1 – The Patriots continue to be relatively conservative, patient, cautious, frugal…whatever word you want to use to describe New England doing very little in the free agent market this spring. It’s a stark contrast to the quarter of a billion dollars of Robert Kraft’s money dished out by Bill Belichick a year ago, but also more in line with most of the offseasons over the last two decades.
Certainly one of the reasons that the Patriots haven’t been nearly as aggressive this March – or really aggressive at all based on results and reports of interactions with players – is that there wasn’t nearly as much open and easily-accessible salary space at Belichick’s disposal. As described by former Patriots VP of Player Personnel Scott Pioli, now an analyst for NFL Media, Belichick “went out and spent two years’ worth of free agency money” last March. To some degree he has to live with the some good/some bad results brought by guys like Hunter Henry, Jonnu Smith, Matthew Judon, Nelson Agholor, Davon Godchaux and others.
Beyond just looking back to last year, another reason given for New England’s limited work in free agency this spring is looking ahead to preserving the financial opportunities the Patriots may have next year. Depending on your source of choice, New England is expected to have somewhere upwards of $70 million and maybe as much as $105 million in salary cap space with which to work next offseason.
Sounds like time for another uncharacteristically aggressive shopping spree, right?
You see with the salary cap jumping up to a projected $225 million, plenty of NFL teams are expected to have plenty of money to spend next spring. If you use the numbers via Spotrac to chart NFL teams’ finances, the Patriots will have the fifth-most salary cap space next year as one of 13 franchises with more than $50 million to spend. The unofficial accounting at OverTheCap.com projects the Patriots to have the seventh-most cap space next spring, one of 14 teams with more than $50 million to work with.
So will the Patriots have money to spend next spring? Certainly. But they will be far from alone in that luxury. Free agents are going to benefit from a market flush with cash looking to acquire their services. That could lead to bidding wars and inflated contracts.
Not exactly the kind of perfect storm Belichick might prefer.
In fact, exactly the kind of market that he’s shed away from more often than not over the years.
2 – Part of the reason for New England’ projected growth in salary cap space in 2023 – beyond the natural but more significant growth of the cap overall — is a number of costly contracts coming off the books. Isaiah Wynn’s $10.4 million fifth-year option will be played out, as will Agholor’s two-year pact that is costing $14.8 million against the cap this year. Davon Godchaux’s two-year deal, which currently holds a $10.25 million cap slot for 2022, will also be a distant memory. In fact the only large cap figure on the 2023 books that looks like a really poor investment at this point is the $14.75 allotted for Smith, the tight end who struggled mightily in his first season in New England and will need massive strides to even come close to live up to his contract.
3 – While focused on salary cap figures and slots in the coming years, it’s always worth noting what the Patriots will be investing in the quarterback position. While teams across the NFL are now paying upwards of $30-$40 million or more against the cap for their QB, Mac Jones’ cap number for 2022 is $3.5 million. It grows to $4.25 million in 2023 and just under $5 million in 2024 before it would be set to balloon up a bit on his fifth-year option in 2025. Right now the Patriots are living the financial high life to some degree with a starting quarterback on a rookie contract, what some believe is one of the most beneficial assets in all of sports these days. Jones’ low cap number combined with the Patriots limited spending this spring is actually what has frustrated some New England observers the most.
4 – The latest installment of the “Do Your Job” series on Patriots.com brought some clarity to the roles in in New England’s front office last week. With Dave Zeigler having moved on to the Raiders, the Patriots had already announced that Matt Groh’s promotion to the title of Director of Player Personnel. The video also lets us know that Eliot Wolf, seen as a key voice in the front office a year ago as a scouting consultant has now been rebranded as the Director of Scouting, a position that’s not been a part of the New England front office in the past. The video also shows that Carmen Williams has been promoted from national scout to Director of College Scouting. Steve Cargile remains the director of pro scouting and long-time member of the scouting department Brian Smith remains as Personnel Coordinator. While Ziegler may be gone, New England has a strong returning staff with which to continue the supposedly more “collaborative” efforts that led to such a successful offseason a year ago.
5 – Speaking of Ziegler and Josh McDaniels landing in Las Vegas, much as been made of the approach the two former Belichick underlings have taken this spring trying to inject life into their new Raiders team that was already a playoff squad a year ago. Some have interpreted the Raiders’ aggressive approach, including trading for Davante Adams and signing Chandler Jones, as pushback against the more conservative ways that they generally saw at their previous employer in New England. Maybe that’s true, McDaniels going out to get his offense the kind of truly elite No. 1 weapon that he lacked last season in Foxborough. But we must remember that McDaniels also saw how aggressive roster building can pay off first hand back in 2007 in New England when his offense added Randy Moss and Wes Welker on the way to a breakout season and undefeated regular season campaign that made the offensive coordinator a hot coaching commodity. Maybe that influenced the Raiders’ approach. Also recall that when McDaniels took over the Broncos in 2009 the early part of his short tenure included moving on from both quarterback Jay Cutler and star receiver Brandon Marshall. Maybe that led to a different philosophical approach this time around, especially in the hypercompetitive, star-studded AFC West.
6 – Pioli also noted this week that while the first wave of big-money free agency gets most of the attention, there is still a long way to go in the overall team-building process. Belichick has also pointed this out many times over the years, referring to it as a “mosaic” that includes early and later free agency, the draft, undrafted rookies, summer cuts and trades along the way. As of right now the roster on Patriots.com lists the team has having 67 players, meaning more than two dozen more names will be added to the training camp competition via the draft and other acquisitions in the coming weeks and months. That’s not to say any of those will necessarily significantly alter the way New England looks on paper in an AFC that arguably has double-digit teams with legitimate playoff hopes and aspirations, but it is the reality of the “marathon” of team building as Pioli describes it from an insiders’ perspective. For example running back Antowain Smith, who went on to become a key cog and leading rusher for a Super Bowl champion, signed with the Patriots on June 7 back in 2001. So it’s not like impactful moves can only come in March and April.
7 – As it comes to impact, the return of Malcolm Butler may or may not fall into that category. There is a lot to like and a lot to question in terms of one of the most notable returns to New England in recent years. A former Super Bowl hero and controversy, Butler is 32 years old at this point at a cornerback position that’s generally a young man’s game. He was out of football last season and had some ups and downs over his three prior seasons as a $60-plus million man in Tennessee. The 2015 Pro Bowler and 2016 second-team All-Pro also obviously has plenty of experience in the Patriots’ system and with much of the New England coaching staff. He brings upside to a cornerback depth chart that’s very much in need of competitive bodies if not pure talent. Could Butler end up as New England’s No. 1 cornerback? It probably wouldn’t be ideal but also can’t be completely ruled out at this point. Could he end up getting cut and not making the team? Also can’t be ruled out. One thing that probably can be ruled out is his return to the Patriots somehow bringing resolution to the question that’s gone unanswered for years: Why, exactly, did Butler not play defense in the Super Bowl LII shootout loss to the Eagles?