The New England Patriots are less than two weeks from the kick-off to the NFL Free Agency on March 8th when teams can negotiate with other free agents and March 11th when signing unrestricted free agents begins. Despite that there has been scant news out of Foxboro, MA. With key free agents cornerback Aqib Talib, wide receiver Julian Edelman, and running back LeGarrette Blount just days away from being unrestricted free agents and available to the other 31 NFL teams to sign. With the re-signing of these three key players on the wish-list of many fans, the common refrain regarding other free agents is that the Patriots are too tight to the cap to make a splash in free agency.
That is not true. To give the New England front office a free pass due to their presumed cap number. In fact, the Patriots have as much money in cap space available to them as they want to spend. To do that, however, the team needs to cut some deadwood on the roster and rework or extend contracts on players who are vital to the future of the team.
To free up salary cap space easily, the Patriots need to release defensive tackle Isaac Sopoaga, guard Dan Connolly, and safety Steven Gregory. The Patriots have no need for Sopoaga who did nothing after being added mid-season. Connolly has underperformed since being given a long-term contract extension and needs to be replaced. Gregory had a bounce-back season after a dismal 2012 season in New England. However, the Patriots have less expensive and more talented options on the roster.
In addition, they need to restructure the contract of guard Logan Mankins and extend and restructure the contracts of the veterans; nose tackle Vince WIlfork, safety Devin McCourty, and kicker Stephen Gostkowski. Wilfork is in the last season of his contract and missed most of 2013. McCourty is a Pro Bowl caliber safety and offers versatility to slide to cornerback in a pinch. He is a must keep. Gostkowski is one of the top kickers in the NFL and the Patriots should work to keep him prior to his contract ending and learn from their mistake in letting kicker Adam Vinatieri leave.
Going into the off-season, the main salary cap websites (OvertheCap.com, Spotrac.com, and PatsCap.com) all had the Patriots cap number at around $121 to $126 million with the league-wide salary cap expected to be around $126 million. However, that was with the roster as it currently stands. Recent new reports indicate that the cap is actually expected to rise even higher to between $132 and $133 million.
New England also carried just over $4 million in unused cap space and $2 million in bonuses and incentives that counted against the 2013 cap. The team gets most of this back due to the terms not being met (Pro Bowl bonus, roster bonus, other incentives, etc). The space not used and the adjustments with unearned bonuses and incentives that were not met is applied to the 2014 salary cap. With the cap at approximately $132 million and the Patriots tacking on additional $6 million that puts them with about $11 million of room (using the high estimate of $126 million).
But that $11 million is only half the story; the Patriots have easy money coming off their books.