The biggest play of Super Bowl LIII was made by a guy the Patriots acquired for free.
The best defensive player on the field in the AFC Championship Game was brought to New England under similar circumstances. His team no longer wanted him, and the Patriots swooped in with the irresistible offer of shipping a sixth-round pick for the player and a seventh-round pick.
This is how the Patriots acquired Kyle Van Noy in 2016 (still a baffling move from Detroit’s perspective) and Jason McCourty a year ago (not quite as ridiculous, but nevertheless one-sided). It’s how the Patriots consistently fill in the gaps on their roster.
They’ve mastered the art of the “pick swap” trade, taking plug-and-play veterans while surrendering little draft capital. Many of these deals carry almost no risk for the Patriots. So Bill Belichick and Nick Caserio keep making them.
I define a “pick swap” trade as a player and a pick in exchange for a slightly better pick (within two rounds). For example, the Raiders traded offensive lineman Kelechi Osemele and a sixth-round pick to the Jets for a fifth-round pick earlier this offseason. This would qualify as a “pick swap” trade. A team dealing a player and a fourth-round pick for a first-round pick would not.
Based on that definition, consider the frequency with which the Patriots make these deals: Since 2014, there have been 43 such trades, according to data compiled by Spotrac.com and the NFL’s transaction wire. The Patriots have been involved in 14 of them, or 32.5 percent. Next in line: the Browns and Raiders (six apiece); the Eagles, Broncos, 49ers, and Buccaneers (five); and the Steelers, Ravens, Dolphins, and Cowboys (four).
The Browns and Raiders, who have spent the past half-decade in rebuilding mode, are on the “selling” end of these trades. They’re usually dumping the player to move up the draft board, even if it’s only a few dozen spots. The Patriots, perpetually contending, are buyers. In all 14 of their “pick swap” trades, they’ve acquired a veteran and dropped down the draft board.
My first thought: Why aren’t other contending teams seeking out these trades as often as the Patriots are?
“A lot of teams aren’t sold out to winning, or trying to gain every possible edge,” said Evan Silva, who covers the NFL for Rotoworld and NBC Sports. “The Eagles are. The Patriots are. And the Patriots are in a tier unto themselves in terms of cornering market inefficiencies and just hammering them.”
Salary cap expert Jason Fitzgerald, the founder of OverTheCap.com, said many teams are reluctant to take on sizable cap hits in a trade, especially when there’s a chance the player could get cut and become an unrestricted free agent.
“When you look at the salaries for players who have been cut from a team versus those who actually hit unrestricted free agency, its a major disparity,” Fitzgerald said. “Depending on where their salary lies at that point of the contract I think some teams just think its too expensive for the player. If he is going to be cut, they could try to get him for cheaper. I think New England doesn’t worry as much about that so they jump on some of these trades.”
Silva also pointed out that the Patriots “embrace the variance” of the NFL Draft more so than other teams. In other words, they’re fine with dropping 40-50 picks in the middle of the draft for a proven veteran because the hit rate at the end of the third round and the beginning of the fifth round probably isn’t all that different.
“They just have an understanding of the pitfalls of the NFL Draft,” Silva said.
When the Patriots traded for Trent Brown a year ago, they gave San Francisco the No. 95 pick and acquired the No. 143 pick, which they used to select linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley. There’s a solid chance Bentley ends up as a better player than anyone picked in the 90s. That’s just how the draft goes in the middle and late rounds.
In the end, the breakdown from the trade looks like this:
San Francisco received: the No. 95 pick (safety Tarvarius Moore), cap relief from Brown’s base salary
New England received: a starting left tackle in 2018, the No. 143 pick (Bentley), and likely a 2020 third-round compensatory pick for Brown’s departure in free agency.
The outgoing 2018 third-round selection and the incoming 2020 third-round selection cancel out. This means the Pats got one year of Brown and Bentley essentially for free. That’s absolute best-case scenario.
They don’t always work out as perfectly as the Brown trade, but the Patriots usually see some positive return. Of the 14 players acquired in pick-swap deals, only Kony Ealy and James O’Shaughnessy failed to make the team out of training camp. Van Noy, Brown, McCourty, Martellus Bennett, and Josh Gordon became starters. Dwayne Allen, Cordarrelle Patterson, Danny Shelton, Jonathan Casillas, Akeem Ayers and Keshawn Martin filled specific roles. All were acquired at a minimal cost.
“They’re literally getting a good player for nothing,” Silva said. “And they don’t have to negotiate a new contract with him if he was released. And they’re filling these needs with pick swap trades so they don’t have to cost themselves compensatory picks in the free agent market.”
The Pats pulled off one “pick swap” deal this offseason, bringing in defensive end Michael Bennett from Philadelphia. After laying low in free agency, they have plenty of holes to fill. Holding three picks in the third round of the draft, the Pats could easily drop to the fourth or fifth if an impact veteran becomes available on the trade market.
I’d be surprised if the Bennett trade is the last “pick swap” deal of 2019.
THE MOSS DEBATE
It was an honor to represent The Herald this year on the Patriots Hall of Fame Nomination Committee. After considering many opinions and perspectives, I submitted these three players on my ballot: Mike Vrabel, Richard Seymour, and Rodney Harrison.
All three unquestionably deserve to make it. Vrabel has been a finalist in three consecutive years. Seymour has been on the ballot the past two years. We’ll see if Harrison makes his first appearance on the final ballot for fan vote.
The committee’s most intriguing conversation centered on the candidacy of Randy Moss, who played three seasons (and change) with the Patriots. Moss’ peak was unparalleled. He turned in the single greatest season in NFL history for a wide receiver and was the most important skill position player on the best team ever. The guy scored 50 touchdowns in 52 regular season games with the Pats. Just absurd.
I tend to favor peak performance over longevity in these arguments (for instance, I’d rank Shaq over Tim Duncan), but in this case I had Moss just behind Harrison for the No. 3 spot on the ballot. Harrison was similarly dominant at the beginning of his New England tenure. He won two Super Bowls and was a major influence on a pair of elite defenses.
Harrison was a member of the Patriots for six seasons, but longevity isn’t necessarily carrying him into The Hall. He played only 63 regular-season games with the Pats due to injuries and a suspension. For me, it was an extremely close call between Harrison and Moss.
It’ll be interesting to see what happens to the runner-ups after this year. Some heavy-hitters become eligible soon, as Logan Mankins (2020), Wes Welker (2020) and Vince Wilfork (2021) could delay the entry of several deserving candidates.
The 2019 finalists will be announced within a few weeks. Fans can vote on Patriots.com.
Two dates to remember: April 19 and May 7.
The first is when restricted free agents, like Jonathan Jones and Josh Gordon, must sign their offer sheets. There’s no reason to believe either will be swiped away by other teams. A team would need to part with a second-round pick to sign Jones and a third-round pick to sign Gordon.
Any free agents signed after May 7 will not affect a team’s compensatory pick formula. As the Patriots likely will receive comp picks for the departures of Trey Flowers, Trent Brown, Malcom Brown and possibly Cordarrelle Patterson, they may hold steady until after the draft so they can preserve their picks. Perhaps a few other teams are using the same strategy.
Don’t be surprised to see free agents like Austin Seferian-Jenkins sign after May 7 has passed.