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.