With the 10th overall pick in the 2008 NFL Draft, the New England Patriots selected a linebacker out of Tennessee, who would become the face of the team's defensive re-tooling process: Jerod Mayo. Over the course of the next few seasons, he became one of the best linebackers in the league, as well as one of New England's most recognizable players both on and off the field.
However, injuries started to catch up to the soon-to-be 30-year old and as a consequence his last three seasons have all ended on injured reserve. This, in turn, is problematic when looking at Mayo's contract and his $11.4 million cap hit in 2016.
Overall, this cap hit is the sum of Mayo's $3.25 million salary, his $3.4 million signing bonus proration and $4.75 in bonuses. One part of those bonuses – a $4.0 million roster bonus – is the reason why the Patriots and Mayo need to work out a solution quickly if the team and the player want to continue working together in the future: the $4.0 million are an option-bonus due on the first day of the new league year (beginning March 9, 4:00 p.m. ET).
New England's front office has one choice to make prior to that day: to pick up the option or to not pick up the option.
There are arguments to be made for both. Mayo is a locker room leader often being described as the heart of the Patriots' defense, even when he is not on the field. Furthermore, when healthy, he has the potential to be one of the best linebackers in the game as he has shown the ability to be an all-around linebacker.
However are those arguments enough to convince the team to pick up the $4.0 million option? Probably not. Mayo's injury history is definitely concerning, as is the fact that the team has to keep an eye on its future: fellow linebackers Dont'a Hightower and Jamie Collins – both among the top 10 in the game – are due for contract extensions. Since the Patriots spend the majority of their time in sub-packages, paying a third linebacker starting-caliber money does not look like smart business, especially when we look at the structure of Mayo's contract.
If the Patriots choose to pick up the option, the team has Mayo on the books with a minimum of $7.65 million this season, even if it releases him at some point afterwards. If the team does pick up the option and the veteran linebacker plays for New England in 2016, his cap hit jumps to $11.4 million – second highest on the team behind only Tom Brady's $15.0 million. Those numbers are fairly high for most starters, let alone a projected back-up.
Therefore, the team will likely walk one of two roads in the upcoming weeks: either try to work out a restructure (the second one in as many years) or an extension to lower Mayo's 2016 cap hit, or simply not pick up the option and let Mayo become an unrestricted free agent.
Given the combination of Mayo's current contract structure (ending after 2017), injury history, reduced role and the fact that both Hightower and Collins will command (near-)top dollar, a restructure or extension seems unlikely. Consequently, this means that the team will likely opt to go the other way and not pick up Mayo's $4.0 million option.
The financial benefits of doing that are quickly found: instead of paying the linebacker between $7.65 and $11.4 million in 2016, his cap hit sinks to "only" $4.4 million (his signing bonus prorations for both 2016 and 2017). While this still makes Mayo the 13th highest paid Patriot in 2016, the move would free up $6.4 million in 2016 cap space – money that would be added to the team's currently projected cap space of $5.6 million; money the team could use to potentially reach a contract extension with one of its top defenders; either the young linebacker duo, defensive end Chandler Jones or cornerback Malcolm Butler.
Last year, we published an article with the same title outlining Mayo's contract situation entering the 2015 offseason. The veteran went on to agree to a restructure but one year later we have to publish another article about his contract status. Unfortunately, the outlook did only change in one aspect: it has become less likely that the team captain will return next season.
What do you think? Should the Patriots try to keep Jerod Mayo or is it time to move on? Let us know in the comments.