The Patriots are usually an active team at the NFL trade deadline, and they have two more weeks to explore the market before it arrives at 4 p.m. Oct. 29. They look like they could use reinforcements across the offense — at receiver, tight end, and on the line.
But they have a slight complicating factor this year: They are unusually tight against the salary cap. NFL Players Association records had the Patriots with approximately $1.65 million in cap space as of Tuesday morning, though the union is a few transactions behind. Other estimates put their space around $3 million.
Either way, that is abnormally low for them, and ranks in the bottom five in the NFL. They usually have $5 million-$10 million at this point in the season, giving them the flexibility to swing a trade or add free agents.
That’s not to say the Patriots can’t make a trade. The salary cap is easily manipulated, and, as we saw with the Antonio Brown signing in September, the Patriots can always find a way to sign a major impact player and fit him in.
But it is tougher to add anything more than street free agents. It would require restructuring one or multiple contracts — turning base salary into signing bonus, and potentially adding years on the back end.
Let’s take a look at the various options for the Patriots to create cap space and make trades:
■ Let’s say they try to trade for Falcons receiver Mohamed Sanu, a popular name on the rumor mill. He is under contract through 2020, with a $6.25 million salary this year and $6.5 million salary next year.
With 6/17ths of this season completed, Sanu is owed about $4.2 million for the rest of year. The Patriots can’t fit that under the cap.
But they could sign him to a new contract that pays him a minimum salary and the rest of the balance in the form of signing bonus, which is prorated over the life of the contract.
As an eight-year veteran, Sanu’s minimum salary in 2019 is $54,705 per week. So in theory the Patriots could give him a three-year deal (2019-21) that would pay him his minimum base salary (about $600,000 for the rest of this year), and a $3.6 million signing bonus. The $4.2 million cash for 2019 would be the same as before, but it would create $2.4 million in cap space by allocating $1.2 million to the cap in each of 2020 and 2021. Sanu’s new cap number would be $1.8 million for this year.
The downside would be adding dead money and extra years to Sanu’s contract. But the Patriots could still release him after 2019; $2.4 million in dead money isn’t too tough for NFL teams to stomach.
■ The equation gets a little more complicated for more expensive players; Cincinnati’s A.J. Green is owed $7.75 million for the rest of this year, and Denver’s Emmanuel Sanders is owed $6.57 million. Both are set to be free agents after this season, so if the Patriots wanted to acquire either of them, they would have to add years to the contract.
One option is to use an “automatic void,” similar to the one Tom Brady got in his new contract. The Patriots could sign Green to a three-year deal with a signing bonus and minimum salary for this year, but include a clause stating that the contract automatically voids if the player is still on the roster for the final day of the 2019 season (i.e. something that is certain to happen). The player still gets to be a free agent after the season, and the team realizes the cap savings in the current season but takes a sizable cap hit next year when the contract voids.
As an aside, Brady’s current contract will void on March 17. If he signs a two-year deal before that, he could spread $6.75 million in dead cap money to 2020 and 2021. If Brady’s contract voids March 18, or if he signs only a one-year deal, he will have $13.5 million in dead money in 2020.
■ A player like Bengals tight end Tyler Eifert is much more cost-effective. He has just $647,000 of base salary left this year, plus $2.5 million in incentives that don’t count toward the salary cap. The Patriots could add him and not have to make a corresponding move.
■ The Patriots also can create cap space by restructuring their own players. Devin McCourty, who is making $9 million in the final year of his contract, certainly is a candidate for an extension.
For example, the Patriots could give him a new three-year deal with a minimum salary for the rest of 2019 and a $9 million signing bonus that would create nearly $6 million in cap space for this year.
Kyle Van Noy, making $4.75 million in the final year of his deal, is another extension candidate, and could help the Patriots clear around $2 million of space. And Dont’a Hightower, under contract for two more years, could be a candidate for a restructure, but probably not an extension. He has a $7 million base salary that could be converted to create $2 million-$3 million in cap space for this year.
But there’s an important facet to keep in mind: These moves can be done, but they add more commitments and dead money for the future. And the Patriots have already dug a decent hole for 2020. Next year, they are carrying $4.75 million in dead cap money for Brown, and either $6.75 million or $13.5 million for Brady.
The salary cap keeps increasing by $10 million per year. And the Patriots can always make a bunch of moves next spring to manipulate the cap. But they don’t want to be reckless with dead money, either.
It’s fun to dream about adding Green, Sanders, or Sanu. But the much more realistic solution is the Patriots getting improvement from within — hoping for better health from their current receivers, hoping the offensive line improves throughout the season, and getting extra contributions from N’Keal Harry and Ben Watson.