Winners sign free agents for a discount, losers have to pay a substantial tax.
The New England Patriots organization has been able to sign free agents at a lower cost than losing teams over the years because of the reputation they have earned as a superior working environment.
The allure of playing in New England is not limited to the sheer pleasantness of subzero weather in November and December in Gillette Stadium. What players really want is to play in January and February and the playing conditions are just not that important.
Winning matters, and the fact is that players have habitually instructed their agents to accept lower offers from New England rather than play for perpetual losers like the Cleveland Browns or Detroit Lions, or any of the other teams from the AFC East.
The Jets, Bills and Dolphins organizations were once very difficult recruiting areas, though that has recently changed. Buffalo in particular has changed now that Josh Allen has emerged as a bona fide franchise quarterback and Sean McDermott looks like a perpetual Coach of the Year candidate. Brian Flores also looks like he is a real threat down in Miami. However, the Jets still have a stranglehold on last place and Robert Saleh has his work cut out for him to convince talented free agents to settle there. Lord have mercy.
A case study could be Jamie Collins, who had become a legitimate star with the Patriots by 2015, contributing to a Super Bowl win and making the Pro Bowl. Yet his rookie contract was paying him only $940K per year, which is not very much for a star linebacker. After repeatedly pointing this out to coach Belichick, Collins found himself traded to the untalented but rich Cleveland Browns, who jacked up his pay to $12.5 million per year, using numbers from overthecap.com.
After a while, however, the Browns realized that they had overpaid for Collins’ services, so they decided to cut him. Collins decided that he missed winning, so he returned to New England for a season, earning a paycheck of $3 million, or less than one-fourth of what he was getting in Cleveland. That is, the Patriot discount was over 75%.
However, after a year with New England, Collins elected to follow former Pats defensive coordinator Matt Patricia to Detroit. Collins signed for three years and $30 million dollars, or an average of $10 million per year. The 2020 cap charge was discounted to “only” $6.3 million because bonus money is spread over all three years of the contract even though he cashed $11 million dollars’ worth of checks last year. The main point, however, is that Patricia was unable to bring the Patriots’ winners’ discount with him. Poor fellow, he was never able to understand that he lacked Belichick’s toughness and charisma — and established track record as head coach.
A similar test was provided by Danny Shelton, a former Browns first-round draft pick who was traded to New England, and then re-signed with the Patriots at a reduced rate. The Samoan strongman was paid $2.9 million per year on his rookie contract, and re-signed with the Patriots for $1.0 million, or about one-third of what he was accustomed do.
He followed his teammate Collins to Detroit, and received a major pay raise, a two-year, $8.0 million dollar deal, or four times what the Patriots were paying him. Here again, Detroit had to pay four times as much as New England for the same player, a horrific “losers’ tax.” No wonder they were so devoid of talent and skill. It was not simply bad coaching from Patricia, although he may not have helped the situation.
Patrick Chung’s history is interesting also. After his rookie contract expired, he signed with the Eagles, earning $4 million dollars for one year’s service in Philadelphia. He was cut by the Eagles after that season and went back to New England for $1.45 million. His contract has subsequently been renegotiated or extended five times in the range of $3.5 million dollars prior to his retirement this season. In other words, Belichick does give pay raises, but certainly it wounds him deeply to do so.
After a Brady-less season and a 7-9 campaign, that reputation has taken a bit of a hit, but the available evidence suggests that several players and their agents still believe in Belichick and the Patriot Way.
Kyle Van Noy is the latest to have left New England to earn a living and then return. A one-year sabbatical in Miami earned him $15 million dollars, or three times what he was getting in New England, and he returns this season with a two-year contract worth $11.8 million. His cap number this season is only $4.4 million. What is even more sweet for the Pats is that they are going to receive a compensatory fourth-round 2022 draft pick for losing him last season even though they signed him back.
Van Noy’s contract suggests that the winner’s discount is still in effect, at least on the defensive side of the ball. Moreover, by signing free agents like Matthew Judon, the Patriots get a Pro Bowl edge rusher for four years at $13.6 million per year. That is a steal, and moreover, Judon’s cap number is only $6.3 million for 2021.
Jalen Mills moves over to New England from Philadelphia and is getting a pay raise, getting four years at $24 million with $9 million guaranteed. Dave Zangaro of Sports Philadelphia believes that the Patriots may have overpaid, but points out that the guaranteed amount is on the low side. An internet search did not reveal any evidence that other teams outbid the Patriots, though given that the deal was signed almost immediately after the legal tampering period ended, agent Drew Rosenhaus very likely did not make an exhaustive search of teams like the New York Jets and Jacksonville Jaguars. More likely, it was a targeted search that both Belichick and the client wanted, and Rosenhaus was willing to make it happen without squeezing the last nickel out of the market.
Other big-ticket signings include two tight ends, for which Belichick appears to have been willing to actually overpay. Jonnu Smith was signed for four years and $50 million or $12.5 million/year, and Hunter Henry was signed at the same annual rate but for three years rather than four ($37.5 million). This makes them tied for third-highest rate in the NFL, meaning they are absolutely getting top dollar from the Patriots.
The Patriots are at least getting the first-year discount, however. In terms of 2021 cap hit, Henry is the sixth highest-paid tight end in the NFL and Smith is the fourteenth highest. Belichick evidently believes that Cam Newton can be the world’s greatest quarterback when throwing to tight ends. That is well and good, but it would be fair to say that the winners’ discount factor did not apply to the tight ends.
The signing of Nelson Agholor sparked some controversy, as Pro Football Focus ranked it as one of the six worst signings of the offseason. However, PFF has more than one writer, and they also ranked him as the most underrated free agent wide receiver:
"[Agholor] became the deep threat in the Raiders’ offense that Henry Ruggs III was supposed to be, with only Tyreek Hill catching more touchdown passes on deep targets (20-plus air yards) than Agholor’s six. Derek Carr‘s passer rating when throwing his way this season was 113.7, and the rediscovery of the deep pass transformed the Raiders’ offense into an altogether more formidable threat this season.–Sam Monson, Pro Football Focus, March 9, 2021."
How can the most underrated wide receiver be the worst signing?? Maybe they don’t read their own stuff?
All told, the Patriots obtained major discounts for Van Noy and Judon, and to some extent for Mills. As for Agholor, this writer is siding with Sam Monson for the time being. However, it is fair to say that they did not get a discount for their two highly talented but high-priced tight ends.
The Patriots are not the only team that gets a discount. The Chiefs are the hot team right now. San Francisco is a perpetual favorite also. Until this season, the Steelers and Green Bay were premier landing spots for veteran free agents. Also, for whatever reason, many players around the league are willing to accept a pay cut for the privilege of having a silver star on the side of their helmets, even if it means working for a hardline owner like Jerry Jones rather than a progressive owner like Robert Kraft. That may be hard to take, but it is true. Go figure.
If the Patriots go deep into the playoffs again in 2021, faith in the team’s winning tradition will probably be restored and the Pats will likely continue to sign the best players for less money than other teams around the NFL.