Jamie Collins and The Patriots’ Way

Collins, a dynamic linebacker who could’ve helped the Pats come January, was traded to the winless Browns. Why?
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The NFL trade deadline isn’t until 4 p.m. on Tuesday, but the Patriots already pulled off this year’s biggest stunner. The best team in the AFC at the season’s halfway point just shipped away a cornerstone of its defense for … a compensatory third-round pick … really?

Bill Belichick’s decision to trade linebacker Jamie Collins to the Browns the day before the deadline raised eyebrows around the league. Of course, there are a few rules of thumb when it comes to the Patriots’ personnel moves: 1) There’s always more than meets the eye, and 2) A message is usually being sent.

The Patriots traded Jamie Collins to the Browns for a third-round compensatory pick.

The Patriots traded Jamie Collins to the Browns for a third-round compensatory pick.

Collins, a second-round pick in 2013, used his size and athleticism to become an impact player for the Patriots. He led the team with 89 tackles last season and also forced five fumbles (tying a franchise record), a testament to his play-making instincts. Collins played 100% of the defensive snaps in the first four games this season, though in an apparent foreshadowing of Monday’s move, his playing dipped to 62% of the snaps in Sunday’s win over the Bills. Multiple opposing coaches consider Collins to have been the best player on the Patriots’ defense. And therein lies the message: If he can be shipped off to the 0-8 Browns, no one is safe.

We often wonder how Belichick gets grown men to buy in, sometimes to the point of willingly taking less than market value in order to be a part of a perennial Super Bowl contender. The Collins trade seems to be one of those moves that reinforces falling in line with The Patriot Way.

Collins is in the final year of his rookie deal and his success over the past two seasons has set him up for a big payday. Shortly after the trade was executed, ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported that Collins was at one point asking for a contract in the ballpark of Von Miller’s six-year, $114.5 million pact with the Broncos. Belichick isn’t going to pay that kind of money to a linebacker when he isn’t paying Tom Brady that much.

It’s not uncommon for the Patriots to trade away a player entering the final year of his contract whom they don’t plan to extend. They did it with Chandler Jones in March. But the difference with the Jones trade is that New England got value beyond what it would have gotten if he’d just walked as a free agent. They received from Arizona guard Jonathan Cooper, who proved to be a bust in New England as well, but also the Cardinals’ second-round pick, especially valuable in a year when the Patriots had no first-rounder. In the Collins trade, however, the Patriots reportedly will get the Browns’ compensatory third-round pick in 2017, if Cleveland is awarded one. Those are the picks at the end of the round awarded to teams in compensation for top performers who walked the previous year in free agency. The Patriots get a more immediate return by trading Collins now, but if they had kept him for the rest of the season and then let him walk in free agency, they would have received a similar return: a compensatory pick, potentially as high as the third round, in 2018.

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Another leak of information trickled out shortly after the trade went through, from Mike Lombardi, a Belichick confidant who spent the last two seasons as an assistant to the coaching staff before moving on this summer. On Twitter, Lombardi pointed out a 28-yard run by the Bills early in the Patriots’ 41-25 win on Sunday. “Collins on the second play of the game does whatever he wants and Bills gain 28 yards,” Lombardi wrote. “Been happening all year. It was not going to continue.”

Multiple opposing coaches scoffed at the description of Collins as a freelancing liability—including Cleveland’s Hue Jackson, who traded for Collins three weeks after game-planning against him. “The way he freelances is OK with me,” Jackson told reporters in Cleveland. The Browns spent most of their offseason cleaning house so that they could have space to add young building blocks. They view Collins, a 27-year-old in his prime, as part of the foundation for the future.

The Patriots clearly thought differently and used him to send a message to a defense that has been mediocre this season: It’s never about the individual. If not to send a message, why else would a notoriously secretive organization let Collins’s contract demands, or flaws in his play while he was a member of their roster, get out?

Will it work, or will one of the league’s few Super Bowl contenders come to regret abandoning one of their most dynamic playmakers? One way or another, the Collins trade might be the most pivotal moment for the Patriots this season.

* * *

Tie games are the comedic relief of the NFL. Inevitably, there is a player—or this week, a head coach (Jay Gruden)—who admits that he didn’t know teams could tie until it happened. There’s also a Charlie Brown-esque sense of football futility in the fact that, in the golden era of offense, neither of two professional football teams can manage to score any points when given 15 extra minutes to break the tie.

