With the off-season in full swing for many NFL teams, let’s examine two features that can make or break their chances to win the Super Bowl: their elite players and salary cap space.
For years, the Patriots have acted like tacticians when they've managed their cap, using only what they needed on the players they needed. While critics argued against the team’s strategy and begged for them to sign big ticket free agents, they stuck with their game plan. Yet, do the Patriots have the current financial flexibility to make the same player transactions this year like they have in past years?
Their cap is not in terrible shape, but it could be better. They will carry about $4 million from last season into 2014 and can restructure a good amount of player deals; however, the main problem looms from the jail cell manned by former tight end Aaron Hernandez. Hernandez has a range of charges against him and the only way the Patriots are released officially of his $7.5 million cap hit is if Hernandez is convicted of one of the charges currently held against him. Recently, Kraft hinted the team might ask the League for relief well before the court's decision is made.
To obtain a better picture of the Patriot’s financial situation going into 2014, let’s look at and grade the highest paid players on the team. Many are in line to receive a contract restructure or extension and some could be outright released. If and when the team makes a move with these top players, cap room will magically appear.
10 Sebastian Vollmer, RT, 2014 Cap Hit: $3.75 million
Just last march, the number two right tackle in the NFL in 2013, according to Pro Football Focus, signed a contract extension with the Patriots. As a result, he is not eligible to renegotiate his contract for at least a year.
In any case, the Patriots will worry little about the state of Vollmer’s current contract. The deal will pay Vollmer top market value, if he stays on the field. Due to his injury history, the Patriots littered the agreement with playing time and production incentives.
New England felt more comfortable offering Vollmer this type of contract because the lineman received little interest in the free agent market. The deal guarantees Vollmer only $8.5 million, but he can earn the full value of the deal if he lines up on Sundays. In 2014, Vollmer’s salary will jump from $3.75 million to $5.75 million, if he plays 90% of the offensives snaps.
Contract grade: A
9 Stephen Gostkowksi, K, Cap Hit: $3.8 million
Stephen Gostkowski is a valuable kicker, but the Patriots won’t pay him over $3 million next season. In 2010, New England resigned Gostkowski to a four year extension worth up to $14 million and $5 million in guarantees. He had a base salary of $1.7 million in 2011, $2.1 million in 2012, $2.5 million in 2013 and $2.9 million in 2014. As of now, he is the fourth highest paid kicker in the NFL.
Do you want more proof the Patriots plan to restructure Gostkowski’s contract or sign him to a new deal? In 2004, one of the Patriot’s most popular players, kicker Adam Vinatieri, had a base salary of $1.4 million. In 2005, that number spiked to $2.5 million and he became the fifth highest paid player on the team. Soon after the Patriots and Vinatieri negotiated the structure of a new deal; however, they failed to come to an agreement and he signed with the Colts for the richest contract in kicker history.
Contract grade: F
8 Dan Connolly, C/G, Cap Hit: $4.083 million
The Patriots face an interesting predicament with Dan Connolly. A few years ago they valued him as a starting offensive lineman, but do they now? The answer to that question will determine how they handle his current contract.
In order for an offense to score points, its offensive line must consistently play well. While Connolly may have lacked some consistency this year, he allowed 4.5 sacks, he also started all 16 games. Further, the Patriots value Connolly’s ability to play multiple positions along the line. He is a prime candidate to become the team’s starting center, if they choose to move on from current center Ryan Wendell.
Either way, Connolly is still a bit overpaid at $4.5 million and the Patriots could save $2.5 million in cap space if they restructure his deal.
Contract grade: C
7 Danny Amendola, WR, Cap Hit: $4.575 million
About a year ago, I would have given Danny Amendola’s contract an A grade, but attitudes change quickly. Last spring, at that same time New England signed Amendola, a deal fell apart to resign receiver Wes Welker. The latter signed with Denver for similar money per season and spent the year lining up next to Peyton Manning. Amendola's contract is a five year deal worth $28.5 million with $10 million guaranteed. The Patriots hoped the younger Amendola would replace Welker’s production and skill set.
