Tom Brady is gone, but the ghost of his contract is haunting the New England Patriots.
When Brady signed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, he left behind $13.5 million in dead money. That means the quarterback currently is taking up more of the Patriots’ salary cap than all but two of their active players.
Brady’s residual cap charge has left New England in a tough spot. As of Thursday night, the Patriots had just $803,834 in available salary cap space, according to cap expert Miguel Benzan — not nearly enough to address their various remaining roster needs ahead of the 2020 season.
They’ll likely need between $5 million and $9 million just to sign their 2020 draft picks, depending on how many of their 12 selections they wind up using. And that doesn’t factor in any additional free agents they’ll sign or players they’ll acquire via trade to fill out their 90-man roster.
Creating cap space, then, needs to be a priority for the Patriots. And there are several ways they can do it.
Here are a few (all numbers via Spotrac unless otherwise noted):
— Extend or trade Joe Thuney.
Thuney currently is occupying $14.8 million in salary cap space after signing the franchise tag, the second-highest cap hit on the team behind cornerback Stephon Gilmore ($18.7 million). Trading Thuney would erase that cap charge but would leave the Patriots without their best offensive lineman. Extending him would lower that number considerably but would require cooperation from the second-team All-Pro.
After franchising Thuney, the Patriots released a statement saying they planned to “try to reach the goal of a long-term agreement” with the left guard. If they go the trade route, they’ll likely try to net at least a third-round draft pick in return, as they likely would have received a third-round compensatory pick had Thuney signed elsewhere.
— Extend Dont’a Hightower.
Hightower’s $12.4 million cap hit is third-highest behind Gilmore’s and Thuney’s, and the 30-year-old is entering the final year of his contract. As with Thuney, signing the Pro Bowler to an extension would lower his cap number. The Patriots also could create nearly $10 million in cap space by cutting or trading Hightower, but that would leave them dangerously thin at linebacker after already losing Kyle Van Noy, Jamie Collins and Elandon Roberts in free agency.
— Extend Stephon Gilmore.
Thanks to a 2019 contract restructure, Gilmore’s cap hit skyrockets from $9.2 million to $18.7 million this season. He’s worth the money as the NFL’s premier corner and the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, but locking him up with an extension would create some much-needed breathing room.
Gilmore would need to agree to this, of course. The 29-year-old still has two years left on his current contract, and with the salary cap expected to increase considerably in 2021, he might not be motivated to sign a new deal just yet.
Gilmore’s current cap hit is the highest among NFL corners by a substantial margin. Newly signed New York Giant James Bradberry is second at $16 million.
— Extend Lawrence Guy.
Guy is cheap by comparison, but his $5.4 million cap hit could be lowered with an extension. The 30-year-old has been New England’s best defensive lineman over the last three seasons, and he’s entering the final year of his deal.
— Cap casualties.
The Patriots already had one of these in safety Duron Harmon, whom they traded to the Detroit Lions in a move that freed up $4.25 million in salary cap space. Other candidates to be dealt or released for cap-related reasons include wide receiver Mohamed Sanu ($6.5 million cap hit; zero dead cap), offensive tackle Marcus Cannon ($9.6 million cap hit; $3.7 million dead cap) and running back Rex Burkhead ($3.9 million cap hit; $1 million dead cap).
Of those three, the valuable but oft-injured Burkhead would be the easiest to replace. Parting ways with Sanu, who struggled after injuring his ankle last November, would further weaken an already shaky receiving corps, and ditching Cannon would leave New England without an obvious candidate to start at right tackle. Their current backups at the position are Korey Cunningham, who appeared in just one game last season, and 2019 third-round pick Yodny Cajuste, who has yet to even practice since joining the Patriots.
The idea of trading Julian Edelman — potentially to Brady’s Bucs — has been bandied about, but doing so wouldn’t make much financial sense for the Patriots until after June 1. Trading Edelman before that date would free up $4 million in cap space but would leave behind $5.7 million in dead money. After June 1, an Edelman trade would create $7 million in cap space with $2.7 million in dead cap (plus another $2.7 in 2021).