If Patriots' offseasons were movies, last year would be "The Shawshank Redemption" — Tom Brady as Andy Dufresne, who does the boss man's bidding for years until he's finally had enough, rebels by deciding to do things his way, and still comes out clean on the other side with a sixth Super Bowl title.
The Patriots' strange 2019 offseason would be "A Quiet Place" — a lot of people (players and coaches) have vanished, they're not being replaced and no one's really talking about it. But we'll have to see if the team survives (don't make a sound).
But while everyone is rightfully fixated on the current Patriots — is anyone going to play receiver, tight end or be on the coaching staff? — there's a looming situation coming in 2020.
"Armageddon"? .... maybe.
More like, "2020: A (Cap) Space Odyssey."
Ground control to Major Tom (Brady)...
Because as it stands right now -- and obviously things can and will change -- the Patriots are heading towards an offseason like no other under Bill Belichick. And that's saying something after the past two team-building periods: The most cap space ever. Multiple draft picks. Several starting spots up for grabs, with the possibility for more. The futures of the coach and quarterback...
First, a snapshot look at the 2020 situation and the reaction/takes from league executives. And then we'll break down the biggest factors, including the nuclear option:
- The Patriots have $85.877 million in cap space in 2020 — eighth-most in the league. But that's with just 31 players under contract.
- They have $75.677 million in what OverTheCap.com calls "effective cap space" — the maximum they'll have by signing cheap contracts to get to the top 51 number.
- Right now (and things can change depending on how 2018 and '19 draft picks fare) they don't have starters at: quarterback, both receiver spots, both tight end spots, left guard, nose tackle, right end, weakside linebacker, free safety, slot cornerback, kicker and punter.
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- Among the free agents: Brady, Devin McCourty, Julian Edelman, Kyle Van Noy, Jonathan Jones, Josh Gordon, Joe Thuney and special team studs Matthew Slater, Brandon King, Nate Ebner and Ryan Allen.
- Dont'a Hightower, Marcus Cannon and Michael Bennett (after his restructure pushed his cap number in '20 to over $10 million when he'll turn 35) could all be cap casualties if the Patriots really wanted to push their cap space. Other possible cap casualties: Duron Harmon, Patrick Chung and Jason McCourty.
- The remaining team leaders would be, among others: Stephon Gilmore, Shaq Mason, David Andrews, Lawrence Guy, Harmon, Chung and Jason McCourty.
Here's a look at the depth chart for 2020, with starting spots perhaps up for grabs, and possible cap casualties in orange. It's something to behold.
Now the key question: What does it all mean? The Patriots' rivals — and even some inside their own building — are wondering the same thing.
"I've been staring at this for a while and I don't have a good bead on it," said one AFC executive. "On one hand, they might just re-up a bunch of these guys for another go around, and that will eat up most of it. But on the other hand, if you were going to do a franchise reset, they've set themselves up to do that."
Said an NFC executive: "Well, if you were Belichick and wanted to walk away by setting everything up for the next guy, whether that's (Josh) McDaniels or someone else, this would be the way to do it. You can handpick your quarterback, you have a ton of cap space, draft picks and little dead weight. It's a clean break. But is that the way Belichick would do it — almost sacrificing his final season?"
Perhaps another factor: Belichick's heir apparent would be taking the reins 20 years on the nose after Belichick's first season in Foxborough. Is Belichick into nice, round numbers?
To figure out this puzzle, you have to start with Patient Zero.
"The big question is, who's playing quarterback for them in 2020? QBs cost a lot of money," said another AFC exec.
WHAT IS BRADY'S FUTURE?
Obviously, Brady is on record as still wanting to play until he's 45 — which would be a significant milestone if he's still playing well at that age and would serve to set up his TB12 business forever.
But that may not be reality for a couple of reasons. The first being the fact Brady's performance in '18 could be an indication he's started his inevitable decline. All of his numbers were down last season. But, to be fair, it would have been almost impossible for him to replicate his 2017 MVP season. Also, he wasn't exactly working with a full deck of weapons which has to be a factor. Still, the Patriots will have to do a lot of work this spring and summer to even get the '19 Patriots weapons to the '18 level.
