After long-awaited fourth Super Bowl victory, what's next for the Patriots?
If, for whatever reason, you have your fingers crossed that 2015 somehow will mark the end of the Patriots' dynastic run, well ... apologies in advance.
Next season will be Tom Brady's 15th as the starting quarterback, a run that began with a Super Bowl XXXVI win to close the 2001 campaign. Three rings later, the Patriots remain just as formidable, if not more so, than that first title-winning team. Most of Brady's surrounding cast should return next season, along with Brady himself.
"I’ve got a lot of football left," said the 37-year-old Brady following Sunday's dramatic win over Seattle. "It’s hard to play this game and it takes a big commitment, a lot of sacrifice. For all the players that have played in the past and I’ve looked up to and admired, and a lot of the players now who I look up to and admire ... it’s a big challenge and it’s incredible to experience this feeling once. I’ve been fortunate to play on four really great teams, so I’m really blessed."
What does the upcoming offseason have in store for the defending champions?
For the moment, the Patriots are projected to be slightly over the $141.8 million cap number for 2015, though the exact amount they need to shed varies depending on where you look. The NFLPA's public salary cap report has New England at approximately $151.4 million in allotted salaries, with $6.4 million in carry-over money from this season.
So, that puts the champs at $145 million, or about $3.2 million above the max allowed for next season.
There are a couple of obvious spots where the Patriots could free up some cash, though, starting with Darrelle Revis' deal. Revis, who signed a one-year deal with a team option for a second year last offseason, would carry a $25 million cap number into 2015 if the Patriots pick up that option. Offering him a lucrative, multi-year extension would make sense for both parties and could clear several million dollars off the Patriots' projected cap.
Linebacker Jerod Mayo, who carries a cap number of nearly $10.3 million for '15, is another contract extension candidate. He finished the year on injured reserve, and that $10.3 million total would make him the third-most expensive Patriot on the roster, behind Revis and Tom Brady -- that's off-kilter for Mayo's actual value.
Several other players might be restructure candidates, including wide receiver Danny Amendola ($4 million base salary and a $5.7 million cap number), assuming he remains on the roster. Neither offensive tackle Nate Solder ($7.4 million cap hit) nor cornerback Brandon Browner ($5.5 million) has any guaranteed money left on their deals; Solder's contract is set to expire after next season.
Brady just restructured his deal last month to help out the Patriots' financial situation. He could be a candidate to do so again, as suggested by cap guru and ex-agent Joel Corry in December, converting some of the $8 million base salary he's due in 2015 to a signing bonus.
Regardless of how they get there, the Patriots should wind up with ample money for their needs.
A dozen Patriots are headed to unrestricted free agency unless they're handed new contracts in the coming weeks. Chief among them are linebacker Akeem Ayers, guard Dan Connelly, kicker Stephen Gostkowski, safety Devin McCourty and running backs Shane Vereen and Stevan Ridley.
How will the Patriots prioritize those players? Well, there has already been speculation that New England may save the franchise tag for McCourty if the two sides cannot reach a long-term agreement. (Jeff Howe of the Boston Herald tweeted in December that the tag will be "used as major leverage" by the team.)
Ridley, coming off an ACL injury, is probably the most likely to head elsewhere given the Patriots' remaining options at running back.
A Revis-esque splash may not be in the cards for the Patriots once free agency opens in earnest this offseason, and assuming that at least Revis and McCourty stay put, there is little need for such a swing for the fences, either. The Patriots' roster will return many of its key pieces for 2015, leaving the front office room to bolster the depth chart in more subtle ways.
The offensive line -- especially the guard spots -- is perhaps the most troublesome spot New England has, as evidenced by Seattle's Michael Bennett wreaking havoc during Super Bowl XLIX. Even if Connolly re-signs, the Patriots will want to add a piece or two there. Remember, when center Bryan Stork went down briefly in the playoffs, Bill Belichick did all he could to limit Josh Kline's snaps as a fill-in guard on a reconfigured line.
Another weapon at wide receiver or an additional body along the defensive line could be welcome, too. But again, there are very few positions where the Patriots find themselves short on talent.
The 2015 season could be the last for this current staff to stay intact, what with the continued interest in offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels as a head coach and the ever-rising stock of defensive coordinator Matt Patricia. McDaniels is going to get another shot running the show somewhere, and soon.
Belichick will be around as head coach for as long as he wants. His last contract bump came in 2013, so he could be in line for a pay increase at some point in the near future, depending on how the coaching market settles. Barring an unexpected retirement, however, there's no drama up top for New England.
It's a safe bet that Belichick will orchestrate at least one or two trades once the draft gets underway. He already has shifted the Patriots around the 2015 board via some earlier moves. On account of winning the Super Bowl, New England slots into the No. 32 pick in each round, and it holds its own selections in Rounds 1-4.
The Patriots also own the Buccaneers' fourth-round pick, as part of compensation in the Tim Wright-for-Logan Mankins trade executed prior to the 2014 season. New England later traded its 2015 fifth-rounder to Tampa Bay for linebacker Jonathan Casillas and its sixth-rounder to Tennessee for Ayers, receiving a sixth- and seventh-rounder back, respectively, in those deals.
A fairly high compensatory pick could be coming New England's way, as well, thanks to cornerback Aqib Talib signing with Denver last offseason. Because Revis was released by Tampa Bay prior to signing in New England, he does not count toward the compensatory pick calculations, which means his arrival does not offset the Talib loss in this case.
The AFC East crosses over against the AFC South and NFC East next season, with the Patriots' remaining open slots pitting them against Denver (away) and Pittsburgh (home).
The home slate looks eminently manageable: Buffalo, Miami, the Jets, Jacksonville, Tennessee, Philadelphia, Washington and Pittsburgh. That's a grand total of one 2014 playoff team -- Pittsburgh -- among the eight which will visit Foxboro next season.
New England has a taller mountain to climb, on paper, when it hits the road. On top of the usual intra-divisional trips, New England will head to Indianapolis, Houston, Dallas, Denver and make a second trip to New York's MetLife Stadium for a meeting with the Giants.
All in all, things could be far worse. Set the early over/under at around 10.5 wins.