We are in the Patriots’ silent spring. Aside from the ongoing mud wrestle Tom Brady’s engaged in with the NFL and the noise surrounding that, it’s quiet with the football team.
Minimal personnel outflow. An interesting haul of B-list free agents. A workmanlike draft of players who won’t likely make much impact in their rookie seasons.
But this calm precedes a roster storm the team is facing over the next nine months.
Nine players of major consequence are entering the final year of their contracts. On offense, it’s not a crisis. Right tackle Sebastian Vollmer is the only expiring contract.
Defensively? Different story. Linebackers Donta Hightower and Jamie Collins, defensive ends Rob Ninkovich and Jabaal Sheard, defensive backs Logan Ryan, Duron Harmon and Malcolm Butler (restricted free agent) are all expiring. As is special teams ace and captain Matthew Slater.
But wait, there’s still more. A bunch of the free agent/trade imports the Patriots made are here on one-year deals: tight ends Martellus Bennett and Clay Harbor, defensive linemen Chris Long and Terrance Knighton and guard Jonathan Cooper.
Add in OL Marcus Cannon, RB LeGarrette Blount, DL Alan Branch, WR Aaron Dobson, RB Brandon Bolden, LB Jonathan Freeny, FB James Develin, WR Chris Harper, TE Michael Williams, G Cameron Fleming and lower-tier free agent signings like DT Markus Kuhn, WR Nate Washington, LB Ramon Humber, CB E.J. Biggers and DE Frank Kearse and overall there are 30 (!!) players with expiring deals.
A few of those players won’t even make it through the summer with the team. And the fact others, like Bennett, Long, Knighton, Cooper, Blount and Washington, are on one-year “show us” deals isn’t bad. It’s smart.
But the volume of consequential players – especially on defense – who’ll be looking for new deals means there’s an interesting dance for Bill Belichick and Director of Player Personnel Nick Caserio to engage in.
The Patriots have to do what’s best for their football team. But some of the players whose contracts are up are obligated to do what’s best for themselves business-wise.
And a lot of them are in line for their second contracts. They are facing what will probably be the most pivotal financial period in their lives over the next few months.
Consider a player like Jamie Collins. A second-round pick in 2013, his initial contract was for $3.76M. You take out taxes, agent fees, expenses, etc. and how much money do you think Collins has to show for the three seasons in which he’s been a rising star in the league? Certainly not enough to feel financially comfortable for the rest of his life.
But – barring catastrophic injury – Collins’ next contract is going to be a huge financial haul that should set up him and his family for decades.
By comparison, Lavonte David of the Buccaneers signed a five-year $50M contract with more than $25M guaranteed last August. Both play outside linebacker at a high level. Both were initially second-round picks (David, No. 58 in 2012; Collins, No. 52 in 2013).
Then there are players like Harmon and Ryan – good rising players who are not going to be paid like stars and may never be Pro Bowlers but are going to play in the league for a long time. Last season, Ryan took a huge step forward, starting opposite Malcolm Butler, putting up some outstanding advanced statistics and increasing his profile around the league. Harmon had a similar year. Ryan will have made $2.77M by the end of his rookie deal; Harmon will make $2.71M.
Unlike Collins, who is a freak talent and is going to get teams throwing tens of millions at him, Ryan and Harmon have a little more uncertainty. If the Patriots present them with offers prior to this year, do they take the security of knowing they are program mainstays or do they wait it out and test the market.
Ryan can look at a player like Buster Skrine who signed a $25M deal with the Jets last year and say, “Whoa… that could be me.” Harmon will have to see the offer he gets from the Patriots and compare it to the one the team gave his good friend Devin McCourty last year ($47.5M). Is Harmon half the player McCourty is? One-third? Will another team see in Harmon the potential to be comparable to McCourty?
Hightower, a former first-round pick, is more financially set than the other guys staring at second contracts. Hightower was down to make $7.724M from 2012-15. The Patriots picked up his fifth-year option for 2016 which will pay him $7.75M. So he’s in position to make more than $15M by the end of the season. He’s another player who could command more than $50M in a new deal if he goes to free agency. Would he be willing to take the security of staying in New England for a deal that may not be as lucrative as what he could command on the open market?
That’s what Jerod Mayo did and it proved to be the right move. Mayo – who came into the league under the previous CBA that was more lucrative for rookie first-rounders – agreed to a five-year extension in December of 2011 before his fourth NFL season was up, 15 months before he would have become a free agent. The extension was worth $48.5M. Mayo wound up on season-ending IR in 2013, 2014 and 2015 and he renegotiated his deal a couple of times but there was good security built into that deal. He retired recently having made more than $42M in the NFL.
We could go on with individual situations – Malcolm Butler could reasonably expect to make more than Janoris Jenkins who signed with the Giants for $62M this offseason, but Butler’s two years from unrestricted free agency and making less than $1M in salary this year; Jabaal Sheard needed to prove himself after a slow start to his career in Cleveland led him to a the two-year, $11M deal he signed with the Patriots. He’s en route to doing that and is – thanks to signing that short-term deal – in line to get another crack to cash in while in his prime.
And nobody should begrudge these players for doing so. We all know by now the future physical peril they put themselves in and we will never run out of stories related to young men who blew their money thinking it would never dry up. The players owe it to themselves and their families to make sure they are compensated as well as they can be.
Belichick, Caserio and the Krafts are aware of that too. Their chore is to do right by as many of these guys as they can against a hard salary cap and make sure the team isn’t mortgaged to its eyeballs.
It’s as complex a contractual puzzle as I can recall.