The greatest quarterback to ever play the position isn’t the only notable New England Patriots player heading into the final year of his contract.
While speculation about Tom Brady’s status for 2020 and beyond will, deservedly, dominate talk radio when it comes to Patriots heading into their walk years, several other notable players aren’t contractually bound to Foxboro beyond this season, either.
It would be unfair to stack up Brady’s pending free agency with that of his teammates given his status as a cultural icon in New England. Still, losing any of the players below wouldn’t be great for business in its own right. Here’s a look at the five most important Patriots (other than Brady) heading into the final years of their contracts:
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5. Jonathan Jones
There’s something about Bill Belichick when it comes to finding undrafted free agents who played their college football in Alabama. Malcolm Butler is the headliner, but don’t sleep on Jones, who’s an outstanding special teamer and has proven more than adequate in coverage as a slot corner defensively.
Jones, who turns 26 on Sept. 20, had a career-best 56 tackles and three interceptions last season, when he played in all 16 regular season games for New England. Stephon Gilmore, J.C. Jackson, Jason McCourty and Joejuan Williams are all already under contract for next season, and Jones’ current salary of $3.095 million likely prices him out of coming back solely as a special teamer. Still, New England cutting ties with Keion Crossen and Duke Dawson means that Jones’ replacement in the slot isn’t on the current roster.
4. Matthew Slater
Slater, who turns 34 on Monday, is a seven-time Pro Bowler and was named First Team All-Pro by the Associated Press in 2016. That’s on top of the three Super Bowl rings he’s racked up over the first 11 years of his career.
Not bad for a fifth-round pick, huh? Slater is one of two players remaining from the 2008 NFL Draft still with his original team (Matt Ryan, who went third overall to the Falcons, is the other).
Slater’s presence in New England’s locker room is invaluable; it still doesn’t feel right that he took so much as a visit to the Pittsburgh Steelers last time he was a free agent in 2018. He’s redefined what it means to be a “core special teamer” for the Patriots, and while New England has several other players who fit that bill, Slater is the captain.
Slater said earlier this off-season he considers himself year-to-year, and while it would shock no one if he decided enough was enough after this season, don’t forget who is father is: Pro Football Hall of Famer Jackie Slater, who played an even 20 seasons with the Rams. Longevity is in his genes.
3. Kyle Van Noy
At what point do we talk about the acquisition of Van Noy being Belichick’s very best in-season trade of his tenure? All the Patriots have done since bringing Van Noy in from football purgatory in Detroit in 2016 is go to three straight Super Bowls, with the former Lion playing a prominent role at linebacker on all three teams.
Van Noy’s shown versatility since coming to Foxboro, capable of lining up both inside and out. When Dont’a Hightower went down for the season in October 2017, it was the emergence of Van Noy which kept the Patriots linebacking corps afloat.
With Hightower himself getting on in years – not to mention having just one year left on his deal after this one – re-signing Van Noy should absolutely be a priority for the Patriots this off-season. But his cap hit of roughly $6.3 million, per Spotrac, is the 11th highest among inside linebackers in the NFL, and he doesn’t turn 29 until next May, which means he’ll absolutely have a chance to sign one last big contract.
2. Joe Thuney
Thuney’s entire life as a professional football player has involved being on a team that’s gone as far as it possibly can. Three seasons in the NFL, three Super Bowl appearances.
Thuney is hardly just along for the ride since being drafted in 2016, either. He’s never missed a game, regular or postseason, and in 2018, he played all 1,371 offensive snaps for the Patriots from the beginning of Week 1 vs. Houston to the end of Super Bowl LIII vs. the Rams.
As always, the decision to retain Thuney will come down to finances. New England will be paying right guard Shaq Mason near the top of the market beginning next season; can it afford to do so with its left guard as well?
The status of the rest of the offensive line could also dictate which direction the Patriots go with Thuney. Marcus Cannon makes reasonable money at right tackle, but he’ll be 32 in 2020. What is the long-term outlook for center David Andrews, currently out for the season due to blood clots in his lungs? And left tackle Isaiah Wynn will still be on his rookie deal, but what will he look like as he returns from a torn Achilles?
1. Devin McCourty
Simply put, McCourty is the heart and soul of New England’s defense. Forget that he’s only made one Pro Bowl in his career; he’s been as important to the Patriots’ three most recent Super Bowl titles as guys like Tedy Bruschi, Mike Vrabel, Rodney Harrison, Ty Law and Richard Seymour were for the first three.
When he takes the field Sunday, McCourty will become the eighth player drafted by Belichick to play 10 seasons with the team (Brady, Matt Light, Vince Wilfork, Stephen Gostkowski and Slater, plus both Julian Edelman and Patrick Chung come the opener). The fact that the number remains so small should tell you just how exclusive a club it is, and McCourty is just as worthy as any other member of the list.
Since shifting to safety in 2012, McCourty’s play has never really slipped. Pro Football Reference's "Approximate Value" calculator says McCourty has accured 6 "AV" points in four of the last five seasons, with a 10 AV during his Pro Bowl campaign in 2016.
Even as he enters his age-32 season, it’s frightening to think about what the Patriots would look like on the back end without McCourty.
In 2019, he’ll own the No. 1 cap hit in the NFL among free safeties at $13.435 million. It might be hard to justify that kind of commitment again, but if McCourty is up for playing a few more seasons, he’s a guy New England can ill afford to lose.