The NFL's a scary place. Mutants in bad moods moving at high speeds with the infliction of pain as a primary objective. Bones, ligaments, muscles, tendons and futures are on the line every snap.
But what’s more chilling than Aaron Donald against a backup guard or Myles Garrett closing on a quarterback’s blind side? The existential threat posed by Bill Belichick with a highly-capable quarterback on a rookie contract.
In the other scenarios, pain is intense but brief. Healing happens. But what we’re seeing unfold in Foxboro with Belichick and Mac Jones (aka The Asset) means A) the Patriots' brief, post-Brady dip was short-lived and B) their rebuild/reboot can continue while the rest of the NFL is either tethered to a financial millstone at quarterback or trying to develop one.
Monday night’s AFC East showdown between the Bills and Patriots perfectly highlights the advantage the Patriots suddenly have in their possession.
The Bills did it the “right” way. They built a program under Sean McDermott. They selected quarterback Josh Allen in 2018 with the seventh pick. They incubated him. Then they developed him. They surrounded him with weapons. They accumulated talented defensive players. They won a division title in 2020 as Allen turned into everything the Bills could have hoped.
But the fact is, it took three seasons. And since the Bills anted up for Allen in August with a six-year, $258 million deal, life’s going to get way more complicated. The same way Patrick Mahomes’ $450 million deal is going to complicate things for the Chiefs, etc., etc.
Plenty of first-round quarterbacks never develop at all. It’s hard to quibble with the fact Allen, Mahomes or Lamar Jackson needed some seasoning before becoming elite players. So we won’t.
But we will point out that, while Jones isn’t going to run with the speed or throw with the velocity of those players, he’s light years ahead of where all those players were in their first year. Meanwhile, Jones’ accuracy and acumen aren’t going to fade but he is going to get bigger and stronger.
Further, he’s on a team that had kickass drafts in back-to-back years and just went on a highly-successful free agent shopping spree made possible in large part because they weren’t tethered to the relatively modest but still high-end price Tom Brady would have cost if they’d re-signed him.
Does that mean they made the "right call" in not giving Brady the two-year, $50 million fully guaranteed deal he sought in the summer of 2019? In a word, yes.
Brady would have kept the team competitive enough so that they likely wouldn’t have had a top 15 pick. His deal definitely would have made it harder to sign and retain the talent they procured. Jones probably wouldn’t be here and some of those free agents -- Matthew Judon, Hunter Henry, Kendrick Bourne, etc. might not be either.
Mac Jones wasn’t specifically part of the post-Brady master plan like Jimmy Garoppolo was. But a source close to the Brady negotiations indicated to me Belichick was adamant after the 2020 season that the Patriots’ offer was year-to-year and Brady’s 2020 cap hit couldn’t be more than $22 million.
That financial discipline guaranteed the Patriots nothing. But it did give them freedom. How much freedom?
Consider this. According to one of my favorite sites, OverTheCap.com, the top 11 contracts in the NFL in terms of average annual value belong to quarterbacks.
Fifteen of the 18 most lucrative deals belong to quarterbacks. Brady is 18th. T.J. Watt, DeAndre Hopkins and Joey Bosa are the only non-quarterbacks in the top 18. Tom Brady is at 18 right behind Derek Carr.
After Brady, the next 100 players are non-quarterbacks until you get to Ben Roethlisberger and his $14M APY at 118. The next quarterback is Teddy Bridgewater at 159. That’s the top 20 quarterbacks. Mac Jones is 40th among quarterbacks with an APY of $3.895 million. His base salary this year is $660K.
The Patriots might be the "best" team with a high-performing quarterback on a rookie deal but they aren’t the only one. Justin Herbert and Joe Burrow are dreamboats and both were drafted in 2020. In fact, OTC’s Valuation Diamond graphic which measures 2021 performance and compensation has both Herbert and Burrow outperforming Jones. Herbert’s valuation is $36.86M currently. Burrow’s is $28M. Jones’ is $27 million. By comparison, Mahomes’ is $30.56M and Allen is $34.65M.
Jones’ performance relative to his paycheck -- and the cost of his predecessor -- may be the most obvious and impactful example of the Patriots’ current cost-effectiveness. But it’s not the only one. The team pushed away from the table on Joe Thuney after franchising him in 2020. He signed an $80 million deal in Kansas City. Ted Karras and Michael Onwenu capably man left guard now for a fraction of the cost.
Talented corner Stephon Gilmore wanted a big-fat raise while coming off an injury at 31 years old. The Patriots said no flippin’ way. They traded him. New England’s defense is allowing 16 points per game. Gilmore has played 126 snaps for the Panthers in five games. His role may increase in the final five games of the year, according to Panthers coach Matt Rhule. Then he’ll be a free agent.
The Raiders wanted to make Trent Brown the highest-paid offensive lineman in NFL history after he won a Super Bowl in New England playing right tackle. Brown played 16 of 32 games with the Raiders before they traded him back to the Patriots and New England chopped his salary.
The Patriots aren’t without financial concerns. They will have to figure out whether Isaiah Wynn is worth the $10 million they are paying him in 2021 since picking up his fifth-year option. J.C. Jackson is headed for a $16 million APY deal. Can the Patriots afford that? Do they franchise him?
Meanwhile, Jones and the Patriots are eventually going to arrive where the Bills and Allen were last summer. They’ll have to pay him. And the demands of his agents, Tommy Condon and Jimmy Sexton of CAA, may make Brady’s $25 million request look quaint.
Tommy Condon’s dad is legendary agent Tom Condon, who famously crossed swords with Belichick in the aughts after the team drafted Benjamin Watson.
"When New England drafted Watson at the end of the first round, in 2004, the team insisted on a six-year contract, a rarity for that position in the draft," Sports Illustrated's Robert Klemko wrote in 2017. "Watson’s agent, Tom Condon, stood firm on five years, and Watson held out. As the season approached, however, Watson says that Condon told him to find another agent so a deal could be worked out. (Watson fired Condon, signed another agent and agreed to a six-year deal.)"
Burrow is also repped by CAA, so keep an eye on the arc of his negotiations with the Bengals who are, to put it mildly, kinda stingy.
But for now, the Patriots don’t have that widowmaker contract clogging up their financial aorta. They are getting immediate returns on Jones. Good luck followed good planning.
And the Bills, who just spent the last four years preparing to plant their flag atop the AFC East mountain and only to have it plucked out by the Patriots before they got to take a selfie? Nightmare scenario.