New England Patriots 2018 salary cap analysis

HOUSTON, TX - FEBRUARY 06: NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, left, and head coach Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots with the Vince Lombardi Championship Trophy at the Super Bowl Winner and MVP press conference on February 6, 2017 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)
HOUSTON, TX - FEBRUARY 06: NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, left, and head coach Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots with the Vince Lombardi Championship Trophy at the Super Bowl Winner and MVP press conference on February 6, 2017 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images) /

With training camp still a few weeks away and OTAs over, this is a great time to take a long-view of the New England Patriots and their future.

With Tom Brady at quarterback turning 40 this season and impressive young backup Jimmy Garoppolo closing in on free agency, many expected the New England Patriots to make a  move this offseason at the quarterback spot.

In addition, the Patriots had top cornerback Malcolm Butler a restricted free agent this past offseason. With fellow cornerback Logan Ryan cashing in and getting a three-year, $30 million contract from Tennessee via free agency, the Patriots went out and got the top free agent at the position by signing Stephon Gilmore to a five-year, $65 million contract. With Gilmore in the fold, many expected the Patriots to make a  move this offseason at the cornerback spot.

Garoppolo and Butler are still in New England in 2017 and both with expected to be unrestricted free agents in 2018, it begs the question of what does the rest of the roster look like after this season for the Patriots? Is there another key player with an expiring contract? How much cap space will the Patriots have next season?

Per, the Patriots have a number of key players whose contracts expire after the 2017 season. Beyond Garoppolo and Butler, the expected starting players who will be a free agent in 2018 are topped by left tackle Nate Solder. New running back Rex Burkhead signed a one-year deal and could walk after 2017. Veteran defensive end Rob Ninkovich and new addition Kony Ealy are in the last year of their deals in 2017.

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Also, the Patriots will have special teams captain Matthew Slater, fellow special teams player Nate Ebner, young linebacker Kyle Van Noy, top back-up tackle Cameron Fleming, wide receiver Danny Amendola, and running backs Dion Lewis and Brandon Bolden are all free agents after 2017 (provided they make the roster after training camp).

The salary cap is difficult to project, but with the massive NFL revenue streams it has risen regularly and last season was at $167 million.  Since the salary cap usually increases about $10 million per season, we can project it will be anywhere between $175 to $180 million in 2018.

Currently, the Patriots have a total of $158 million tied-up for 2018 (or $152 million based on the top 51 on the roster–which is how the cap is calculated in the offseason) per That leaves the Patriots with about $23 to $28 million in cap space for 2018.

That cap numbers excludes both Jimmy Garoppolo and Malcolm Butler from the roster. If either returns, that number is going to be much lower. The Patriots have the option of slapping either with the franchise tag or the less common transition tag. The franchise tag for a quarterback will likely top $22 million and cornerback near $15 million. While the transition tag does not give the team any compensation if the player signs elsewhere, it does give the team the right of first refusal.

It seems strange to think the New England Patriots will eat up most of their salary cap on a backup quarterback in 2018. That said, if the reports this offseason are true, New England passed up trades which could have netted them multiple draft picks. Obviously, with Tom Brady turning 40 years old the Patriots know they need a quality back-up quarterback now and a plan at the position for the future.  

Garoppolo has no incentive to take a discounted salary and stay in New England and back-up Brady when he approaches free agency. The most likely option is that Belichick will franchise tag Garoppolo and then trade him like they did with Matt Cassel after the 2008 season.

Malcolm Butler is unlikely to be franchise tagged as the team probably does not want to invest over $30 million in salary to their two starting cornerbacks in 2018. The signing of Stephon Gilmore in free agency created such a gap between the offers for Butler and money paid to Gilmore that Butler is likely gone as a free agent after the 2017 season.

There are still steps that can be taken to add to the salary cap number and allow for flexibility in 2018 if the Patriots decide to re-sign Garoppolo and/or Butler. Oddly enough, the best option to free up salary cap space for their backup quarterback is by working to extend their starting quarterback.

Even if Tom Brady only wants to play another two seasons (which is the most realistic option), the team is going to want to re-work his contract as he has a $22 million cap charge in 2018 and 2019. With a guaranteed $15 million base salary from his extension in 2016, this season was always going to be renegotiated again.

Brady’s contract will likely be renegotiated at some point in the next year. Whether they do it this year to maximize some of the $17 million in cap space currently available to the team or extend him and continue pushing his cap charges into the future, a new deal is imminent for Brady. The particulars of the deal are unknown, but there is no way Bill Belichick is going to to needlessly use up $44 million in cap space in the next two years when his longest tenured player is always willing to make a deal friendly to the team’s salary cap.

Another cap number in 2018 that can be lowered is new wide receiver Brandin Cooks. Cooks’ fifth-year option has already been picked up and his cap charge is almost $8.5 million. An extension should benefit him with long-term stability and more cash upfront. Of course, Cooks is not going to come cheap and the Patriots are going to have to pay the 23-year-old superstar his due.

The New England Patriots sent a first-round draft pick to New Orleans for Cooks–they will want to keep him for longer than two years. A bonus with a reworked base salary could lower his cap number dramatically in 2018. In 2017 he will open a lot of eyes and show why he is a top-ten receiver in the league. He will also show why he is worth every penny on the field.

Another player who is could assist with freeing cap space in 2018 is newly acquired tight end Dwayne Allen. Allen is set to count almost $10 million against the cap combined in 2017 and 2018. If he can provide the team the quality long-term complement to Rob Gronkowski the Patriots will be motivated to rework his deal and extend his stay in New England past 2018.

Of course, Allen has to prove he belongs. The Patriots have an intriguing rookie undrafted free agent in Jacob Hollister. Hollister is a “move” tight end who–although lacking comparable athleticism–can fill a role empty since 2013 with the release of the late Aaron Hernandez. If Hollister can be the answer at tight end behind Gronkowski, Allen and his non-guaranteed $5 million 2018 cap charge could be wiped from the roster.

A final pair of contracts to visit for 2018 are those of tight end Rob Gronkowski and free safety Devin McCourty. The duo count for almost $23 million in combined salary cap space in 2018 and $25 million in combined salary cap space in 2019. Extending their contracts with two years remaining is not unprecedented by the Patriots and both are likely part of the long-term plans of the Patriots.

Guaranteeing money, converting base salary to bonuses, and adding additional years to the current contracts of Gronkowski and McCourty are all ways the Patriots can free up salary cap space in 2018. Both are carrying high base salaries in 2018 and may be open to extending their deals into their thirties.

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The New England Patriots are not just loading up for 2017 and blowing up their salary cap into the future. The 2018 salary cap is higher than usual, but key contributors Tom Brady, Stephon Gilmore, Devin McCourty, Rob Gronkowski, Brandin Cooks and more are under contract already. Other players with high (by New England standards) cap numbers in 2018 could be let go before then such as Alan Branch ($4.6 million), Dwayne Allen ($5 million), Shea McClellin ($3.5 million), Patrick Chung ($3.2 million) and Jonathan Freeny ($2.2 million). Designated as post-June 1 cuts, those players would free over $15 million in cap space alone.

The salary cap situation for 2018 does not look ideal at this time, but there are many options for the Patriots to explore to free up cap space to take care of some of their biggest priorities.