The first event of any significance in any NFL calendar year is free agency. For any team there are three primary factors: how much room your team has to spend relative to the salary cap; deciding which of your own players with expiring contracts you want to try to retain; and then once free agency officially begins agreeing to terms with players from other organizations that can benefit your team. I’ll take a look at those first two areas to get a base as the start of the 2012 year approaches.
Omar Kelly of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel recently compiled a detailed list of the current salary cap figures for all 32 NFL teams. According to his figures the New England Patriots appear to be in good shape: they have the 8th lowest figure, $101,827,381. The 2011 cap was $120,375,000 and the 2012 cap is projected to be somewhere between $121 and $125 million; it has not yet been officially set.
There are a couple of things to note with those two numbers: first they are not hard cap numbers. Last year teams could borrow up to $3 million from future caps against their 2011 cap figure, and some teams went ahead and did just that to sign all the players that they felt compelled to have on their roster. Similarly this year teams can borrow up to $2 million from future caps if they so desire.
In addition there is a clause in the CBA that allows a team to carry over money they did not spend the previous year. The exact wording is as follows:
A Club may â€ścarry overâ€ť Room from one League Year to the following League Year by submitting notice in writing signed by the owner to the NFL no later than fourteen (14) days prior to the start of the new League Year indicating the maximum amount of Room that the Club wishes to carry over. The NFL shall promptly provide a copy of any such notice to the NFLPA. The amount of Room carried over will be adjusted downward based on the final Room available after the year-end reconciliation.
What this basically means is that the Patriots can add the amount they were under the cap in 2011 to their 2012 cap, if they so desire. Reportedly the Pats finished $6,668,877 under the 2011 cap, and could add that to their 2012 figure. Though that doesn’t sound like a whole lot in comparison to over $120 million, that’s still the difference between being able to sign or not sign an elite player, or two or three above-average players.
Another thing to careful about when looking at these numbers in comparison to those of other teams is that they can easily be skewed based on the number of players under contract – or more to the point, the number of the best/highest paid players under contract. I recall a few years ago when the Cardinals entered the year in ‘best cap shape’ with the lowest cap figure of any team; if I’m not mistaken it was the year after their Super Bowl loss. However, they had so many players with expired contracts that they were actually able to do very little in free agency, other than replace a few players that signed elsewhere with new players that were not really an upgrade.
Lastly, keep in mind that teams need to use about $5 million in cap space to sign rookies. Now that doesn’t mean they have to have it available on draft day – rookies usually aren’t signed until just before the start of training camp, so cap space can be created between now and then for those contracts – but it is still something that will need to be included at some point in time.
Patriots Free Agents – Offense
WR Wes Welker – There is no way Welker will not be back with the Patriots next year. If the Pats cannot work out a long term deal before the start of free agency he will be franchised to give the team more time to negotiate. The franchise tag for a wide receiver is about $9.4 million, an amount the Pats can easily afford if they need to for such a vital part of their offense.
WR Deion Branch – Branch knows that he has lost a step and that his best fit is in New England after some unproductive years in Seattle. The team also knows that he has a unique chemistry with Tom Brady that many others cannot approach. I believe he will be brought back to camp with a relatively low one or two year deal.
WR Matthew Slater – Bill Belichick understands the importance of special teams, and Slater is arguably the team’s best special teams player. Expect him to be offered a multi-year deal.
RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis – While Belichick surely likes the fact that he never turns the ball over and rarely loses yardage, I think the writing was on the wall when the Pats drafted not one, but two running backs early a year ago. I expect somebody to offer him substantially more money that what the Pats are willing to pay.
RB Kevin Faulk – Faulk will retire as a Patriot.
C Dan Koppen – A couple years ago the Pats drafted Ted Larsen, and I envisioned Larsen taking over for Koppen at center for the 2012 season; that obviously did not work out. If Koppen returns it will have to be for substantially less money than he made in his last contract (his cap figure was over $5 million last year, fourth highest on the team); I’m not sure if he will be willing to do that. Of course the team’s decision with Koppen is directly related to what happens with …
C/G Dan Connolly – Ideally Connolly is suited to be a Russ-Hochstein type that can fill in at any of the three interior line positions with the team barely skipping a beat when (not if) another offensive lineman inevitably is injured and misses some time due to an injury. The problem is that Connolly has outplayed that role and can command starter’s money. My guess is that the Pats do what they need to do re-sign Connolly and let Koppen either walk, or accept a much lower salary offer. The wild card in all of this is G Brian Waters, who stated that he has not made up his mind if he wants to play in 2012. If Waters does opt to retire then it increases the chances of the Pats bringing both Koppen and Connolly back. Hopefully for the Pats sake Waters lets them know his decision soon, so they can act accordingly.
QB Brian Hoyer – Hoyer is a restricted free agent. I would expect the Pats to tender him at the 2nd round draft pick level; if another team is willing to give up a 2nd for him the Pats would presumably take that.
Patriots Free Agents – Defense
DE Mark Anderson – Anderson helped improve one of the Pats biggest areas of need over the past couple of years, the pass rush. Is he a one-year wonder? Will some other team be willing to pay big bucks bases on his 2011 stats? I’m guessing the Pats will try very hard to bring him back; keep in mind he is much younger than a player like …
DE Andre Carter – Assuming he is fully recovered from his season ending injury I think he wants to return here, and the team wants him back. He doesn’t fit as well in a 3-4, but I think the Pats like the versatility of being able to utilize either a 4-3 or a 3-4 whenever they so desire.
DE Shaun Ellis – Ellis did not perform up to his $4 million contract, and I don’t get the feeling that he is willing to play for $1 million or so, which would be the most the Pats would offer him – if they offer him anything at all.
DT Gerard Warren – Warren is still an effective lineman, in particular against the run. I’m guessing we’ll see something similar to last year where he is signed late, allowing him to not have to go through training camp while at the same time allowing Belichick to get a good look at one other additional player.
LB Tracy White – White, along with Slater was one of the team’s top special teams players; I expect the Pats will re-sign him.
LB Gary Guyton – Guyton was a healthy inactive for about the last nine games, and the only reason he was on the field prior to that was because of injuries to Spikes and Fletcher. He played his way off the team and will not be offered a contract as Bill Belichick has seen what his ceiling is and will find someone else with more upside.
LB Niko Koutovides – a special teamer who may be brought back to camp, but I’m guessing won’t make it onto the week one roster.
CB Nate Jones – Buh-bye
CB Antwaun Molden – Molden may be offered a contract, but I’ll be disappointed if he makes it out of camp and on to the week one roster.
S James Ihedigbo – Prior to being signed last August Ihedigbo’s role with the Jets was strictly on special teams, and it was assumed that would be the same case with the Pats. He was forced onto the field due to injuries (and the unexpected cuts of Brandon Meriweather and James Sanders), and overall did as well as could be expected. Preferably his role would return to being a backup and special teamer, but here’s the thing: while he does well against the run and when called upon to blitz, he is a liability in coverage. Given the current state of the NFL, wouldn’t you prefer you prefer your backup defensive backs to be stronger in pass coverage, as they will be used primarily in nickel and dime sub situations?
DT Kyle Love – Love is an exclusive rights free agent, which basically means that there’s no way he is going anywhere as long as the team wants him back – which they do.
S Brett Lockett – Lockett is also an ERFA, but I sincerely doubt he’ll be on the 2012 roster.