It may seem obvious that there’s nothing more valuable to the Patriots than having Tom Brady under center, but that’s not quite true. More precisely, there’s nothing more valuable to the Patriots than having Tom Brady’s contract on the books.
Of all the data points that illustrate Brady’s impact during this season’s Super Bowl run — his 0.5 percent interception rate, his career-best 67 completion percentage, his seventh Super Bowl berth — none matter more than his salary cap hit of $13.7 million.
That’s the 27th-highest mark in the NFL, just behind Rams cornerback Trumaine Johnson. It’s nearly a million and a half less than Steelers linebacker Lawrence Timmons’s figure. Among quarterbacks, it’s about $3 million less than both Colin Kaepernick’s and Jay Cutler’s numbers.
Brady’s current cap number stems from the Patriots’ commitment to spreading money around as well as the QB’s willingness to routinely restructure his deal. The result is that New England is built unlike any other NFL team right now. The league introduced a salary cap for the 1994 season in order to control player costs, and that’s led to most teams being constructed around a few superstars, with minimum-salary players primarily filling out the roster. That model, however, has come at the expense of a particular type of guy: those on their second contracts who are better than the youngsters making the league minimum but less valuable than elite stars like Julio Jones ($15.9 million cap hit) or Richard Sherman ($14.7 million).
Despite what Brady’s earnings might indicate, quarterback salaries have exploded across the league, with players such as Matthew Stafford and Joe Flacco clearing $20 million a year. On their teams, the wealth is concentrated, not dispersed. That’s not happening in New England. This season, nine Patriots made more than $4 million and less than $8 million, and that figure swells to 11 if you count the injured Rob Gronkowski and Sebastian Vollmer. Only two teams in the NFL finished the season with as many or more players in that price bracket on their active roster: the Jaguars, who had to spend money to meet the salary floor, and the Rams, who apparently spent it on Rams players. For teams with pricy quarterbacks, that kind of concentration is out of the question. Atlanta, which devoted $23.7 million of its cap space to Matt Ryan this season, has just four such players. The Steelers, who pay Ben Roethlisberger $23.9 million and who fell to the Patriots in the AFC title game, have just three.
This approach to payroll is why the Patriots have so few big holes on their roster: The extra cap money that isn’t going to Brady trickles down to a host of role players who jump at decent salaries in a league where those are increasingly hard to come by.
“Other teams are playing a different game,” says Joel Corry, a salary cap expert and former agent. “For other teams now, it’s minimum salary, a lot of incentives, trying to create cap room whenever they can. The middle-class-type player has gone away. Teams are made up of the haves and have-nots in this league now, but New England has that flexibility.”
Patriots coach and de-facto GM Bill Belichick has never been one to observe NFL norms. He’s gone through seasons without an offensive or defensive coordinator. He goes for it on fourth down in big spots. He doesn’t belong to the coaches association and doesn’t appear in Madden (seemingly for no reason). He doesn’t care what people think. And that rebellious streak extends to the team’s roster, which is loaded with the kinds of dependable veterans few teams field in bulk.
Those players include a stable of key current contributors: wide receiver Chris Hogan ($5.5 million), tight end Martellus Bennett ($5.1M), linebacker Rob Ninkovich ($4.7M), and wide receiver Julian Edelman ($4.4M). It also includes a host of reliable veterans making more than the league minimum, which is increasingly one of the league’s great inefficiencies: safety Patrick Chung ($3.2M), receiver Danny Amendola ($2.9M), defensive tackle Alan Branch ($2.7M), and linebacker Shea McClellin ($2.3M) have all contributed above what’s typical at their pay grade. Stephen Gostkowski is the highest-paid kicker in the NFL. Devin McCourty is the eighth-highest-paid free safety. Bennett is 11th among tight ends, while Gronkowski is sixth. The Patriots’ strategy may be unconventional, but it ensures solid play at every position.
Now, to be clear, Brady isn’t exactly hurting financially. He’s got that Tag Heuer endorsement! (And an Under Armour deal, among others.) He’s also made $196 million playing football, according to Spotrac. While that sounds like a lot to normal humans, Corry says “the series of deals he’s signed are the most valuable in the league” from a team perspective. “You won’t find that anywhere else,” Corry says, adding that the edge comes not just from gaining cap flexibility, but also from finding a negotiating edge. In private conversations, league sources echo that point, noting that the Patriots have a built-in negotiating advantage because they can say that no one on the team will make more money than Brady and thus keep the value of a contract down. While that strategy might alienate some prospective targets, it’s proved sustainable so far, with players like Amendola and Chris Long taking less to play for the franchise. Despite not being on a megacontract, Brady has been the Pats’ highest-paid player by cap dollars in five of the past six seasons, with the lone exception 2012, when a franchise-tagged Wes Welker took the top spot.
On several occasions in recent years, the Patriots have lowered Brady’s cap number by spreading the payments out over time, and to date, Brady has been receptive to renegotiating in this fashion — and in exchange for some perks. For example: The team saved $15 million in cap space over a two-year period thanks to his 2013 restructuring, but Brady benefited as well, adding three more years to his deal. Brady also picked up an extra $3 million in future salary when he renegotiated after the 2014 season. In that negotiation, the team freed up $24 million in salary cap space by giving up contract guarantees related to performance. (Brady still made that money, it just wasn’t guaranteed in advance, as it had been in the earlier version of the deal.) The team was subsequently able to retain offensive lineman Nate Solder and McCourty. “I can only really make personal decisions — things that work for me and what I think is most important in my life,” Brady told reporters after the restructure. “That’s kind of what my focus has always been on. The most important thing for me is winning.”
Before this season, another restructuring occurred, with Brady lowering his cap figure by taking a lower base salary, adding years onto his contract, and taking a bigger signing bonus. In this instance, the motivation admittedly may not have been purely team-first: The move saved Brady $2 million in forfeited salary when he was suspended four games for Deflategate.
Brady’s cap number will be $14 million next season, and by the time it explodes to $22 million in 2018, the Patriots will have presumably figured out how to lower it again. While the specifics of the renegotiations vary each time, the consistent impact is that Brady’s willingness to play contract games is one of the Patriots’ most valuable assets. When arguably the best quarterback in NFL history is open to lowering his cap number, the impact on clubhouse culture cannot be overstated.
“I was just trying to stay ahead of the curve,” Patriots owner Robert Kraft told Peter King in 2013 when discussing Brady’s contract. “If we were going to have to pay him elite-quarterback money and have elite-quarterback cap numbers, I just didn’t think we would be able to build a team. We don’t want to have a team where we’re paying 18 to 20 percent to a player on the cap.” Instead, Brady’s cap number is currently less than 10 percent of the Patriots’ salary cap.
Brady benefits from this immensely on the field, if not off it. Players like Edelman, Hogan, and offensive linemen Solder and Marcus Cannon might all be on another team right now if the Patriots had to give Brady a standard quarterback megadeal. Instead, they’re bolstering a squad that will attempt to knock off the Atlanta Falcons to win the fifth championship of the Brady-Belichick era.
“This is the power,” Corry says, “of the Patriots.”