Patriots rank 31st in salary cap space: How can they fix the problem?

Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com

The Patriots are running dangerously low on salary cap space.

Official numbers have come in on all 32 teams in the National Football League, and as was already known, the Pats don't have much room to work with for a number of reasons. Via ESPN's Field Yates, they rank 31st in the league with just $891,775.

Here's the full league rankings, per Yates' report:

1. Texans: $49,257,819
2. Jets: $45,016,813
3. Browns: $43,703,760
4. Chargers: $37,553,266
5. Titans: $32,509,301
6. Redskins: $31,468,435
7. Lions: $31,369,450
8. Broncos: $29,819,797
9. Cowboys: $28,560,313
10. Eagles: $27,868,177
11. Colts: $26,863,345
12. Bills: $26,539,939
13. Jaguars: $22,808,288
14. Dolphins: $22,682,552
15. Bears: $21,798,5871
16. Giants: $19,556,709
17. Panthers: $16,832,122
18. Rams: $16,357,084
19. Raiders: $15,285,765
20. 49ers: $15,064,239
21. Buccaneers: $14,836,167
22. Cardinals: $14,383,375
23. Bengals: $13,657,810
24. Ravens: $13,513,779
25. Packers: $12,966,433
26. Vikings: $12,495,443
27. Seahawks: $11,317,846
28. Saints: $9,237,537
29. Steelers: $8,667,814
30. Falcons: $7,530,188
31. Patriots: $891,775
32. Chiefs: $177

That last number is hilarious, by the way. The Chiefs couldn't even afford a nice pair of Apple Airpods with their space. But hey, they're the defending champions. And based on a lot of the teams populating the top of the rankings, cap space isn't exactly an indicator of success in the league.

But back to the Patriots. Having under $1 million in cap space is a real concern. They're going to need at least $2 million just to sign their draft picks, let alone anyone else they'd like to bring in between now and the start of the season (whenever that is).

How Did They Get Here?

Jan 4, 2020; Foxborough, Massachusetts, USA; New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12) walks off the field as they take on the Tennessee Titans at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports
Jan 4, 2020; Foxborough, Massachusetts, USA; New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12) walks off the field as they take on the Tennessee Titans at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

The biggest reason for the Patriots' current cap crunch is the whopping $26 million in dead space (via Mike Reiss). Painfully, $18 million of that will be dedicated to the departed Tom Brady and noted lunatic Antonio Brown. (Note: Brown's cap hit could ultimately be cleared by an arbitrator, which would free up $4.5 million in space and solve the problem after all. But that's no sure thing.)

Also adding greatly to the cap problem is the Patriots' decision to place the franchise tag on starting left guard Joe Thuney. The team stated that they intend to hammer out a long-term deal with Thuney, which they have until July 15 to do. But if they don't get that done, Thuney's $14.781 million tag will be fully guaranteed. It's great that the team is able to keep around a second team All-Pro guard who rarely misses a snap, but it compounded the harsh reality of Bill Belichick's tight purse strings.

Another reason the cap has shrunk for the Pats is because they've already made moves to clear space in prior seasons. When they restructured Stephon Gilmore's contract a year ago, it pushed his cap hit to over $18.6 million in 2020 and $19.6 million in 2021. Which brings us to the next question...

How Can They Clear Space Now?

FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS - DECEMBER 08: Dont'a Hightower #54 of the New England Patriots looks on during the game against the Kansas City Chiefs at Gillette Stadium on December 08, 2019 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS - DECEMBER 08: Dont'a Hightower #54 of the New England Patriots looks on during the game against the Kansas City Chiefs at Gillette Stadium on December 08, 2019 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

The easiest way for the Patriots to improve their cap number is to trade or release a player. Thuney has signed his tender, which opened up the possibility of trading him and clearing all $14.781 million that he'll be owed if the Pats don't sign him to a long-term deal by July 15. An extension itself would likely cost less than that number, as well.

One player who is ostensibly a strong candidate to be released (if the Patriots couldn't find a trade partner) is wide receiver Mohamed Sanu, who is on the books for $6.5 million. The Patriots could save all of that by moving Sanu off the roster. Doing the same with starting right tackle Marcus Cannon wouldn't be ideal for the on-field operation, but trading or releasing Cannon with a post-June 1 designation would create over $7 million in additional space.

The Patriots could also try to convince Cannon to restructure his contract or take a pay cut, among others. Another avenue is to extend a player as part of a restructure to spread out/reduce his cap hit. Linebacker Dont'a Hightower seems like the perfect candidate for that.

Feb 3, 2019; Atlanta, GA: Los Angeles Rams quarterback Jared Goff is tackled by New England Patriots outside linebacker Dont'a Hightower during the second half in Super Bowl LIII at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. (Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports)

Hightower is entering the final year of his contract on a $12.4 million cap hit (via Spotrac), including an $8 million salary. (Note: There's a slight discrepancy between numbers from Spotrac and those of Pats cap expert Miguel Benzan at the Boston Sports Journal, who lists Hightower's cap hit at $11.3 million.) The salary is the important number here.

The Patriots could do what they've done with Gilmore, which is convert most of Hightower's salary into a signing bonus as part of an extension. If they converted $7 million and extended Hightower by one year, that would create $3.5 million in space for 2020. If they extended Hightower by an additional two seasons, they'd create about $4.7 million in space. Arithmetic!

A move like that would be all the Patriots need in order to create enough space to safely sign all their draft picks. But if they want to add to the main roster via free agency or trade, it could take more than that.

The Big Picture

While (cap) money's tight right now, it won't be that way forever. Just one or two housecleaning moves should free up enough space to fill out a 90-man roster for 2020, although it likely means the Patriots aren't bringing in another impact player any time soon. But as of Monday, they're in position to cross the $100 million mark in space for 2021. In other words, major moves will be coming a year from now.

But at the moment, the cap problem is a very urgent one in Foxboro.

Matt Dolloff is a digital producer for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff or email him at [email protected].