Go ahead. Ask the question.
What the hell are the patriots doing?
Since the NFL free agency kicked off last week, frustration over the inactivity of the Pats has grown daily, fueled by the memory of last year’s record spending and the arms race unfolding across the AFC. As competitors stock up on weapons, it feels like the Pats are loading up the hand-me-down Nerf guns.
Here’s what’s happening in Foxboro, according to sources: Bill Belichick is negotiating directly with the team’s key targets. Senior consultant Eliot Wolf, an NFL front-office veteran of more than 20 years, mans the phones for other outside toll-free agents. New player staff director Matt Groh has taken on some of the burden while running a Pro Day tour, having already sealed a few re-enlists.
As inside linebackers coach Jerod Mayo said last month, the Pats are “trying to get faster and more explosive and put more playmakers on the field.” That is, on their terms.
According to an agent, who spoke on condition of anonymity, the Patriots have significantly increased their offer for an elite offensive client who signed a similar contract elsewhere but was not attracted by the money. This account reveals a willingness to spend money and cap space even while contradicting several other negotiations where the Pats have refused to sacrifice themselves for mid-level free agents.
“They have a cheap problem,” said another player’s agent.
Without a major free-agent splash to define the Patriots’ offseason, misleading explanations for their approach have filled a void in public debate. Let’s talk about two big ones.
The Pats aren’t boxed in by their limited cap space, but the NFL salary cap isn’t a “crap” either. Phrases like “the cap is bullshit” can make for fun talk radio, but are completely useless when trying to understand the inner workings of competitive activities.
The truth is, every NFL team employs salary cap experts and sticks to the cap every year. If the cap didn’t matter, the Packers wouldn’t have alienated Davante Adams during 12 months of contract negotiations and then traded him to Las Vegas. If Robert Kraft were free from a salary cap all those years, Tom Brady, his “fifth son,” would probably still be a patriot, paying unholy gobs of money and surrounded by guns he deserved.
It’s also true that teams can create space at almost any time, often by pushing current limits off their books over the next few years through contract restructuring. But the bill always, all the time comes. The Saints recently freed up more than $30 million in space through restructuring, with the expectation that they could land Deshaun Watson. Instead, they’re Watson-less and already $14 million over the limit for next year.
So far, patriots have been reluctant to restructure contracts with two or more years to go, sources say.
None of this is intended to excuse or praise their inaction. It’s to create a good framework for how free agency works. These are the rules.
And this, for better or for worse, is what the patriots do.
Patriots free agency tracker and numbers: Pats creates $1.25 million in cap space, Gunner Olszewski leaves for Pittsburgh
All information about the salary cap comes from Over The Cap.
1. Prioritize in-house free agents
That much is clear: Belichick believes in his players.
Veterans Devin McCourty, Matthew Slater and James White have re-signed, career Patriots who have been sharing the locker room since 2014. Each of them signed a team-friendly deal. Linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley, another leader, is also back on a reported 2-year deal.
The Pats have paid for fame and trust. These are not just novice players but also culture boosters and value sign ups. With just $10 million in cap space to start the week, the Pats were chasing low-ceiling, high-floor deals to keep their collective floor as a fringe playoff team.
A plea can be made for continuity and retention of leadership. Despite a huge influx of new talent last year, the Patriots started 2-4 as they assimilated new faces, then stumbled to the finish, losing four of their last five.
Players later admitted that they failed to increase their intensity level on the trajectory. No one in the locker room understands what winning takes better than three-time Super Bowl champions like McCourty, Slater and White. Now that they’re back in the building, the Pats are betting that their chances of another collapse in 2022 will be lower — even if their chances of a long playoff run have plummeted as well.
2. Sticking to Core Philosophies
A year ago, the Patriots bolstered their financial strength by making starting offers that free agents couldn’t refuse and other teams couldn’t match. This was out of character.
NFL Notes: Patriots Are Not an Attractive Destination for Free Agents in 2022
Aside from a few famous examples, including Stephon Gilmore and Adalius Thomas, the Patriots have made a habit of sitting out the first wave of free agency. If they target top-tier free agents, they’ll make an initial offer that, if rejected, will hold up in case that player’s market craters collapse.
If not, the player leaves.
In other words, the Patriots were never close to signing JC Jackson. They have since allowed another expensive internal free agent, offensive tackle Trent Brown, to determine his value in the open market and even visit Seattle, before returning to them.
Even with obvious holes in the roster, the Pats have stuck to their long-held beliefs about positional spending in free choice. They don’t pay top dollar for No. 1 wide receivers — not even Randy Moss or Brandin Cooks — they prefer to spread money on the position. Coming in last offseason, their single-season average league ranking for wide receivers was 14th in the last eight years.
The same goes for linebackers, where they were in 12th place, and cornerback in 17th. New inside-linebacker Mack Wilson arrived with a 1-year unguaranteed base salary of $2.54 million, while free-agent corner Terrance Mitchell signed a 1-year pact of $1.75 million.
How will the patriots use former Saints RB/WR Ty Montgomery?
3. Protecting Future Flexibility
This past offseason, the Patriots structured several of their free-agent contracts to carry minimal cap hits in 2021 and heavier numbers in 2022. This is what crushes their cap.
But 2023? That’s another story.
The Patriots are fifth in projected cap space in 2023 with $102.5 million. They are also planned to wear zero dead money.
So far, none of their free agent contracts have violated that flexibility. They either have 1 year deals or 2 year deals where they can cut bait without any serious penalty. The one exception is McCourty’s contract, which carries four voided years and could cause a $9.7 million dead cap hit when it expires next spring.
This is all intentional. The 2021 Patriots’ free-agent class was assembled with the knowledge that Matthew Judon, Hunter Henry, Jonnu Smith, Nelson Agholor, Jalen Mills and others would all stay for more than two years. Belichick built that team to free itself before 2023, when the cap would rise due to the influx of new revenue from the league’s huge television contracts and gambling money.
All signs point to another splurge next spring. But for now it’s quiet. Back to normal business.