The New England Patriots have for nearly 20 years shown the ability to maintain a degree of organizational structure and success that is far superior to that of their counterparts.
Bill Belichick’s ability to consistently construct Super Bowl-winning rosters in a league that operates on roster turnover and fast-closing windows is just as much a part of the team’s legacy as its six Lombardi trophies. The Patriots have been able to find more value in late-round draft picks and overlooked veterans than any other team. They’ve moved on from players before they cashed in big paydays and on occasion found ways to spend on the right top-tier talent to complete a Super Bowl-winning puzzle.
For every team that made the playoffs in the Patriots’ six title-winning years, 10 position groups were analyzed. The Patriots spent less than the average playoff team on a specific position group in 31 of 60 possible instances. Here’s how it breaks down:
quarterback: 50% (3 of 6 years)
running back: 83% (5 of 6)
wide receiver: 67% (4 of 6)
tight end: 17% (1 of 6)
offensive line: 83% (5 of 6)
defensive end: 33% (2 of 6)
defensive tackle: 83% (5 of 6)
linebacker: 50% (3 of 6)
cornerback: 17% (1 of 6)
safety: 33% (2 of 6)
Now take a look at notable trends and outliers that have shaped the Patriots’ rosters in the six years they have won titles under Belichick, as well as players on the 2020 roster who could provide the team with good value. For consistency, all dollar amounts reflect the cap hit in a given season unless noted otherwise.
In three of the Patriots’ six championship seasons, the team has spent less than the average playoff team on quarterbacks. Seven of 11 playoff teams paid their quarterbacks more than Brady’s $13.7 million cap hit in 2016. Eli Manning had the highest cap hit at the position in 2016 at $24.2 million. His QBR that season was 49.3 compared to Brady’s 79.1.
In 2014, the Patriots spent more, but it was a marginal $1.59 million more.
The Patriots spent significantly more twice, in 2001 and 2018, although it was injured starter Drew Bledsoe’s $6.9 million cap hit that accounted for the higher total in 2001.
Brady’s $22 million cap hit in 2018 was the first time he was above the $20 million threshold, but that salary was still outside the top 10 at his position in 2018. His willingness to play under smaller contracts has allowed the team to maintain its cap flexibility and is as much a part of his legacy as his on-field contributions.
Most memorable was the three-year, $27 million extension Brady signed in 2013 that saved the team $15 million in cap space the next two seasons. It included a $30 million signing bonus but paid Brady head-scratching base salaries of $1 million in ’13 and $2 million in ’14. It gave the Patriots flexibility to add free agents Darrelle Revis, Brandon Browner, Brandon LaFell and Danny Amendola and retain Julian Edelman. When Brady signed a similar two-year extension in 2016 with $28 million guaranteed, it produced base salaries of $1 million in 2016 and 2017.
2020 look-ahead: For the first time in a long time, the Patriots’ spending philosophy at quarterback could be drastically different if Brady decides to leave once the free agency period officially begins on March 18. If he does, Jarrett Stidham could give the team the most value at a bargain price. His 2020 cap hit is $744K. Drafted in the fourth round in 2019, Stidham earned the job as Brady’s backup and never missed a practice. He has had a full season to grow and develop a foundation.
Strong offensive line units have helped keep Brady upright during the Patriots’ dynasty. Two factors have produced favorable results: draft strategy and development of late-round and undrafted talent under the tutelage of longtime offensive line guru Dante Scarnecchia, who announced his retirement after this past season.
“Dante is the greatest offensive line coach in the history of the NFL, and he gets those guys playing so well together,” Brady said in his weekly radio appearance after the Patriots won the AFC Championship Game on Jan. 20, 2019. Brady was never sacked in that 37-31 overtime win over the Kansas City Chiefs. The Patriots rushed for four touchdowns and 176 yards, and the offensive line never committed a false start in front of a boisterous Arrowhead Stadium crowd.
In five of the Patriots’ six Super Bowl-winning years, they spent less on their offensive line than the average playoff team. The 2018 unit came with a price tag of $20,177,369 — 31.6% less than the $29,510,945 average.
