Heading into Week 8, the New England Patriots are a disappointing 2-4. They’ve been horrendous on offense since quarterback Cam Newton contracted COVID-19, and the defense has taken a large step backward from the level it displayed last season, when it was one of the best units in recent memory. 

A former Patriots assistant coach has a theory regarding the team’s backslide: it’s about an increase in young players on the field. Charlie Weis, Bill Belichick’s former offensive coordinator, floated that theory on his Sirius XM NFL Radio show, and Belichick seemed to confirm it — at least in part. 

“I’ve noticed watching the Patriots that you’re playing a whole bunch of young guys,” Weis said. “Are most of them playing because you like them, or are some of them playing because of the world we’re living in?”

Belichick confirmed that more young players are on the field (New England is using its youngest roster since 2016, according to Spotrac), but the reason was actually different than the one Weis offered. According to Belichick, it’s more about the salary cap than anything else. 

“We were pretty heavily invested in our team the past few years,” Belichick said. “From a salary-cap standpoint, we didn’t have much flexibility at all. I think that was obvious on the Cam Newton contract. Then we had some opt-outs, so we lost some players there that would normally be giving us a significant amount of playtime. And then like every year, a couple guys are banged up and we’ve missed some guys here and there in certain games. I think when you combine it all together, there is opportunity there, and some of that opportunity has gone to younger players. Again, because of our cap situation — in this particular year, this is kind of the year that we’ve taken to, I would say, adjust our cap from the spending that we’ve had in accumulation of prior years. We just haven’t been able to have the kind of depth on our roster that we’ve had in some other years. That’s provided more opportunity for younger players. So it’s a combination of all the reasons.”

That’s pretty fascinating! And taking a look at New England’s spending over the last several years, it indeed holds true. The Patriots have committed salaries equal to only 87.4 percent of the salary cap this season, per Spotrac, compared with at least 97 percent in each of the last three years and at least 93 percent in every year since 2013. 

Year Salary Adj Cap Room Cap %
2013  $      124,037,085  $      130,256,344  $          6,219,259 95.2%
2014  $      134,321,836  $      139,109,051  $          4,787,215 96.6%
2015  $      141,316,422  $      144,578,084  $          3,261,662 97.7%
2016  $      148,847,888  $      159,642,451  $        10,794,563 93.2%
2017  $      163,713,427  $      167,560,488  $          3,847,061 97.7%
2018  $      175,954,265  $      180,212,602  $          4,258,337 97.6%
2019  $      194,984,949  $      200,373,423  $          5,388,474 97.3%
2020  $      184,092,085  $      210,657,571  $        26,565,486 87.4%

A big reason the Patriots might have done this is that the cap is expected to drop next season due to a revenue shortfall caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Using the current projected cap of $175 million for 2021, the Patriots would be set to have around $44 million in cap space for next year. By staying more than $26 million under this year’s cap, though, the Patriots are able to roll over enough space to give them over $70 million in room next offseason — the fourth-highest total in the league at the moment. As they attempt to build their roster for the future, that could be a major advantage they have over some other teams. 

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