Bill Belichick surprisingly acknowledged this week that his New England Patriots roster lacks veteran depth because of the team’s salary cap situation.
During an interview with SiriusXM NFL Radio, Belichick was asked by host and former New England offensive coordinator Charlie Weis why the Patriots are playing a larger number of young players this season.
“You’re right, Charlie,” Belichick replied, as transcribed by ESPN’s Mike Reiss. “We’re playing more young players than we’ve played in the past. A combination of reasons. We were pretty heavily invested in our team in the past few years. From a salary cap standpoint, we didn’t have much flexibility at all. I think that was obvious on the Cam Newton contract.”
Newton, who signed a one-year deal for the veteran minimum, is occupying just over $1 million in salary cap space. The former NFL MVP can earn up to $1.75 million though incentives. His contract ranks 48th among NFL quarterbacks in average annual value, according to Over The Cap.
“Then we had some opt-outs, so we lost some players there that would normally have given us significant amount of playtime,” Belichick continued. “And then like every year, a couple guys are banged up and we’ve missed some guys here and there in certain games. I think when you combine it all together, there is opportunity there, and some of that opportunity has gone to younger players.
“Again, because of our cap situation — in this particular year, this is kind of the year that we’ve taken to, I would say, adjust our cap from the spending that we’ve had in accumulation of previous years. We just haven’t been able to have the kind of depth on our roster that we’ve had in some other years. That’s provided some more opportunity for younger players. So it’s a combination of all the reasons.”
The Patriots currently have the sixth-most cap space of any NFL team — upward of $22 million, per Over The Cap. But nearly all of that was created late in the summer, when a league-high eight Patriots players opted out of the season due to COVID-19 and the team received more than $6 million in salary cap credits from Antonio Brown’s and Aaron Hernandez’s grievance settlements.
The Patriots eschewed big-money additions this offseason, focusing instead on mid-to-low-level veterans like Damiere Byrd, Adrian Phillips, Brandon Copeland and Beau Allen. Since the season began, they’ve lacked talent and quality depth at wide receiver, tight end, linebacker and defensive tackle. They also entered the year without a proven backup at offensive tackle but have survived there thanks to positive contributions from sixth-round rookies Mike Onwenu and Justin Herron.
Of the 28 Patriots players who have played an offensive snap in 2020, 13 are in their first or second season. Others like Byrd, Ryan Izzo and Jermaine Eluemunor are playing much larger roles than they had in years past.
With Julian Edelman and N’Keal Harry both ruled out for Sunday’s game against the Buffalo Bills, all six of New England’s available receivers will be undrafted players: Byrd, Jakobi Meyers, Gunner Olszewski and practice squadders Isaiah Zuber, Kristian Wilkerson and Mason Kinsey.
New England is less reliant on youth defensively (seven of the 24 players who have seen snaps are first- or second-year pros) but has needed to fill out its D-line with practice squad call-ups in nearly every game this season and is extremely shallow at linebacker.
The Patriots sit at 2-4 following their first three-game losing streak since 2002 and could effectively fall out of contention for the AFC East title with another defeat Sunday in Buffalo. They’ll have a chance to clear additional cap space and acquire assets ahead of Tuesday’s NFL trade deadline if they so choose, with cornerback Stephon Gilmore and left guard Joe Thuney standing out as particularly valuable trade chips.