- Mike Reiss, ESPN Staff Writer
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Not long after owners and players ended the NFL lockout in 2011, New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft had warned that the economics of the league were changing and teams that prepared in advance would be in the best position to capitalize.
Specifically, Kraft said that the salary cap would remain relatively flat for several years. Gone were the days when clubs could rely on a dramatic spike from one year to the next to provide financial flexibility.
Not everyone bought it, including some of Kraft's fellow owners who kept spending and spending. Now those doubters are paying a different kind of price, forced to release players to get under the slow-growing salary cap (hello, Carolina Panthers). Every day, it seems, more quality players are being cut, creating a buyer's market for clubs that were disciplined in not writing out too many big checks over the past two post-lockout seasons.
We're now 20 months removed from the lockout and it's clear that Kraft wasn't blowing smoke about the changing economic landscape. It's also clear that the Patriots have strategically positioned themselves as well as almost any team in the NFL to benefit from others' missteps -- both this offseason and next, when a similar dynamic is expected.
New England currently has about $24 million in salary-cap space, among the top 10 in the NFL, with quarterback Tom Brady's recently executed three-year contract extension a centerpiece of the master plan.
The next part of the plan comes into play Saturday at 12 a.m. ET, when all NFL teams can begin negotiating with free agents. The Patriots plan to be active, but they won't be reckless. They'll be looking for value, even though that still could mean a big-ticket item (perhaps at cornerback, where the market is loaded).
Contracts with free agents from other teams can't be finalized until Tuesday at 4 p.m. ET, and while the Patriots don't have to wait to sign any of their own free agents, it appears that is the course they will take with most of them.
One agent of a Patriots player scheduled for free agency said that the club relayed that it would hold back on making an offer until it gains a clearer understanding of the marketplace. That could be a nice way of saying that the Patriots believe the market is going to be slow, and they don't want to insult a player with their offer. It's easier to let the market do the insulting.
As the action is set to unfold, it's timely to revisit some of Kraft's remarks about "strategically planning" for this time, which has been 20 months in the making.
"In this age of the salary cap, what's going to happen in the next few years with the cap, you have to have a core group of players that you can plan around as the foundation of your team," he said last June.
That is why the Patriots stepped out of character a bit and extended the contracts of tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez last year even though each had two years remaining. If the cap was growing at what had been its standard rate, perhaps the approach would have been to wait and have them play out their cheaper rookie contracts, which is how the Patriots typically have handled business with others, such as defensive lineman Vince Wilfork and offensive lineman Logan Mankins.
But by dishing out a little more money now, and keeping the salary-cap charges reasonable over the years in which the cap wasn't expected to grow much, the Patriots got ahead of the curve. Just as coach Bill Belichick takes pride in his teams playing situational football, one might call this "situational management" -- adjusting to the changing financial landscape proactively.
"When your salary cap has been pretty flat for three or four years in a row, it is tough to keep a high number of salaries," New York Giants general manager Jerry Reese said. "Sometimes you have to make some tough decisions."
The Patriots are no exception, and that's probably a main reason why an extension for receiver Wes Welker has been elusive. They want him, naturally, but the sides haven't yet found a middle ground that works for them. Even in the unanticipated event it doesn't work out, the Patriots' core would still be strong, looking good both on the field and on the balance sheet.
Somewhat remarkably, outside of Wilfork ($6.5 million) and Mankins ($5.75 million), the Patriots don't have another player with a 2013 base salary higher than $2.5 million. So what they've been able to do is maintain a strong enough middle class of the roster at a time when the middle class is being squeezed out for many teams, while drafting and developing enough talent to remain a Super Bowl contender.
Brady's recent extension ensures that the Patriots' strong economic outlook should continue. It freed up $8 million in space this season, lowering his salary-cap charge from $21.8 million to $13.8 million, which is still the highest total on the club and currently 16th highest in the NFL as of Friday. Brady's base salary for 2013 is just $1 million.
So now, as the Patriots prepare to execute their free-agent strategy, they won't be restricted by the financial handcuffs that are locked on a significant number of their competitors. That's the good news.
The bad news is that if they don't capitalize -- last year's signing of defensive lineman Jonathan Fanene comes to mind -- they will have blown a terrific opportunity to improve an already strong roster at a time when the clock is ticking on Brady's career (can he play at a high level for another five years?).
The Patriots' strategic planning has positioned them well economically at a time of change in the NFL, which is no surprise.
Now it's time for them to go to work.