#Patriots Have No Excuses, Must Retain Big Name Free Agents

When the new league year begins at 4pm eastern time on March 9th the Patriots will have an unprecedented amount of cap space in the Belichick era.

According to cap wizard @patscap, the Patriots will enter the 2017 season with around $61.5 million in cap space depending on the league’s final decision in regards to the 2017 salary cap. Currently, most are operating under the assumption that that number will be roughly $170 million.

There are two major reasons why the Patriots are currently so far under the cap. One being that the salary cap has increased steadily over the last few years and the Patriots don’t have any major contracts on the books. The other being that, in all, the Patriots have 21 free agents (all types) and 14 unrestricted free agents that Bill Belichick and his staff will have to make a decision on.

The Patriots have been criticized in the past for not handing out big contracts in free agency even to some of their most popular players such as Aqib Talib, Darrelle Revis, and Wes Welker.

However, when a player has really fit the Patriots mold, and the team believes they will continue to perform at a high level, they haven’t shied away from big deals. Tom Brady, Jerod Mayo, Logan Mankins, Vince Wilfork, Rob Gronkowski and Devin McCourty all were given long term contracts at some point in their careers.

This offseason, there’s no excuse for Bill Belichick and company to not retain at least the top tier of free agent Pats that may potentially hit the open the market. It’s difficult to question the 5-time Super Bowl winning coach, but the Patriots have the necessary funds to offer competitive deals to their top free agents. Dont’a Hightower and Malcolm Butler specifically seem to be the type of players the Patriots would like to keep, and with a 40-year-old quarterback, Belichick owes it to Tom Brady to retain as much talent from the 2016 Super Bowl champions as possible.

Who knows how long the Super Bowl window will remain open for Tom Brady? Coming off another Super Bowl title and with many key players already under contract for 2017 the Patriots have the opportunity to keep a core together that has won two of the last three Super Bowls.

Allowing players such as Hightower and Butler to be signed by other teams will put the Patriots in full rebuild mode on defense with the departures of Hightower, Butler, Chandler Jones, and Jamie Collins in the last year or so. With the added possibility of losing depth players such as Logan Ryan and Duron Harmon.

With that said, let’s take a look at some potential contract figures for Dont’a Hightower, Malcolm Butler, Martellus Bennett, and Logan Ryan.

Dont’a Hightower: By far the most important free agent of the group as the team has already made Hightower their top offseason priority. Since entering the league in 2012, Hightower leads the team in tackles (372) and is second among players currently still on the Pats in sacks (17.0) despite playing the majority of his snaps at inside linebacker. Patriots fans saw Hightower’s value and versatility in full force during Super Bowl LI when he played both as a middle linebacker and edge rusher, shutting down the Falcons outside run game and making one of the biggest plays of the season on his strip sack of Matt Ryan. Hightower’s value as both a team leader and a physical force on the field make him potentially important enough to earn the franchise tag.

Discussions about a long term deal for Hightower start at the very top of the linebacker position. Two contracts to look at as a comparison are Carolina Panthers All-Pro linebacker Luke Kuechly and former Patriot Jamie Collins, who just signed an extension in Cleveland. Kuechly is the highest paid inside linebacker in the NFL at $12.4 million per year, while Collins just signed a deal worth $12.5 million per year. For the purposes of this exercise let’s peg a Hightower deal right above Kuechly’s since Hightower has timing on his side hitting the open market in 2017, while Kuechly signed his deal in September of 2015. Proposed AAV: $13 million per season.

Malcolm Butler: Butler’s situation is different from the other players on this list because he’s a restricted free agent, meaning the team has most of the control in negotiations. The Pats can tender Butler for the 2017 season, meaning other teams would have to send a draft pick the Patriots way if they were to sign Butler away from New England, and the Patriots would have the opportunity to match any offer to Butler. A first round tender, meaning the Pats would receive a first round pick if Butler were to sign elsewhere, would pay Butler roughly $4 million in 2017, but it’s extremely unlikely that Butler would accept playing for so little when he’s likely to receive top of the market money for a cornerback.

