One big question remains for the Patriots during their summer break now that all the heavy lifting from a roster-building perspective is over for the 2022 offseason.
Although talent acquisition is always ongoing, the next shoe to drop for New England is creating enough cap space to sign its remaining draft picks and operate for the rest of the year.
According to cap guru Miguel Benzan, the Patriots currently have just $142,280 in cap space and need fit top draft picks Cole Strange and Tyquan Thornton as well as fourth-rounder Bailey Zappe under the cap after announcing their deals on Thursday, which means cap-saving maneuvers are coming very soon.
Along with freeing up money to sign their draft picks, the Pats need to create wiggle room for operating costs during the season. For example, New England will need extra cap space to pay their practice squad players, elevate players from the practice squad, and pay for players 52 and 53 when the top-51 rule no longer takes hold at the beginning of the regular season.
Here's my latest projection of the Patriots' remaining operating expenses for the 2022 League Year. Note while I think the Patriots will start off with 16 players on their practice squad I doubt they will always have 16 players on it. pic.twitter.com/f5Fdq5ok5O
— Miguel Benzan Cap Space Equals 142,280 (@patscap) June 22, 2022
Based on Benzan’s projections, the Patriots need roughly $12.9 million in cap space to sign their remaining draft picks and create enough surplus to make it through the 2022 season.
Although it sounds daunting, the NFL salary cap is very flexible, and there are several moves the Patriots could make to create cap space. In other words, it’s not if they can create the space but rather how they’ll do it.
Here are six realistic ways the Patriots could create cap space to manage their roster this season:
1. Convert C David Andrews’s 2022 Base Salary Into a Signing Bonus (net savings per @PatsCap: $2.6 million)
My understanding is that there’s interest from Andrew’s camp to restructure his four-year, $19 million deal that he signed in the 2021 offseason. But the best guess here is that the team converts his base salary for this season into a signing bonus, which would free up enough cap space to get Strange, Thornton, and Zappe on the books. For Andrews, he’d receive the same compensation as scheduled, but it would be accounted for differently. Still, doing the team a solid might help him if he pursues a raise next offseason.
2. Convert LB Matthew Judon’s 2022 Base Salary Into a Signing Bonus (net savings per @PatsCap: $6.64 million)
We’ve been waiting for this one to happen for the entire offseason. The Patriots can create over $6 million in cap space by converting Judon’s base salary this season into a signing bonus. The move would increase Judon’s cap hits in future seasons, but with him playing at a Pro Bowl level as one of the team’s best overall players, it’s a no-brainer.
3. Sign Punter Jake Bailey to a Contract Extension (net savings per @PatsCap: $2.4 million)
After speculation that the Patriots might select a punter in a loaded draft class, Bill Belichick passed on the Punt God and Penn State’s Jordan Stout to stick with Bailey. Due to a performance escalator, the 2020 All-Pro is now the league’s highest-paid punter at $3.96 million. The Pats can lower that number this season by signing Bailey to a multi-year extension, which he might’ve earned in the spring. Although Bailey had a down year after battling injuries last season, his leg looked as strong as ever during June’s minicamp.
4. Convert CB Jalen Mills’s 2022 Base Salary Into a Signing Bonus (net savings per @PatsCap: $2.31 million)
With New England in a transition year at cornerback, Mills is a solid bet to retain his starting spot and is currently the team’s most reliable outside corner. His performance last season also suggests that he’ll be a useful player in the Patriots’ secondary for the rest of his four-year deal, which runs through the 2024 season, even if he’s playing a more versatile role once others emerge at corner. Mills is a good fit in Foxboro.
5. Release Veteran DL Henry Anderson (net savings per @PatsCap: $1.85 million)
After signing with the Patriots during their spending spree last offseason, Anderson missed the final 13 games last season after tearing his pectoral muscle in the loss to the Bucs. The veteran defensive lineman agreed to take a pay cut to give himself a better chance to make the 2022 roster. But if rookies Sam Roberts or LaBryan Ray emerge in camp, it’s easy to project Anderson as a cap casualty.
