As the New England Patriots splurged on big-time signings through the first two days of the NFL’s free agency negotiating period, it was fair to wonder how they had the cap space to fit all of those contracts on their books.
The answer: extremely low 2021 salaries. Of the eight outside free agents New England signed Monday and Tuesday, seven of them will earn just $1 million salaries this season. They’re still getting paid upfront through signing bonuses but the largest known cap hit the Patriots have added this offseason is wide receiver Nelson Agholor at $7 million.
The Patriots, who entered the offseason with over $60 million in cap space, should still have around $15-to-$20 million in cap space even after adding Agholor, wide receiver Kendrick Bourne, tight ends Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry, offensive linemen Trent Brown and Ted Karras, outside linebacker Matt Judon, defensive linemen Davon Godchaux and Henry Anderson and defensive back Jalen Mills and retaining quarterback Cam Newton, cornerback Justin Bethel and defensive linemen Deatrich Wise and Carl Davis.
The Patriots could keep up with their current approach by signing free agents to long-term deals with minimal salary cap hits in 2021, but patience might be a more effective strategy at this point.
Think about the Patriots’ offseason spending like a fantasy football auction draft. The Patriots spent big on the players they really wanted early in the process. Is it possible that they slightly overpaid for some of those players? Sure, but that money would be easily offset if New England now holds their cap space and waits to snatch up those hypothetical $1 value picks.
Teams will run out of money because of a lowered salary cap. Very good players will be left available looking to sign one-year prove-it deals to cash in next season when the salary cap rises. That point is when the Patriots should use the rest of their salary cap space and pounce to keep building up their starting lineups and roster depth.
Wednesday’s deal with Karras might be a sign of more one-year contracts to come.
The Patriots also need to save some money in case a better quarterback comes available. New England would need room on their cap if the 49ers find a better quarterback and are willing to trade Jimmy Garoppolo. Marcus Mariota still could be an attractive option if the Las Vegas Raiders finally give up on a trade and release their backup QB. Deshaun Watson only seems like a pipedream at this point.
The Patriots’ biggest remaining needs are at quarterback, running back, defensive line and linebacker. But they can be flexible if, say, a top wide receiver is getting low-balled and would come to New England on a low but heavily incentivized one-year deal.
The Patriots came out swinging in free agency, but with the way they designed these contracts, they’re also playing it smart. More moves are coming. It’s just a matter of when.