Houston’s A.J. Bouye’s deal will also be one to monitor for Butler, but for now a realistic comparison for the rising Patriots star is current New York Giants corner Janoris Jenkins. Jenkins was the top corner in the 2016 free agency class, and is a comparable player in terms of skill to Butler. Jenkins received a huge 5-year, $62.5 million deal from the Giants last offseason, and that seems to be the going rate for a top tier corner that isn’t quite deserving of being the highest paid CB in the league. Proposed AAV: $12.5 million per season.

Martellus Bennett: Bennett said after the Super Bowl that he’s looking forward to his increase in pay that usually comes after winning a ring, so it’s likely that as the top tight end on the market Bennett may get a godfather offer that will be too lucrative for the tight end to pass up. Having said that, there are many good reasons for the Patriots to make a serious run at Bennett, including a viable insurance policy to Rob Gronkowski, and his versatility as both a plus receiver and blocker on the line of scrimmage. We didn’t get to see too much of Gronk and Bennett together in 2016, but Bennett’s presence was a major part of the Patriots offense surviving life without Gronk.

Currently, the highest paid tight end in the NFL is Seattle’s Jimmy Graham, who is making $10 million per season. Rob Gronkowski, whose deal is an absolute steal, checks in at $9 million per season. In my estimation, Bennett is not on either of those players levels, nor does he belong in the conversation with Kansas City’s Travis Kelce who just signed a monster extension worth $9.3 million per season. For Bennett, a good comparison may be Panthers tight end Greg Olsen, who signed his deal in 2015 at roughly the same age that Bennett is now (Bennett turns 30 on March 10th). Olsen’s contract in 2015 was worth $7.5 million per season, but it’s important to remember that the cap was just $143 million. Olsen has put up better numbers than Bennett over the last 3 seasons, but has also been targeted nearly 100 times more than Bennett in that span. They’re closer in talent level than it may seem. Proposed AAV: $8.5 million per season.

Logan Ryan: Out of this group, Ryan is probably the least likely to get paid big money by the Patriots. Teams will without a doubt overpay for a solid corner from a championship winning team coached by Bill Belichick, and Ryan’s value probably isn’t enough to the Patriots to match that type of offer. It’s not crazy for Patriots fans to think that Belichick could plug in Eric Rowe or Cyrus Jones for Ryan and get similar play, or draft a corner that will be much cheaper and have similar production, but Ryan has flown under the radar on this Patriots defense as a very solid #2 corner over the last two seasons. In fact, Ryan led the team in tackles in 2016 (92) to go along with 11 passes defensed, and also does a great job covering big-bodied receivers such as Julio Jones and DeAndre Hopkins, something the Patriots face on a regular basis in today’s NFL.

Ryan shouldn’t make as much money as Malcolm Butler in the long term, as Butler is the more talented player with higher upside, but with the ridiculous amount of cap space league-wide it’s not out of the question. This is more about making a fair, competitive offer to the 2013 3rd round pick than matching a team that will overpay for his services. Once again, the great @patscap has a good contract comparison for a reasonable deal to bring Ryan back to New England. Atlanta’s Robert Alford, a player that is also a solid #2 corner, signed a 4-year, $38 million deal worth $9.5 million per season this past December, and that’s where you can expect Ryan to be. Again, with the major caveat that a team may overpay for the two-time Super Bowl champ. Proposed AAV: $9.5 million.

I know what you’re all thinking by this point. There’s no way Bill Belichick is handing out all this money to players like Logan Ryan and Martellus Bennett, who conceivable can be replaced by much cheaper options in the draft or players currently on the roster.

I’m not necessarily saying the Patriots should shell out all this cash to these four, but all four have earned substantial raises, and financially speaking the Patriots are more than capable of making competitive offers.

In fact, if you add up the average annual values of the four contracts proposed above it comes to $43.5 million committed to the 2017 cap. Meaning the Patriots would still be, at the minimum, $18 million under the salary cap, and could potentially clear more space with the retirement or restructure of players such as Danny Amendola and Sebastian Vollmer. The Patriots also typically structure long term deals to have lower cap hits early on in the contract.

In short, the Patriots could retain these four key players and still have money leftover to give to other free agents such as Alan Branch or Duron Harmon and could even use that extra cash to extend players like Tom Brady and Julian Edelman.

The Patriots have a long list of important free agents to examine this offseason, and although Patriots fans should have full confidence in Bill Belichick to replace any that exit for bigger pay days, Belichick has no excuse this time around to not be a big spender in free agency.