All that matters, in regards to Brady's skills, is what Belichick thinks. Did he see some discouraging signs with Brady's lack of pocket fortitude and ability to see the field? Or is Belichick OK with Brady being in self-preservation mode, and understands the quarterback didn't have much to work with this past season?
We will likely get our answer when it comes to what the Patriots decide to do with Brady's contract come August. Some think the team can do something now, but team sources have told BostonSportsJournal.com the Patriots can't do anything until mid-August. That's why there hasn't been any movement on that front.
Will the team extend Brady, or will they just use the franchise tag (the $24.865 million million QB tag for '19 is less than Brady's current cap number of $27 million)? To maximize the team's cap space options, the tag might be the best route.
The team, sources told BSJ, has not ruled out the possibility that Brady could retire after this season, especially if he wins another Super Bowl. That would give him four in his final six seasons, and would trump the three he won his first four seasons as a starter. Seven total Super Bowl titles would break the franchise tie with the Pittsburgh Steelers, leave Brady two titles clear of any other player, and would represent a largely unbreakable record.
Even if Brady was on the fence, the Patriots could hold Brady's place with the franchise tag. If he retires during the summer, the cap space automatically opens back up and there is no dead money. If Brady plays on the tag, his cap number will still be less than it was for this season.
If the team signs Brady to an extension and he retires, there would likely be a healthy amount of dead money on the deal.
KEEP THE STATUS QUO?
One option available to the Patriots, especially with that amount of cap space, is to bring the entire core back for another run. Below is a blunt look at what that would look like with extensions handed out to Kyle Van Noy and Joe Thuney. This would basically leave the Patriots with little cap space left over.
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But at some point, all good things have to come to an end. Let's say that the Patriots retain some of the players. Brady and Edelman could be a package deal, Van Noy and Thuney would be wise extensions if not overpriced, and King and Allen would make sense on special teams. That would have a price tag of about $44 million, leaving about $30 million to be played with — without any further cap cuts.
WHAT'S AVAILABLE ON FREE-AGENT MARKET?
Wouldn't say this is a great market.
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But could you imagine the Patriots adding the likes of Jadeveon Clowney/Whitney Mercilus, Emmanuel Sanders, Michael Thomas, Mike Daniels and/or Leonard Williams? If the Patriots needed a bridge quarterback, Marcus Mariota or Jameis Winston could be available.
Of course, the Patriots have a bumper crop of picks the next two seasons thanks to their comp picks. If the '18 draft class rebounds and it's augmented by contributions from '19 and '20, there might not be much of a need to hit free agency, which could be expensive and risky.
THE NUCLEAR OPTION
Let's say that the Patriots win a seventh Super Bowl title and Brady realizes he has nothing left to accomplish and retires.
Now the possibilities really open up, starting with the head coach position. I have a hard time seeing Belichick leaving the same time as Brady. It's possible he stays on and uses Brady's retirement to make a clean reset and to set things up on a silver platter for McDaniels by picking the quarterback and using the draft to restock the team — with a ton of cap space and draft capital to work with.
Or, Belichick could leave as well and let McDaniels sink or swim on his own with Nick Caserio as his personnel consigliere.
Whoever is in charge, they would have the choice to trim another $27 million in payroll by releasing or trading the likes of Bennett, Hightower, Cannon, Harmon, Jason McCourty and Chung.
That would leave them with basically an entire roster to replenish: QB, WR, WR, TE, LG, RT on offense; DE, DE, NT, WLB, SLB, FS, SS, slot CB.
In that case, a tanking year in 2020 would be on the table. The prize? Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence.
Look, some of this stuff, like tanking for Lawrence, is way out there. We readily admit that. But the reality is this franchise is on course for a possible reset after this season — and it coincides with the possible end for Brady and/or Belichick.
The Patriots are on a path to have the most cap space they've ever had, and could clear more. They have a ton of draft capital accumulating. They have made little effort, to this point, to secure any of the future starting spots that could be up for grabs in 2020, which is unlike them — they normally give themselves plenty of options one or more years down the road.
The Patriots may still be on to 2019. But everyone should have an eye on 2020.