By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com
There have been some interesting deals handed to offensive and defensive linemen around the National Football League this offseason. And they could directly affect the price points for the New England Patriots to retain impending free agents Trey Flowers and Shaq Mason.
If Bill Belichick wants to come to an agreement on an extension with either his starting right defensive end or starting right guard, he'll have to come close to recent deals from other teams that have more-or-less set the market. In the case of Flowers, he's probably not in line for a top-of-the-market contract. While he's become a stalwart on the Pats' defensive front, he's never quite entered that star stratosphere, certainly not in terms of raw production. As for Mason, he could hit unrestricted free agency next March as the best guard available and fetch a surprisingly lucrative deal. The highest bid would most likely come from outside of Foxboro.
At defensive end, the biggest free-agent contracts in 2019 should go to the Detroit Lions' Ezekiel Ansah and the Dallas Cowboys' DeMarcus Lawrence, who both signed franchise tenders for over $17 million with their respective clubs. Flowers will realistically come in well under that number, but is still due for a significant pay-bump.
The most recent example for a comparison to Flowers' potential deal is Minnesota Vikings defensive end Danielle Hunter. He signed a five-year, $72 million extension in June, including $40 million guaranteed. His $14.4 million AAV, however, puts him at only 13th-best in the NFL and $100,000 behind his teammate, Everson Griffen.
To Pay Flowers...
For Flowers to end up in just the top-20 highest-paid defensive linemen, he'll have to top the $10.25 million AAV for the Green Bay Packers' Mike Daniels. But if Flowers has a career year in 2018 and tests the open market, he may be able to get something closer to top-of-the-market money. So although $11-15 million per season sounds like a lot of money for the Patriots to commit to one player not named Tom Brady or Rob Gronkowski ... if they landed somewhere in that range for Flowers, it would actually be reasonable compared to the landscape of the league. And - dare I say - team-friendly?
The question is, would Belichick be willing to shell out something like Hunter's deal to keep Flowers around? He's paid well over $10 million (in real cash) in a single season before. Richard Seymour earned an astronomical $24.6 million in bonuses in the 2006 season, although his cash earnings in his final three seasons with the Pats (2006-08) totaled $26.2 million - an annual average of about $8.74 million. Vince Wilfork made $19 million (including an $18 million signing bonus) in the first year of his biggest contract with the Patriots back in 2010, but over his final five years in New England he earned about $7.9 million annually.
Paying Flowers over $10 million in cash for 4-5 years would be fairly unprecedented for Belichick and a defensive lineman, but the Seymour and Wilfork contracts at least indicate that he's willing to pay up for a player he feels can anchor his positional group. There's also the fact that Belichick has paid near that amount for other mainstays, like Nate Solder ($9.15 million AAV from 2015-17) and Devin McCourty ($9.99 million AAV from 2015-17). Stephon Gilmore, whose signing was more of an outlier compared to other Patriots acquisitions, is set to earn $41.8 million from 2017-19, an annual average of about $13.9 million.
Sometime in the next eight months, we will find out whether Flowers is considered in that same vein.
Working against Flowers is that the Patriots' spending on the defensive line has been relatively paltry since the departure of Wilfork. They traded Chandler Jones, the only potential edge rusher since then who would get paid a big extension. The Patriots' cash spending on the defensive line is set to be $19.3 million in 2018, which would rank 23rd in the NFL. In 2019, it drops to $10.9 million, 25th in the league. So if they want to keep Flowers in the fold, they'll have to pay him almost 50 percent on top of their total cash spending in '19.
Also not working in Flowers' favor is the depth the Patriots have along the D-line. They signed Adrian Clayborn in the offseason, and they have Lawrence Guy, Deatrich Wise, and Derek Rivers all signed through 2020. If one of these players, particularly the latter two, take a big step forward in 2018, that may make Flowers more expendable in Belichick's eyes.
The last report on Flowers and his contract status came shortly after Super Bowl LII, when Jeff Howe reported in the Boston Herald that the Patriots would begin contract talks with him later in the offseason. Well, it's later. The fact that nothing else has come out could really mean anything. But if the Patriots can't lock him in to an extension before the 2018 season, it'll get a hell of a lot more expensive for them to make it happen after that. In that same light, NBC Sports Boston's Tom E. Curran noted earlier in the offseason that Flowers is far from a lock for an extension, considering how pricey he could get as a talented, versatile player at a premium position.
To Pay Mason...
Mason's situation is far less complicated, but not much less expensive. Does Belichick hold Mason, who's ascended to become one of the better guards in the NFL in recent years, in the same high regard as he did Logan Mankins? Regardless of how Belichick values Mason as an asset, the reality is he could end up the best player available at his position if he hits free agency next March. Mason recently said he'd like to stay with the Patriots, but certainly doesn't sound like he's in a rush to sign an extension. He's not looking beyond training camp, for now. But maybe that's a sign that he's closer to following the vaunted Patriot Way™ than others.
Although he'll have a chance to sign the biggest guard contract in the league next March, Mason still might not approach the record-breaking $14 million AAV for Zack Martin of the Dallas Cowboys. He may not even make the $13.3 million that Andrew Norwell is set to make on average in Jacksonville. But at a minimum, the Patriots may have to get Mason into the top-10 among the league's highest-paid guards. So he'd have to average more than Justin Pugh's $9 million AAV with the Arizona Cardinals.
Based on the Patriots' cash spending on the offensive line, paying top dollar for Mason seems even less likely. With Solder gone, their projected spending on O-linemen in 2018 is currently at $17.6 million, which would be 31st in the league.
With no clear replacement in the wings at right guard, perhaps Belichick makes a concerted effort to pay Mason a fair deal for him to anchor the middle of the Patriots' offensive line moving forward. And perhaps Mason takes something a little below what he could make on the open market. Still, considering the money being thrown around at his position, who could blame him for declining an extension, betting on himself, and testing the free-agent waters? For the Patriots' chances of winning Super Bowl LIII, perhaps it might be best for Mason to be in a contract year.
Be prepared to hear more about Flowers and Mason's contract situations as they get ready for the start of training camp this coming Thursday. There may be nothing new to hear about, unless agreements are reached on extensions. But after an offseason that saw several key pieces depart as free agents, the Patriots aren't left with much in the way of established, ascending talent worth keeping long-term. Perhaps the Patriots take the opposite approach to 2018 and pay the price to retain two of their best young players.
But if they do, it'll be two of the biggest deals Belichick has signed in recent memory. And even then, he still has his quarterback and tight end to worry about.
Matt Dolloff is a digital producer for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff or email him at [email protected].