The Patriots free agency can be explained by 3 things – Boston Herald

The Patriots free agency can be explained by 3 things – Boston Herald
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Go ahead. Ask the question.

What the hell are the Patriots doing?

Since NFL free agency kicked off last week, frustration with the Pats’ inactivity has grown daily, inflamed by the memory of last year’s record spending spree and the arms race unfolding across the AFC. As competitors stockpile weapons, it feels like the Pats are loading up on hand-me-down Nerf guns.

Here’s what’s actually transpiring in Foxboro, according to sources: Bill Belichick is negotiating directly with the team’s top targets. Senior consultant Eliot Wolf, an NFL front-office veteran of 20-plus years, is manning the phones for other external free agents. New director of player personnel Matt Groh has shouldered some of the load while conducting a Pro Day tour, having already sealed a few re-signings.

As inside linebackers coach Jerod Mayo said last month, the Pats are trying to “get faster, more explosive and put more playmakers on the field.” That is, on their terms.

According to one agent, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, the Patriots raised their offer significantly for an elite offensive client who signed a similar contract elsewhere, but was not drawn there by the money. This account reveals a willingness to expend cash and cap space, even while it runs contrary to several other negotiations where the Pats have refused to pony up for mid-level free agents.

“They have a cheap problem,” another player’s agent said.

Without a big free-agent splash to define the Patriots’ offseason, misguided explanations for their approach have filled a void in the public discourse. Let’s address two big ones.

The Pats have not been boxed in by their limited cap space, but the NFL salary cap is also not “crap.” Phrases like “the cap is crap” might make for fun talk radio, but are completely useless when trying to understand the innerworkings of league business.

The truth is every NFL team employs salary cap experts and abides by the cap every single year. If the cap didn’t matter, the Packers would not have alienated Davante Adams during 12 months of contract negotiations and then traded him to Las Vegas. If Robert Kraft was free from a salary limit all these years, Tom Brady, his “fifth son,” would likely still be a Patriot, paid unholy gobs of money and surrounded by weapons he deserved.

It’s also true teams can create space at virtually any time, often by kicking current cap charges on their books over future years via contract restructures. But the bill always, always comes. The Saints recently cleared more than $30 million in space through restructures, anticipating they might land Deshaun Watson. Instead, they are Watson-less and already $14 million over the cap for next year.

So far, the Patriots have been reluctant to restructure contracts with two or more years remaining, per sources.

None of this is to excuse or praise their inactivity. It’s to set a proper framework for how free agency works. These are the rules.

And this, for better or worse, is what the Patriots are doing.

Patriots free agency tracker and grades: Pats create $1.25 million in cap space, Gunner Olszewski leaves for Pittsburgh

All salary cap information is courtesy of Over The Cap.

1. Prioritizing in-house free agents

This much is clear: Belichick believes in his players.

Veterans Devin McCourty, Matthew Slater and James White have re-signed, career Patriots who have shared the locker room since 2014. Each of them inked a team-friendly deal. Linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley, another leader, is also back on a reported 2-year contract.

The Pats have paid for familiarity and trust. These are not only starting players, but culture drivers and value signings. With only $10 million in cap space to start the week, the Pats chased low-ceiling, high-floor deals to maintain their collective floor as a fringe playoff team.

There’s a fair argument to be made for continuity and retaining leadership. Despite a massive influx of new talent last year, the Patriots started 2-4 as they assimilated new faces, then stumbled at the finish, losing four of their last five.

Players later admitted they failed to raise their level of intensity down the stretch. No one in the locker room understands what winning requires better than three-time Super Bowl champions like McCourty, Slater and White. With them back in the building, the Pats are betting their odds of another collapse will be lower in 2022 — even if their chances at a long playoff run have fallen, too.

2. Sticking to core philosophies

A year ago, the Patriots flexed their financial strength by making starting offers free agents couldn’t refuse and other teams couldn’t match. This was out of character.

NFL Notes: Patriots aren’t an attractive free-agent destination in 2022

Aside from a few famous examples, including Stephon Gilmore and Adalius Thomas, the Patriots have made a habit of sitting out the first wave of free agency. If they’re targeting top-tier free agents, they’ll make an initial offer that, if declined, will stand in case that player’s market craters.

If not, the player leaves.

To wit, the Patriots were never close to signing J.C. Jackson. They’ve since allowed another expensive in-house free agent, offensive tackle Trent Brown, to determine his value on the open market and even visit Seattle, before circling back to them.

Even with obvious roster holes, the Pats have stuck to their long-held beliefs about positional spending in free agency. They do not pay top dollar for No. 1 wide receivers — not even Randy Moss or Brandin Cooks — preferring to spread money out at the position. Entering last offseason, their average league ranking in single-season spending on wide receivers was 14th over the past eight years.

The same holds true for linebackers, where they ranked 12th, and cornerback at 17th. New inside linebacker Mack Wilson arrived with a 1-year, non-guaranteed $2.54 million base salary, while free-agent corner Terrance Mitchell signed a 1-year, $1.75 million pact.

How will the Patriots use former Saints RB/WR Ty Montgomery?

3. Protecting future flexibility

Last offseason, the Patriots’ structured several of their free-agent contracts to carry minimal cap hits in 2021 and heavier numbers in 2022. This is what’s crushing their cap.

But 2023? That’s a different story.

The Patriots rank fifth in projected 2023 cap space at $102.5 million. They’re also scheduled to carry zero dead money.

So far, none of their free-agent contracts have infringed on that flexibility. They’ve either struck 1-year deals or 2-year deals where they can cut bait without any serious penalty. The only exception is McCourty’s contract, which carries four void years and could inflict a dead cap hit of $9.7 million if it expires next spring.

This is all intentional. The Patriots’ 2021 free-agent class was assembled knowing Matthew Judon, Hunter Henry, Jonnu Smith, Nelson Agholor, Jalen Mills and others would all stick for two-plus years. Belichick built that team to free himself for 2023, when the cap would spike due to the influx of new revenue from the league’s huge television contracts and gambling money.

All signs point to another splurge next spring. But for now, it’s sit tight. Back to business as usual.