New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick views his players as commodities. That can often create an icy-cold vibe around everything that goes in Foxborough, but in principle he’s not wrong. In the salary-cap era, getting max value for each dollar is critically important, as is reeling in the best return for a player on an expiring contract if you don’t intend to re-sign him.
But at some point the two main visions of any team—managing the cap and doing so in a way that still provides the best opportunity to win championships—need to align. By trading linebacker Jamie Collins the Patriots may have gone beyond peak Belichick.
The emotionless hooded wizard has reached the summit of his roster-management approach, and he’s now teetering at the top. He risks tumbling down and shattering both his reputation as a shrewd team manager and, more importantly, the Patriots’ title chances in 2016.
The Patriots sent Collins, who was easily their best defensive playmaker, to the Cleveland Browns in exchange for a third-round compensatory pick. Adam Schefter of ESPN first reported the stunning blockbuster completed one day before the NFL’s trade deadline.
As Schefter also reported, the rumored payday Collins is looking for after his rookie contract expires at the end of 2016 would reflect his unique talent.
With Jamie Collins contract coming up, he was at one point asking for what one league source described as “Von Miller money." Von: 6-$114.5M
— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) October 31, 2016
Whether the money eventually given to Collins comes close to the Broncos’ Von Miller and his massive deal is a question we’ll have answered in the offseason.
Right now we definitively know the answer to a different question: Did the Patriots want to invest heavily in Collins and commit to a long-term extension? (No.)
Sure, the franchise tag was always an option. But as former agent Joel Corry noted, towing that one-year contract anchor wasn’t appealing for a franchise that needs to secure Dont’a Hightower, another core linebacker playing through the final year of his contract.
Patriots weren’t going to franchise Jamie Collins anyway. LB franchise tag will be around $14.66M with a $168M 2017 salary cap.
— Joel Corry (@corryjoel) October 31, 2016
The Collins trade then comes down to a matter of what will sting more. Or, if you prefer, what’s more bizarre.
Would it have hurt to lose Collins at the end of the season for nothing—or close to it—as he nears free agency and his trade value drops? Absolutely, but the cost to avoid that fate is equally terrifying.
Belichick shipped this latest hot commodity off with a view toward the long term. That much is obvious, but he’s also done it while significantly hurting the team’s short-term outlook.
By any measurement the Patriots are a championship-contending team with an average defense. They incredibly lead the AFC at 7-1 despite not having quarterback Tom Brady for four games. A steamrolling offense is supported by a defense that ranks 17th in passing yards allowed per game, 12th in rushing yards and 14th in overall yards.
Nothing is disastrous there, but nothing is imposing either. Collins was one of the few playmaking defensive threats the Patriots fielded each week, and his athleticism made him the ultimate dynamic movable piece Belichick usually drools over.
He’s skilled and comfortable in space when dropping back in coverage. The 27-year-old who’s just entering his prime has already grabbed two interceptions in 2016, and overall he remains one of the best pass defenders at his position. Collins has allowed a reception once every 12.9 cover snaps in 2016, according to Pro Football Focus, which ranks tied for second among 4-3 outside linebackers.
Collins might have room to grow, which is scary as he still hasn’t reached the limit of what can be done with his athleticism. In coverage he doesn’t function like a linebacker at all and instead often moves like a safety.
That’s only the beginning of our brow-furrowing from the Patriots’ short-term perspective. The soul of their defense now finds himself playing elsewhere and is apparently at peace with it.
Bus Cook, Jamie Collins agent: “The thinking is, if they don’t want me, go someplace that does.” Collins knows the records. Still OK with it
— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) October 31, 2016
Against the run Collins morphs back into linebacker mode. He’s tied for sixth at his position with 10 defensive stops in 2016, again per PFF. That comes after a season in 2015 when he finished eighth with 26 stops even while missing four games.
The bonus defensive gravy served with his effectiveness against both the run and pass is the presence Collins can bring as a pass-rusher. He’s recorded 10.5 sacks over his last 34 games dating back to the beginning of 2014.
He’s a complete defender, the kind who’s worthy of a steep financial investment. Every team and every negotiation has its limits, but with $53.2 million in projected cap space for 2017 according to Spotrac, the Patriots had room to work with.
Even if Collins crossed that dotted dollar line, he was the rare talent worth keeping around until his contract expired and then inviting the risk of a departure. Now the Patriots’ long-term defensive plans have been rocked, and their short-term championship aspirations could take a gut shot too.
Belichick has done more than wandered down this road before. He’s sprinted briskly while whistling as he traded away the likes of wide receiver Deion Branch, defensive tackle Richard Seymour and, more recently, defensive end Chandler Jones in the prime of their Patriots careers.
The championship-contending machine always keeps humming. But eventually Belichick’s dance with cold commodification will turn sour when too many key cogs are removed.
He may have reached a tipping point with Collins. We’ll find out in January—or sooner.