None of the Patriots 2018 O-line starters was drafted higher than the third round. Shaq Mason, drafted in the fourth round in 2015, graded out as Pro Football Focus’ seventh-best offensive lineman in 2018. They got the most value from seventh-round pick Trent Brown, who was paid just $1.9 million after the Patriots acquired him in a trade with the 49ers during the offseason. The Patriots’ adjusted sack rate of 3.8% ranked first during the regular season.
Mason’s $635,000 cap hit paled in comparison to that of Raiders guard Kelechi Osemele, who made $13.2 million, the most among guards in 2016.
New England has been constructing cost-friendly offensive lines since its first Super Bowl season, when the team spent $6,007,946 — 45.2% less than average. In 2004 the Patriots spent even less — $5,754,182, compared to the $13,255,201 average. Undrafted guards Steve Neal and Joe Andruzzi and fifth-round pick Dan Koppen anchored the interior of the offensive line, while Matt Light and Brandon Gorin were the bookends. Andruzzi’s $1.3 million salary made him the highest-paid Patriots lineman — a sliver of the $14,945,420 paid to offensive linemen by the NFC champions, the Philadelphia Eagles.
2020 look-ahead: Yodny Cajuste was the Patriots’ third-round pick in 2019 but started the season on the non-football injury list. He had surgery to repair a torn quad and sat out the entire season, another case of what essentially was a redshirt first pro season. If Cajuste is healthy, there’s no reason he can’t compete with Marcus Cannon for the right tackle spot. The West Virginia standout is due $840K in 2020 compared to Cannon’s $8.9 million.
Corey Dillon’s 2004 campaign with the Patriots is one of the most notable instances of Belichick and the Patriots maximizing the talent of a player cast off from his previous team. After a turbulent end to his tenure with the Cincinnati Bengals, the grizzled 30-year-old veteran pounded his way to 1,635 yards with the 2004 Patriots. He rushed for 75 yards and a touchdown in the 24-21 win over the Eagles in the Super Bowl, all for the cost of $1.2 million. Dillon’s salary that year was more consistent with the league’s fullbacks than with top-tier rushers Marshall Faulk ($7.5 million), Edgerrin James ($6.7M), LaDainian Tomlinson ($6.6M) and Jamal Lewis ($6.5M). Dillon gained more yards than all of them and was just 62 yards behind league leader Curtis Martin, who had a cap hit of $4.7 million.
The Patriots spent $2,966,011 on running backs in 2004 — a remarkably low number compared to the $7,056,073 average that other playoff teams spent on the position.
Dillon’s success is reminiscent of Antowain Smith in 2001, when the Patriots spent $2,564,060 on running backs, just 4.71% of their cap. A declining role with the Buffalo Bills led to a career resurgence for Smith, who rushed for 1,157 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2001. It was a career-year for Smith, who was on the Patriots’ payroll for $500,800, 70% less than the average playoff running back that season.
The Pats’ spending at the running back position has tracked closer to the average playoff team in recent years, but they’ve found value in employing multiple versatile players in the backfield. The $9,506,558 allotted to running backs in 2018, $3.5 million above average, was split among five running backs: James White, Rex Burkhead, Sony Michel, James Develin and Jeremy Hill (injured reserve).
2020 look-ahead: Damien Harris could emerge as a key member of the Patriots’ backfield with a price tag of less than $1 million. Like Shane Vereen in 2011 and White in 2014, Harris essentially redshirted in his first pro season. He appeared in just two games, but the 2019 third-round pick was often praised by the coaching staff. Set to make $879K in 2020, Harris may get an opportunity to show the skill set that powered him to 3,070 rushing yards in his career at Alabama.
The Patriots’ Super Bowl LI victory over the Atlanta Falcons will always be defined by the team’s incomparable comeback from a 28-3 third-quarter deficit. From a pure roster-building standpoint, it’s most memorable for the maximum value the Patriots extracted at the cornerback position.
New England spent just $4,775,449 — or 3.59% of its cap space — on cornerbacks in the 2016 season, compared to the average of $14,218,040 that other playoff teams spent. No other team got more for its dollar than the Patriots did from Malcolm Butler, who was under contract for a mere $600,000.
