Mankins is taking guarded approach on contract

By Adam Kilgore
Globe Staff / December 31, 2009

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FOXBOROUGH - In the five years since the Patriots drafted him in the first round, guard Logan Mankins has become one of the NFL’s elite offensive linemen, a status affirmed Tuesday when he was named to the Pro Bowl for the second time in three years. Mankins, who takes pride in smashing defenders while the whistle echoes, grew up in a California town of less than 1,000 people. He never has missed an NFL game and is the kind of player who rarely speaks but makes an impact when he does.

Mankins said something yesterday that the Patriots will notice. He is in the final year of his first contract, and before yesterday he had not addressed that situation. But when asked about it, Mankins said his unresolved contract status, at times, wears on him.

“You think about it,’’ he said. “You see other guys signing extensions, and you wish you were one of those guys with an extension. You’ll have to ask the powers that be around here if I’m going to get one or not. Because I don’t know.’’

The league’s labor situation suggests Mankins will have to keep waiting. As it stands, the NFL will operate without a salary cap for 2010.

In a typical capped season, players with at least four years of service can become unrestricted free agents. Without a salary cap in place, though, players need six years.

Mankins, therefore, will be a restricted free agent, which gives the Patriots two options outside of simply renegotiating. They can either give him their franchise tag or tender him an offer at the highest RFA threshold. It seems likely the Patriots will use their franchise tag on Vince Wilfork, who will be an unrestricted free agent. So the Patriots probably will wait and tender Mankins.

Once the Patriots tender Mankins, any team that signs him to an offer sheet would have to surrender first- and third-round picks to the Patriots if they choose not to match. That threshold last year was $2.562 million, which is exceedingly affordable for a player of Mankins’s caliber.

Frank Bauer, Mankins’s agent, is confident the matter will be resolved. He said the delay between the Patriots and Mankins is symptomatic of the league.

“We’re all waiting to see what the new CBA is going to be,’’ Bauer said. “We talked with them a while back. We’re all in the same situation.’’

Bauer called Patriots owner Robert Kraft a “very, very, very smart’’ businessman who understands the current climate. He also believes the Patriots properly value Mankins, who has become one of the league’s best guards.

“They will renegotiate with Logan Mankins,’’ Bauer said. “They’re not going to let Logan Mankins get out of that place.

“It doesn’t bother them by waiting for so long. They’re going to either tender him or tag him. And they’ve got problems on both ends. They tender or tag him, and then we use our leverage.’’

Bauer was asked to clarify what that leverage is.

“I’m not letting any of that out of the bag,’’ Bauer said. “We have not talked. We will be talking. We’re very comfortable with the situation we’re in. Logan has always been one of those guys, he understands performance is what dictates future. And he has performed.’’

Another leaguewide factor is the escalating price for elite guards. Once, tackles generated the highest contracts for offensive linemen by a wide margin. Guards recently have closed, if not nearly eliminated, the gap.

Before last season, the Jets made guard Alan Faneca the highest-paid offensive lineman in league history by guaranteeing him $20 million. In 2007, the Bills gave Derrick Dockery the richest contract in team history to that point, worth up to $49 million. Steve Hutchinson and Leonard Davis also have signed rich contracts with the Vikings and Cowboys.

Mankins is not yet in their class financially, but few guards can match him on the field. After making his first Pro Bowl in 2007, Mankins settled for being an alternate last season.

“There were a few stretches there last year where I wasn’t too happy with the way I was playing,’’ he said.

Mankins focused more this year on his technique, which he said improved his consistency.

“I would say just that word, consistency,’’ coach Bill Belichick said. “He’s a very consistent player. He started for us since the day he got here and he’s been one of our most solid, consistent players day in and day out - practice, games, offseason, offseason program, offseason workouts, training camp. He’s really steady, consistent. And he’s good.’’

One player in the locker room has known Mankins longer than any other. In 2004, Ryan Wendell, now a practice squad offensive lineman, started as a freshman on the Fresno State line alongside Mankins, then a senior. Mankins was a team leader who let his play speak for him. In the six years since, Wendell said, nothing about Mankins has changed. The secret to his success is that there is no secret.

“Logan is the same as he was back then,’’ Wendell said. “The thing is, Logan is consistent. It’s not one big thing. You’re not going to get any stories. He comes in every day and does the job. He’s always worked hard. That’s why he does well. That’s why he did well back then. That’s why he does well now.’’

Playing a position of constant violence, Mankins has started 79 NFL games, never missing a Sunday. He attributes his durability partly to “a little luck.’’ But his approach also helps.

“I want to be out there,’’ Mankins said. “I feel it’s my job to be here playing, and I want to be on the field. I don’t want to ever have to watch a game. I’m going to do what it takes to be out there.’’

Now he’ll wait to see whether the Patriots do what it takes to keep him here. They have a stable foundation on their offensive line, using roughly the same group since Mankins’s arrival. Stephen Neal is also in the final year of his contract, and Mankins would prefer that the Patriots maintain the offensive line from one of the NFL’s most prolific attacks.

“We’ve been together for a quite a while now, and I’d like to continue it,’’ Mankins said. “They’re good guys in the locker room, off the field and on the field. We’ve won a lot of games around here together, and I’d like to keep us together.’’

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