Contract years in all sports can be a tricky thing. Sometimes players thrive in the last year of their deal, setting themselves up to hit free agency at a high level in order to cash in during the offseason. Others don't handle that external pressure as well and don't perform to their capabilities, often costing themselves millions in the process.
In the NFL that pressure can be magnified due to the lack of consistent guaranteed contracts and the relative short career-span for the average player. Still, there have been plenty of players who have hit the jackpot in free agency after enjoying strong seasons as their contracts were set to expire, and the Patriots will have a handful of players in that situation in 2018.
Last season, Dion Lewis took over the lead running back role in the second half of the year and established career highs while staying healthy throughout. He parlayed that into a nice contract with Tennessee, and no doubt some Patriots will be looking to do the same thing this year.
There are several candidates who might fall into that category. Some - like Jordan Matthews, Danny Shelton, Jason McCourty and Jeremy Hill - are new to New England and are looking at year of success with the Patriots as something a chance to springboard into more opportunities. Others - such as Shaq Mason, Trey Flowers, Malcom Brown and Eric Rowe - have been around and are finishing up their rookie deals.
So, there is a lot to choose from and it will be interesting to see which players handle the situation well enough to put themselves in an enviable position in 2019.
This week's Samsonite Make Your Case questions is: Which player entering the final year of his contract will have the best season?
PFW's Andy Hart says …
Flowers has been successful during his time in New England despite the fact that he's largely been forced to represent the pass rush on his own. Now he might have some help in the form of Adrian Clayborn and Derek Rivers, and perhaps the timing of him entering his free agent season will work to his benefit.
Flowers has been the team's most consistent edge player the last two seasons and his presence in the postseason - where he's performed well - has no doubt caught the attention of team's around the league. He's set to become a free agent after the season, and a double-digit sack season will make him a pretty valuable commodity on the open market if the Patriots are unable to retain him.
He may not be the flashiest player on the Patriots defense but few have been more productive since he entered the lineup in 2016. Flowers will continue his strong play and set himself up nicely for the future.
PFW's Paul Perillo says …
There was a time when interior offensive linemen didn't attract much attention or money in free agency but those times have past. Mason is as athletically gifted as any guard in football, and given the amount of money being tossed at inferior players in past offseasons it's safe to say he'll get plenty of attention.
Mason has the ability to work in space and as a power blocker thanks to his quick feet and large frame. He's been a strong part of the Patriots offensive line for three seasons working in one of the best offenses in football. Teams always look at available Patriots, and one who has been as successful as Mason will attract plenty of offers.
There's always a chance the team is able to reach an agreement on an extension, but that won't be easy given the huge dollars Mason will command. Assuming he continues his consistently solid play, he'll enter free agency in an enviable position.
Now it's your turn to cast a vote in this week's Samsonite Make Your Case poll question.