Patriots Offseason Blueprint: How Pats Can Be Competitive Again In 2021

The Patriots have a ton of salary cap space to spend this offseason

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It’s easy to be negative about the Patriots’ outlook for 2021 and beyond after New England finished last season with a 7-9 record while its former quarterback, Tom Brady, won a Super Bowl with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

But there are also reasons to be optimistic. The Patriots had over $31 million in dead salary cap and another $20 million in leftover cap space after eight players opted out for the 2020 season. That’s over $50 million New England couldn’t, or didn’t, invest in its roster.

Now, the Patriots’ opt-outs are eligible to return, and New England is projected to have nearly $62.8 million in cap space, per OverTheCap.com, assuming the 2021 salary cap is $180.5 million. It could be as much as $185 million. The Patriots have the fourth-most cap space in the NFL.

So, how can New England most effectively spend that $62-to-$68 million? Here’s one potential blueprint:

First, we’ll be conservative and stick with $62.8 million in cap space. If the Patriots can spend more, that’s great.

Next, let’s get it out of the way and account for the Patriots’ 2021 NFL Draft class. New England’s total rookie pool is $9 million, per OverTheCap.com. That leaves the Patriots with $53.8 million to spend on veteran players.

IN-HOUSE FREE AGENTS
New England has 23 unrestricted free agents, one restricted free agent and two exclusive-rights free agents. The Patriots also need to make a decision on cornerback Stephon Gilmore, who is set to make just a $7 million base salary in 2021. They could trade their All-Pro cornerback, but it seems unlikely the Patriots could find a better player than Gilmore for the money it will cost to keep him in New England.

Miguel Benzan, aka @PatsCap on Twitter, suggested a two-year contract extension worth $18 million per year. If it included an $18 million signing bonus, that would increase Gilmore’s cap number in 2021 by $6 million. The Patriots would be left with $47.8 million in cap space.

New England should look to retain center David Andrews, defensive tackle Lawrence Guy and running back Rex Burkhead.

Andrews signed a modest three-year, $9 million contract extension in 2017. He won?t be that inexpensive this time around, but given his lack of size and previous health issues, it?s also doubtful that he?ll command a market deal for a center of his playing caliber. Andrews is worth more to the Patriots than he is around the NFL. Spotrac.com projected his contract at three years, $21.4 million. That would give him a cap hit of around $5.1 million in 2021. New England would be left with $43.5 million in cap space when accounting for the Top 51 rule which replaces the 51st largest cap hit on the books with the new player?s contract.

Guy signed a four-year, $15.3 million contract with the Patriots before the 2017 season. He’ll be 31 years old in March. It seems fair to give Guy a two-year, $8 million contract, which would mean he would count $3.5 million against the cap in 2021. That leaves New England with $40.8 million in cap space when accounting for the Top 51 rule.

Burkhead also will be 31 years old this season and is coming off of a serious knee injury. Let?s sign him to a one-year, veteran minimum contract of $1,075,000. The Patriots would be left with $40.5 million in cap space when accounting for the Top 51 rule.

Cornerback J.C. Jackson is a restricted free agent. Giving him a first-round tender would cost $4,873,000, per OverTheCap.com. Retaining Jackson would leave New England with $36.4 million in cap space when accounting for the Top 51 rule.

Let?s also just get it out of the way and give Jakob Johnson his exclusive rights free-agent tender for $850,000. The Patriots would then have $36.3 million in cap space when accounting for the Top 51 rule.

FILLING THE QUARTERBACK VOID
The Patriots need a quarterback, right? There are potentially more cost-effective routes to take like drafting a QB, signing Jacoby Brissett or Cam Newton or trading for Marcus Mariota, but let?s swing a deal for San Francisco 49ers signal-caller Jimmy Garoppolo. Garoppolo’s 2021 salary is $24.1 million, which would leave New England with just $13 million leftover in cap space when accounting for the Top 51 rule. Restructuring or extending Garoppolo?s contract could result in $11.8 million in cap savings. Since we?re trying to compete now and assuming the salary cap goes way up in 2022 and beyond, let?s pull the trigger on that. The Patriots now have $24.8 million in cap space with a starting QB on board.

ADDING WEAPONS
New England can count on second-year tight ends Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene to improve next season, but they should also probably try to bring in some veteran help. Los Angeles Rams tight end Gerald Everett is a free agent, and Spotrac projects him to sign a three-year, $22 million contract this offseason. He would count $5.3 million against the cap, leaving the Patriots with roughly $20.3 million in cap space when accounting for the Top 51 rule.

New England also needs help at wide receiver. Top free agent Allen Robinson might be out of New England’s price range, so let?s look at the next four options in Kenny Golladay, Chris Godwin, Will Fuller and JuJu Smith-Schuster. All four players should cost somewhere around $17 million per year, according to Spotrac. Let?s grab Fuller at his projected four-year, $68 million contract that would give him a $15.5 million cap hit in 2021. The Patriots would have around $5.6 million leftover to spend when accounting for the Top 51 rule.

TRIMMING THE ROSTER
Getting low on cap space, let?s make some tough cuts. We?ll let go of right tackle Marcus Cannon, tight end Matt LaCosse and fullback Danny Vitale. That leaves New England with $12.8 million in salary-cap space when accounting for the Top 51 rule.

REMAINING MOVES
The Patriots need more help at wide receiver. Rams wideout Josh Reynolds could wind up being a good value. Let?s give him the same three-year, $21.4 million contract as Andrews. That leaves New England with $8.5 million in cap space.

New England also needs a boost on defense, but remember, linebacker Dont?a Hightower and safety Patrick Chung are returning after opting out. We?re keeping defensive tackle Beau Allen assuming he can get healthy for the 2021 season and help fill the Patriots’ immediate void at nose tackle.

With the remaining $8.5 million in cap space, the Patriots could sign some of their own free agents, like kicker Nick Folk, defensive tackle Adam Butler, linebacker Brandon Copeland, offensive lineman Jermaine Eluemunor and defensive end Deatrich Wise, take on some potential value contracts and sign free agents like edge defender Trent Murphy, defensive lineman Solomon Thomas and defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins or wait for inevitable cap casualties. New England could probably sign a handful of those players when accounting for the Top 51 rule.

The Patriots can then fill in the rest of their immediate needs in the draft with one pick apiece in the first, second and third rounds and three picks in the fourth round. Those would be at offensive tackle, defensive tackle and linebacker, though they also should expect improvement out of second-year players like offensive lineman Justin Herron and linebackers Josh Uche, Anfernee Jennings and Chase Winovich. New England’s biggest loss in free agency would be Joe Thuney, though second-year blocker Michael Onwenu figures to fill in at left guard or right tackle.

It’s tough to argue that those moves wouldn’t make the Patriots considerably better than the 2020 squad, and there’s certainly some flexibility with their spending. New England could add a cheaper quarterback or sign a wide receiver less expensive than Reynolds and instead make more strides to improve the defense.

In the NFL, $62.8 million can go a long way. And with the salary cap dropping, the Patriots might be able to scoop up more than a few bargains on the open market as other teams scrounge for spending money.

It’s not all bad in New England.

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