I actually don’t mind ties. Both ties this season, Seahawks-Cards in Week 7 and Bengals-Washington in Week 8, were two of the more compelling games so far this season, at least in my book. But the occurrence of two ties in one season for the first time since 1997 has prompted a fresh round of questioning the OT rules, at least from fans and pundits.

Don’t expect anything to change. In talking with a few people around the league, my understanding is the NFL competition committee is largely satisfied with the OT rules as they are. The committee does have a few new members this year: Tom Coughlin, John Elway and Bruce Arians. But I’d be surprised if there would be enough support to make a push for any kind of OT rule change when the committee meets in February. The NFL just updated its OT rules in 2012 to the current modified sudden-death format, so another change so soon would be unlikely.

* * *

The Fine 15

1. New England (7-1). LW: 1. We knew Tom Brady would come back with a vengeance but this, at age 39, is ridiculous. Their defense isn’t perfect, but they’re still the most complete team in the NFL.

2. Dallas (6-1). LW: 4. I’d been waiting to see how Dak Prescott would respond when he had to lead his team from behind. He passed that test in a big way Sunday night. There’s no turning back from the rookie now.

3. Denver (6-2). LW: 5. Says a lot about the depth of the Broncos’ roster that their secondary played that well even with Aqib Talib sidelined.

4. Minnesota (5-2). LW: 2. The problems on the offensive line haven’t improved. Jon Gruden said it well on the MNF broadcast: Without the defense forcing turnovers, or scoring on its own, the Vikings are struggling to score enough points to win.

5. Seattle (4-2-1). LW: 3. There’s reason for concern in Seattle. Russell Wilson hasn’t scored a TD since Week 4. He gutted through early-season ankle and knee injuries, but it’s clear they’re still bothering him, and the Seahawks’ bye week is already in the rearview mirror.

6. Pittsburgh (4-3). LW: 6. It’s hard to believe, but the Steelers haven’t won a game in a month. Back to back losses, then a bye week. Getting Ben Roethlisberger back from his knee injury would help them get back on track.

7. Kansas City (5-2). LW: 8. Good news came Monday that Alex Smith did not suffer a concussion. The Chiefs said there was a miscommunication of information to the media on game day, but kudos to the team for bringing out head athletic trainer Rick Burkholder on Monday to explain how the concussion protocol was applied to Smith. Transparency helps everyone.

8. Oakland (6-2). LW: 11. The defense has had some ups and downs this season, but this team is the real deal because Derek Carr has been consistently good. Just take a look at his TD:INT ratio. It’s 17:3.

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9. Atlanta (5-3). LW: 10. Sunday’s win was a statement that this team is not the same one that folded after a hot start last season. With Julio Jones doubled and a little hobbled, Matt Ryan did well spreading the ball around to the other guys on the field.

10. Green Bay (4-3). LW: 9. The bad news: They lost. The good news: That was the best performance we’ve seen from Aaron Rodgers all season.

11. Philadelphia (4-3). LW: 7. The Eagles badly need an upgrade at the receiver position. They’re not doing their young QB any favors with this group of targets.

12. Washington (4-3-1). LW: 14. Kirk Cousins and the offense continue to get better. Except in the red zone.

13. Cincinnati (3-4-1). LW: 18. Tyler Eifert’s big day (nine catches, 102 yards, 1 TD) reinforced how much this Bengals team had been missing him.

14. Buffalo (4-4). LW: 13. This is how bad the injury situation is for the Bills’ offense. Robert Woods, who has been in a walking boot, was forced into emergency duty in Sunday’s game because the Bills were down to just two other receivers. They really need that bye week. But first, they have a trip to Seattle.

15. Houston (5-3). LW: UR. I’ll own up to the fact that these guys have been yo-yoing all over my rankings. That’s because I have no idea where to put them. One week they look dreadful; the next they beat a pretty good Lions team. Work in progress.

Also receiving consideration:

16. Detroit (4-4). LW: 12.
17. New York Giants (4-3). LW: 15.
18. New Orleans (3-4). LW: UR.
19. San Diego (3-5). LW: 17.
20. Miami (3-4). LW: 20.

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