With training camp underway, the New England Patriots are fully “on to 2021.”
The team currently has 91 players under contract, but only 53 of them will be able to survive roster cutdowns in August and September and ultimately make the active team. Over the course of spring and summer, just like we have in years past, we are taking a look at the players fighting for those spots to find out who has the best chances of helping the Patriots bounce back from what was a disappointing 7-9 season last year.
Today, the series continues with guard Shaq Mason.
Name: Shaq Mason
Jersey number: 69
Opening day age: 28
Size: 6-foot-2, 310 pounds
Contract status: Under contract through 2023 (2024 UFA)
What is his experience? After playing both left and right guard during his four-year college career at Georgia Tech, Mason heard his name called during the NFL’s 2015 draft: the Patriots picked him with the 131st overall selection in the fourth round — an investment that paid major dividends for the club in the years to come. Mason’s potential was already on full display during his rookie season, when he earned a starting spot at left guard before being moved to the right side of the formation for the playoffs.
While the youngster did experience some growing pains coming from the Yellow Jackets’ run-first offensive system, he quickly made strides in this area of his game as well to develop into one of the most intriguing interior offensive linemen in football. As such, he went on to help New England win two Super Bowls as the team’s top option at the right guard position — all while appearing in 88 regular season games as well as 12 playoff contests, a combined 95 of which as a member of the Patriots’ starting lineup.
Mason’s impressive development since his 2015 rookie campaign may not have earned him any individual accolades such as Pro Bowl or All-Pro recognition just yet, but it did lead to New England rewarding him with a multi-year contract extension ahead of the 2018 season: while still on his rookie contract, Mason signed a five-year, $50 million pact and quickly went on to play the best football of his career en route to earning his second championship ring. He has been among the NFL’s best guards ever since.
What did his 2020 season look like? Compared to his own high standards the 2019 season was a disappointing one for Mason. However, he was able to bounce back in style and proved himself a key member of one of the best offensive lines in the NFL. He did all that despite a) having to prepare for the year without a traditional offseason or summer, and b) having to play next to a changing cast of characters, especially at the right tackle position that was no longer being manned by Marcus Cannon.
Even though he lined up next to the likes of Jermaine Eluemunor, Michael Onwenu and Justin Herron over the course of the year, Mason played some high quality football as both a run blocker and a pass protector. In the passing game, he gave up a combined 14.5 quarterback pressures: the sixth-year man surrendered 3.5 sacks as well as 2 hits and 9 hurries. For comparison, Mason surrendered 20 disruptions the previous season; he did not give up any pressures in four of his 13 games.
Mason’s best work might have come in the running game, though. New England’s backs and quarterback Cam Newton gained 364 yards on 62 carries when running behind the right guard spot. The average gain of 5.9 yards per carry ranked as the third highest in the NFL. No matter if asked to block in a zone or man scheme, one-on-one or in a combination setting, Mason did his job on a consistently high level. Even though he was not recognized as a Pro Bowler and All-Pro, he returned to the ranks of the league’s best interior linemen.
Mason also proved himself a relatively durable contributor along an offensive line that saw some major personnel fluctuations at the tackle positions. Despite dealing with a calf injury for most of the season — one that forced him to miss Weeks 4 and 17 — the Georgia Tech product was still on the field in 13 of a possible 16 regular season contests. He also had to sit out the Patriots’ Week 6 contest versus the Denver Broncos after being sent to Reserve/Covid-19; he spent four days on the reserve list.
Lining up exclusively at right guard, Mason played 782 of a possible 1,011 offensive snaps (77.4%) — ranking fifth on the team and third among its O-linemen in terms of playing time. Furthermore, the veteran blocker also reprised his usual role as a protector on place kicking attempts. He took the field 52 times out of 399 in 2020 for a special teams playing time share of 13 percent.
What is his projected role? Ever since his rookie season, Mason has been an integral member of the Patriots’ offensive line. He is therefore also expected to do the same heading into the 2021 season. As New England’s starter at right guard, he will hardly ever leave the field once again while also playing a pivotal role in both the running and the passing game: Mason is a key part of combination blocks both on the outside and the interior, serving as a pull-blocker, and capable of winning one-on-ones on a regular basis as well no matter if the team uses a zone or a man blocking scheme.
What is his special teams value? While Mason’s role on the offensive side of the ball is the most prominent of his duties, his special teams contributions cannot be underestimated either: lining up as the left guard on field goal and extra point attempts, he has proven himself a valuable member of the Patriots’ kicking game. Mason has held a similar role ever since arriving in New England in 2015, and it is not expected to change this year.
Does he have positional versatility? Even though Mason has played exclusively at right guard going back to the 2016 season, he does bring some positional versatility to the table. During his 2015 rookie campaign, he did not just start 10 games as the Patriots’ left guard — a role that later went to Joe Thuney and is now being held by Michael Onwenu — but also lined up in the backfield from the fullback position as well as an tackle eligible outside the right tackle. Mason is versatile in theory, but New England no longer uses him in this fashion.
What is his salary cap situation? As part of the aforementioned contract extension he signed with the Patriots in 2018, Mason currently hits the team’s books with a salary cap number of $9.54 million — the fourth highest on the team and reflective of his status as a starting member of the offense. New England could opt to lower his cap impact by converting parts of his $6 million salary into a signing bonus to spread out over the remainder of the deal, but the team is in a solid financial situation to begin with and has no real incentive to make such a move at this point in time.
What is his roster outlook? His combination of experience and performance makes Mason one of the cornerstones of New England’s offense, and as such a valuable member of the team as it heads into the Mac Jones era. Regardless of who starts at quarterback, though, the 27-year-old will play a big role up front. After returning to his Pro Bowl-caliber form in 2020, he remains one of the best guards in football and as such a big part of the Patriots’ offensive attack.