Everyone can agree, if money weren’t an issue, Tom Brady would be a member of the Patriots for life.
If this were baseball and there wasn’t a salary cap, Robert Kraft would be signing a blank check for the 42-year-old to fill out in order for him to return and not test the free agent market.
But, this is football and there is a salary cap teams need to live by.
In 2019, Brady counted for just under 11 percent of the total Patriots salary cap. At $21.5 million, his cap hit was the 11th-highest in the NFL.
According to Spotrac, Matthew Stafford was No. 1 at $30.7 million, followed by Aaron Rodgers at $29.6 million. Other quarterbacks in the top 10 included Russell Wilson, Ben Roethlisberger, Eli Manning and Drew Brees. Jimmy Garoppolo was right behind Brady at $20 million. Kansas City even had a big chunk with wide receiver Sammy Watkins counting $19.2 million against its cap.
Now, with Brady set to become a free agent, it’s difficult to re-sign him at the money he would like and at the same time have enough to spend towards other positions on the team.
The question becomes why can other teams have a player or two count so much towards the cap and yet have the ability to have talented players to surround that one superstar?
Relating to the Patriots, it’s quite simple: not getting much out of draft picks in recent years. All of these teams that can afford to give out big contracts to superstars and still compete year-in and year-out have one or two of their better players playing on rookie deals.
Look at New Orleans. It was easy to see how many more weapons Brees had than Brady, but it was attainable because of the value the team was getting on some players. Alvin Kamara, one of the best running backs in the league, was in the fourth year of his rookie deal, so only counted $1.2 million against the cap. They also got great value in tight end Jared Cook, counting only $4 million against the cap.
The Chiefs are another example. How do they have so many weapons for Patrick Mahomes? Well, because he’s still playing on his rookie deal. The best quarterback in the NFL counted for just $5.2 million against the salary cap. They also got great value with top contributors Chris Jones, Damien Williams and Mecole Hardman combining to count less than 2.5 percent towards their overall salary cap.
The same can be said for a lot of other teams. By taking advantage of a star playing on a rookie contract, it allows teams to go out and spend, even potentially overspend, for a player or two.
Back to the Patriots. Let’s just say they want to bring Brady back and pay him like other top quarterbacks in the league. That would mean his cap hit would be in the $25-30 million range and therefore count just below 15 percent against the total cap.
With Stephon Gilmore locked in for a cap hit of just under $19 million in 2020, Brady and Gilmore would then potentially combine to count for around 25 percent of the total cap. In other words, a fourth of the team’s total salary cap would go towards two players.
That is not ideal, and even more so when the Patriots really do not have any star players playing on rookie deals.
Sony Michel is a good example. He counts for $2.6 million in 2020. If he was a star player, like what a first-round running back should be, things would be different. We’re not saying he needs to be like Derrick Henry was in Tennessee, but if the Patriots were getting more out of the running back position, they could afford to cut back in other areas.
Same thing with N’Keal Harry. He counts for $2.3 million in 2020 and by being a first-round receiver, the thought was he would be a No. 1 wide out for Brady. Look at all the other receivers taken last year — AJ Brown, Deebo Samuel, D.K Metcalf, the list goes on. If the Patriots were getting the right production out of Harry, the receiver position would be in good shape for 2020. But it’s not, so now we’re discussing getting Brady more weapons with limited money to spend.
Spending top dollar on multiple players is hard to do with so much money being tied up on superstars and not getting much out of rookie contracts. Not to pile on, but if Michel and Harry were performing like first-rounders are supposed to, maybe the Patriots could afford to pay Brady upwards of $30 million and it not have much impact on the roster.
With all that being said, the Patriots can easily bring Brady back, it’s just a matter of figuring out how to surround him with better talent on a limited budget.