On paper, it seemed like a viable argument; however, the writing never translated to the field. In 2013, Amendola and Welker played in the same amount of games, but the former’s production numbers were considerably lower. Amendola played in about 48 percent of the Patriot’s offensive snaps, while Welker played in 60 percent of Denver’s offensive snaps. More so, Welker achieved this feat even though the Broncos had more weapons for Peyton Manning to throw too. This further cast a heavy shadow over Amendola.
While his contract is economical for the Patriots, Amendola has yet to equal the production or game-changing ability of his counterpart in Denver.
Contract grade: C
6 Devin McCourty, CB, Cap Hit: $5.115 million
Devin McCourty played his way to an extensive contract boost in 2014, and I see the Patriots addressing his contract sooner, rather than later. Originally, his base salary for 2014 stood at $870,000; however, he earned an additional $50,000 in work-out bonuses and $3.2 million in escalators. Other NFL sources report McCourty will earn an extra $3.2 million on top of these incentives because he played over 80 percent of the defensive snaps.
The Patriots could free cap space to resign McCourty by moving other players in the secondary. They could restructure safety Steve Gregory’s current deal or let him walk. Further, they could release underwhelming safeties Tavon Wilson and Adrian Wilson. The latter move would save the Patriots roughly $1.5 million.
I awarded his contract an A for one simple reason: Out of the 10 players listed, Forbes ranked McCourty as the fourth most underpaid player in the NFL in 2013. I also agree he is underpaid.
Contract grade: A
5 Rob Gronkowski, TE, Cap Hit: $5.4 million
In 2012, Rob Gronkowski signed an incentive-based contract worth up to $55 million. Currently, he is a steal for a player of his caliber. In 2014 the tight ends who will have the largest cap hits against their teams include Health Miller ($9 million), soon-to-be retired Tony Gonzalez ($8.7 million) and Jason Witten ($8 million).
In 2013, the Patriot’s offense sputtered consistently when Gronkowski was not in their lineup. Prior to his arrival mid-way through the season, their offense ranked 30th in red zone efficiency and they scored around 20 points per game. When he took the field on game days, the Patriot’s scoring offense spiked to around 32 points per game.
While few, if any, question his on-field production, many question his ability to stay healthy. More than anything, his injuries will determine whether he receives most of that $55 million deal. The key date for the Patriots is mid-march in 2015 when they can release Gronkowski and save about $5.35 in cap space. The Boston Herald’s Robert Howe even suggested the Patriots might be interested in trading Gronkowski for Cardinal’s receiver Larry Fitzgerald before 2015. While this is pure speculation, the rumors spotlight how Gronkowski’s injuries are serious on many fronts.
I awarded Gronkowski’s contract an A because it’s pennies for a tight end of his ability. More so, the Patriots are well protected financially if he re injures himself. Similar to how they structured right tackle Sebastian Vollmer’s contract, the team is secure if he fails to live up to expectations.
Contract grade: A
4 Jerod Mayo, MLB, Cap Hit: $7.3 million
At the young age of 27, team captain Jerod Mayo is a cornerstone of Bill Belichick’s defense. Players, coaches and everyone in between have lauded the star linebacker for his aggressive, disciplined play and high football acumen.
Before the Patriots placed Mayo on injured reserve in October for a torn pectoral muscle, he led the team in tackles with 55 and played close to 100 percent of the defensive snaps. His absence dramatically altered the team’s linebacker core and put more pressure on second year linebacker Dont'a Hightower. While Hightower improved later in the season, he usually struggled when playing out of his normal position.
In 2011, the Patriots signed Mayo to a five year contract. The deal’s total value stands at $48.5 million and he will receive $25 million in bonuses and guarantees. Because his cap hit will exceed $10 million in 2015, the linebacker’s contract is likely in line to be restructured or extended in the next couple of seasons. For now, Mayo takes the field at a bargain price.
Contract grade: A
3 Logan Mankins, G, Cap Hit: $10.5 million
Due to the fact that Logan Mankins is a steady presence on the Patriot’s offensive line, Coach Belichick will look to keep him around. The question remains, at what cost? Currently Mankins is the third highest paid player on the Patriots and the third highest paid guard in the NFL. More so, he is coming off a down year where he surrendered 8. 5 sacks. He also stands on the wrong side of 30.
