Monday, September 1, 2014

The Patriots and Preseason Trades

Logan Mankins (70) was dealt to Tampa Bay, but will the Patriots suffer for it?
By Jeremy Conlin (@jeremy_conlin)

Trades in the NFL happen significantly less frequently than they do in the NBA, NHL, and in Major League Baseball. There are a few reasons for this - first and foremost, contracts are structured in the most complicated fashion of the four major sports. There's the total value of the contract, which is split into a signing bonus (guaranteed money) and the player's yearly salary (often un-guaranteed or only partially guaranteed). Those two numbers are then used to calculate a player's "cap hit," or what figure they actually count against the team's salary cap. As NFL contracts are more complicated, it becomes more difficult to trade players for other players - almost exclusively, you see players traded for draft picks.

Trades happen infrequently in the NFL, unless you're talking about the Patriots in the two-week window before the regular season starts.

The Patriots have made a habit of unexpectedly shipping out name players just before the season starts (or sometimes even during the season), either by trade or by releasing them, usually to clear cap space, clear roster spots, and/or acquire draft picks. In 2010, they traded Randy Moss to the Vikings for a third-round pick following Week 4.

In 2009, a week before the season started, they traded star defensive tackle Richard Seymour to the Raiders. In 2003, five days before the season, they released star safety Lawyer Milloy after failing to agree on re-negotiating his contract. This year they did it twice - first trading Logan Mankins to Tampa Bay for second-year tight end Tim Wright and a fourth-round pick, then over the weekend they traded backup quarterback Ryan Mallett to Houston for a sixth-round pick.

In pretty much all of these cases (except for the Mallett trade), fans around the country either (a) panicked or (b) assumed the Patriots were making a mistake. In every case so far, they've been proven wrong.

Somehow, the Patriots have an uncanny ability to identify when their aging stars are over the hill and no longer worth keeping around, and this extends to include players they've allowed to leave in free agency. Lawyer Milloy made four Pro Bowls in five years with the Patriots from 1998-2002, he didn't make any with the Bills or Seahawks. Deion Branch won a Super Bowl MVP with the Patriots, had a career year in 2005, and then never approached those numbers again in Seattle. Seymour had two good seasons in Oakland, but his production never justified the first-round pick they gave up to get him. Mike Vrabel was firmly on the downward slope of his career when he was traded. Matt Cassell has never been able to reclaim his form from his 2008 season with New England. Randy Moss had the worst season of his career the year of the trade, spent the next season out of football, and then had one more sub-standard year in San Francisco before retiring.

That's what makes the Logan Mankins trade to interesting - at first glance, it didn't make much sense. The Patriots don't exactly have a murderer's row of interior lineman ready to step into his spot; Josh Kline, an undrafted second-year man out of Kent State, who started one game last year after spending most of it on the practice squad, is expected to take over the starting role. Marcus Cannon (who started at right tackle last year when Sebastian Vollmer went down with an injury) will likely also see some time at left guard. Furthermore, Mankins, for many years now, has been widely considered one of the best left guards in football. But based on the Patriots track record for cutting ties with known players, seemingly at the best possible time, maybe Mankins is further gone than anyone seems to realize.

There were certainly red flags surrounding Mankins. During the regular season against average competition, he was a world-beater. A great run blocker and one of the best pass-blocking guards, even stepping over to play left tackle occasionally. But against elite competition, especially in the playoffs, he would get dominated. Terrence Knighton destroyed him in the 2014 AFC Championship game this past December. The entire Ravens defensive line took advantage of him in the 2013 AFC title game. In the 2012 Super Bowl, it was Justin Tuck. In the 2011 AFC Playoffs, it was Shaun Ellis who destroyed the Patriots interior line, pretty much by himself. The Ravens (Haloti Ngata specifically) got the better of Mankins again in 2010, and Justin Tuck dominated him a second time in the 2008 Super Bowl. That's six straight postseason losses where Mankins has been exposed.

Does this mean Josh Kline (or Marcus Cannon, or whoever) will do better than Mankins did? No. In fact, they probably won't. But the Patriots are more concerned about value than about performance. They identified Mankins as a player who was costing them more than he was worth. With Kline, they can replicate 80 percent of Mankins performance at 20 percent of the price, and they got a young, productive tight end (Wright had 54 catches for 571 yards and five touchdowns last year - Football Outsiders ranked him as the 6th-best receiving tight end in football) and a mid-round pick for a high-priced interior lineman. And, for the most part, they don't have to worry too much about being made to look like fools, because, one, the Patriots always seem to have an above-average offensive line, regardless of who's on it - it's one of the best-coached units in the league, and second, based on every other Patriot to skip town to greener pastures, it's highly unlikely that Mankins turns his career around and becomes an All-Pro guard again at the age of 32.

In 2003, the Patriots cut Lawyer Milloy and won a Super Bowl four months later. In 2010, they traded Randy Moss in Week 4, when the team was 3-1. They finished the season 11-1 (though they did lose their first playoff game). Mankins doesn't have quite the same cachet of Milloy and Moss, but he's been a big part of the Patriots' offense for the last nine seasons. The fans will miss him. The team probably won't.

No comments :