Taking a break from the off-season revisiting and grading of the New England Patriots NFL Drafts in the Bill Belichick era, a post on ESPNBoston.com‘s New England Patriots Blog which broke down the Patriots roster by years remaining on the player’s contracts was of particular interest (see it here). There was no analysis with it, but it got thoughts percolating regarding using this as another way to look at the upcoming roster battles in training camp. One part of the analysis of any move by the Patriots front-office in regards to roster building is determining what players may be on the roster bubble based in part on their contract. Currently, if a player is released in the last year of their contract, these players are not going to count as much against the cap due there being less dead money with no future years to pay out bonuses spread across the cap.
The list of players in the final year (or on a one-year deal) seemed to beg the question: “If the contract has not been extended already, why not?” With the assistance of our friends at OvertheCap.com (the source for cap numbers, bonuses, and dead money), that question is at the forefront below. The list of players seemed to break down into the three categories below:
Category One: No sure thing/One-year prove-it players:
RB LaGarrette Blount
Blount is in New England as the veteran camp running back and likely was brought into New England to push second year running back Brandon Bolden and serve as insurance in camp. Short of an injury, it may come down to Blount and Bolden for the final running back spot on the roster. Blount is at a disadvantage because he can be cut and cost absolutely nothing on the salary cap.
WR Kamar Aiken
Aiken is one of those players in camp who will show up in a training camp column in a major newspaper as “Player X opened the eyes of this reporter on the practice field!” and the writer commenting to the reader to “look for Player X as a developmental surprise this year!”. With two draft picks at wide receiver, the numbers don’t stack up well the undrafted free agent who was signed after bouncing around various practice squads last year. Aiken is going up against drafted wide receivers with guaranteed money in their contracts and Aiken can be cut with no salary cap ramifications.
WR Michael Jenkins
Jenkins is a veteran wideout who may be training camp to learn offense and provide veteran leadership to the influx of new receivers on the roster. Jenkins could fall into the Deion Branch role from last year and be cut after training camp and be kept in the area as a future signing during the season to fill in for injured players. Jenkins is likely a one-year rental but has the opportunity to work with quarterback Tom Brady and carve out a role in New England for a few years. Jenkins is in on a one-year deal with minimal bonuses at the veteran’s minimum and there are no cap issues or dead money if let go.
DE Marcus Benard
Benard has had health issues, which is how he landed in New England after not returning to the Cleveland Browns. Benard, when healthy, accumulated 7.5 sacks in 2010 as a starting defensive end in Cleveland. He needs to show he is healthy and win a spot by supplanting either Jermaine Cunningham, Jake Bequette, or Justin Francis from the roster. In a worst case scenario, Benard can showcase himself and build some film to shop to other franchises after camp. Benard is in at veteran’s minimum with no salary cap ramifications if released.
LB Mike Rivera
Rivera is in camp fighting for a special teams role and back-up linebacker spot. Rivera has bounced around the league on practice squads the past few years and is likely looking at one-year deals if he sticks. Again, not any kind of salary cap issue if released.
LB Dane Fletcher
Like Rivera (and Niko Koutouvides), Fletcher is fighting for a special teams role and back-up linebacker spot. Fletcher has had some health issues and spent time out injured when he had an opportunity to have a bigger impact on the roster. Now, he needs to show he is healthy and can contribute on defense and special teams to win a spot on the 53 man roster. Like Rivera, he is not any kind of burden on the salary cap if he is cut.
LB Niko Koutouvides
Koutouvides has spent an amazing nine years in the NFL on the fringes of rosters and is in camp again fighting for a special teams role and back-up linebacker spot with Mike Rivera. Again, not any kind of salary cap issue if released as he carries only a $25,000 hit to the cap (prorated bonus) if let go.
CB Marquice Cole
Cole re-signed this off-season in New England and will be back in camp fighting for a special teams role and back-up cornerback role with what seems like the entire Rutgers secondary. Cole was forced into action in the AFC Championship game versus Baltimore when starter Aqib Talib went out with injury. Cole was targeted again and again by Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco as the Ravens put away New England in the Patriots final game of the 2012 season. Cole has the advantage of knowing the defense and being familiar with the team, but youth and playmaking could remove him from the equation. Like Koutouvides, Cole is not any kind of salary cap issue if released as he carries only a $25,000 hit to the cap (prorated bonus) if let go.
T Kevin Haslam
Haslam was released last month by San Diego and scooped up by New England. He started 3 games at left tackle for San Diego in 2012 and was a surprise release there. He is yet another Rutgers alum, which seems to be like Willy Wonka’s Golden Ticket to get inside the gates in New England these days. Haslam is again a no-issue release if he does not make the squatd.
Veteran Likely to Make Squad/Show you deserve the long-term deal:
CB Aqib Talib
Talib is back in New England after being acquired from Tampa Bay via trade and did not find the long term deal he was looking for in the off-season. The Patriots were wise to make Talib take a one year “show us you can do it all 16 games” deals before committing to him. Talib made a major impact in the secondary, teaming with 7th round pick Alfonzo Dennard at the corners and allowing Devin McCourty to move to safety and take away the deep pass that haunted New England early in 2012. A consistant season and staying injury free and keeping his nose clean will get Talib the deal he is looking for next season. If any off-field issues or further suspensions, the Patriots are covered as it is only a one-year deal.
DE Jermaine Cunningham
Cunningham lost his opportunity to shine in 2012 with his four game suspension for PEDs when rookie DE Chandler Jones was out injured. Cunningham is in the last year of his rookie deal and needs to get out of dog house and contribute this season or else risk being out of football next season. Cunningham is facing competition for a back-up role at defensive end, and needs a strong camp this summer to get on the field and contribute. Cunningham only counts $309,000 in dead money against the cap if released, so New England will not be keeping him on the roster with hopes of reaching unfulfilled potential, as those get out of jail cards are out of his Monopoly set.
RB Leon Washington
Washington is expected to contribute in the return game and be a veteran 3rd down back as a Kevin Faulk lite. The big question with the veteran scat-back is if there is anything left in the tank. If he can he contribute on 3rd down and special teams there should be a roster spot for Washington. Washington’s cap number if released is only $360,000 in dead money, so he also will be a veteran to have to earn his way onto the team this summer.
TE Michael Hoomanawanui
The Hoo-Man was a pleasant surprise in 2012 filling in at tight end and h-back The big question is, is Hoomanawanui a one year wonder as blocking tight end and occasional receiver or an integral back-up and regular contributor? Hoomanawanui was tendered at $1.3 million as a restricted free agent and none of the money is guaranteed. He will be in a battle with former Giants tight end Jake Ballard to make the team. A lot depends on the health of Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski ahead of them on the depth chart.
TE Jake Ballard
Last seen playing against the Patriots in the 2012 Super Bowl, the Patriots grabbed Ballard as the Giants tried to sneak him through waivers to injured reserve after he blew out his knee in the Super Bowl. The big question is, is Ballard healthy enough to contribute and make the squad in 2013? Ballard makes ½ the salary of Hoomanawanui, and is basically playing for the veteran minimum with no salary cap issues if he is cut. Ballard is sixteen months past the injury, and still not 100% at OTAs. Training camp will be a big test for Ballard.
WR Julian Edelman
Edelman began the 2012 season taking snaps away from Wes Welker and after being shut down by injuries, found little to no interest on the open market and apparently continues to have injury issues as he was spotted at OTAs in a walking boot. Edelman may be the longest tenured wide receiver in New England currently, but he will be battling for a roster spot when he gets healthy. The PUP list is always a possibility and little of Edelman’s contract is any issue (work-out bonus was converted to a roster bonus) if he is released.
T Will Svitek
Svitek is a veteran back-up who was brought in on a one year deal. Svitek should perform well enough to stick and make the roster, but his agent likely viewed New England as a launching point for a foray into free agency and a contract for multiple years in the off-season (in New England or elsewhere). The Patriots need quality depth at tackle, and with a strong showing in a relief role, Svitek could make himself a valuable member of the offensive line. Svitek is likely not going anywhere, and about 2/3 of his contract would count as dead money against the cap this season if released. His questions to be sorted out in 2013 are whether he is a one-year rental in New England or a valuable piece to use to build for the future.
G Nick McDonald
McDonald is a valuable member of the offensive line, as he has flexibility to play all five spots on the offensive line. Coming in as a 4th string center, he has fought his way on the roster these past few years with his versatility and willingness to be flexible and take instruction. Playing multiple positions on the line helps, but is no guarantee if a youngi lineman (such as his brother, for example) shines in training camp and earns a role on the roster. Like most other young veterans on these one-year deals, there is minimal negative cap impact if the player is released.
LS Danny Aiken
Aiken is invisible, which is what every long-snapper hopes for because 99% of the time, any attention is only earned when they make a costly mistake. Doing the job properly garners no attention. That said, no long-snapper is ever truly safe in the NFL, and the more money they earn, the more their job is in jeopardy. While any money saved on long-snapper salary is minimal, the Patriots will always bring in competition for their specialists.
P Zoltan Mesko
Forget the fact that he was a punter who was drafted by New England, punter is a position that will always have another leg in camp for competition.. If someone else can do the job better or as good for less money, than there will be a player out of a job in New England, no matter if a starter or a bottom of the roster player. Mesko has a cap charge of $1.3 million, which is a lot for a punter in New England. Expect Mesko to have to shine in order to hold off fellow lefty punter Ryan Allen, the first real competition for Mesko in his New England tenure.
What is the Delay on the New Contract?
DE/LB Rob Ninkovich
Ninkovich is a starter at defensive end, and is in the last year of his 2011 extension and entering his 4th year in New England. Signed originally as a depth player and long-snapper, Ninkovich has worked his way onto the field as a starter. Ninkovich has a cap number of $3 million counting against the cap, and questions remain if he is a long-term answer at defensive end/outside linebacker. With 2nd round pick Jamie Collins and Jermaine Cunningham pushing him for playing time, the Patriots may wait and see if Ninkovich duplicates his playing 83% of the snaps like he did in 2012 before committing to him. Although unlikely, releasing Ninkovich saves $2.4 million in cap money.
C Ryan Wendell
Wendell beat out long-time starter Dan Koppen at center and played well in 2012. Wendell played 99.5 percent of the snaps at center.Wendell is earning back-up money ($1 million cap number) as a starter for the second straight season, a great value. As Wendell enters the final season of his contract, he is an interesting case, as he fits the Belichick offensive lineman value strategy: Undrafted free agent from school with Belichick connection (then Fresno State Coach Pat Hill) to practice squad to futures contract to making roster as backup; then worked his way to top reserve at multiple positions and beat out higher price veteran; two years of value play at low cost salary; the next question is does Wendell play out his contract and test free agency? Do the Patriots try to lock him up long-term? Or are they already planning to let him walk and find the next undrafted free agent to take his place?
LB Brandon Spikes
Spikes has been a starter in New England when healthy, playing 35 of 48 regular season games over his first three seasons. As he enters the final year of his contract, he appears to be locked in as the Patriots big-hitting linebacker next to captain Jerod Mayo. Spikes has a very reasonable $870,000 cap number in the final year of his contract, and seems ready to test free agency after 2013 and cash in after initially falling to the 2nd round of the 2009 draft and missing out on a lot of money in his initial contract. With Spikes hinting of cashing in, and the Patriots having to balance the cost of a run-stuffing linebacker who is a liability in coverage, a contract extension is unlikely to happen soon. Expect the Patriots to examine options behind Spikes at linebacker and start their contingency planning at linebacker behind Spikes.
Although Ninkovich, Spikes, and Wendell should be safe at roster cut-downs, the Patriots have made a statement by not extending their deals prior to their final season on their deals. The Patriots have an intriguing number of players with limited salary cap penalties to the team if they are released at cut-down time. Expect the camp battles for roster spots to be fierce as the Patriots whittle down from 90 players to 53. There are always surprising (and sometimes shocking) releases as the roster gets worked into shape, so this year should be no different. With the Patriots keen eye on the salary cap at all times, these players are definitely worth keeping an eye on in the preseason.