FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- With NFL teams informed that the salary cap for 2018 will be $177.2 million, and with franchise tag values set for next season, it is timely to revisit the New England Patriots' decision-making process in trading quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo last October.
One line of thinking was that the Patriots could have held on to Garoppolo, assigned him the franchise tag, and then either kept him for the 2018 season (under the tag) or traded him.
If they had chosen either of those, consider how they would be managing their current situation:
Garoppolo would be accounting for $23 million of cap space, and Tom Brady $22 million. That would be $45 million of the $177.2 million cap, which would represent 25.3 percent of the Patriots' overall cap.
Having one-quarter of the salary cap devoted to the quarterback position would run counter to what the team has traditionally done in terms of spending across the roster to build a stronger middle class. That said, if the team felt strongly about Garoppolo as the quarterback of the future, perhaps this would have been the one time to make an exception and buy another year to extend the possible succession plan. Still, that would have been difficult.
The Patriots, after informing defensive tackle Alan Branch they don't intend to pick up his option bonus, currently have between $16 million and $17 million of salary-cap space. So to account for Garoppolo's $23 million franchise tag, they would have to cut more players, or restructure contracts totaling around $6 million, to make room.
While those moves could be made, they would also potentially affect plans to possibly re-sign some of their own key free agents, starting with left tackle Nate Solder (the market could be in the $11 million to $12 million per year range) and running back Dion Lewis (at least $3 million per season). There wouldn't have been space to sign them.
This might explain why the Patriots viewed the franchise tag as a non-starter with Garoppolo, and ultimately traded him last October.
Even if they could have tagged him and then swung a trade, similar to what unfolded with quarterback Matt Cassel in 2009, they still would have had to account for Garoppolo's $23 million at the start of the 2018 league year, which could have thrown a wrench into plans to sign other free agents until the Garoppolo situation was resolved. Clearly, that wasn't something Bill Belichick viewed as realistic.
In the end, Garoppolo's value was at its height at this time last year, but the Patriots weren't willing to deal him then. Maybe they wanted to see what Brady looked like on the field after turning 40 before showing a willingness to trade Garoppolo. Or maybe they were willing to take more time to see if an unusual situation that hurt their leverage -- having the same agent represent both Brady and Garoppolo -- changed its course.
Whatever the reason, once the Patriots let the offseason pass, it was either a trade at the deadline or the franchise tag.
Playing out the hypothetical franchise-tag scenario now highlights why that wasn't a realistic option.