Despite being one of the NFL’s most aggressive teams in free agency, the New England Patriots are nowhere near a cap crunch. And that will leave them with every option on the table when it comes to determining the future of backup quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo.
As we approach the third week of free agency, the Patriots remain more than $26 million under the NFL’s salary cap, according to OverTheCap.com. Only nine teams have more cap space.
This comes after they committed $65 million over five years to free-agent cornerback Stephon Gilmore, one of this offseason’s richest deals, and retained linebacker Dont’a Hightower on a four-year, $43.5-million contract.
In a cap system that’s supposed to prevent the rich from getting richer, how do the Patriots do it? It certainly doesn’t hurt that both Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski are signed to deals that pay them below market value. It’s also essential to mention the Patriots opted to trade away defenders Chandler Jones and Jamie Collins rather than attempt to sign them long term.
(Jones signed a five-year, $83-million contract extension with the Arizona Cardinals last week, while the Cleveland Browns locked up Collins on a four-year deal worth $50 million earlier this offseason.)
The Patriots’ shrewd roster management has left them with the enviable task of figuring out how to supplement the NFL’s best roster.
So, with $26 million left to spend, how might they proceed?
If reports suggesting the team has decided not to trade Garoppolo are true, the Patriots could try to roll some of that excess cap space into next year to better position themselves to retain Garoppolo.
The backup will earn a scant $820,077 in salary plus a $75,000 bonus in 2017 before hitting unrestricted free agency in 2018.
Would Garoppolo consider re-signing with the Patriots next offseason and remaining a backup until the soon-to-be 40-year-old Brady retires? Perhaps not, but the Patriots could block him from getting to make that decision by using the franchise tag.
It’s unprecedented for a team to use the tag on a backup quarterback, but the Patriots may be able to afford it.
With Brady set to count $22 million against the cap in 2018 and the tag for quarterbacks likely to be in the $23-million range, it might be awkward for the Patriots to pay their backup more than their starter. But does anyone believe a little awkwardness would scare Bill Belichick away from doing it?
And, with the salary cap likely to increase again, perhaps by $10 million or more, the Patriots could bump Brady’s pay to be in line with Garoppolo’s.
If the Patriots use the franchise tag on Garoppolo in 2018, is it crazy to think they might do so again in 2019?
Brady won’t be around forever, and if the Patriots truly view Garoppolo as the Steve Young to their Joe Montana, they should pay whatever is necessary to keep him around and ensure they seamlessly move from the Brady era to the next.
We still don’t know if that’s their plan, but the option remains on the table despite the recent spending spree.
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