With lockout over, the Patriots must proceed quickly
The National Football League lockout, which lasted 136 days, making it the longest work stoppage in the 91 years of the league, ended yesterday with much fanfare.
So what now for the Patriots?
Well, today will be an especially busy day: at 10 a.m., Gillette Stadium and all team facilities will open for players. At the same time, teams can negotiate with and sign the players they drafted in April as well as any undrafted rookies they’re interested in.
They also can negotiate with - but not sign - their own exclusive-rights free agents, restricted free agents, unrestricted free agents, and other clubs’ RFA and UFA players. Any agreement reached with such a player will become official and can be signed Friday.
While free agent contracts become official Friday, players signed can attend meetings with their new teams but cannot take part in on-field practices until Aug. 4, the first day of the new league year, assuming the players recertify the union and vote to approve the contract. The NFLPA’s executive board and the 32 team representatives voted in favor of the 10-year deal and final approval is expected.
Also today, rosters expand from the training camp norm of 80 players to 90. As of last night, the Patriots had 63 players under contract, plus franchise player Logan Mankins, restricted free agent BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who was tendered at the second-round level, and exclusive-rights free agent Kyle Arrington, which brings them to 66.
Then add in the nine players they drafted, plus two of the three players on their reserve/military list, Eric Kettani and Tyree Barnes, who have completed their Navy duties and are expected to join the team this week and they’re up to 77. That means the Patriots have 13 roster spots available.
New England had 10 players on its roster last season who are now unrestricted free agents, including safety Jarrad Page. Page had received an RFA tender from the team before the lockout, but now all fourth-year players who are not under contract are UFAs (unless they were franchised, such as Mankins).
If and when players report to Gillette - and it is voluntary to arrive today - they can meet with coaches and staff and take part in workouts, plus undergo physicals.
Patriots coaches have been at work since July 18 after getting a longer-than-usual break. They worked until about June 5, doing everything they could do without players present. Usually their summer vacation would start a couple of days after the team’s early June mandatory minicamp, so they got an extra week to 10 days of leisure time before returning.
With coach Bill Belichick so heavily involved in the Patriots’ personnel decisions, his position coaches and offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien will be even more vital in the coming days. The stability he has on his staff will be a plus - all the assistants know how Belichick prefers things to be taught, and given Belichick always wanting to be one step ahead, he and his staff likely have prepared for this week and how things will be run while he’s juggling player signings and firings with his duties as coach.
All players are expected to report by tomorrow, when physicals will be completed and players must undergo the conditioning test Belichick requires: sets of 50- or 60-yard sprints with minimal rest, with the target time for each sprint based on position.
The second day of camp on Thursday is when the public will be invited in. But as per the rules of the new agreement, there are no more two-a-days, at least not two sessions in full pads. Teams can only hold one practice, with a maximum length of three hours, in pads during camp. A second practice must be a walk-through with no helmets or pads.
In an announcement on its website yesterday, the Patriots cautioned that the first few days of practice will be “scaled back a bit’’ while players work into playing shape. In other words, don’t expect much hitting if you attend camp Thursday or Friday.
There are new rules on padded practices when it comes to the regular season as well: teams now cannot hold more than 14, and 11 must come in the first 11 weeks of the season. During the postseason, teams will be allowed one full-pads practice per week.
The Patriots are $7 million under this year’s salary cap of $121 million; their maximum rookie allocation for this year is $5.85 million, which almost exhausts the space they have.
Not only do the Patriots need money for their rookies, they also could be in the market for a free agent or two. Even before the news Sunday about Tully Banta-Cain’s abdominal surgery, linebackers Matt Roth, late of the Browns, and San Francisco’s Manny Lawson have been named as potential targets. If receiver Chad Ochocinco is released by the Bengals, he could wind up in New England.
The Patriots also could make runs at trying to keep Page, Brandon McGowan, Kevin Faulk, and special-teamer Tracy White. Tackle Matt Light was offered a contract extension during last season but refused it; if he were to return, it likely would be at the Patriots’ price, and he’d essentially be keeping the seat warm until his successor, first-round pick Nate Solder, was ready.
Light could receive interest from Kansas City or Atlanta, both of whom have a need at left tackle and the general managers of each team, Scott Pioli and Thomas Dimitroff, know Light from their days with New England.
The waiver wire officially opens Friday, and there are a few Patriots who could be released or released and re-signed at a lower salary to give the team some financial breathing room. Tackle Nick Kaczur, whose total cap hit is well north of $4 million this season, heads the list of players who could be cut.
One thing that could help with the salary cap would be finally coming to terms on a long-term deal with Mankins. His franchise number is $10.1 million, and a multiyear deal would go a long way toward reducing his cap hit this season and spreading it out over coming seasons. All teams must be under the salary cap by 4 p.m. Aug. 4.