In the wake of the Patriots’ shocking trade of linebacker Jamie Collins to the Cleveland Browns on Monday, it’s now Super Bowl or bust for New England.
There were small rumblings of discontent last year after a series of questionable moves (poor coaching in New England’s Week 13 loss to Philadelphia) cost the Patriots home-field advantage in the playoffs, which likely helped swing the AFC Championship Game in favor of the Broncos. But if New England again fails to win the Lombardi Trophy this season, even the most ardent “In Bill We Trust” droids will question the recent defensive moves made by Patriots coach/demigod Bill Belichick, leading to thoughts that were once considered heresy: has the 64-year-old Hall-of-Famer-in-waiting started to lose his touch?
In March, the Patriots traded defensive end Chandler Jones for a second-round pick and former first-round guard Jonathan Cooper. The trade was understandable at the time because the Patriots were not going to pay market value ($15 million per year) for Jones, an inconsistent player who was going to be a free agent after the 2016 season. The second-round pick was more than the 2018 third-round compensatory selection the Patriots could have expected if they let Jones play out his contract and leave in free agency, so it made sense.
How has it worked out? Cooper was a complete bust and released, while Jones has gotten off to a great start this season for the Cardinals—ProFootballFocus.com rated Jones as the second-best pass rusher among edge players. Meanwhile, the Patriots are playing good bend-but-don’t-break defense (third in the league at 16.5 points allowed), but they’re struggling to get off the field as they’re No. 18 in third-down percentage and No. 27 in sack rate. Veteran Chris Long, a cheaper replacement, has not picked up Jones’ pass-rushing slack.
Collins was also in a contract year but this time the compensation is puzzling because it’s only a third-round pick, and it’s not even the Browns’ selection that would most likely be the first pick in the round. It’s a compensatory selection at the bottom, which will be tradable for the first time this year.
Collins, 27, was a second-round pick in 2013, but it quickly became evident that he had the physical skills that could make him one of the league’s best players. Collins is 6' 3", 250 pounds, long limbed, is fast and can jump out of buildings. There isn’t anything, from rushing the passer to covering slot receivers, that he can’t do on the field. And analysts, especially NBC’s Cris Collinsworth, were known to fawn over Collins.
But there was a lot of subtle inconsistencies to his play. Some days he’d completely dominate and make leaping blocks of field goals, and in other games, you wouldn’t notice him. Collins has never been the most cerebral player, but when the Patriots put him in position to utilize his best assets (coming forward on blitzes, or reading the eyes of the quarterback in the middle of the field and getting in passing lanes), Collins was one of the best defensive players in the league. You could argue that for the seven games Collins played last season (durability is another issue, and he doesn’t appear to be 100% now), he was the best player in the league with 5.5 sacks, five forced fumbles, six passes defensed and an interception. He had two gifted interceptions this season as well.
But with fellow linebacker Dont’a Hightower also in a contract year and unable to reach extensions with either, the Patriots were likely going to have to choose one or the other. It’s now clear that the Patriots view Hightower as their defensive leader of the future and are free to use the franchise tag on him.
The Patriots have also received very inspired play from rookie linebacker Elandon Roberts, just traded for Lions linebacker Kyle Van Noy (former second-round pick) and previously acquired Barkevious Mingo (former first-round pick) from the Browns. Obviously, New England thinks that the best pieces of each of those players (Roberts, a sideline to sideline tackling machine; Van Noy, a fleet-footed cover guy; and Mingo, an athletic pass rusher) can compensate for the near complete package Collins had.
That’s all well and good, but it’s certainly arguable that the Patriots’ most talented defense would have featured both Jones and Collins. The Patriots could have had that if they simply decided to let each player play out their contracts and walk in free agency.
Last season, the Patriots lost two games down the stretch to teams that hired new coaches in the off-season (Eagles and Dolphins), and it cost them home-field advantage in the playoffs. Each game featured some dubious coaching decisions (mortar kick against the Eagles, and running or throwing to only the running backs on their first 19 plays in a loss to Miami in the final game) that cost them a possible shot at the Super Bowl. If the AFC Championship Game was at Gillette Stadium instead of Mile High, the Patriots likely don’t lose 20–18 to the Broncos.
Belichick was largely given a pass for those decisions because he’s more than earned it, but if the Patriots fail to win the Super Bowl this season after Jones and Collins trades, the criticism will be real and unrelenting. New England regularly preaches about their financial discipline, the importance of depth and how no one is above the team.
The Patriots and Belichick may indeed be right again. New England is the most complete team in the AFC, and is the odds-on favorite to win another Super Bowl title. But if the team fails to deliver, New England will be talking about the Jones and Collins deals for years to come and, for the first time in a long time, questioning whether Belichick still makes all the right moves.