Tuesday, June 20, 2017

General Manager Belichick Schools Rest Of NFL In Cap Management

The New England Patriots gave tight end Rob Gronkowski a raise a few weeks back. Kind of. Sort of.  Maybe?

That really all depends on his ability to stay on the field long enough to achieve certain levels of performance, the structure of which is rare in modern sports, and perhaps should serve as a template for athletes with elite-level talent, but with inherent frailty - or even for those whom have outperformed their current salaries, or even those who need a little push to perform at a higher level.

Gronkowski needs no such motivation to perform, but it goes without saying that, even though injury prone, he has still outperformed his current contract.
Belichick's cap savvy allows for contracts like White's

In what can only be described as an amendment to his current contract, the Patriots upgraded the incentive bonus structure of his 2017 season in such a way that give him an avenue to double his salary while at the same time protecting the team against injury to him, and the resultant lost time and onfield production.

Though Gronkowski's salary structure for the season will cost the team $6.75 million against their salary cap when factoring in prorated bonuses, the actual amount of cash being paid to him is a bargain basement total of $5 million.  The amendment to his contract will increase the amount of cash he can receive incrementally as he clears certain performance levels.

Such a contract could benefit other Patriots - wide receiver Danny Amendola and running back Dion Lewis come to mind - but the point of this is that the franchise took steps to ensure that Gronkowski's paycheck is commensurate with his production, as his 2017 salary structure makes him one of the highest paid tight ends in the game if he reaches certain incentives, the incentives very reachable provided he stays healthy and plays in all sixteen games.

Gronkowski's base salary for 2017 is a meager $4.25 million, though a bonus paid at the start of 2016 and prorated through the life of his contract plus roster and workout bonuses brings his cap hit up to $6.75 million - either way, the numbers are far below what one would expect the best tight end in the NFL should expect to earn...

...so instead of renegotiating the contract, the Patriots added incentives that, if he plays 90% of the teams' offensive snaps, makes him the second highest paid tight end in the league, just behind Jason Whitten's salary profile for the Dallas Cowboys.

That certainly wasn't the case with strong safety Patrick Chung, though on Saturday the team took measures to put a little coin in his pocket by amending his contract to include a multi-tiered incentive template that could mean an extra $900k for a player who previous to 2016 was one of the better box safeties in the league.

Last season was an up and down year for Chung, according to Pro Football Focus, his "uneven" play causing him to plunge drastically from the fifth-ranked safety in the NFL to 81st out of 91 qualifiers, and this after signing a one-year, $5.7 million extension at the start of the league year that keeps him locked up in Foxborough until after the 2018 season.

But here's the thing: There isn't another box safety in the league quite like Pat Chung, who should really be graded as a weak side linebacker as he spends 75% of the team's defensive snaps within eight yards of the line of scrimmage, and is one of the game's best at both tight end coverage and in blitz success.

Of course, this is due to the fact that New England runs with a three-safety, "Big Nickel" alignment that features the best tandem of blue liners in the league, with both Chung and free safety Devin McCourty reducing down into the box as coverage and run support entities, leaving the blue line to centerfielder Duron Harmon.

So his overall grade as a safety decreases as he becomes more valuable to the defense as a whole, an irony that is pervasive throughout the Patriots' team philosophy in which head ball coach and defacto general manager Bill Belichick demands that the game plans accentuate the positives of each player in a never-ending effort to keep the game bigger than the individual player - and adding incentive clauses to active contracts is his way of rewarding the player.

The team could have done that with Amendola as well, though they would have had to set the bar pretty low - not due to talent level, but simply due to the amount of snaps and touches he could be expected to receive in such a crowded receiver corps - and same with Lewis and the similarly loaded backfield.  Instead, Amendola agreed to a reduction in pay from a salary that would have actually paid him just as much as Gronkowski, due to the enormous, back-loaded contract he signed to come to Foxborough in the first place.

