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Explaining Patriots' salary cap crunch: How will situation impact Tom Brady decision, 2020 free agent signings?

Sporting News — (Jason Fitzgerald)

The 2019 season was unusual for the Patriots. Gone was the usual dazzling passing attack that moves all over the field and allows New England to outscore opponents. The team’s identity instead became its defense forcing an inordinate amount of turnovers to win games.

Not only did the Patriots fail to advance to the Super Bowl, where they have represented the AFC four of the last five years, but they didn’t even make it past the wild-card round, the first time since 2009 they failed to advance beyond the first stage of the playoffs.

So what’s next for these Patriots, who will be facing a number of important contract decisions in 2020?

MORE: Brady's best fits in NFL free agency

The Tom Brady decision

All of the Patriots' decisions for 2020 begin with Brady. For the first time in his career, the 43-year-old will have an opportunity to become a free agent, as the Patriots failed to extend the quarterback during the season. His current contract contains something called "void years," which teams use as a way to defer cap charges.

That means even though Brady is a free agent, his contract will actually leave the Patriots with $13.5 million in dead money if he reaches free agency. That number will be cut in half if the Patriots re-sign Brady before free agency starts March 18.

Brady is coming off a poor season in which the Patriots fell to 15th in yards, their worst finish in that category since 2003. New England's blueprint in 2019 was closer to what it was from 2001-03, when Brady was more a part of the puzzle than the focal point of the team. If the Patriots continue with Brady, they will need to surround him with more talent rather than hoping he can elevate the talent the way he has for the last 15 years.

Normally everyone would expect Brady to simply give the Patriots a contract discount, and perhaps that will happen. But in 2018 we saw Brady complain about his contract for the first time in his career, and the Patriots gave him another small raise in 2019 to squash any concerns.

49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, Brady’s former backup, is earning almost $28 million per season. Brady's first displeasure seemed tied to that, so he likely wants to earn $30 million per season to remain above his former understudy.

That might be a hard number for a team to swallow given the way 2019 ended. Though Brady has a unique relationship with the organization and city, the Bill Belichick-led Patriots have shown no sentimental attachments to any players. If they think Brady is done, they aren't going to pay him $30 million so he can prove them wrong.

With that said, the Patriots have no real alternative, and moving on from Brady would move them from competition mode to rebuilding mode. Ultimately, it's probably best for both sides to come to an agreement and find out how to minimize the cap charges, though they will be significant no matter the outcome.

MORE: The NFL's 25 highest-paid players

The Patriots free agents

Beyond Brady, New England is loaded with pending free agents. Joe Thuney likely will be the top guard on the market, and the Patriots have already invested $9 million per season in Shaq Mason, so they might question paying their other starting guard $11 million-$12 million. Ted Karras should be the second or third best center in free agency in 2020, and while centers are not paid as much as guards, there are now a number of them earning between $10 million and $11 million.

Three key contributors on New England's defense also are set to hit free agency. Devin McCourty had five interceptions last year and was one of the top safeties in the NFL. He will be 33, which should limit his market, but the Patriots paid him $9.5 million in 2019. He should look for at least that much in 2020.

Linebacker Jamie Collins returned to New England in 2019 on a one-year, $2 million contract after a disappointing run in Cleveland. He was all over the field for the Patriots, racking up 7 sacks, 80 solo tackles, 3 interceptions and 3 forced fumbles and returning to the status of one of the league's best and most versatile linebackers. He certainly won’t be back for $2 million and will get a significant raise as a free agent.

Kyle Van Noy set a career high with 6.5 sacks, 14 quarterback hits and 14 tackles for loss in 2019. A few years ago, the Patriots signed Van Noy to a $5.5 million-per-year contract he has outperformed. Even at 29, he should get a similar or better contract as a free agent.

MORE: Ranking QBs set for 2020 free agency

The Patriots age factor

The Patriots are an old team. The average age of their roster in 2019 was 27.25 years, 0.4 years older than the next oldest team and more than a year older than the NFL average. They ranked first in the NFL in snaps played on offense and fifth in snaps played on defense by players 30 or older. They have almost no pipeline of youth, ranking 31st and 32nd on offense and defense, respectively, in snaps played by players 25 and younger.

This is a team built to win now with little eye for the future, and if they re-sign some of their aging free agents, they will be buying more into that philosophy.

The Patriots salary cap situation

Likely working with around $47 million in cap space for 2020, the Patriots will need to set aside close to $3.5 million for rookies. So effectively they are looking at cap room of $44 million before they decide anything on Brady.

When a team doesn’t have a quarterback under contract, that $44 million in cap space might as well be $30 million. Throw in an expensive interior offensive lineman and the re-signing of at least one defensive free agent, and the Patriots simply don’t have enough cap room to add a lot to their roster.

They can create some cap room by moving on from some players. Linebacker Dont’a Hightower will count for $11.375 million on the cap, which is too high for his impact. Cutting him could free a much-needed $8.9 million in cap space. The team traded away a high pick for receiver Mohamed Sanu, so cutting him might be less likely if Brady returns, but it would save New England $6.5 million.

Beyond those, there are no real singular moves the Patriots can make to save a lot of cap room. It would be more like picking up $2 million here and $2.5 million there, essentially sacrificing depth for cap space.

What will the Patriots do?

Though the Patriots are not coming off a Super Bowl victory, this feels like the situation the Chicago Bulls faced back in 1999. The NBA champs voluntarily broke up a dynasty because they feared the team would be too expensive and too old to recreate the magic of the past.

Like Chicago at the time, New England in 2020 doesn’t have the next superstar waiting to take over, leaving the team with little middle ground in the decision-making process.

MORE: How Pats can convince Brady to stay

A breakup with Brady likely would make the Patriots' 2020 season look more like that of the 2019 Dolphins than anything New England has produced over the last 20 years. That doesn’t mean bringing Brady back would make the team a success, but it would give the Patriots the best chance to be relevant while trying to find Brady’s eventual replacement in the draft.

They won’t mortgage the future to sign players who might outlast Brady, but they should look for more one- and two-year contracts for veterans who Belichick can coach up to win the AFC East and give them a chance in the playoffs.