The New England Patriots signed linebacker Jonathan Freeny to a two-year extension, and there were two schools of thought.
One: Freeny struggles on the defensive side of the ball as he often over-pursues in run defense, giving up cutback lanes, and is also inconsistent in the passing game. He shouldn’t be more than the #4 linebacker on the depth chart.
Two: Freeny is beloved by everyone in the Patriots organization and he’s a darn good special teams player, so let’s wait to see the contract amount before passing judgment.
Well, here’s the contract, per the Herald’s Jeff Howe:
Jonathan Freeny's 2-year extension is worth $4.1M, including a $1.3M signing bonus. Cap hits of $1.74M in '16, $1.87M in '17, $2.03M in '18.— Jeff Howe (@jeffphowe) September 2, 2016
For comparison, the Patriots are paying special teams star and captain Matthew Slater $1.8 million this year, which is roughly $150,000 less than Freeny will be making on an annual basis. Fellow special teams veteran Nate Ebner is playing for $1.2 million per year.
Freeny is clearly more than just a special teams player in the eyes of the Patriots.
The question now is where Freeny stands in the depth chart.
Penciled in #3 linebacker Shea McClellin is earning $3.02 million per year on average, and he’s the only linebacker on a second contract we can really use as a base point.
So it would seem that Freeny signed the contract expecting to be the #4 linebacker on the roster. The emergence of Barkevious Mingo could throw a wrench into the depth chart, where Freeny could slide down to #5 and rarely see the field on defense.
But beyond this year, we have to acknowledge that Dont’a Hightower, Jamie Collins, and Mingo will all be free agents at the end of the season. McClellin is the only linebacker under contract (other than the rookies Kamu Grugier-Hill and Elandon Roberts), so the retention of Freeny is a smart team-building move.
Assuming the Patriots retain just one of the trio, Freeny will then elevate back into the #3 linebacker role that he has been flirting with since he joined the team. If the Patriots keep two, then Freeny is in the #4 linebacker spot, which is in line with his contract and his performance level on defense.
So don’t freak out about the numbers. Freeny is fairly compensated for a player with more relative defensive upside than what Slater adds at wide receiver, or Ebner adds at safety.
This is a deal that works out for both sides.