Thoughts on Patriots Trade of Jamie Collins

Big in season trades in the NFL usually make for fun discussion, but little action at the deadline. Today that changed a bit as the Patriots traded away starting linebacker Jamie Collins for a 3rd round compensatory draft pick. The strange thing is that the team who traded for him is the winless Browns. It almost seems like some alternate universe trade with the contending team somehow becoming a seller and the non-contender becoming a buyer of a player who is going to be a free agent. That said I think the move brings to light some of the things we’ve discussed here before about approaches to contracts and the draft.

First we’ll cover a few items relating to the draft compensation and questions that I have gotten on it. The 3rd round pick for Collins seems pretty low which has people asking why not just allow Collins to finish out the year and collect a 3rd round compensatory pick for him when he signs elsewhere in free agency. While I can’t speak for the Patriots opinion on Collins impact this year, I can talk a little on the compensatory process.

One issue is the timing of the draft selection. If the Patriots play the compensatory process out they won’t receive a draft pick until 2018 for Collins.  While 3rd rounders don’t have nearly the same hit rate as 1st rounders, the goal for New England is to likely surround Tom Brady with as much talent as possible over the next two years. A 3rd rounder could contribute in 2017 and be a quality starter by 2018, both of which will fall in the Brady window.  It also gives the Patriots another asset that they can use to move up in the draft if they feel there is an impactful player for this upcoming season.

Secondly, and more importantly, is that the gaining of a compensatory pick is not something that is a given. You can read all of Nick’s posts on the topic on our draft pages, but the short version is that you have to lose more than you gain to qualify. The Patriots have a few free agents that will likely garner some interest next year, but if they kept those players and lost Collins it could be possible that a $1 million free agent would eliminate the comp pick for Collins entirely.

By trading Collins New England doesn’t have to worry about carefully walking through free agency; they lock in their pick now. That is a much easier scenario than having to be a team like the Ravens who has to be so calculated with free agent decision or the Packers who just avoid free agency entirely. So these are all reasons why the trade for a 3 makes more sense than waiting for a 3.

For the Browns it is a little harder to see the logic in the move unless they have a deal in place with Collins prior to the trade. The Browns are going nowhere fast and while Collins is a good player he doesn’t play the kind of impact position that changes a defense from horrific to passable. Collins is a free agent after the year and if he does not opt to re-sign with the Browns they get no long term benefit from this trade.

Cleveland could use the franchise tag on Collins but that will put them in a position where they are paying a non pass rusher a rushers salary. It also means that they will need to work out a contract with Terrelle Pryor before using the tag on Collins. While I don’t believe Pryor is a tag player, it certainly makes more sense to tag him over Collins.

While the Browns have a ridiculous amount of money they can spend, as a front office you don’t want to  set precedent for future negotiations by doing ridiculous things with contracts. That is how teams like the Raiders ended up as such a mess. There was a rumor that Collins was looking for a laughable contract worth something similar to Von Millers. To even be in that range would be a massive mistake for the Browns. Collins position maxes out around $10 million a year. Miller makes over $19 million.

The Browns do hold Collins compensatory rights as well, which could make this essentially a zero sum game if they are awarded a 3rd rounder and I could see some logic in that. Essentially you defer a draft pick for one season to obtain the negotiating rights to a player not in your organization. The Browns have a ton of draft picks and maybe want to spread that out.

The problem with that scenario is the same difficulty I mentioned above in New England having to be careful to ensure getting that pick. It would be even harder for the Browns. Given how bad the team is it would be difficult for the Browns to basically pull themselves out of free agency next year. They came under heavy criticism when they did the same this past year before signing (I believe) Demario Davis as their first free agent signing. A one year rental, even with the Browns draft pick surplus, seems like a bad decision for a zero win team.

The bigger takeaway though is what the Patriots are doing with their team and lessons that could be learned from them. I’ve long been a proponent, more so for a bad than a good team, that you should sell your talent off once you realize that you will not re-sign the player. Better to get something than nothing, yet year after year teams make the mistake of finishing with 5 wins and then watching free agents leave for nothing or cutting players because they are too old for a youth movement.

Winning a trade is not always about getting perceived fair value for a player. Its about getting any value for a player. That is what New England did here. The perception is Collins is around a $10M player. That should be worth more than a late 3rd round pick.  Most teams would simply walk away from that trade. The Patriots didn’t because a 3 is better than nothing. It’s the same reason the Seahawks likely did cartwheels when the Jets traded for malcontent Percy Harvin for pennies on the dollar compared to the perceived value. That’s the right move to make. More teams should do it.

I think the Patriots are also showing a better understanding of roster building.  Whether they lucked into their trade years ago for Richard Seymour, the Patriots quickly learned that superstar salaries doesn’t always mean big wins. The real value in the NFL lies in the draft. The draft is where you can find the top talent and where almost any draft pick will provide better value than a veteran player.   The 3rd overall pick in the draft, if at a premier position, only has to be a borderline starter to justify the salary, yet they carry the upside of a superstar.

But the NFL careers for many positions are short and the peak value comes during the rookie contract. While sometimes the decision to walk away may look bad for one year, many times those decisions look wise in the years that follow.

