The Patriots currently have the 11th most available cap space in the NFL, per OverTheCap.com, even after dishing out $160 million in guaranteed money.
One way the Patriots could have liquidated their available funds is by trading for Julio Jones, but the All-Pro wide receiver is off the table after being dealt from the Atlanta Falcons to the Tennessee Titans over the weekend. In order to afford the wideout and carry cap space into the season, New England would have had to make a cap-clearing move and then push part of Jones’ 2021 salary into the future, putting them in potential salary cap hell in 2022 and beyond. A deal for Jones — while potentially worth the trouble — could have set off a domino effect causing the Patriots to fret over available spending space and make cost-cutting decisions for years to come. They essentially could have turned themselves into the New Orleans Saints, creating a game of chicken between the team cap expert and NFL’s accounting books. They decided it wasn’t worth it after already acquiring wide receivers Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne, tight ends Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith, outside linebacer Matt Judon, and a slew of others this offseason.
The smartest thing the Patriots can do with that $15 million is also the most boring: hold onto it and carry it over into the season and next free-agency period. The Patriots have excess room to swing a deal before the midseason trade deadline, add available lingering free agents or extend players on their current roster (Stephon Gilmore?). It’s smart to carry cap space into the season in case of injuries, and the Patriots have more than enough.
And by carrying that money over, New England also wouldn’t need to worry as much over questions about next season’s salary cap. The Patriots currently have $178,436,344 in total cap liabilities for 2022, per Over The Cap. At its maximum, the 2022 salary cap will be $208.2 million. The 2021 cap is $182.5 million.
The Patriots currently would be carrying over their $15 million in cap space. If the salary cap is $208.2, New England would have $44.8 million in space. If, for some reason, the cap doesn’t rise, then the Patriots would have just $19.1 million in cap space. If New England spends money now, then they have less to play around with in the future.
Teams have absolutely no idea what next year’s salary cap could look like. The cap was $198.2 million in 2020 and $188.2 million in 2019. It went down significantly for 2021 because of a lack of revenue caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. The Patriots were one of only a handful of teams fortunate to still have an excess of available cap space, which, in part, caused their spending splurge. Others, like the Falcons, had to take on cap-cutting moves (like trading their best player) to even sign draft classes.
All of this is to say, spending that $15 million with an uncertain cap future would be a risk, and it’s ultimately probably not one the Patriots will be willing to take. They weren’t for Jones. Perhaps if a player like Cleveland Browns wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. comes available via trade they’d be willing to change their mind, but the possibility seems remote.
It would undoubtedly be less painful for fans to see their team sit on $15 million in cap space if New England didn’t overhaul its roster this offseason. The Patriots already significantly improved its depth chart and removed any glaring holes at positions of needs. Would a trade for Jones have made the Patriots’ offense significantly better this season? Yeah, almost definitely. But while head coach Bill Belichick preaches a one game at a time mantra during the season, he approaches team spending much differently and constantly has an eye toward the future.
For a while, it was easy to predict that the salary cap would rise every season. The last year made that assumption much less of a certainty.
Don’t be surprised, or disappointed, if the Patriots sit on their $15 million. They already splurged. Now they’re being smart.