Was Bill Belichick Right To Blame Patriots’ Struggles On Salary Cap?

It's complicated

by Doug Kyed

Nov 2, 2020

The 2-5 New England Patriots have not been themselves this season, and that doesn’t only apply to their performance on the football field.

Patriots head coach Bill Belichick seems to be making more excuses than usual. He’s mentioned a lack of practice time after COVID-19 swept through the team’s roster and limited their time on the field. He also brought up salary cap limitations when asked on SiriusXM about an increase in playing time for inexperienced players.

Here’s the full quote:

“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.

“Then we had some opt-outs, so we lost some players there that would normally have given us significant amount of playtime. 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.”

So, is the Patriots’ salary cap situation to blame for the team’s struggles? It’s complicated.

The Patriots had very little salary cap room when free agency opened. They used the majority of it by franchising left guard Joe Thuney, re-signing safety Devin McCourty and picking up cornerback Jason McCourty’s option. The only veteran free agents they signed before the draft were defensive tackle Beau Allen, wide receivers Marqise Lee and Damiere Byrd, safeties Cody Davis and Adrian Phillips, fullback Danny Vitale, linebacker Brandon Copeland and quarterback Brian Hoyer. Only Allen and Phillips are making more than $2 million annually.

They also traded safety Duron Harmon and cut kicker Stephen Gostkowski to open cap space. They couldn’t afford to keep linebackers Jamie Collins, Kyle Van Noy and Elandon Roberts, defensive tackle Danny Shelton and offensive lineman Ted Karras.

Tom Brady also departed for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

The Patriots actually had to restructure safety Patrick Chung’s contract to sign their draft class. Later, they had to restructure running back Rex Burkhead’s contract to sign quarterback Cam Newton.

So, when free agency began in March, the Patriots did what they could and made the most of their available cap space by adding depth.

Suddenly, in August, the Patriots found themselves with an influx of cap space after Chung, Vitale, Lee, linebacker Dont’a Hightower, right tackle Marcus Cannon, tight end Matt LaCosse, running back Brandon Bolden and guard Najee Toran opted out. Contract grievances with wide receiver Antonio Brown and the estate of Aaron Hernandez also were settled to free up more cap space.

The problem was it was too late to do anything with that available cap room. It was no longer possible to replace important players like Hightower, Cannon and Chung. It was August, the top free agents were gone, and Belichick knew the Patriots would have to carry over cap space into 2021 for a couple of different reasons.

First, those players who opted out had their cap hits slide a year forward. That means those don’t contracts don’t completely come off of the books, and the Patriots must pay Hightower, Chung, Cannon, etc. their 2020 salaries in 2021 as long as they’re kept on the team. Second, the salary cap will be lowered in 2021 because of money lost by the NFL during the COVID-19 pandemic. So, the Patriots will have an advantage next offseason if they carry over as much cap space as possible.

The Patriots have the sixth-most cap space in the NFL, but it was only freed up when it was too late to really do anything with it. And ultimately, it’s the smart move to keep as much of it as possible so the Patriots can field a better team in 2021 when other teams will have to create salary-cap space.

Having Hightower, Cannon, Chung or players of simliar caliber signed in free agency certainly would help the Patriots. They probably wouldn’t be 2-5 right now. Of course, that’s not the only reason for the Patriots’ struggles.

Belichick has made some questionable draft picks in recent seasons — cornerbacks Cyrus Jones, Duke Dawson and Joejuan Williams, running back Sony Michel, wide receiver N’Keal Harry and offensive tackle Yodny Cajuste, among them — and whiffed by sending a second-round pick to the Atlanta Falcons for wide receiver Mohamed Sanu last season. The Patriots also probably regret giving Brady a raise last offseason when all it did was create dead cap space this offseason when he left for the Buccaneers.

The Patriots also could have replaced players like Chung, Hightower and LaCosse with 2020 draft picks Kyle Dugger, Josh Uche, Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene, but Dugger, Uche and Keene have dealt with injuries, and Asiasi has been unproductive while on the field. A shortened offseason due to the pandemic certainly didn’t help their development either.

So, is the salary cap to blame for the Patriots’ struggles? Certainly partially. It has played a role, and the Patriots had an extremely unlucky offseason. But some of those issues could have been easily cured with better player acquisition.

Thumbnail photo via Jasen Vinlove/USA TODAY Sports Images
Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady
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