6. Trade Either OT Isaiah Wynn or WR Nelson Agholor (net savings per @PatsCap: Wynn – $9.59M, Agholor – $9.06M)
We cleared enough cap space to get the Patriots over the hump with the first five moves above, so they don’t need a major shakeup to clear cap space. But if the team decides that Wynn and/or Agholor aren’t performing relative to their large cap hits, there are tea leaves that suggest they might move on. Plus, trading Wynn or Agholor would allow them to avoid increasing Judon and Mills’s future cap hits. With DeVante Parker, Thornton, and the emergence of second-year wideout Tre Nixon, moving Agholor is the most likely of the two.
Besides using void years to re-sign Devin McCourty, the Patriots are avoiding borrowing money from future years to create immediate cap space, suggesting the team could be angling itself for another aggressive free agency next offseason.
However, the Patriots will need to create immediate cap relief to handle their current expenses, with many ways they could do so before the start of the regular season.
Without further ado, let’s empty the Patriots mailbag as summer break in the NFL continues:
Is there any chance the Pats do with Damien Harris what they did with Sony Michel and trade him away at the end of preseason since he’s a free agent after this year? We would still have Stevenson, K Harris, Strong, White, and JJ Taylor which is a solid depth chart.
— Nick Russo NBC12 (@nickVrusso) June 22, 2022
My educated guess is that the Patriots will view those two situations differently. Michel was a replacement-level running back getting surpassed by Harris as RB1, who was due more money in the final year of his deal, the difference between a first-round rookie deal and a third-rounder. On the other hand, Harris is an above replacement-level talent projected as RB1 in the Pats’ backfield this season. With Strong developing in the third-down back role and Harris’s status as a sixth-round pick, it’s a little bit of apples to oranges. Anything could happen. But trading a player fully bought in and performing well like Harris doesn’t seem wise. That wasn’t the case with Sony.
How do you see backfield reps being divided this year?
— John Stepp (@jstepp58) June 22, 2022
Harris and Rhamondre Stevenson project as essentially a 1A and 1B in New England’s backfield, with carries favoring Harris and receiving snaps favoring Rhamondre. With Stevenson working on his skills as a pass-catcher this offseason, he had enough flashes as a rookie to suggest he could take on a hybrid early-down/third-down back role until James White returns, while Harris is the primary early-down ball carrier. Pierre Strong feels like a redshirt candidate on offense, with a potential role as a kick returner making him a game-day active. Fellow rookie Kevin Harris is there in case of emergency. Assuming they stay healthy, Harris and Stevenson should dominate the touches.
Who will win the corner job opposite Mills?
— moose johnston ? (@DarrylJohnston) June 22, 2022
Until we see more from rookie Jack Jones in camp, the starting cornerback spot opposite Jalen Mills is a competition between veterans Terrence Mitchell and Malcolm Butler. In fact, it wouldn’t shock me if the loser of that battle didn’t make the initial roster. Mitchell seemed to have the slight upper hand in the spring, but we know what Butler is capable of in the Pats’ defense if he gets his legs back after a year away from the game. With that said, Jack Jones has a huge opportunity ahead of him to win that job in training camp. They won’t hesitate to roll with the rookie if he’s the best player.
Is Jack Jones the new 'Alfonzo Dennard'? A corner that slid in the draft that will make an immediate impact.
— Mick Baulch (@tacowaldon) June 22, 2022
Although most people jumped to Malcolm Butler and J.C. Jackson when the Patriots drafted Jones, I’m starting to get Alfonzo Dennard vibes as well in terms of the situation. After the Pats selected him in the seventh round in 2012, Dennard played in 85 percent of the defensive snaps as a rookie, with three interceptions and a 75.7 coverage grade from PFF. Excellent production for a day-three pick out of the gate. For comparison, Butler was at 25.2 percent, while J.C. played in 46.8 percent of the defensive snaps as a rookie. Butler and Jackson stepped into loaded secondaries, whereas Dennard had a similar opportunity as Jones, with the 2012 Pats secondary in flux until Aqib Talib arrived. Hopefully, Jones’s career lasts longer than Dennard’s, but I like the comparison from a playing time standpoint in their rookie seasons.