One of the more interesting strategies that I’d like to see employed in the NFL is to identify the positions of a long life that extends higher level performance well into a 2nd contract (my assumption would be QB, LT, G, C, ILB, K, P, and maybe DB)  and extending/signing those players to market value contracts while churning the rest of the roster with draft pick replacements or lower cost/better value starters.   Those other positions are one that you regret a few years down the line in many cases. So just eliminate the chance of regret if you can.

Granted its not easy to get all those pieces in place, but if you look at a team like New England, they have a certain core that they invest in and others are expendable once the cost gets too high. If they can spin Chandler Jones, Collins, and others into assets it just helps the churn at those more replaceable positions. What’s better for the Patriots, Chandler Jones at 27, 28, and 29  years of age, a massive $18 million salary, and likely declining performance or the opportunity to draft a Muhammad Wilkerson, Chandler Jones, etc… for $4 million a year at the age of 23?

Any team in the NFL should be able to have one miracle season. The NFL is built to have that happen. But sustaining greatness is something that few are able to do. Sure the QB helps, but building around that QB is still necessary. Just look at the Saints and their record in recent years despite having Drew Brees in his prime on that team. Look at the Colts and Andrew Luck.  The Patriots have Brady and he has given them some financial latitude, but they still have to put the pieces around him and they have found a way to do it for nearly 15 years. This trade is just another example of why it will probably continue for a few more years.

  • Nick

    To add a few more points to this excellent article:
    –The minimum amount to qualify as a 3rd rounder for compensatory pick purposes in 2018 is likely to be well over $10M APY. Forget about Von Miller money: Collins may need to come close to Luke Kuechly money to be valued as a 3rd. Whether it’s a comp 3rd in 2017 or a regular 4th in 2018 the Pats are going to come out better than they would playing the normal comp pick game with Collins, and as Jason said, that comes at a cost of avoiding unrestricted free agency in 2017.
    –The Browns have a poor slate of pending UFAs in 2017 for comp pick purposes. Even after adding Collins, they only have 9 of them, and Terrelle Pryor may be the only other UFA worthy of getting anything more than a 7th from the compensatory formula. The Browns likely knew just how lucrative their comp pick potential was last year, so I could understand them eschewing UFAs last year, but as Jason says for a team so bereft of veteran talent it’s questionable if they can do it two years in a row. Spending on UFAs doesn’t guarantee that your team will improve (see the Jaguars) but it can also produce modest gains (see, to some extent, the McKenzie Raiders).
    –Also, by the time they signed Demario Davis they were well beyond the max comp pick limit of 4, so signing him didn’t hurt them at all in that regard.

    • Jim

      What would really be interesting, if the Browns lose Collins to FA this offseason, get a 3rd rd comp pick in 2018, the Browns don’t get the 3rd Rd conditional this season, (it ends up being a 4th rd comp pick).

      In that scenario, and the Pats would get a (presumably high) 4th rd pick in 2018 for trading Collins after the first 8 games of 2016, and the Browns would get a 3rd Rd comp pick in 2018 for losing Collins after the last 8 games of 2016.

  • bkight13

    this over thinking it ……..losing your best defender for the rest of the season and playoffs isn’t worth it…….he still would have garnered a comp pick in 2018

  • I will add one point to consider from the Browns’ perspective: They need to find a defensive player they can build the defense around because they don’t necessarily have that right now. Joe Haden is a talented cornerback but he’s had injury issues, and Emmanuel Ogbah looks more like a No. 2 option in a pass rush rather than the No. 1 guy.

    So the Browns likely figure that it’s OK to take a chance on Collins for eight games to see if he fits their defense well. If he turns out to be a difference maker, they can extend him. If not, they can let him depart, knowing they still have two firsts, two seconds and a high third with which to draft players who can round out the roster, along with several Day 3 picks to fill out their depth.

    The Browns might think it’s better to give up one of their 13 picks to see what Collins can do for eight games while he remains under his rookie contract, paying him around $500,000, before they give him the big money he’s seeking. If they see enough to tell them that he’s worth keeping, they’ll extend him. If not, they’ll let him walk and, if they get a comp pick for him, they’ll take it.

    Also, if the Browns stick to what appears to be their approach to build through the draft, that means they are likely to forget about free agency unless they consider street free agents or value signings.

  • Jim

    I’m also of the mind-set that this is being way overthought. I just don’t see the Patriots looking at their team mid-season when everything is going great saying “how can we get another mid-round draft pick this spring?”. In my mind there has to be a combination of Collins attitude in the locker room, and them feeling like there’s little to no drop-off in his replacement (this season). You just don’t give up a key piece of your defense of a potential Super Bowl team in order for something like the #100 overall pick in the draft. At that point in the draft, even the Pats get a lot more of the likes of Jake Begettue, Josh Boyce, Taylor Price and Tyrone McKenzie they do a Duron Harmon or Logan Ryan.

    I think a key piece of information here lies in why they traded him to Cleveland. It stands to reason a team like Pittsburgh, Houston, Oakland, Atlanta, Dallas would probably give up a juicier 3rd or a 2nd round pick to bolster their chances this season, but New England doesn’t want any part of seeing Collins play against them the rest of this season. Clearly they still think of Collins as an impact player since it doesn’t seem like they tried to maximize what they could get, but instead probably had a short list of really bad teams that they would not have to face this season and went from there.

    There’s got to be more to the story here, it really feels like a lose-lose-lose. Patriots, Browns and Collins all lost more than they gained here, at least on paper.