Yesterday I posed the question on whether Joe Thuney could be at risk of losing his starting job to rookie Isaiah Wynn as Thuney is sidelined and recovering from a surgery. I noted that Wynn gaining experience at guard doesn’t necessarily mean they will move on from Thuney this year and that the New England Patriots could have their eyes on Wynn starting at guard in the 2019 season.
But not necessarily at left guard. There’s a chance that Wynn could be the team’s starting right guard in 2019 if Shaq Mason is no longer with the team.
Now I’ll start by saying that I believe Wynn has a better chance of starting at left tackle in 2019 than at right guard with Trent Brown and LaAdrian Waddle both entering free agency after this season. But there’s a chance the Patriots will have to find a replacement at right guard, too.
The Patriots had a franchise right guard in Stephen Neal for the first decade of the Bill Belichick era, but a lack of investment in the position led to Dan Connolly, Brian Waters, Ryan Wendell, Donald Thomas, Nick McDonald, Josh Kline, Jordan Devey, Marcus Cannon, and Cameron Fleming starting at the position for various periods of time.
Belichick opted to double-dip at the guard position in the 2015 NFL Draft with Tre Jackson and Mason, which ultimately turned out to be a home run.
Mason is entering his fourth season in the NFL. After splitting time at guard with Jackson and Kline in his 2015 rookie season, Mason emerged as the starter at right guard in 2016 and developed into a potential star over the second half of his sophomore season. He cemented his place as one of the best right guards in the NFL in his third season and is looking to build on his growth as he heads towards free agency.
The question for the Patriots is whether or not they’ll be able to sign Mason to an extension that will keep him at right guard for the foreseeable future.
First, there’s no chance that the Patriots would ever use the franchise tag on Mason. The franchise tag lumps all offensive linemen together, so a guard under the franchise tag would be paid the same as an offensive tackle under the franchise tag.
Offensive linemen would have received $14.08 million under the franchise tag in 2018, which is a solid chunk of change. Only one offensive lineman in the NFL is making more than that per year on their current contract: New York Giants left tackle Nate Solder.
There’s no team in the NFL that would slap the franchise tag on a guard for that amount of money- especially not the Patriots...right?
It seems relevant to note the Patriots did use the franchise tag on Logan Mankins for the 2011 season that would have made him the fourth-highest paid offensive lineman in the NFL before reaching a 6-year extension later in the summer to make Mankins the highest-paid guard in the league and one of the ten highest-paid offensive linemen.
But it’s also important to note that Mankins was a three-time All Pro by that time and that matters when it comes to contract negotiations. Do the Patriots view Mason as a Mankins-like presence on the offensive line? Even the strongest Mason-fan can acknowledge that Mankins’ resume was far stronger when the Patriots used the franchise tag.
While the tag is possible, it’s extremely unlikely.
So that leaves the option for the Patriots and Mason to reach an extension the old-fashioned way through a contract negotiation. So where does the negotiation start?
We’ve seen four interior offensive linemen sign contracts valued over $9 million per season in 2018. RG Justin Pugh signed a 5-year, $45.0 million deal with the Arizona Cardinals; C Weston Richburg signed a 5-year, $47.5 million deal with the San Francisco 49ers; C Ryan Jensen signed a 4-year, $42 million deal with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers; and LG Andrew Norwell signed a 5-year deal for a whopping $66.5 million.
And if you extend the time frame to the 2017 season, seven other interior linemen have signed deals for more than $9 million per season. 2016 adds five more.
Of these 16 interior linemen to land deals valued at more than $9 million per season, Mason is just as good, if not better, than at least 10 of them.
So when you factor in ability, Mason’s age (he’s turning 25 years old in August), and the rising salary cap, the Patriots right guard is looking at a floor of $9 million per year. The average of the top ten contracts is roughly $11 million per year, which is the more likely target for Mason and would tie him for the 5th-highest paid guard in the NFL.
Will the Patriots pony up the money to keep Mason? Belichick was willing to pay Mankins roughly 6.75% of the team’s salary cap back in 2011, which is roughly $12 million per season with the current salary cap- and should be considered the ceiling for Mason and the Patriots.
So the Patriots and Mason have a window between $9-12 million per year, which makes that $11 million mark seem reasonable. I would expect the Patriots to try and retain Mason with a deal somewhere in the $10-11 million range- and if the two sides are able to strike a deal ahead of the 2018 season, then the Patriots might be able to receive a discount down to the $9 million range.
But Mason might not be in any rush to sign an extension with the prospects of free agency within reach. If Mason bets on himself to continue on his upward trajectory and he remains healthy, he could land himself a new deal in the $12-13 million range from a desperate team with a lot of cap space.
In all likelihood, the Patriots will let Mason do what they’ve allowed all of their free agents like Devin McCourty and Dont’a Hightower to do- test the waters in free agency, field a few offers, and bring the numbers back to the team to give New England the opportunity to make a counteroffer. And if Mason comes back to the negotiating table, that likely means that no team blew him away with a blank check and the Patriots would have a real chance of bringing him home.