Other than the obvious with Mac Jones making a leap, what other things need to happen for the Patriots to be a super bowl contender?
— Kent Beaulieu (@Beelio24) June 22, 2022
For the Patriots to make the leap as a collective unit, they need their young defenders to come into their own. On the list of “make the leap” candidates along with Jones are Christian Barmore, Kyle Dugger, and Josh Uche. Barmore was already a force as a rookie, but making an every-down impact could turn him into a Pro Bowl-caliber player. Dugger is consistently named as one of the league’s most underrated safeties and has the talent to become an impact playmaker in a secondary that desperately needs one. And if Uche becomes more consistent, he can bolster a pass-rush that went cold down the stretch a year ago. If those three players take steps forward alongside Matthew Judon, the Pats defense can pull its weight to help the offense.
Who will be the biggest happy surprise on the team this year? The biggest disappointment?
— Roberta VOTES. You should, too. (@AceandJasper) June 22, 2022
Let’s keep it positive here and stay away from disappointments. Along the same lines as the make-the-leap candidates on defense, my surprise breakout candidate is Jonnu Smith. The changes the Patriots are making to their offensive scheme should benefit Smith greatly, as they’ll use motion and misdirection to get him YAC chances on the move. Plus, he could be featured as an H-Back to replace the traditional fullback. More opportunities to use his athleticism, ball-carrying skills, and less thinking should unlock Jonnu Smith in year two.
Which patriots rookie you guys feel will make a immediate impact and which do you predict will have the most over the course of the season?
— G (@Sti11lEarning_) June 22, 2022
The obvious answer here is first-round pick Cole Strange. Strange will start on day one at left guard, whether he’s ready or not, due to his draft status and a vacant spot at guard. I’m expecting the Patriots to help Strange by playing Trent Brown at left tackle and featuring his athleticism with blocks on the move (outside zone, screens, etc.). Strange needs to fill out his frame and could have some issues with power rushers in year one. But with the rookie sandwiched between Brown and David Andrews, he’ll have stable vets on either side to manage his one-on-ones while the scheme allows him to get out and run as much as possible. Every rookie has growing pains, but the bet here is on them making Strange look good.
Haven't heard a lot about how Cam McGrone looks, how did he look out there in OTAs?
— Asad (@brownairjordans) June 22, 2022
The Patriots are bringing McGrone along slowly, with him working primarily on the scout team defense during spring practices. You can tell his athleticism will pop with more reps, but he still has a ways to go as he learns the system. Mental reps while rehabbing injuries are one thing, but it’s another animal to do it on the fly during an NFL game or practice. I’m still optimistic that McGrone will earn playing time this season, but it might take some time.
Which matchup on the schedule (player v player or position group v position group) are you most excited to see this season?
— Jeff Schmitt (@JeffSchmitt20) June 22, 2022
There are cases for matchups against Josh Allen, Aaron Rodgers, Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle, and even Lamar Jackson. But Belichick versus McDaniels, armed now with Davante Adams, will make for great theater. Nobody knows each other better than those two, with countless practice battles over the years. By the time the Vegas game rolls around, Belichick’s defense will have enough installed for him to empty the bag against McDaniels and vice versa. It feels like it’ll come down to who can limit the other playing left-handed since both coaches know each other’s core concepts so well.
On a scale of 1-10 how excited are you for the red unis to be back
— thomas (@thomasm41529545) June 22, 2022
The 90s kid in me wants to see the original flying Elvis jerseys make a comeback. But who doesn’t love the throwback Pat Patriot uniforms? An all-time classic. The helmets are fire—ten out of ten excitement.