With Tebucky Jones set to become an unrestricted free agent on Feb. 28, the Patriots have an interesting decision to make regarding their veteran safety and standout special teamer who just completed his fifth year as a Patriot. But what happens to Jones could be directly tied to fellow safety Lawyer Milloy and his future with the team.
According to the NFL Players Association, Milloy's salary is scheduled to jump from $525,000 in 2002 to $4.4 million in 2003 in what is the fourth year of a seven-year, $35 million pact. Therefore, if the Patriots tag Jones with the franchise label, which would guarantee him $3.043 million for one season or even the transition tag ($2.769 million for one season), they would have two of the league's highest paid safeties and their starters at free and strong safety would account for nearly 10 percent of the 2003 salary cap.
That's not likely to happen, which means if the Patriots re-sign Jones, they need a deal that is cap friendly early on and that escalates to something that makes the average of the deal acceptable to Jones and his agent, Gary Wichard.
But that's where Milloy's contract enters the picture. Milloy's seven-year contract had two tiers. The first was a four-year, $15 million portion that included $6 million up front. Following the fourth season (2003), the Patriots can pick up the remaining three years by paying Milloy a $2 million bonus, but those last three years account for $20 million of the $35 million total package.
That would seem to be too much money to pay a strong safety heading into years 9-11 – even one that has been as solid as Milloy. That puts some pressure on the Patriots decision makers. They must accurately judge Milloy's play and place a value on it now rather than after the 2003 season – especially if they hope to re-sign Jones. Could they afford to lose both Jones (this year) and Milloy (next)? Anything is possible, but that doesn't seem to be ideal or even likely.
Milloy went to his fourth Pro Bowl in 2002, but will be entering his ninth season in the league at one of the game's most physically demanding positions when the team is faced with picking up the option.
That means the Patriots could face the difficult decision of letting one of their best players and most active team leaders test free agency if they don't pick up the option. They also could simply restructure his contract before or after the season – a viable alternative. Milloy appears to be a Belichick favorite, which could play into the decision, although the coach tends to be able to separate business from emotion.
Regardless, a decision on Milloy could affect Jones' negotiation. If New England doesn't figure to pick up the option on Milloy's contract, they could re-sign Jones to a long-term deal, knowing that Milloy's high cap number won't be around long.
Jones would then take over as the veteran in the back of the secondary and could conceivably be moved to strong safety in 2004. That scenario also could make it somewhat feasible to have two of the highest paid safeties in the league knowing it's for only one season.
Either way, there is not likely room for two high-priced safeties over the long haul. Jones is entering his sixth season and only his fourth at safety. However, he battled a muscle injury in his leg during mini camp and training camp his rookie season and again during the 1999 and 2002 seasons. In his career, he has played in 72 of a possible 80 games. Milloy, conversely, has been a picture of durability and has never missed a game.
Belichick and Scott Pioli face some tough decisions.