Due to the Covid circumstances which have surrounded professional sports, many leagues, including the NFL, are dealing with financial implications. While nothing has been officially announced yet, the expectation for this off-season is the NFL cap will not see nearly as much growth as was previously expected. This means teams who were already expected to be over the cap this off-season, now have that much more work to do in order to make their roster cap compliant. Furthermore, this also means teams who have a lot of cap space to work with this off-season, such as the New England Patriots, could be in a prime position to absorb big money contracts.
2021 New England Patriots: Veteran Trade Targets
There are several teams expected to be over the 2021 cap limit with some having more work to do than others in order to get under the cap. For example, according to Spotrac, the Minnesota Vikings will be about 5.5 million dollars over the cap, the Green Bay Packers will be about 18 million dollars over, the Philadelphia Eagles will be about 64 million dollars over, and the New Orleans Saints will be about 96 million dollars over the limit. All of these teams have good, solid veteran players with sizable contracts who could go a long way in helping accelerate New England’s rebuilding process.
Wide Receiver, Adam Thielen
Thielen will turn 31 next season and is certainly nearing the end of his career. However, even at 31, Thielen is better than any of the pass catching weapons the Patriots currently have. Furthermore, the two time Pro Bowler would bring an 11.7 million dollar cap hit in 2021 along with being under contract through the 2024 season. Given Minnesota’s cap issues as well as the emergence of rookie first round pick, Justin Jefferson, the Vikings may be willing to part with their seven-year veteran for a mid round draft selection. The Patriots should not overpay for Thielen as 11.7 million is nothing to sneeze at. Although, given the price range of star NFL receivers being over 15 million annually and how desperate the Patriots are for pass catchers, parting with a mid round pick is a reasonable price to pay for Thielen.
Safety, Harrison Smith
Smith will be 32 next season as he enters the final year of his contract. However, the five time Pro Bowler certainly has good football left to play and with a cap hit of just over 10 million dollars, New England should kick the tires on the nine year veteran. Smith’s four interceptions through the 2020 season ranks fourth among defensive backs and adding his ball hawking style of play could open up several doors for the Patriots defense. For instance, while rookie safety, Kyle Dugger, has been very good in run defense this season, he has struggled at times in coverage. Acquiring the experienced Smith and pairing him with Devin McCourty on the back end would free up Dugger to be utilized more within a hybrid linebacker role. Given Smith’s age and lack of contract term, New England should not give up anything more than a late fourth round pick, but he would allow Bill Belichick to get very creative on defense.
Outside Linebacker, Preston Smith
Smith is a quality veteran player, but the Packers have depth at the position with Za’Darius Smith and Rashan Gary. Smith will turn 28 next season along with bringing a 12 million dollar cap hit to New England should he be traded. Moreover, Smith is under contract through the 2022 season and at 6-foot-5 and 265 pounds, Smith would provide an edge presence. Smith is not a top tier pass rush defender in the league, but he very much is in the Kyle Van Noy class of players who can set a solid edge in the run game along with contributing on pass rushing downs. Again, Smith is not worth a high draft pick, but given his age and contract situation, a late third round pick in exchange is not an unreasonable ask.
Tight End, Zach Ertz
There were rumors earlier this season that New England was interested in trading for Ertz, but an injury which sidelined Ertz for several weeks killed all trade talks. However, the Patriots should make another call on Ertz this off-season as his price tag has likely gone down. Despite a down year statistically, Ertz is still a solid player and light years ahead of what New England already has. Ertz will turn 30 next season as he enters the final year of his contract and carries just over an eight million dollar cap hit. Ertz is not the dominant player which he once was, but his agility, hands, body control, and route running savvy would bring an element to New England’s offense which they have been searching for since Rob Gronkowski left. While different players, I very much could see Ertz coming to New England and having a similar impact as Jared Cook had for the Saints when he signed at 32 years-old. Given Ertz’ lack of contract term, a late fourth or fifth round pick should be in play.
Wide Receiver, Emmanuel Sanders
Sanders certainly is not what he once was and turning 34 next season likely will not do him any favors. However, Sanders would still provide an upgrade for the Patriots in the passing game and with just an eight million dollar cap hit, his contract is very reasonable. Additionally, Sanders is under contract through the 2022 season and could be a very low risk, high reward scenario for the Patriots. Given his age, New England should not give up anything more than a late round pick for Sanders, but I could easily see Belichick making that deal in hopes of squeezing every last drop of football out of Sanders.
The Patriots and Belichick have a lot of work to do this off-season in order to get their football team back in the playoffs next year. However, with Covid circumstances, New England is in a unique position to essentially buy short-term pricey veterans in order to compete now while they continue to try and build their franchise’s future through the draft.
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