For nearly the same price NFL teams reportedly are paying tight end Trey Burton and wide receiver Albert Wilson this offseason, the New England Patriots have Rob Gronkowski and Brandin Cooks.
Burton and Wilson both reportedly agreed to contracts worth $8 million per year Tuesday. Cooks is making $8.459 million in 2018, while Gronkowski will be paid $9 million in cash this season (though his salary cap hit is nearly $11 million).
This is not meant to denigrate the Chicago Bears and Miami Dolphins for signing Burton and Wilson, respectively. Apparently $8 million per year is the going rate for a tight end who has averaged 10.3 yards per game throughout his career and a receiver who has topped out at 42 catches for 554 yards with three touchdowns in a single season. The NFL salary cap keeps rising and so do contracts along with it.
This is more to point out the Patriots have some serious values on their books this season. Cooks has been twice the receiver Wilson has been throughout their four-year careers, and he’s being paid just $459,000 more in 2018. That’s why it was a wise decision for the Patriots to trade a first-round pick for Cooks while he had two years and $10 million left on his contract last March. A first-round selection is worth acquiring a sure-thing top-flight receiver that gives you flexibility to build up your roster around him.
Cooks recently was described as a “terrible value” at $8.459 million by The Boston Globe’s Ben Volin. Volin was comparing Cooks’ cap hit to that of Julian Edelman ($4.166M) and Chris Hogan ($3.28M) and said the team should release him if he’s unwilling to sign an extension to lower his cap hit. It’s true the Patriots have Edelman and Hogan on the books for less than Cooks. But blasting Cooks’ cap hit by comparing it to Edelman’s and Hogan’s is depreciating Bill Belichick for his own savvy. Cooks probably would love to be released by the Patriots. He’d laugh all the way to the bank by signing a contract with an average salary nearly twice his current one.
The Patriots have gone on an unprecedented 18-year run of success because they have Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady. But Belichick’s ability to manage the salary cap — and Brady’s willingness to take less money — certainly helps.
Cooks isn’t being paid market value because he’s still on his rookie deal. Edelman is underpaid because he was willing to take less to remain a Patriot. Gronkowski is only earning $1 million more than Trey Burton because the Patriots were smart enough to lock him up long-term when he was entering his third NFL season.
It wouldn’t be surprising to see some incentives added to Gronkowski’s contract to make sure he doesn’t retire. Gronkowski is set to earn less in 2018 and 2019 than he made in 2017. The Patriots could add some playing time, award or statistical-based perks — similar to last year’s — to make sure his cash intake is equal or more than last season’s.
It also won’t be surprising if Cooks leaves in free agency next offseason. Receivers of Cooks’ ilk are agreeing to deals worth $16 million per year. While that would be market value for Cooks, the Patriots likely ultimately will decide he’s not worth it. They’ll continue to find values elsewhere to avoid scenarios where they have to undergo a complete rebuild.
The Patriots have managed to stay competitive while turning over their roster multiple times over the last 18 seasons. That’s impressive stuff, and it’s not only because they have the greatest head coach-quarterback combination in NFL history. It’s also the work of Belichick, the general manager, to make sure his team never gets in salary cap hell.
Patriots fans will grow frustrated as other teams sign high-profile free agents this offseason. They’re already a little ticked New England didn’t land Aqib Talib or Richard Sherman. But that’s the cost of fielding a competitive roster every year. It takes shrewd moves to keep it trucking.
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