The New England Patriots are at a crossroads that hasn’t been seen with this franchise for decades.
Sunday’s outcome in the Patriots-Buffalo Bills game could be the difference in the team playing for this season or preparing for the future.
With the NFL trade deadline on Tuesday, the Patriots will need to decide if they will be buyers or sellers. Could Bill Belichick actually wave the white flag and trade assets? Considering that the Patriots have made the playoffs the last 11 years in a row and 16 of the last 17 seasons, that would be shocking.
It doesn’t mean it would be the wrong move.
Heading into Week 8, the Patriots have a 2-4 record for the first time since the 2000 season. This is after a 33-6 loss to the San Francisco 49ers, Belichick’s worst home defeat since he was hired as head coach. A loss to the Bills wouldn’t end the Pats’ season but it would create a difficult hole to get out of on their way to making the playoffs. For much of the season, the Patriots haven’t looked like a playoff team and, clearly, they have plenty of holes on both offense and defense.
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That raises the question: If the Patriots lose to Buffalo, should they trade away their assets and compile future draft picks?
Belichick has a history of trading talented veteran players for draft capital.
You can argue whether he got enough in return for certain players, but in the end, the trade return is all about whom the Patriots draft. Early in the Patriots dynasty, Belichick traded veteran assets in deals that had inconsistent returns.
Some of those trades were not shocking. For example, in 2002, no one questioned the decision to trade Drew Bledsoe to the Buffalo Bills for a first-round pick. The Pats ended up selecting defensive lineman Ty Warren, who started for six straight seasons.
In 2006, Belichick traded his team’s No. 1 receiver, Deion Branch, to the Seattle Seahawks for a first-round pick. You can’t argue with that. That pick, however, turned out to be safety Brandon Meriweather. He didn’t live up to the first-round billing, and the Patriots’ offense certainly would have been better off with Branch. Had the Patriots drafted the next safety selected, Eric Weddle, that trade would not have looked bad.
Between the 2009 and 2010 seasons, Belichick traded four veterans in three separate deals. In 2009, the Patriots sent quarterback Matt Cassel and linebacker Mike Vrabel to Kansas City for a second-round pick. That turned into safety Patrick Chung, who was better in his second stint (2014-2019) with the Patriots than his first (2009-2012).
The shocker that year was that Belichick traded All-Pro defensive lineman Richard Seymour to the Oakland Raiders for a 2011 first-round pick. Seymour earned two more Pro Bowls with the Raiders but played just four more seasons. The Pats, meanwhile, turned that draft pick into left tackle Nate Solder, who protected Tom Brady’s blindside for seven seasons.
Then, in 2010, Belichick shipped the disgruntled Randy Moss to Minnesota for a third-round pick. That was a solid return for a player who wanted out of Foxboro. However, the pick turned out to be quarterback Ryan Mallett, so we’ll call it a wash.
Not afraid to trade talent
Over the last six years, Belichick has been quick to deal talented players. Many of these deals happened due to contract demands. The success of these deals allowed the Patriots to rebuild while continuing to win.
In 2014, Belichick shocked his players when he dealt All-Pro guard Logan Mankins to Tampa Bay for tight end Tim Wright and a fourth-round pick. At the time, it didn’t seem like a great return. In the end, however, Mankins played for just two more seasons. The Pats turned that fourth-rounder into Trey Flowers, who was one of their best pass- rushers in two Super Bowl wins.
In 2016, Belichick traded Chandler Jones to Arizona for a second-rounder. There were people who didn’t love that trade return. The Pats, however, traded a player they wouldn’t have re-signed and turned the draft compensation into All-Pro guard Joe Thuney and receiver Malcolm Mitchell, who helped the Pats win Super Bowl LI during his short NFL career.
Later that season, Belichick once again shocked his players when he sent Jamie Collins to Cleveland for a third-round pick. The Pats packaged that draft pick with a first-rounder and traded for Brandin Cooks.
In 2017, Belichick was criticized for only getting a second-rounder back for quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. The result of the deal is still to be determined. The Pats used that one pick to start nine different draft trades that landed them eight players: cornerback Duke Dawson, linebacker Christian Sam, defensive back Joejuan Williams, running back Damien Harris, tackle Yodny Cajuste, quarterback Jarrett Stidham, tight end Dalton Keene and offensive lineman Justin Herron.
In 2018, the Pats traded Cooks to the Rams for a first-round pick. This deal happened because the Patriots weren’t going to pay Cooks what he ultimately received (a five-year, $81-million extension). With that pick, they selected Isaiah Wynn, who’s their current starting left tackle.
The Pats traded veteran safety Duron Harmon to Detroit for a fifth-rounder. Then they traded Rob Gronkowski after he unretired and demanded to join Brady in Tampa Bay for a fourth-round pick. The Patriots traded both picks with a third-rounder to the Raiders for an earlier third-rounder and earlier fifth-rounder. Those picks turned out to be tight end Devin Asiasi and kicker Justin Rohrwasser.
Would you trade Gronk, Harmon and a third-rounder for Asiasi and Rohrwasser?
Probably not, but well give it time to see if either rookie can develop.
As can be seen, Belichick has traded many veteran players for draft picks. When you can add young talented players, on rookie contracts, in place of veterans who want more money, it makes sense. When those rookies develop into standout players, it’s a win-win.
That’s one reason why the Patriots could approach the trade deadline as sellers.
The two biggest assets on the roster are Stephon Gilmore and Thuney. This offseason, the Patriots weren’t close with Thuney on a contract extension. At the NFL Combine, multiple league sources told the Providence Journal that it was more than likely Thuney would sign somewhere else. His market was considered to be hot with him coming off an All-Pro season.
Instead of losing Thuney, the Pats placed the franchise tag on the left guard. He’s earning $14.781 million this season and has looked like the Patriots’ best offensive lineman. However, it’s fair to wonder if the Patriots couldn’t get a long-term deal last offseason, if they’ll be able to in 2021.
What could be
If the Pats lose Thuney to free agency, they’ll likely gain a 2022 third-round compensatory pick back. However, you can make an argument that the Pats should sell if they can get a 2021 second or even a 2021 early third-round pick back. The team has standout rookie Michael Onwenu waiting in the wings at the guard position.
Gilmore, meanwhile, put his house on sale last week. The listing says that offers are due by Tuesday at 5 p.m. — an hour after the trade deadline. That’s created a lot of speculation that Gilmore thinks he’ll be dealt. The “Monday Morning Quarterback” on Sports Illustrated reported that the Patriots talked to other teams about trading Gilmore before the 2020 NFL Draft and during training camp.
Gilmore, 30, has one year left on his contract, but with a $7-million base salary in 2021, he’ll certainly want more money. Can the Pats move the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year for a future first-round pick?
If so, they should probably do it.
What if it’s only a second-rounder?
On paper, that might be disappointing. If the Patriots hit on the draft pick, however, will anyone care?
At this point, the Patriots clearly need to upgrade their overall talent level. If they lose to Buffalo, it makes sense to punt on the 2020 season.
Follow Mark Daniels on Twitter @MarkDanielsPJ