There are two paths that any injured or slowed Patriots leader can take. One is a contract restructuring to stay within the franchise, to stay a leader on the team, to continue to have a chance to win the Super Bowl.
The other leads to Tampa.
This past off-season we saw how the decisions of Vince Wilfork and Logan Mankins led to completely different destinations. Both captains and leaders of their respective units were asked to restructure their contracts, both were expected to do what's best for the team.
Vince eventually came around when no other team was willing to beat the Patriots restructure offer. He shopped to no avail, came back to New England, and is now playing at his pre-injury level. The team is happy, the defense is happy, and with Wilfork on pace to match all his contract escalators to make the same amount as before the restructure, he's happy.
Mankins, on the other hand, didn't restructure. For him, the contract was about respect and it's a slap in the face to have him change a set deal. No player is greater than the team, and no declining player is more than a $10 million cap hit, a fourth round pick, and a versatile tight end.
Which brings us to Jeord Mayo. The captain, the heart, the brain, the 28-year-old linebacker who has been placed on the season-ending injured reserve after Week 6 injuries this year and last year.
The defense is undeniably stronger with him on the team. There's no way to compensate for the value that he adds and the way he commands the players. His injuries, a pectoral injury in 2013 and a patellar tendon injury in 2014, aren't insurmountable. But it seems pretty obvious the front office will see a chance to free up some cap space.
Mayo is under contract through 2017 and 2015 marks the first season that cutting him will result in cap savings. The Patriots don't want to cut him. They love him. He's Bill Belichick's favorite Patriot after Tedy Bruschi. He's staying a Patriot for life.
But Mayo comes with cap hits of $10.3 million, $10.1 million, and $9.2 million in each of the next three seasons, carrying to his 31st birthday. Contracts are supposed to be for future production, not for the 12 total games he's been active over the past two seasons, but there needs to be a balance. The Patriots could ask to restructure with a heavy-incentive contract like Wilfork's.
The new deal is needed because the Patriots need money for the upcoming years. Heart-and-soul players like Devin McCourty, Shane Vereen, Matthew Slater, Stephen Gostkowski, and- surprisingly- Dan Connolly and Pat Chung are free agents after this season. Stevan Ridley might be back on a one-year contract. Darrelle Revis needs to restructure to avoid cap purgatory. Maybe the team wants to sign back Akeem Ayers, or Sealver Siliga. Nate Solder, a free agent in 2016, has rebounded and is looking like he deserves an extension.
Restructuring Mayo could be the difference between signing or missing out on multiple of these players, and after losing Mayo for two consecutive years, it's hard to argue against the value of talented depth.
Ultimately, the team doesn't have to do anything; they have Mayo under contract for three more seasons. But with so many moving pieces on the horizon, it might make the most sense to engage him in conversation; and that's where the paths diverge.