The difference between Amendola and Gronkowski is that Amendola is 31 years old and a redundant talent in this offense - clutch as he may be - while Gronkowski is 27 years old and the most dangerous weapon in the league when he is actually on the field.

Amendola is clutch in the biggest of moments, but the contract that he originally signed upon joining the Patriots was based on future production - and while it goes without saying that his regular season production isn't even close to what the team was expecting (mostly due to injury). there is zero doubt that he's worth his weight in gold when the lights are the brightest.

By contrast, Julian Edelman is also 31, but has toiled near the bottom of the receiver pay scale since assuming the role once held by Wes Welker four years ago, a role that Amendola was expected to fill but was never healthy enough to fully grasp the role.  Edelman has been the main cog in an receiver's corps that has essentially shouldered the load for New England during that time frame - and despite being the age when most players see their skill begin to erode, Edelman is as clutch as ever...

...to the degree that the Patriots offered him a contract (three years, $15 million) that will keep him in Foxborough through the 2019 season.

It's a mid-level contract for Edelman, and comes on the heels of the same sort of mid-level signings of core players like James White (three years, $12 million), safety Duron Harmon (four years, $17 million) defensive tackle Alan Branch (two years, $8.45 million) and center David Andrews (three years, $9 million) that is consistent with the Patriots habit of trying to be fair in distributing cap dollars to core role players.

It is also consistent with money being doled out to players coming in as free agents, as running backs Rex Burkhead (1 year, $3.15 million) and Mike Gillislee (2 years, $6.4 million) and defensive end Lawrence Guy (4 years, $13.4 million) signed up for money in that two-to-five million range in which Patriots role players reside.

Because that's the going rate for role players with tenure - meaning they've been in the league for at least three seasons - and in many cases, the Patriots are willing to pay more to a guy whom they envision having a particular role than other teams would who don't profess the week-to-week opponent-specific game plan philosophy that Belichick does.

It is important to note that all of this has been possible due to the masterful way that Belichick manipulates the salary cap.  Of the nearly $60 million in cap space that the Patriots started the league year with, they still have an $18 million buffer, despite spending big money on free agent corner Stephon Gilmore and incumbent defensive captain Dont'a Hightower...

...in addition to the aforementioned players to the mid-level contracts, while taking on the contracts of Brandin Cooks, Kony Ealy and Dwayne Allen, all of whom were acquired through trades.

Now Belichick's off-the-field attention should fall to the many players scheduled for free agency in 2018, though some such as tackle Nate Solder and cornerback Malcolm Butler would essentially eat up all of the remaining cap space, and then some.  Solder is could be a goner unless he takes a Marcus Cannon (five-year, $32 million) type deal, which would put him in Donald Penn territory in - you guessed it - a mid-level salary structure, and even then, it all depends on the development of rookie third-round pick Antonio Garcia.

Butler is a little easier to figure out.  Playing on a restricted free agent first-round tag, he was the central point in rumored trades throughout the offseason, and will most likely cash in on the open market in 2018 as an unrestricted free agent - motivated and guided by the fact that Belichick spent big money on Gilmore.

If they let both walk and also subtract the salaries of players who will likely look for employment elsewhere next offseason, the Patriots would carry $50 million in cap space into 2018, not counting the increase in the cap ceiling that has trended upwards of $10 million annually - and that means that Belichick would have the same amount of cap space to play with as he did this past offseason...

...all the while having suitable backups for each departing player already under contract - but with that much cap space, it be more prudent to pay Butler ( one can never have enough defensive backs) and invest the remaining money on keeping players like backup quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo around in order to maintain a competitive team for years to come.

Only Belichick knows for sure, and he's not going to tip his hand to anyone - but if there is a certainty, we already know that the Patriots will be loaded with a bunch of role players that are happy to be playing on mid-level or incentive-rich contracts in order to maximize their careers in a place where the culture breeds winners.

That is, after all, the Patriot's way.


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