Branch Rickey is credited with the old adage that it's better to trade a player a year too early than a year too late. It's a mantra the Patriots have stood by under Bill Belichick. Stalwarts like Logan Mankins, Randy Moss and Richard Seymour all have been traded while still contributing, often for draft picks and/or younger players, and often accompanied with some groans from New England fans.
While there weren't many rumors that the Patriots were about to trade star pass-rusher Chandler Jones away, as they did to the Cardinals on Tuesday, you can look at the deal from that prism and understand why the Patriots chose to move on. The only question now is whether they gauged Jones' value appropriately in doing so.
Perennially one of the league's most well-run cap situations, the Patriots nonetheless find themselves in a bit of a pinch. It's a good one, the sort of problem most teams would love to have: They have too much young talent to sign. Before dealing Jones away and after accounting for their draft class, the Patriots had less than $6 million in cap space available in 2016 and a staggering number of free agents waiting for new deals in 2017.
Even looking past veterans like Jabaal Sheard, Sebastian Vollmer and Rob Ninkovich, the most expensive part of that group was going to be the core of New England's defense. Jones, Dont'a Hightower, Jamie Collins, Logan Ryan and Malcolm Butler (restricted) are all due to be free agents next year. It was going to be prohibitively difficult to re-sign all of those contributors.
Guess who was going to get paid the most? If you've been paying attention to this year's offseason, you won't be surprised to hear that it was likely to be Jones. Olivier Vernon is arguably a better run-defender than Jones, but he recorded 29 sacks in 64 games and just got $52.5 million in guaranteed money from the Giants. Jones has 36 sacks in 55 games over his first four years; while he was due to hit free agency entering his age-27 season and Vernon hit it as he was about to turn 26, Jones was going to collect some serious coin. He has far more in the tank than veterans like Moss and Mankins did when they were traded, but the simple calculations there were that the players weren't going to be worth the salaries they were collecting, and Belichick unquestionably felt he could use that cap space more productively elsewhere. That's also likely the case with Jones.
If the Patriots didn't plan on re-signing Jones, that leaves them with two possible returns for their star pass-rusher. Let's look at what the benefits are to pursuing each of the scenarios and who would be on their roster as part of the decisions:
Let Jones leave in free agency
2016: Chandler Jones
2018-2021: 2018 third-round pick (between picks 97-100)
Assuming that Jones would have left during next year's free-agency period and got some mammoth contract in free agency, the Patriots would have received the highest possible compensatory pick available for Jones, a selection at the end of the third round. (The Patriots could lose the pick if they signed a similarly expensive veteran in free agency, but given Belichick's history and their likely cap situation, that seemed unlikely.)
Because compensatory picks are awarded in the draft after the free-agent period in which the player leaves, though, the Pats wouldn't have received their comp selection until the 2018 draft. They get to keep that player for up to four seasons; alternately, given that the league is making comp picks tradeable as of 2017, the Patriots could have dealt the selection away. It's a meaningful asset, but one the Patriots wouldn't receive for a while.
Now, consider the alternative:
Trade Jones now
2016: Jonathan Cooper, 2016 second-round pick (pick 61)
2017: Cooper (if Patriots pick up fifth-year option), 2016 second-round pick
2018-19: 2016 second-round pick
The Patriots lose Jones a year earlier, but in return, they're getting a better draft pick than the compensatory selection they likely would have received and getting that player into the lineup two years earlier than they would have by holding on to their star pass-rusher. They have a ready-made replacement for Jones in the starting lineup with Sheard, who had eight sacks in 13 games while playing just 51 percent of New England's defensive snaps. Jones, who rarely came off the field while healthy in years past, had 12.5 sacks while playing nearly 79 percent of the defensive snaps. (To be fair, Sheard typically came onto the field more frequently in passing situations.)
They also get guard Jonathan Cooper, an intriguing buy-low candidate whom the Patriots reportedly loved when scouting him before the 2013 draft. A lot of teams loved Cooper back then, with the Cardinals eventually taking Cooper with the seventh overall pick. He hasn't impressed many since, missing his entire rookie season with a broken leg before failing to win a starting job in 2014 and inspiring rare public scorn from Bruce Arians. Cooper then suffered a knee injury in 2015 before losing his job to journeyman Ted Larsen down the stretch; the Cardinals were considering moving Cooper to center before this trade.
A change of scenery might very well be what the doctor ordered for Cooper, who was one of the more athletic guards in recent memory coming out of North Carolina. And the Patriots might very well have one dialed up, given that longtime offensive line guru Dante Scarnecchia came out of retirement in February to take over his old job as offensive line coach. The Pats struggled mightily with injuries last year along their offensive front, but the guys who stayed healthy weren't very effective. They mostly abandoned running the football down the stretch, and all it takes is one look at the film from the AFC Championship Game to see how badly they missed Scarnecchia.
