key contributors such as Patrick Chung, David Andrews, James White, Sony Michel, and Joe Thuney.

The Patriots’ philosophy in recent years has been to focus more on veterans than rookies. It is hard to argue with the results, but it is a costlier way to do business.

5. They don’t carry over much unused cap space.

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This is related to the previous item. The collective bargaining agreement allows teams to carry over any unused cap space into the next year, and teams such as the Browns ($56 million carryover), Colts ($49 million), and 49ers ($35 million) have more cap space than they know what to do with. League average this year was $10.6 million per team.

But the Patriots had only $3.1 million to carry over, the ninth-lowest figure in the league. They have carried over significantly less than the league average in each of the last four years.

Salary cap carryover
A team-by-team breakdown of salary cap carryover for 2019
CLE
$56.50m
IND
$49.10m
SF
$35m
TEN
$25.60m
HOU
$18.80m
PIT
$18.20m
NYJ
$12.20m
DAL
$11.70m
JAX
$11.60m
BUF
$8.70m
DEN
$8m
GB
$7.80m
CIN
$7.40m
ARZ
$6.40m
DET
$6.30m
PHI
$6.10m
MIA
$5.90m
NYG
$5.90m
WAS
$5m
BAL
$4.50m
TB
$4.50m
MIN
$4.10m
CHI
$3.60m
NE
$3.10m
SEA
$2.50m
CAR
$2.50m
OAK
$1.90m
NO
$1.80m
ATL
$1.10m
LAC
$1m
KC
$0.72m
LAR
$0.47m
Average
$10.56m
SOURCE: NFLPA, OverTheCap.com

6. They spend a lot on special teams.

This is hard to compare, but the Patriots sure seem to lead the league in players who play only special teams and don’t contribute on offense or defense.

The Patriots have five such players, not including long snapper Joe Cardona and punter Ryan Allen. And they all have cap numbers between $1.36 million and $2.9 million: Matthew Slater, Nate Ebner, Brandon Bolden, Terrence Brooks, and Brandon King.

The Patriots are currently spending more top 51 cap space on their special teams ($11.15 million) than they are on wide receivers ($9.13 million). It’s about the same amount they spend on running backs ($11.4 million).

And that special teams figure doesn’t include Allen, who will likely take an additional $1 million of cap space, and kicker Stephen Gostkowski, who is a free agent and could take $3 million-$5 million in cap space if he re-signs.

Coach Bill Belichick invests heavily in his special teams, and his teams always excel in this phase of the game. But there’s no question that investing so many cap dollars and roster spots on special teams-only players detracts from the rest of the roster.


Ben Volin can be reached at ben.volin@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin