Training camp kicks off this week in New England and while former tight end Aaron Hernandez sits in a jail cell, his former teammates will be on the practice fields sweating in the summer heat. Forget defensive tackle Vince Wilfork’s stomach, the Patriots have some other kind of fat to trim before the season: the team’s salary cap. Already this offseason, the Patriots have made a move with an eye towards the cap, as free agent wide receiver Donald Jones was released before his bonus for attending training camp kicked in. As his contract was not guaranteed, the Patriots are moving forward without the veteran and putting their faith in the rookies at the position.
Despite being at $9 million under the salary cap at this time, as the release of Donald Jones shows, no player is safe when there is the chance that the team can get better value from a less expensive option. Jones was signed for cheap money and his release before guarantees kick in leave him with no dead money to carry with it. However, add in that next season sees the Aaron Hernandez dead money escalation at a reported almost $7.5 million hit on the 2014 salary cap, and the team just may be looking to clear some room now with an eye on 2014.
The Patriots roster building philosophy entails that they employ a small upper-class of players (Tom Brady, Vince Wilfork, Logan Mankins, Jerod Mayo, and Aqib Talib) who have salary cap charges at $5 million in 2013 or more (Talib actually is just under, but it can be rounded up for argument’s sake). Then there is the very large middle-class of players on the roster who have cap charges between $3.5 million (Danny Amendola is a pinch over, but, again, can be rounded down for argument’s sake) and $1 million.
The twenty-one players on the roster falling into this category include young veterans on team friendly deals (tight end Rob Gronkowski) or older free agents on team-friendly deals (safety Adrian Wilson and defensive tackle Tommy Kelly) or re-signed players identified as valuable in their system and paid close to market value (cornerback Kyle Arrington and tackle Sebastian Vollmer), and young players performing on their rookie deals (tackle Nate Solder, defensive end Chandler Jones, and linebacker Dont’a Hightower). These players make up the “value” that is often talked about by coach Bill Belichick as needed to build a competitive roster in the NFL. In these players, the team gets production above their relative contract in comparison to players at the same pay grade around the league.
The Patriots head into training camp with five players with a target on their wallets as their performance in training camp must justify their pay in 2013. Two tight ends (see the previous article highlighting them here), two secondary players, and a special teams specialist jumped off the New England Patriots salary cap table as being potentially overpaid (thanks as always to the great site, OvertheCap.com).
As always with the New England Patriots, a player being potentially overpaid is not in relation to the rest of the league, but rather in comparison to the rest of the roster. Wide receiver Donald Jones was just released because he was “overpaid” on a minimum contract with low bonuses because the team wanted to look at rookies with bonuses already paid and undrafted free agents at a lower cost. Part two of the series continues with a look at safety Steve Gregory:
#3 — Safety Steve Gregory:
Safety Steve Gregory came east to New England via free agency prior to the 2012 season. After a number of years in San Diego, Gregory was expected to fill the void at safety that had come about after the release of disappointing first round pick Brandon Meriweather and wily veteran but woefully unathletic and slow James Sanders. He was expected to team with former high draft pick Patrick Chung and improve the position.
While Chung had a breakout year of sorts (he broke out of the starting lineup and off the roster completely by being burned consistently and constantly throughout the season), Gregory seemed to be the opposite of what he touted himself as when introducing himself to the Patriots media at training camp last year as a “coverage safety”. Gregory is, in fact, an undersized in-the-box safety who is a solid tackler. His strength in pass coverage in San Diego was in sliding over to play man coverage more so than making plays in 2 deep zone. In fact, in 2010 in San Diego, per Football Outsider’s advanced statistics, he graded out #1 of all defensive backs in stop rate against the run.
While not matching that rate this season, his need was in the passing game and showing off those coverage skills considering how terrible Patrick Chung was in coverage in 2012, finally forcing the Patriots defensive coaches to bench him and move cornerback Devin McCourty to safety again. Gregory makes plays when the ball hits his hands, in that way he has good ball skills, but as far as coverage, his best play is tackling the receiver after they caught the ball in front of him. Although a cornerback at Syracuse, there is a reason he was not drafted and was converted to a safety by the Chargers.
Gregory finds himself as potentially a player without a position in 2013. He doesn’t have the size and hitting ability of veteran Adrian Wilson at strong safety, and definitely does not have the coverage skills of free safety Devin McCourty. As a “tweener” at safety, he did just enough of both roles to catch the eye of Patriots coach Bill Belichick and his love of versatile safeties while in San Diego. Part of Gregory’s problems in 2012 was that the Patriots defense did not play many exotic coverages and had Gregory in a set role where his versatility was negated.
With second-year safety Tavon Wilson ready to play a larger role on defense after an up-and-down rookie season backing up Adrian Wilson and being the sub-package third safety due to his athleticism and coverage skills. With surprise third round pick, rookie safety Duron Harmon out of Rutgers, expected to be the back-up to McCourty at free safety, Gregory may find himself as the fifth safety when the team usually starts the season with only four (Nate Ebner is the fifth, but his position is primarily special teams).
Gregory’s other issue is that contract number: with a cap number of $2.18 million, he hardly is overpaid by NFL standards; however, in New England, he is suddenly a top fifteen cap number nbmand that puts a flashing neon target on his back. While there would be a cap hit of dead money at over $1 million, it would still free up almost $1 million in cap savings this season, and especially in 2014 when his cap number climbs over $3 million.
Media members questioned the drafting of safeties Tavon Wilson and Duron Harmon in back-to-back drafts, and with cornerback Devin McCourty seemingly locked in at safety and former Pro Bowl safety Adrian Wilson in camp on a team-friendly contract, Steve Gregory has a fight on his hands to play in New England in 2013. Unless he wins a starting job this season, he may be part of the fat that is trimmed from the salary cap before the start of the season.
Coming soon, the series wraps up with another member of the secondary and a specialist in danger of being trimmed. As always, comments welcome and be sure to follow me on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/halbent01.