Mankins contract big issue for Patriots

The theme of the New England Patriots' offseason has been identifying their keepers and re-signing them. Vince Wilfork, Kevin Faulk, Stephen Neal, Leigh Bodden and Tully Banta-Cain have new contracts they're happy with.

The same can't be said for another important player. Logan Mankins, a two-time Pro Bowl guard, remains unsigned and might be headed for a contentious summer.

Mankins is one of the couple hundred free agents affected by the uncapped year. He was supposed to be unrestricted, but the rules rendered him restricted and unable to control his own fate.

On Sunday, Patriots owner Robert Kraft said, "I really hope Logan will be with us for the long term. That is our objective."

Mankins' agent, Frank Bauer, told the Boston Herald: "There has been discussions. We're pretty far apart. Let's leave it at that."

Mankins has missed the offseason conditioning program so far. Bauer declined to say whether Mankins would attend upcoming organized team activities or mandatory minicamp in June.

Mankins and Bauer certainly noticed when the New Orleans Saints signed guard Jahri Evans to a seven-year contract worth $56.7 million.

Evans was a 2006 fourth-round draft choice and is coming off his first Pro Bowl season. He also was first-team All-Pro. Mankins was New England's first-round pick in 2005. He has been to a pair of Pro Bowls, including last year.

In light of Evans' whopping contract, I recently discussed Mankins' situation with National Football Post president Andrew Brandt, a former Green Bay Packers vice president who handled contracts and the salary cap.

Mankins' situation was aggravating from the start because he was one of 212 "limbo free agents," as Brandt calls them. If not for the uncapped season, Mankins would be cashing in with the biggest contract of his career.

Instead, the Patriots were able to tender a one-year, $3.3 million offer. If Mankins refuses to sign it by June 15, then the Patriots can drop the offer to 110 percent of last year's salary, or about $1.5 million.

"It just creates this frustrating situation for a player with a tender," Brandt said, "where in any other year he'd be free to shop his services."

In a column for National Football Post, Brandt breaks down how guard salaries escalated to where they are today. The standard was around $7 million a season from 2006 through 2008, but then the New York Jets signed Alan Faneca to a deal that averaged $8 million annually.

Evans' contract surpassed Faneca's record-breaker in terms of average salary and is second in guaranteed money.

Mankins, however, can't force the Patriots to give him a similar deal.

"His only leverage is pointing to what other teams have done in terms of the Evans deal," Brandt said. "However, the team response -- and I've been there -- is, 'We don't do deals based on what other people do.'

"His leverage is that he's a good player they want to keep happy."

The Patriots have significant money already tied up in veteran players. They've already invested roughly $80 million this offseason and still have to keep Tom Brady happy. The face of the franchise is entering the final year of his contract.

"Obviously, the Brady situation and other free agents are going to impact Mankins," Brandt said. "Priorities are important. It's all about priorities and budgets. Like any other team, they have to find out where those two things lie.

"Without a salary cap, teams have taken to creating their own salary caps, which translate to the word 'budget.' The real reason we're not seeing big deals is the uncertain labor situation, which is in turn causing teams to budget their player costs [lower] than they would."

One possibility for Mankins could be a lucrative extension that doesn't begin until 2011. The Patriots would promise Mankins his money while delaying costs for another year.

"I think that's possible as long as there's some sort of sufficient guarantee where the amount fits in terms of the marketplace and the future years," Brandt said. "If budget's an issue, you try to defer the big costs until next year.

"With an extension that adds years to a contract, there has to be guaranteed security for the player. That's usually in signing bonus or other guaranteed money. The only way to do that is to provide a sufficient level of guaranteed money, according to the marketplace."

The marketplace changed significantly with the Evans contract, and it made satisfying Mankins that much more difficult to achieve.