In his defense, Mankins is still a top player at his position, which is a trait teams value. They also value consistency along their offensive line and Mankins has always been a steady workhorse. In 2013, he played in all 16 games and even filled in for left tackle Nate Solder when he was sidelined with a concussion.
I expect the Patriots to either restructure his current deal or resign him to a longer contract. Doing so would reduce his 2014 cap hit from $10.5 million to about $6 million. I considered Mankins’ strengths and weaknesses, as well as his contract details, when I decided how to grade his contract.
Contract grade: C
2 Vince Wilfork, DT, Cap Hit: $11.6 million
Wilfork is an excellent candidate to have his contract restructured. The Patriots would save about $8 million if they released him, but it is more likely they extend his contract. The latter would keep him on the team and reduce his immediate cap number by roughly $6 million. While run-stuffing defensive tackles seem like a fading breed, the Patriots could have used one this season.
Wilfork has some leverage to negotiate a new deal, but not as much as he did when he last agreed to a contract in 2010. At that time, he signed a five year deal worth $40 million. After the Patriots placed Wilfork on injured reserve in late September with a torn Achilles, opposing teams exposed their undersized defensive line. This was especially true when Denver ran over New England for 300 yards in their November 24th match up.
The Patriots failed to replace Wilfork with another lineman close to his caliber. In reality, there was no lineman on the market that could replace him. Back ups Joe Vellano (6’1’’, 300 lbs.) and Chris Jones (6’1’’, 309 lbs) struggled to push the pocket and beat defenders. The Patriots tried to plug in heftier nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga (6’2’’, 330 lbs.), but they soon replaced him with practice squad player Sealver Siligia (6’2’’, 325 lbs).
I gave Wilfork’s contract a C grade because he is older, recovering from a serious ACL injury and the Patriots can readjust his contract or release him. Alone, the issues discussed do not make him worth $11.6 million. A few years ago, former nose tackle Kris Jenkins faced a similar dilemma as he went under the knife to repair a torn ACL in his left knee. At the age of 31 he tweeted, “It’s time for the torch to be passed to the younger players. I am going to hang up the cleats! The mind is always willing to play, but my body deserves a rest.”
It’s likely the Patriots view Wilfork’s situation similar to Jenkins’. He is more than valuable to the team, but only at the right price.
Contract grade: C
1 Tom Brady, QB, Cap Hit: $14.8 million
At the age of 37, Tom Brady is still playing at a high level. While 2013 appears to have been a statistically down year for the star quarterback, many agree he might have given one of his finest performances. Without Brady, the Patriots could have easily owned a paltry 7-9 record or worse.
During the regular season, Brady led the Patriots to five 4th quarter comebacks without the team’s top five receivers from the year prior. During the 2013 off season, a multitude of personnel changes altered the landscape of New England’s offense. Receiver Wes Welker signed a two year contract worth $12 million with Denver. Aaron Hernandez was arrested on murder charges. The Patriots released disgruntled receiver Brandon Lloyd and tight end Rob Gronkowski sat for six regular season games to recover from a broken forearm and back injuries.
Instead, Brady stepped onto the field with unproven receivers, which included former Kent State quarterback Julian Edelman, often injured Danny Amendola and three rookie receivers, Aaron Dobson (2nd round), Josh Boyce (4th round) and Kenbrell Thompkins (undrafted free agent). The Patriots also placed third down running back Shane Vereen on the shelf for two months while he recovered from a broken hand. And finally, soon after tight end Rob Grownkowski returned from his previous injury, he landed back on injured reserve with a torn ACL and MCL in his right knee.
In 2013 the Patriots restructured Brady’s contract. His total base salary for 2014 rests around $1 to $2 million, which is mere pennies for a quarterback of his caliber. In fact, ten other quarterbacks will make more money in 2014. Jay Cutler tops that list at $22.5 million. Enough said.
Contract Grade: A