It might be a little difficult to understand Bill Belichik's (BB) handling of Adalius Thomas's playing time. Our eyes tell us that Thomas is one of the best players on the field. Looking at Thomas's playing time, however, tells another story. With Thomas's inactivation for the Titans game, playing 18 of 61 snaps for the Bucs game, and now playing 44 of 72 snaps in the Miami game provides some clues for BB's thinking. (Mike Reiss of ESPNBoston.com provides the playing time: Bucs game and Dolphins game)
Thomas's playing time is partially diminished by Tully Banta-Cain's tremendous success as an outside linebacker. With the strengthening of the Pats secondary this year and BB's trend in running nickel and dime packages there is only room for one or two linebackers on the field. Those spots are taken by Jerod Mayo and Banta-Cain. Thomas has been relegated to the third best linebacker on the team.
Thomas's deactivation for the Titans game was probably BB sending him a message. BB likely figured that Tennessee was so terrible he didn't even need his best players on the field.
Some have speculated that the Patriots cannot afford to have their number three salary and number one defensive salary player be a part timer. Let's look at Thomas's salary from two perspectives. First from the cash side Thomas's contract has the Patriots paying him $4.9 million in 2010 salary and $5.9 million in 2011 salary with a $107K annual workout bonuses for $5 million and $6 million over the next two years. Cash wise this is not a concern for a team whose payroll will likely be in the $130 million range.
The salary cap numbers look a little different. Thomas's salary cap hits will be $9.4 million in 2010 and $10.4 million in 2011. If Thomas is cut before the start of next season his cap number will be $11 million in 2010. If he is cut after June 30th then the $11 million can be split over both the 2010 and 2011 season. Thomas's contract details were written about by Peter King in SI.
The Pats have $11.5 million in salary cap dead money in 2009. This number includes cut, traded, retired, and injured reserved players. Richard Seymour's number of $6.1 million is the lion share of the dead money followed by $1 million for Mike Vrabel and then everyone else is below $1 million. (Salary cap data is provided by Patscap.)
Cutting Thomas in the offseason doesn't seem to have a great return on investment. The Pats would have to take a $5.5 million cap hit for the next two years versus $9.4 million and $10.4 million hits each year. If the owners and players union don't come to an agreement and next year is an uncapped year then cutting or trading him in the offseason might allow them to take the full hit in 2010 and not affect future years. By the same token they might not have to worry about the cap and thus won't care about the numbers.
With this year's salary cap as a model it appears that the Pats could trade or cut Thomas. Thomas's prorated salary cap number is similar to Seymour's salary cap number this year.
Given the dearth of good linebackers available for BB's scheme I would be surprised if the Patriots got rid of Thomas next year. He is one of the best players on the field and even though he is overpaid, the Pats will not be getting a strong benefit from cutting him in the offseason.