By Traci McCartney//@traciamc
As a fan reporter, I know and love the game of football, and especially my New England Patriots. Since I was a little girl, my dad and I would talk route running, defensive schemes and offense. For as long as I can remember, NFL football has been a passion, and I’m well-versed in the game and its rules (though some, as almost with everyone, elude me).
But what I’ve never been confident or strong in is the business side of football. I understood free agency, but the concept of a franchise tag and it’s pros and cons, as well as NFL contracts and the salary cap have always been a bit of a grey area for me. So, I decided to find out a little bit about all the numbers involved in team building in the sport of football.
To do that, I had to find someone who really knows about the salary cap. Luckily, Miguel Benzan (@patscap on Twitter), agreed to meet with me and educate me on the salary cap and his thoughts on free agency.
Updated listed of Patriots draft picks after today’s compensatory picks announcement. Why 41 or 43 for Jimmy G pick? The Raiders and 49ers will flip a coin for the 9th and 10th overall spots. Winner will have 43. Loser – 41. pic.twitter.com/54G2BqYMkx
— CapSpace=$16,179,554 (@patscap) February 24, 2018
I love numbers. I balance the checkbook in my house, pay the bills, and math was always my favorite subject in school, at least until calculus. But trying to figure out how much cap space a team has and how contracts work to figure out a team’s payroll baffles me. Miguel told me that he’s always been interested in numbers, too, but he is a self-proclaimed “salary cap geek”.
He started researching salaries and contracts just because he was curious. Now he’s well known in the Patriots’ fan and media community. He keeps a tally on Twitter of what the Patriots cap space is, and shares any and all news that affects it. When I asked him where he gets his information, he told me that he gets his information from different sources for different salary cap and contract components. While most people don’t have access to information about player incentive bonuses, for example, Miguel is able to get that information, giving him a more accurate number than most.
I asked Miguel the most basic question I had about the salary cap – how does the NFL determine the salary cap from year to year? The number comes out every year in late February/early March, but no one can ever accurately predict what it will be. People in the know can sometimes guess within a range, but the actual calculation is outlined in article 12 of the Collective Bargaining Agreement, which is close to 35 pages long. We should be hearing any time what the salary cap for 2018 will be, then General Managers will know exactly what they have to work with.
Right now, the Patriots have a little over $16 million in cap space. So how do they make room? The difficulty in building a team is deciding which players are going to stay around, which will go on the open market and which needs can and would be filled by acquiring a free agent or the draft. Different teams have different philosophies on how to manage their rosters and based on how much cap room they have they can pay free market value or more for a player they really want.
The Patriots tend to be conservative when it comes to free agency, so the acquisition of cornerback Stephon Gilmore from the division rival Buffalo Bills was a surprise for most fans, including me. He turned out to be a good addition to the cornerback group.
But as was evidenced by the Super Bowl, it’s a position that needs to be dealt with. CB Malcolm Butler, the hero of Super Bowl XLIX who mysteriously didn’t play in Super Bowl LII, will be a free agent this year, but will likely not be signed by the Patriots.
When I talked to Miguel about this, he echoed the sentiments of some I’ve seen – Gilmore’s contract got into his head. As a result, he didn’t look like the Malcolm Butler we’d seen in the past. So the Patriots will either have to sign a free agent or address this position in the draft. This draft is jam-packed with good CBs, so they may decide to go that route, but Miguel suggested a wish list signing of Rams’ free-agent CB Trumaine Johnson. With the Rams’ trading for former Chiefs’ CB Marcus Peters, that may mean Johnson will be available.
So, how does a team make room? They can cut or not re-sign a player who may not be worth the kind of room their salary will take up in the cap. We talked about free agent tight ends Martellus Bennett and Dwayne Allen. Bennett was signed off waivers from the Packers late in the year. The money saved would be just over $11 million with no dead money.
The Patriots like to backload their contracts, contributing lower numbers to the immediate cap number, increasing in the later years of the contract. I liken this to having an adjustable mortgage: you get a low-interest rate and payment in the beginning, but unless you refinance, you’re going to get stuck with a much higher payment in the future.
To create cap space the Patriots may ask a player to take a pay cut while offering the player the opportunity to earn some if not all of the money back via incentives. Another way for the Patriots to create cap space would be to extend players with high cap numbers (quarterback Tom Brady, TE Rob Gronkowski, and wide receiver Brandin Cooks) converting salary into signing bonus. For example, Brady could easily lower his $22 million cap number with an extension. Miguel was extremely confident that the Patriots can create the cap space needed to remain a strong Super Bowl contender.
Miguel and I agree that signing left tackle Nate Solder has to be a top priority. Solder has spent his entire career with the Patriots, drafted in 2011. He could stand to make a lot of money on the free market, but 2 years ago, he took a team friendly deal. Nate’s son has been facing some serious health issues and is receiving care in Boston. It may make sense for him to stay in New England. Solder’s cap number will be an indicator of what will happen with the rest of the roster.
WRs Danny Amendola and Matthew Slater will more than likely be priorities. They, along with special teamer Nate Ebner, are important cogs in the Patriots’ wheel. Amendola has been an integral part of the offense. Slater and Ebner are both critical to special teams. As Miguel pointed out, Slater is a locker room leader and team captain, while Ebner is versatile and can play in virtually any position of Special Teams. Running back Brandon Bolden, a wide receiver, and special teamer was just recently signed and will remain with the Patriots.
Some changes will be made at the running back position. The Patriots historically don’t pay a lot of money for running backs. Right now there are 4 running backs on the roster: Rex Burkhead and Dion Lewis are both unrestricted free agents, meaning they can look to get paid anywhere in the NFL. RBs James White and Mike Gillislee combine for a little over $4.6 million for 2018.
There are still many questions about free agents this year. Linebacker James Harrison, who was signed off of waivers from the Pittsburgh Steelers, will be a free agent again. Will the Patriots try to re-sign him? There are pros and cons to both sides.
LaAdrian Waddle and Cameron Fleming, offensive tackles, are also both free agents this year. The offensive line is so important to keeping your quarterback safe and contributing to a successful running game. Will there be money to sign offensive linemen or will the Patriots fill this need via the draft?
The off-season should be interesting. If you’d like to hear more about the Patriots’ roster and free agency, I would recommend listening to the Naked Bootleg podcast episode with Miguel as a guest, as I did at his suggestion. There is so much more in the podcast than Miguel and I were able to address in our conversation.
— The Naked Bootleg (@NakedBootPod) February 11, 2018
Follow Miguel at @patscap. He always has the most up to the minute information and currently has a Twitter Moment dedicated to answering questions about the Patriots salary cap and roster. Look for future coverage of all the off-season activity for the Patriots and other NFL teams on OurTurfFB.com.
Talk Patriots salary cap and more with Traci on Twitter @traciamc