FOXBORO -- The Patriots have, in recent years, let some of their top players go to free agency (or into the "legal tampering" period) before reeling them back in.
It happened with Dont'a Hightower when his rookie contract came to an end. Same for Julian Edelman, Devin McCourty and Duron Harmon. Matthew Slater tested the free-agent waters last offseason before making his way back to New England.
Sometimes the player gets away for good. (See: Solder, Nate.)
The Patriots didn't let it get anywhere near that far with Shaq Mason. The team and its starting right guard agreed to a new five-year contract, Mason's agent Deryk Gilmore confirmed Monday. The extension is worth up to $50 million and includes $23.5 million guaranteed, per NFL Media. The first three years will be worth about $30 million.
For Mason, who turns 25 on Tuesday, it's not a bad early birthday gift. With an average annual value of about $10 million per season, Mason's deal puts him inside the top-10 when it comes to guard's salaries in the NFL.
While Cowboys guard Zack Martin ($14 million per year) and Jaguars guard Andrew Norwell ($13.3 million per year) remain the top earners at the position, Mason's deal pays him similarly to one of the best guards in the game, a player who Mason has told me he views as one of the best in the game, Pittsburgh's David DeCastro ($10 million per year).
Mason may have sacrificed some cash by not playing out his contract year, but the 2015 fourth-round pick benefits from some security after making less than $3 million on his rookie deal.
The Patriots, meanwhile, get the satisfaction of knowing that one of their best young players has a contract that runs through 2023. Along with Trey Flowers - another 2015 fourth-rounder - Mason could make a case as the team's best player 25-or-under.
Mason, who started 10 games as a rookie in 2015, now figures to help keep an element of consistency on the inside with left guard Joe Thuney (under contract through 2019) and center David Andrews (2020). Andrews has been a starter since 2015, and Thuney has started every game of his career since entering as a third-round pick in 2016.
Bill Belichick didn't acknowledge the extension at the coach's press conference Monday, but he did seek out Mason at the start of Monday's practice to shake Mason's hand.
Bill Belichick wouldn’t confirm or deny OG Shaq Mason’s new contract. But the coach did take time for a quick 🤝 with @ShaqDiesel_70 before practice today#Patriots pic.twitter.com/MMCmtbbhOy— The Camera Guys (@NBCSCameraGuys) August 27, 2018
"He's an athletic player that has good strength, good balance, an excellent run blocker, can pull, run and hit," Belichick said. "He's gotten better each year and he's done a good job for us. He and Joe and David – those three guys have played a lot of football together and they're young. Hopefully, they can continue to play a lot for us in there."
"It's definitely," Mason said, "a good thing...But just moving forward I'm just focusing on the season. That's over and done with now. We've got practice tomorrow."
Mason is a prototypical Patriot. A mid-round selection, he's improved significantly as a pass-protector since his arrival from an option offense at Georgia Tech, and his steamroll-anything-in-his-path style - especially when he's on the move - helps establish a tone for an offense that is known for its ability to quickly transition from a prolific passing game to a power-running game.
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Why pay a guard? Especially when players such as Dan Connolly and Ryan Wendell have started and won Super Bowls? Now more than ever, protecting against interior pressure generators, i.e. Aaron Donald or JJ Watt, is critical. Protecting Tom Brady, 41, from interior pressure - which can quickly ruin a quick-hitting passing game - is especially important. It's why Martin and Norwell make what they make.
Mason could also be a key figure whenever the Patriots transition from a Brady-centric offense. At some point, in an NFL that appears to be getting smaller and more athletic on the defensive side of the ball every year, the Patriots may try to take advantage of that trend by going smash-mouth. Running behind Mason would qualify.
Wherever the Patriots offense goes over the next few years, Mason's value will be in his versatility. Taken as a project from a run-heavy offense, he's proven he can be a do-it-all blocker.
Belichick once called the 6-foot-1, 300-pounder "probably one of the most athletic players, one of the most athletic offensive linemen I’ve coached."
Now, he's the highest-paid guard Belichick's ever had.