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Could Patriots DE Chandler Jones be a trade option?

Chandler Jones is on the cusp of a career crossroads in New England.

Four years into his Patriots career the former 21st overall pick out of Syracuse has established himself as one of the better young pass rushers in the game. He's started 52 of the 55 games he's played. He earned his first trip to the Pro Bowl this season with a career-high 12.5 sacks.

This fall marked his second double-digit sack campaign in the last three seasons – he had 11.5 in 2013 – making him one of just 10 players with at least two 10-plus-sack seasons in the last three years. It's a group that includes such big-name stars as J.J. Watt, Robert Quinn, Mario Williams, Muhammad Wilkerson, Terrell Suggs and Von Miller. Beyond the sack numbers, those guys have something else in common – big or soon-to-be-big bank accounts.

In a league where guys who can rush the passer and cover receivers are the highest-paid defensive players, Jones has put together a nice resume for himself as he heads toward scheduled free agency after the 2016 season.

Jones is set to play this coming fall under the fifth-year option of his rookie contract, under a cap number of more than $7.7 million.

But Jones' value is much more complicated than simply his 36 sacks over four seasons.

He's not the only key Patriots defender on the verge of big money. Both Dont'a Hightower and Jamie Collins are also set to become free agents following next season. It can be argued that the two linebackers are more important to the New England defense and more irreplaceable.

Also, former Super Bowl hero-turned-Pro Bowl No. 1 cornerback Malcolm Butler is in line for a big raise at some point. The former undrafted rookie heads into his third season with the 47th-highest scheduled cap number. A potential long-term extension in the near future could prove to be good value, the young cornerback trading away free agency opportunity for early, guaranteed dollars that might look like a steal of a deal for the team down the road. New England could choose to handle Butler's development and contract situation in a far different way than it did a decade earlier with Asante Samuel.

Jones' value also has to be weighed with his impact to the team's defense compared to the money he "deserves" on the open market. The Eagles just handed Vinny Curry -- a former second-round pick with 16.5 career sacks and no 10-sack seasons in his four years in the NFL – a five-year contract extension worth $47 million with $23 million guaranteed.

With that as a potential comp deal, Jones' camp may not be looking for $100 million Watt or Williams money, but he's surely shooting much higher than what Curry got having yet to make even a single NFL start as a rotational player for Philly.

No one would confuse Curry with an elite pass rusher, but the question is whether Jones deserves that description as well. Sure he's averaged nine sacks per year in his career and has his name among the best in the game statistically. But his production and health have faded as seasons have worn on over the years.

Jones missed games to injury in the second half of three of his four seasons. On the field or not, Jones' production has regularly dipped in the final eight games of each year. In his four seasons, 26.5 of his sacks have come in the first eight games while only 9.5 have come in the final eight. And five of those second-half sacks came in his only 16-game season in 2013.

There is also the minor issue of Jones' "medical emergency" during the Patriots playoff bye week, an incident he termed a "pretty stupid mistake" when he addressed it days later with the local media.

Put it all together and the Patriots have a decision to make with Jones in the coming months. Is he worthy of a long-term contract extension that might rise to say $60 million with half that guaranteed?

It's been suggested that the team could push off a decision until next spring, using the franchise tag on Jones and then attempting to trade him the way New England did in the past with guys like Matt Cassel and Tebucky Jones.

The problem with that is the fact that the defensive end franchise tag for this spring is estimated at $15.4 million and could rise beyond, say, $16 million next year with an ever-inflating cap.

Tagging Jones at such a number would require the team to not only have such cap space, but any team trading for him would also need said cap space before likely tearing up the deal and signing their new pass-rushing addition to a huge contract.

And there is the chance that New England, in such a scenario, could be on the hook to keep Jones at the massive franchise tag number. That would mean the Patriots would pay the pass rusher somewhere in the range of $24 million over the next two seasons.

A trade next spring, with all the financial implications for both sides, also may not recoup as much as many would expect. Cassel was a budding starting quarterback and brought just a second-round pick.

So, that brings the question as to whether Jones might be a possible trade option for the Patriots this spring. Could a team without a first-round pick look to add to its diminished draft haul by dealing Jones early? That would also immediately open up the $7.7 million on the cap that Jones is scheduled to earn this fall to be put to use elsewhere, either to sign players in free agency or in the in-house extensions for others.

Is Jones a great young player in line to make great money? Or, is he a good player looking to earn the great money that the NFL open market probably says he deserves?

In some ways, New England seems well prepared to deal its young, productive pass rusher. The team signed veteran Jabaal Sheard last offseason, and he notched eight sacks in his first year in Foxborough. The Patriots also took defensive ends Geneo Grissom and Trey Flowers in the middle rounds last spring, with Flowers in particular showing some potential last preseason. Either or both could join a rotation with Sheard and consistent veteran Rob Ninkovich at the end spot.

Bill Belichick has a lot of contract decisions to make in the very near future with the young core of his defense. The unit is as deep and talented overall as it has been in a long time. But developing young stars means you have to pay them at some point to keep them. That's where Jones, Hightower, Collins and Butler are.

In many ways, though, the Jones situation seems obvious. New England has a history of only giving long-term deals to players it truly sees as elite in the NFL world. Great players can get great contracts in Belichick's economic system. That's been proven with Richard Seymour, Logan Mankins, Vince Wilfork and plenty of others.

But good players looking for great money often end up leaving New England. That's been proven with the likes of Deion Branch, Samuel and others.

Is Jones a great young player in line to make great money? Or, is he a good player looking to earn the great money that the NFL open market probably says he deserves?

The answer to that question will likely decide Jones' future in New England.

And it wouldn't be a surprise if the answer leads to a potential trade for the former No. 1 pick and Pro Bowl pass rusher as it would seem unlikely that Jones, Hightower, Collins and Butler can all get the big-money contracts that their evolving talents probably are worthy of in the ever-growing NFL economy.

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