New England's Front Office Strategy: Mid-Level Veteran Contracts
On Monday, the Associated Press wrote an article analyzing the age of NFL players, telling a story of how the NFL has developed into a young league since the 2011 Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA). Between the shortening of available practice time, which has led to fewer meaningful players developing, and the rookie salary scale, which has pushed mid-level veteran contracts out of the sport, it should have been no surprise that every position other than quarterback has become a young man’s game over the last decade. Even then, the quarterback position is staying old because of the lack of development of new star quarterbacks, the always-rising importance of passing efficiency and the fact that rule changes have allowed pre-2011 CBA quarterbacks to essentially play through two careers worth of elite quarterbacking before retirement. Every other position and most teams are getting younger by the year.
It is worth noting that one team clearly bucks the trend: the AFC champion New England Patriots.
While the majority of teams look to the draft to fill out depth on their rosters, the Patriots’ roster construction has stayed more veteran. It is possible this came from necessity, as the team has been picking at the end of the draft for the better part of the last two decades. With that being said, the squad also has turned players ready for a big payday, like Jamie Collins and Chandler Jones, into draft picks and/or flexible cap space. At the moment, only five New England players (Tom Brady, Devin McCourty, Rob Gronkowski, Dont’a Hightower and Stephon Gilmore) have cap hits north of $6 million in 2018, a mark worth roughly 3% of their 2018 salary cap.
It’s also worth noting that those six players are only making $28.8 million between them in base salary this year. To put that into context, Minnesota quarterback Kirk Cousins made a league-leading $22.5 million in base salary in 2018.
Paying so few top-end players has allowed the Patriots to cultivate their roster with mid-level veteran contracts, a dying trend in today’s NFL, versus the stars (highly-paid veterans) and scrubs (draft picks usually developing in real time) approach that most teams are taking. For the sake of this article, I am going to consider veterans players as those who have been in the league for five or more seasons. The thought process behind it is that rookies sign four-year deals when they are drafted. New England currently has 19 veterans (non-specialists) under contract who have cap hits between $6 million and $1 million in 2018, which we will consider “mid-level veterans.” When you juxtapose that number to the rest of the teams in the playoffs, it pops.
As you can see, the Patriots’ 19 players are near twice the average of an NFL playoff team and nearly four times the number of mid-level contracts on the Los Angeles Rams’ roster, the one they will be facing in the Super Bowl. While most of the NFL has opted to lock in money into big veteran contracts, which often include a large signing bonus and two to three years of guaranteed salary, or rookie contracts, which also are also primarily based on guaranteed money at the top of the draft, the Patriots have chosen to sacrifice signing several star players for low-guarantee pay-as-you-go veteran contracts. This allows them to skip the growing pains of players transitioning from college football to the NFL while also giving them the flexibility to instantly drop a player whenever they can no longer perform up to their contract.
Essentially, most of the NFL is trying to swing on a few home run shots while New England is taking several swings in an attempt to get on base. In isolation, the Patriots’ mid-level veterans are not single-handedly winning them football games. Here is the list of their mid-level veterans: Marcus Cannon, Julian Edelman, Adrian Clayborn, Dwayne Allen, Patrick Chung, Duron Harmon, Kyle Van Noy, Lawrence Guy, Chris Hogan, Jason McCourty, Cordarrelle Patterson, James White, Rex Burkhead, Nate Ebner, Matthew Slater, LaAdrian Waddle, James Develin, Jeremy Hill and John Simon. Together, though, they are the collective backbone of their 46-man roster on game day.
Those players, all together, only have a $20.4 million dead cap (cost on the salary cap to release) in 2019. Yes, some are free agents, but that is the entire point of the pay-as-you-go model. To put that into perspective, there are 27 players in the NFL (veterans who signed major contracts) who have a dead cap higher than that in 2019 alone, including names like Kansas City Chiefs wide receiver Sammy Watkins. He is the third-best pass-catcher on his own team.
Another extreme example of tied up money would be Alex Smith’s deal, which includes an injury clause that guarantees one more year on his contract than was originally planned for. Currently, Washington would be charged a dead cap two and a half times more to move on from Smith in 2019 than the Patriots would be charged for their 19 mid-level veterans. In theory, New England could have rostered 50 or so mid-level veterans in 2018 with the same dead cap number as Smith's deal in 2019.
Even top rookie contracts dwarf the Patriots' mid-level dead cap numbers. If last year’s draft is any indication, every team picking in the first seven slots of the 2019 draft will also have a higher dead cap associated with their first-round pick alone than New England has with its mid-level veterans, too.
The mid-level pipeline does not show signs of stopping anytime soon. Recently, the Patriots have traded for three players who are currently on the last year of their rookie deals, Danny Shelton, Trenton Brown and Phillip Dorsett, who could join the list of mid-level veterans in New England next year.
As he has done many times in the past, head coach-general manager Bill Belichick has found a way to fully exploit the NFL’s talent market before most teams catch onto his trends. By the time the rest of the league sees the writing on the wall, Belichick may be onto a new edge or he may even be settled in retirement. Until then, this plan is working for him.