The New England Patriots get a pass for their struggles this season. They might not be afforded one if similar issues continue creeping into 2021.
For the third time this season, Patriots head coach Bill Belichick cited “residual” effects for a down season in which New England went just 7-9 and missed the playoffs for the first time since 2008.
“I think we always try to do what’s best for the football team, and that’s a combination of long-term and short-term,” Belichick said Monday, one day after the Patriots’ season ended with a 28-14 win over the New York Jets. “Honestly, I don’t know how we could be any more aggressive than we were for the last five years — I’m talking about the ’14 to ’18 period, well, I’ll throw last year in there, too — and last year, so for the last six years, really, and so there’s a residual to that.”
Belichick said earlier this season the Patriots “sold out” for Super Bowls in previous seasons. That left them with little cap room to spend this offseason until multiple veteran players opted out and freed up more space when all of the top free agents already were signed. The Patriots let the money sit unspent to carry over into next season.
Belichick does not like the E-word, but the Patriots have no excuses as they head into the 2021 season. Belichick used them all up this season as he cited the cap and residual effects of competitive seasons.
The Patriots have the fourth-most salary cap space in the NFL as they head into the offseason. If the salary cap drops, the Patriots will have around $62.5 million to spend. If it stays around $200 million, then they’ll have a whopping $86.5 million.
The Patriots can afford players. The rookies who were forced to play with a truncated offseason will have more time to learn. Players who opted out are eligible to return. New England will have absolutely zero competitive disadvantage as it heads into next season.
And Belichick is absolutely right when he says the Patriots took some risks to win from 2014 to 2019 that hurt them this season. Prior to the 2019 season, the Patriots made quarterback Tom Brady happy by giving him a pay raise that resulted in $13.5 million in dead cap this offseason. They signed Antonio Brown early last season, pushing further cap issues into 2020.
Other departed players like Michael Bennett, Stephen Gostkowski and Duron Harmon still counted against the Patriots’ cap this season. But the reset button has been hit.
The Patriots wound up with around $20 million in cap space this season after opt-outs and settled contract grievances. Throw in Brady’s dead cap figure and Brown’s $4.75 million dead cap number, and the Patriots essentially were playing at a $38.25 million salary cap loss this season. That was money the Patriots either couldn’t or chose not to spend to help their 2020 squad.
The Patriots’ cap space next season will include that $20 million carried over from the 2020 season. So, while the Patriots were playing at a cap loss in 2020, they’ll be playing at a cap gain in 2021.
The Patriots have a ton of holes on their roster, from quarterback to wide receiver, tight end, defensive line and linebacker. Key players like James White, David Andrews, Joe Thuney, Lawrence Guy, Adam Butler and JC Jackson are free agents and must be paid. Stephon Gilmore will want a pay raise.
But if the Patriots can’t put together a winning team with $60 million to $80 million in cap space to spend, then they have no one to blame but themselves.