Cooper's a buy-low option for the Patriots at guard, and his $2.4 million salary for 2016 won't break the bank, although it remains to be seen whether they'll pick up his fifth-year option. That would assign the Patriots an $8 million cap charge for 2017, and that salary is only guaranteed for injury. Most teams would pick up the figure and just plan on cutting the player if he performs poorly, but given Cooper's injury history during his time with the Pats, it would be a dangerous move to hold on to Cooper and possibly be stuck with an injured guard eating up valuable cap space next year.
For the Cardinals, the logic in trading for Jones is simple. They've spent years manufacturing their pass rush out of spare parts and heavy blitz packages. Since Bruce Arians arrived in 2013, the Cardinals have blitzed on 46.1 percent of opposing dropbacks, a staggeringly high number given that the second-place Titans are only at 40.3 percent (and the league average is just 34.6 percent).
That's a philosophical choice, but it's also a simple reality reflecting the fact that the Cardinals haven't had great pass-rushers. In 2013, they willed one more year out of veteran John Abraham, who was making close to the veterans minimum. In 2014, they got eight sacks out of 2013 fourth-rounder Alex Okafor, who had barely played during his rookie season. And last year, they were dependent upon eight sacks in 11 games from 35-year-old Dwight Freeney, who hadn't been a productive pass-rusher since 2011.
Jones is another species of player at this point of his career from those guys, a freakishly athletic weapon who can line up in multiple spots and do just about anything the Cardinals will ask. He'll nominally be an outside linebacker in their 3-4 after spending his career as a defensive lineman in the Patriots' 4-3, but both teams play enough in the way of hybrid fronts (and spend enough time in their sub packages with five or more defensive backs on the field) that Jones shouldn't feel too out of place on the edge in Arizona. The Cardinals loved showing pressure over the A-gaps with inside linebacker Daryl Washington in 2013 before Washington spent 2014 and 2015 suspended and out of football, and it wouldn't be a surprise to see them threaten teams there with Jones as well.
The Cardinals aren't exactly in great financial straits, given that they will owe $9.7 million in dead money for Larry Fitzgerald in 2017 after his contract voids, but they don't have the sort of core in need of new contracts that the Patriots have. Tyrann Mathieu is likely to receive an extension this offseason, while budding star John Brown is up during the 2018 free-agent window. They actually need out to clear out cap space to fit Jones and his $7.8 million salary for 2016 under the cap, which they can accomplish by extending Calais Campbell and/or getting the still-suspended Washington's salary off of their books.
From Arizona's perspective, they're not really risking all that much in making this deal. They would love to re-sign Jones, of course, but they probably can't outbid the league's lesser teams in the free market. They could have agreed to terms on Jones with an extension before making the trade, but they don't need to have done so to justify the deal. If Jones plays well and leaves in free agency, the Cardinals will be the ones getting the 2018 third-round pick as a compensatory selection. That's not as valuable to Arizona as a 2016 second-rounder, but they're getting a year of a superstar pass-rusher for a slightly worse draft pick in two years time. The only other things they're giving up are Cooper, who they wanted out of town anyway, and about $4 million in cap space which they could have used elsewhere this offseason. Given their desperate need for a pass-rusher, this is an awfully creative way to come about a superstar.
It's a more painful trade for the Patriots because time, for them, is more of the essence. They're an organization which naturally wants to be maximizing their talent load while Tom Brady is still under contract and, you know, Tom Brady. Brady's new two-year extension is structured in such a way to suggest that the Patriots expect Brady to play through 2018, his age-40 season. The large signing bonus Brady received ($28 million) makes it downright prohibitive for the Patriots to cut or trade Brady or have Brady retire before then, given that the remaining unpaid signing bonuses would accelerate onto New England's cap.
The added benefit for the Pats is that they've made this deal before the free-agent market closes, which allows them to use the money they've saved in swapping between Jones and Cooper (and the salary of that second-round pick) elsewhere. They could use it in extensions for the aforementioned Hightower and Collins, pushing some of the money for those deals into the 2016 cap. They could also use the cap space to go after a veteran pass-rusher who might help pick up some of the slack from Jones's absence. The Pats had Chris Long in for a visit Tuesday; somebody like Long on a one- or two-year deal would make sense at the right price. Without adding more help on the edge, though, it's hard to truly feel that this is a good deal for a team who needs to maximize the talent on their roster right now in lieu of the years to come.
And finally, as if losing Jones wasn't painful enough for Patriots fans, there's another disappointing fear to consider in understanding why the Pats made this trade. When I wrote about each team's respective draft assets this morning before the Jones trade, I noted that the Patriots had both lost the most draft capital and possessed the league's least draft capital.
That's mostly due to the fact that the league took away New England's first-round pick, the 29th selection, as a punishment for last year's Deflategate scandal. Acquiring the 61st pick from Arizona doesn't return all of the value from that missing pick, obviously, but combined with the compensatory selections, it basically gets the Pats back to even; they "should" have had 35.0 points of draft capital, and adding Arizona's second-rounder gets them from 25.9 points up to 34.3 points. It's unclear whether the Patriots would have made this trade otherwise -- much of the logic would still apply -- but it's fair to wonder whether Belichick's desire to get a draft pick now in lieu of a selection two years from now is a hidden added punishment from the still-controversial Deflategate.