How trades have shaped Patriots' defense

How much of a challenge will Butler be for Jones? (1:18)

Josina Anderson is confident that Patriots CB Malcolm Butler will play Falcons WR Julio Jones very strong in Super Bowl LI, despite their height difference. (1:18)

As Philadelphia Eagles executive vice president Howie Roseman found out last year, a phone call from New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick could carry major ramifications.

During the first week of the regular season, Belichick called the Eagles to inquire about cornerback Eric Rowe, a 2015 second-round pick who fell down the Eagles' depth chart. The call surprised Roseman. The Eagles had just come out of training camp with first-year coach Doug Pederson.

Trading Rowe, who was the team's fourth corner, wasn't even a thought. Belichick wasn't going to be shy with his offer, however. He eventually offered a conditional fourth-round pick in 2018. After checking with the coaching staff, Roseman knew they could move safety Malcolm Jenkins into the slot to cover in nickel. Roseman and the Eagles said yes to the trade.

Chalk it up as another win for Belichick, who showed again why he might go down as the NFL's greatest coach and evaluator of talent. Rowe has been an important role player for the Patriots. He started seven regular-season games and had an interception in the AFC Championship Game.

Rowe is an example of a trend that has developed with Belichick and the Patriots: trading for talented -- sometimes highly drafted -- "failures," incorporating them as role players and then enhancing their value to gain potential compensatory draft picks, which are awarded if a team loses more unrestricted free agents than it signs. Some have worked out better than others. Over the past three years, Belichick has made 19 trades for players, including for tight end Martellus Bennett, who could get a big payday this offseason.

One of my favorite moves was the 2015 trade for Akiem Hicks, a talented defensive tackle from the New Orleans Saints. Belichick is usually willing to trade a middle-round pick for a player who is nearing the end of his rookie contract. In this case, Belichick didn't have to sacrifice a draft choice. He gave the Saints tight end Michael Hoomanawanui. It didn't work out well for New Orleans.

The Patriots tried Hicks as a role player on the defensive line. They gave him some work in passing situations so he'd have improved tape that might attract teams willing to sign him in free agency. Then Hicks signed a two-year, $10 million deal with the Chicago Bears, and the Patriots are expected to get a fifth-round compensatory pick. New England has been in and out of the compensatory pool through the years, but from 2014 through 2016, they landed eight picks, including two No. 3s and a No. 4.

The trades to detail in Super Bowl LI involve linebackers -- the Patriots acquired Barkevious Mingo for a fifth-round pick and Kyle Van Noy for a sixth-round pick. Mingo was picked No. 6 overall in 2013, and Van Noy was taken at the top of the second round in 2014. New England also signed 2012 first-round pick Shea McClellin to a cheap three-year, $9 million deal.

The trio of linebackers, along with developmental sixth-round pick Elandon Roberts -- who was, ironically, a compensatory pick in 2016 -- gave the Pats the confidence to trade perhaps their best defensive player, Jamie Collins, to the Cleveland Browns for a third-round compensatory pick. As it turns out, Van Noy, McClellin and Roberts constitute the three-headed monster that is replacing Collins. Mingo played only 46 defensive snaps during the regular season.

"You can't replace Jamie Collins," Van Noy said. "He is phenomenal. We haven't done it without him with just one guy. We have three of us doing the job."

Think about it for a second. The Patriots traded away arguably their best two defenders -- Collins and pass-rusher Chandler Jones -- in exchange for second- and third-round picks in 2017 (and former top-10 pick Jonathan Cooper, who didn't work out). In a draft loaded with defensive players, Belichick could get two defensive starters for the future in 2017 with those choices.

"This has been great for me here," said McClellin, who juggled between a 3-4 and 4-3 linebacker with the Bears. "They have had me try out a lot of stuff. I do a little bit of everything. I get involved with coverage. I rush the passer. I set the edge. I play a little inside. I do a little bit of everything."

Van Noy and McClellin still have time on their contracts, so they expect to stay in New England. Mingo is an unrestricted free agent. Rowe has two more years left on his rookie deal.

"I am so blessed to be here," Van Noy said. "It was a rough two years in Detroit. I took a lot of heat. Everything seemed to be that I wasn't living up to what I was capable of doing. I had high expectations. I wasn't fitting in right away. Coming here, I got a fresh start."

Belichick's instructions to Van Noy were simple. "Just make plays," Van Noy remembers him saying.

Despite trading Collins and Jones, the Patriots gave up the fewest points in the league this season, wresting away that distinction from a Seattle Seahawks team that did it four straight years.