An organization showing urgency to win the Super Bowl is throwing every possible resource into improving the roster. And it’s not the Patriots, even though they finished 8-9 last year and haven’t won a playoff game in four seasons. The Patriots have spent more than just rebuilding the Rams ($189.4 million), and just behind the rebuilding Packers ($205.8 million). The league average is $245.6 million, according to the NFL Players Association.
The question came to a head last week when receiver DeAndre Hopkins chose the Titans over the Patriots. The decision likely came down to money — the Titans offered Hopkins a $12 million base salary and $3 million in incentives, and the Patriots reportedly weren’t close.
The Patriots should have plenty of cash — the NFL’s TV deals practically print money for the 32 teams. All it would have taken was upping their offer by a few extra million dollars and the Patriots would have had a legitimate No. 1 receiver.
Still, the Patriots passed again, leaving Mac Jones with one of the more underwhelming receiving corps in the AFC.
The Patriots’ cash spending has been near the bottom of the NFL since Tom Brady left after 2019, ranking 11th. In 2020, they hit the reset button with Cam Newton and ranked 32nd in cash spending. In 2021, they splurged on free agents to make up for years of poor draft picks and finished third. But the Patriots were 27th in 2022 and now 31st in 2023.
That is a top-six ranking in three out of four years. It doesn’t do what it takes to field a championship roster. And that’s potentially a waste of Jones’ extraordinarily cheap contract, which will make just $2 million this year and next. You’re supposed to spend big on the rest of the roster when you have a quarterback on a rookie deal, not sit on your stash of cash.
Robert Kraft talked a big fight at the owners meetings in March about Bill Belichick needing to turn things around immediately, but the Patriots’ actions this offseason say otherwise.
Replacing Jakobi Meyers with JuJu Smith-Schuster is a modest upgrade at best. Tight end Mike Gesicki could be a good option in the red zone. But it’s hard to argue that those moves, plus the addition of offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien, will help the Patriots close the gap with the Chiefs, Bengals or Bills, or keep pace with the Dolphins and Jets. In fact, there is now a $100 million gap between the Patriots and Bills. The Dolphins and Jets outscore the Patriots by $68 million and $41 million, respectively.
It’s hard to know who is responsible for keeping the Patriots’ checkbook closed. The Hopkins decision felt like classic Belichick, who never invests big money in wide receivers, especially ones who are 31 and don’t like to practice.
But at his news conference in late January, Belichick defended 2021 free agency: “I think when you look at the total number of all those players, we improved our team quite a bit with that group of players, yes.”
And he potentially fired a shot at Kraft, pointing out that “over a three-year period, we’re one of the lowest spending teams in the league.”
Kraft responded in March that Belichick “never came to me and didn’t get everything he wanted from spending money. We’ve never set limits. . . . Ownership has always provided the cash. Spending will never be the issue. I promise you.”
However, Kraft is the one who has said the spending in 2021 — $175 million in full guarantees for 25 players — wasn’t worth it. The Patriots spent an extra $70 million on their team from 2020 to 2021, but that resulted in just three more wins and one playoff loss.
“I think we spent more money than any team or the two or three teams in spending history and it didn’t get the value we hoped it would,” Kraft said at the owners’ meetings.
It’s also possible that the Patriots spend their cash reserves the last two years not on the team, but on upgrading Gillette Stadium so the Krafts can continue to collect the profits. The team may not be a top contender, but at least there will be a Bud Light Party Deck and 360-degree views from the top of the new lighthouse.
To be fair, the narrative of whether a team spends enough money can be a little overstated. The NFL has minimum expenses under Article 12.9 of the Collective Bargaining Agreement. Teams must spend at least 90 percent of the salary cap for the 2021-23, 2024-26 and 2027-30 periods in cash (or pay any shortfalls directly to the players). So all 32 teams will generally spend the same amount in those periods.
But when a team decides to splurge is still important. The Bills, for example, know their Super Bowl window is closing and are going all-in this offseason, pushing cap dollars into the future to pay veterans like Stefon Diggs, Matt Milano, Ed Oliver and Dawson Knox. Thanks to the NFL’s soft salary cap rules, that $301 million in cash counts $227.8 million against the cap.
The Patriots, meanwhile, appear to be just looking to meet CBA requirements. They spent big in 2021, so now they can afford to be frugal in 2022 or 2023.
Maybe the Bills are the fools to spend $300 million on a team that still has flaws. On a cost-per-win basis, the Patriots will likely come out on top in 2023.
But the NFL does not award the Lombardi Trophy to the team with the best cost-per-win ratio. The Patriots may balance their budgets well, but they’re not spending like a team in a rush to get back on top.
Ben Volin can be contacted at [email protected].