After a weekend of what may be the biggest game of Liar’s Poker there is, the deals are starting to trickle out, the rumors are flying and the market is getting frothy while taking shape. We’re starting to get an idea of how many millions many of these guys are going to get in free agency and just which teams they may get them from among the multitude of interest, both real and purported, league wide from the numerous teams that are counting their cash or slashing and burning bad cap right now to line up with their checkbooks in hand. And with a furtiveness that stuns even some in Langley, the one team that (as usual) has been generally absent from getting dragged into the fray over this weekend of Rumorpalooza is the New England Patriots. They’ve cut veteran safety Steve Gregory and signed LS Danny Aiken. Two moves that have barely registered a blip. They talked to impending internal free agent CB Aqib Talib going back to the combine but little has been heard of it since and they got around to meeting with WR Julian Edelman at the last minute before the “legal tampering” period began. LB Brandon Spikes has announced that’s he likely to move on and that too wasn’t really even news as he hasn’t looked part of the future plan for nearly two years now.
So, as free agency is about to go live, the Patriots sit in ‘the cone of silence’ with very little indication of what they may be thinking or doing. While the eerie stillness could be an indicator that New England will be passive, it’s also dangerous to assume you can read the tea leaves with Belichick. He has a history of zigging when it looks like he will zag, This may be a mild, sunny day or could just be the calm before the storm. So, what are the possibilities?
New England is really well situated to do one of three things in free agency: something big, something small or nothing at all.
The Patriots are well situated cap wise with roughly $13-14M of space right now. It’s not big spending money but they aren’t back up against it by any stretch either. It’s middle ground and it could go either way. It would seem doubtful that guys who seem pretty used up at this like Isaac Sopoaga and Adrian Wilson are long for this roster. That gives them nearly another $4M in breathing space pretty easily. So there’s plenty of money in reality and potential to jump in and worry about the rest of it later.
There are also avenues to maneuver for room, should they need it along the way. At some point they will need to bring DT Vince Wlfork’s $11.6M cap number down considerably even if it unfortunately means putting him to pasture. Depending on how that plays out, the Patriots could free $3-8M. A simple restructure with OG Logan Mankins could move $3-3.5M off this years books. Extensions with players like DB Devin McCourty and K Stephen Gostkowski could free $2-3M combined in 2014. And there’s still a solid possibility that they could release aging, final year veterans like OG Dan Connolly ($3M) and/or DT Tommy Kelly ($2.5M).
All totaled New England could have $25M-35M in space in the blink of an eye. But even by just easily creating several million more, it would give them ability to do something big. They could target a top WR, DT or S on the market without adding much more to their cap space or their cap commitments in the future. Or they could re-up players like Talib and/ or Edelman.
Depending on how they viewed it and maneuvered it, they could target multiple top players or one top player and several middle market guys. As we’ve seen in the recent deals signed this week, such as Brent Grimes (who will carry a year 1 cap charge of $4M) and Sam Shields (with a year 1 cap charge of $5M), the cap is not a one year proposition with multiple year contracts. In fact, year one means little. It’s how the deal fits into the long range parameters of the cap that matters. Teams who look fairly limited against the cap now may have far more flexibility in the future. Teams who look like they have sizable fortunes on their hands may be much more limited by their projected spending.
At the same time, this is a market that appears poised to strike down with great vengeance and furious anger at 4 PM on Tuesday. While there may not be many (if any) true top tier players in this class (and honestly there usually aren’t more than a couple in any class) it is a very deep free agent class in a number of areas and added cap space along with a handful of teams sitting on cap gold mines look to be a harbinger of a potential run away bull market.
Under Bill Belichick, the Patriots have consistently leaned toward a ‘moneyball’ philosophy in free agency . It’s often referred to ‘value’ but what it simply comes down to is looking for market inequity– pockets in the system where price is suppressed by inflationary spending in other areas of the system and lack or perceived value. And with the depth of this free agent class (which is seemingly bolstered daily by teams cap cutting to either free money at the top, create room to re-sign top tier players or simply get into cap compliance) the ‘value’ is likely to lie in the middle or end game. The Patriots could opt against future borrowing, marshal their resources and wait for the majority of the league to spend itself out in a tizzy and then start picking up the pieces. Along with a lot of money, there are also a lot of players out there.
The final option for New England is to do nothing. Well, practically nothing. They could simply choose to keep the general status quo and re-sign role players on the cheaper side (many of whom they’ll likely try to retain in any circumstance) such as Ryan Wendell, Dane Fletcher, Austin Collie, Michael Hoomanawanui and/or Matthew Mulligan. They can look internally for depth and starting competition with players like Marcus Cannon and Josh Kline at OL; turn to the potential and promise shown by players at WR like Aaron Dobson, Josh Boyce and Kenbrell Thompkins and at DB in Alfonzo Dennard, Logan Ryan and Duron Harmon. They can see how muchTommy Kelly has left with younger players who were first year starters last year like Sealver Siliga, Chris Jones and Joe Vellano there in rotational spots to pick up the slack. The Patriots are currently looking to return several All Pro players who they were without for at least half of last season. Simply re-assimilating those players would fill a lot of holes and fix many of the problems that were on display in Denver in January. And then there’s always the draft to build depth and groom long term solutions.
The reality here is that last off-season the Patriots allowed Talib and Edelman freely out onto the market with no real impetus to replace either player at any great cost and with far fewer and less proven options than they have right now.. Talib came back after a few weeks on a one year deal and Edelman was a very end of free agency signing on a vet minimum contract with small incentives. The Patriots weren’t falling all over themselves to keep these guys when they were relatively cheap. And, as much as they contributed at points last year, both are really complementary players.
What cap space often comes down to is this: the teams that have a significant amount often do so because they significant roster issues or significant numbers of key free agents. The teams that don’t have cap space often don’t because they have significant unmovable money on their books or have made significantly bad decisions.
New England, right now, is happily in the middle and they can play this free agency as it lies. If they see an opportunity to sure up or greatly improve an area, they have and/ or create the money to spend. If they don’t, they have no pressing need to commit resources to increase anywhere or even maintain. Whatever happens, their greater contributions and potential for improvement in areas will likely come from what is already on the roster.
– by Mr. Scratch