The Patriots’ sluggish approach to the offseason is not a major surprise after last spring’s spending spree.
Before the NFL’s legal tampering period began on Monday, our main takeaway from polling league personnel is that Bill Belichick would return to a more conservative plan while potentially laying in the tall grass to pounce if the right opportunity presented itself, mainly at wide receiver.
A big splash could still come, like Allen Robinson or rumors about a potential deal with the Cowboys for standout tackle La’El Collins, but the question for many is why the lack of urgency? Why not stay aggressive with Mac Jones in the second year of his rookie contract?
For starters, New England always believed internally that their 2021 free-agent additions wouldn’t reach their fullest potential until the second year with the team, especially on offense.
Some anticipated a learning curve for tight end Jonnu Smith, while others you speak with believe that Nelson Agholor’s lacking production was a matter of poor circumstances.
At least offensively, the Patriots’ additions were always going to hit their stride in year two.
Although that’s a nice sentiment, four days into free agency, the Patriots have taken a step backward, losing Pro Bowl corner J.C. Jackson and starting guard Ted Karras, among others.
Plus, the team made a stunning trade to ship another longtime starter on the offensive line in Shaq Mason to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for just a fifth-round pick.
The Pats didn’t need a full-on fireworks show, but this was not ideal, and it all relates to words spoken by team owner Robert Kraft after they were big spenders a year ago.
“In my 27 years as owner, I’ve never had to come up with so much capital before,” Kraft said last March. “I remember we always made fun of the team that spent a lot in the offseason.”
As Kraft went on to say, the Patriots don’t feel like good teams build their high-end talent by overpaying free agents, “the teams who draft well are the ones who will be consistently good. I don’t feel like we’ve done the greatest job the last few years,” the Pats owner continued.
The Patriots have been reluctant to maximize their immediate cap space by borrowing from future seasons or extending players on their roster to make bigger moves in free agency. They were big-spenders last year and want to be a team that builds through the draft, returning to their typical operating procedure after last offseasons outlier.
New England made three cap-clearing moves so far: releasing veteran linebacker Kyle Van Noy, trading Mason, and keeping void years on Devin McCourty’s one-year contract.
With cap-strapped teams like the Saints creating heaps of cap space with contract restructures, the Pats are opening holes on their roster to create more wiggle room by parting ways with veterans.
After another flurry of moves, New Orleans went from $80 million over the cap to $29.9 million in cap space, eying quarterback Deshaun Watson following the addition of former Jets safety Marcus Maye on a big-money deal.
The downside to the Saints’ strategy to borrow from future seasons is that they’re increasing future cap commitments. Saints ownerships’ tab for the 2022 campaign has significantly increased as well, which, as Kraft himself said, was something he did last offseason at an all-time high (the Patriots led the NFL in real cash spending for the 2021 season).
However, the upside is obvious, as they’re making their team better. For fans, it’s frustrating to see the Saints, Bucs, Bills, and others move money around while the Patriots lose good players.
Bill Belichick’s approach is even harder to stomach because the Patriots only have 28 players signed for the 2023 season, so they’re projected to be flushed with cap space next offseason. It’s good that they could go on another mini-spending spree, but it also makes it easier to manage borrowing this offseason to make immediate improvements to the roster.
The NFL is also anticipating a significant spike in the salary cap over the next few offseasons as teams recover from the pandemic and new TV deals kick in with major revenue ramifications.
According to league sources, the Patriots remain in the market for wide receivers, offensive and defensive linemen, and corners, from high-end targets to the likes of Travis Benjamin and Jordan Phillips.
Ultimately, it will be up to the two men at the top of the organization, Belichick and Kraft, to decide if it’s worth maneuvering around the cap to make a splash via the veteran market.
If the Patriots want to turn up the aggressiveness after a slow start to the offseason, they’ll need to open their wallets to lure free agents and for immediate cap relief.
As one of the most valuable franchises in pro football, the salary cap isn’t what’s holding the Patriots back.