According to NFL Next Gen stats, 10 of the playoff cornerbacks were targeted more than a 100 times in 2016 and Butler’s 56.5 completion percentage when he was the nearest defender in coverage was the lowest. Opposing quarterbacks had a passer rating of 81 when targeting Butler, the undrafted free agent whose reign as the Patriots’ top corner began when he sealed Super Bowl LI with a goal-line interception.
Only one cornerback generated a lower passer rating — the 77.8 by Butler’s teammate Logan Ryan, under contract for $1.8 million that season. Richard Sherman‘s cap hit of $14.8 million made him the highest-paid corner in the playoffs and second highest in the 2016 season. Butler’s approximate value — which Pro Football Reference describes as “an attempt to put a single number on the seasonal value of a player at any position from any year,” was a 13, compared to Sherman’s 10 in 2016.
The minimal spending on cornerbacks that season differed from the other Pats championship years. The savings helped when they signed wide receiver Chris Hogan and traded for tight end Martellus Bennett, who had cap numbers of $5.5 million and $5.185 million, respectively, that season.
Ty Law had the league’s highest cap hit at the position in two of the team’s first three championships. In 2014 they shelled out $12 million for one year of stellar play from Revis. In 2018, the Patriots signed Stephon Gilmore to a five-year, $65 million contract with $40 million guaranteed — the most the Patriots have ever given in free agency.
2020 look-ahead: J.C. Jackson was a stud last season in the Patriots’ secondary, and it’s likely his stock will continue to rise in 2020. The second-year undrafted free agent had five interceptions last season and has eight in his career. Jackson, who has played 29 games, will again be a strong complement to Gilmore in the secondary. His 2020 cap hit is $663K.
Linebackers of the early Patriots dynasty were heavy hitters and had contracts to prove it. New England paid its linebackers above the playoff average during each of its first three Super Bowls. By 2004, Ted Johnson, Tedy Bruschi, Roman Phifer, Rosevelt Colvin and Mike Vrabel were each earning at least $1.5 million.
In 2003, the Patriots spent the third most in the NFL on cornerbacks and the fourth most on linebackers, and it paid dividends as their defense ranked sixth overall. By comparison, the Panthers’ highest-paid linebacker, Dan Morgan, had a $1.7 million cap hit that was less than Johnson’s, Vrabel’s and Phifer’s.
The Patriots’ spending on linebackers during the second half of their dynasty paints a different picture. In each of their last three Super Bowl-winning seasons, the Patriots have spent less than the playoff average. A critical piece of the Patriots’ current dynasty, Dont’a Hightower, averaged a cap hit of about $6.3 million in the past three title seasons. Yet they’ve also gotten good production from draft picks such as Jamie Collins and Elandon Roberts and veterans such as Kyle Van Noy.
Van Noy redefined his career with the Patriots when he was acquired from the Lions at the 2016 trade deadline. The Patriots exchanged a sixth-round pick for Van Noy, who struggled in his first season as a Lions starter in the first half of 2016 but became a key contributor in New England’s Super Bowl LI run. His $446,369 cap hit was a small price to pay for the fumble he forced in the AFC Championship and sack he split with Trey Flowers in Super Bowl LI. After 11 games with the Patriots, Van Noy received a two-year extension worth $11.75 million.
Collins was a key piece of the 2014 defense during his first stint with the Patriots. Playing in the second year of his rookie contract that had a cap hit of $854,773, Collins had a career-high 138 tackles. The Pittsburgh Steelers‘ Lawrence Timmons was the highest-paid linebacker in 2014 with a cap hit of $11.8 million.
Roberts, a sixth-round draft pick in 2016 who has since emerged as a captain and added to the offense as a fullback, started 11 games in 2018 and levied big hits against the Rams in Super Bowl LII. From 2016 to 2018, Roberts’ cap hit never exceeded $630,000. The fourth year of his rookie deal paid him just over $2 million in 2019.
2020 look-ahead: Ja’Whaun Bentley was solid in his first year back from a biceps injury that limited his rookie season to three games in 2018. He played 27% of the team’s defensive snaps and also contributed on special teams — a role that could increase as he continues to grow within the Patriots’ scheme. The 2018 fifth-round pick will carry a cap hit of $736K in 2020.
ESPN’s Mike Reiss contributed to this story.