Saturday, March 11, 2017

Patriots "Draft" Cooks, Allen, Ealy; Still Have Plenty Of Cap Space For Hightower

Who needs draft picks?

Certainly not the New England Patriots, who have dealt away enough of their 2017 selections that they literally wouldn't have to show up at the draft in Philadelphia until late on the second day - that is if head ball coach and defacto general manager Bill Belichick doesn't make any more deals to slide up or down the draft board.

Currently, the Patriots have six selections - down from the eleven they started the new league year with last Thursday, and down from the fourteen they possessed (see below) before making moves during the 2016 season - with the 72nd overall selection at the top of the third round being their top pick.  But Patriots fans needn't fret, because their team has gotten better and younger trading for established NFL players without having to endure the uncertainty of selecting a player in the draft who may or may not have the gumption to make the jump from college to the pros.

Belichick's deals in the past calendar year:

1st - 32nd to Saints for Cook
2nd - 64th to Panthers for Ealy
3rd - 103rd to Saints for Cook
4th - 118th (from Saints) to deflategate
         137th to Colts for Dwayne Allen
5th - 175th to Browns for Mingo
6th - 215th to Lions for Van Noy
7th - 250th to Lions for Michael Williams

This has always been Belichick's M.O.  Not seen as a particularly good drafter by the casual fan, Belichick actually has drafted 37 players in the past ten seasons who have made positive contributions to the dynasty, 28 of whom have earned Super Bowl rings in the past three seasons.  That is over half of the best roster of players in the National football League...

...with five players during that span making the team as undrafted free agents.  That leaves twenty players that the Dark Master has brought into the fold as free agents or by trade, and many of those have been other team's high draft picks.

Of those twenty on the roster last season, nine were former first or second round selections by other teams and six were undrafted free agents that other teams developed into quality players.

For example, during the 2016 league year, Belichick brought in names such as tight end Martellus Bennett (2nd round, 2008, Dallas) from the Bears in exchange for a fourth round pick, linebackers Barkevious Mingo (1st, 2013, Cleveland) and Kyle Van Noy (2nd, 2014, Detroit) for a fifth and seventh round pick, respectively, and cornerback Eric Rowe (2nd, 2015, Philadelphia) for a conditional 2018 pick.

They had even better fortune in free agency, plucking defensive end Chris Long (1st round, 2008, St. Louis), linebacker Shea McClellin (1st, 2012, Chicago) and undrafted gem Chris Hogan off the NFL's scrap heap to become integral pieces in the Patriots' title run.

As one can see, the Patriots' roster is built with a solid balance of homegrown talent, shrewd wheeling and dealing, and fortuitous cherry picking.

But 2017 is uncharted territory for Belichick, in that never in his tenure has he entered a draft without either first or second round draft capital - but that has been offset by spending those picks in advance of the draft, and getting as close to guaranteed premium value as you could expect for them, and avoiding all of the uncertainty that comes with drafting college players.

Their first rounder and one of their third rounders went to New Orleans in exchange for wide receiver Brandin Cooks (1st round, 2014), a proven commodity as a pass catcher with elite speed and open field moves that could rival the magic act of running back Dion Lewis.

Cooks brings speed to an offense that has lacked such since the days of Randy Moss.  His routes are sharp, which should bring a big smile to the face of quarterback Tom Brady, and his ability to play from just about any position in the receiving corps feeds right into the Patriots' concept-based offensive philosophy - for certain, his ability to win from the slot should take a lot of pressure off of both Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola, and his deep speed should loosen the seam for tight end Rob Gronkowski.

That's a lot of pressure to put on one player, but Cooks has proven his ability in those situations, earning his quarterbacks the fifth-best passer rating in the NFL when targeting him - and the fact that Cooks is a proven commodity should make the team and fans look at this deal as draft capital well spent.

The Patriots' second rounder now belongs to the Carolina Panthers, who sent defensive end Kony Ealy (2nd round, 2014) and their third rounder to Foxborough.  Ealy has three years worth of experience and has played in a Super Bowl where he would have been likely MVP with three sacks, an interception and a forced fumble, had the Panthers not imploded on offense.

Otherwise, Ealy has been hot and cold in the Panthers' scheme, but his style is perfect for what New England likes to get out of their pass rushers, though there is some inconsistency in Ealy's game as an edge-setter in the running game.  The Patriots' philosophy in rushing the passer has always been to collapse the pocket and force the opposing quarterback off his mark, and Ealy can be special at that as he forces left tackles to respect his speed and then can dip inside to force the quarterback out.

But just like Chandler Jones before him, he's still developing as an edge-setter and can disappear at times - still, signing Ealy and getting third rounder in the same package provides youth and depth to a defensive line that became shockingly thin on the edges with the free agency departures of Long and Jabaal Sheard, and fans can expect to see Ealy used much the same as those two, in a situational rotation.

A third, less celebrated deal was made when New England sent one of their three fourth round selections to Indianapolis in exchange for tight end Dwayne Allen.

Patriots' fans should remember that it was Allen signing a four-year, $29.4 million contract extension with the Colts last season that caused an unwarranted criticism of the Patriots' front office in regard to tight end Rob Gronkowski's contract - with Gronkowski tweeting, jokingly, that the Patriots picking up his $10 million option during the offseason (which kept him a member of the Patriots until 2019) was a "pay cut".

What Gronkowski was referring to was that in picking up his option, he was due only $2.25 million in base salary last season and $4.25 this season before the numbers increase to $8 million and $9 million in 2018 and 2019, respectively.  In fairness, Allen's deal included only a $4 million signing bonus, $2.5 million this season and next and $6.5 million in 2019.  The rest of the salary is tied up in per-game roster bonuses.

The kicker and the talisman for the Colts trading Allen?  A $2 million roster bonus due at 4:00pm last Thursday, which the Patriots absorbed as part of the trade.

Salary snafu aside, what should have Patriots' fans intrigued is that Allen's skill set is remarkably similar in the pattern to former-Patriots' "move" tight end Aaron Hernandez, which never fit in with the Colts' downfield attack, though he averaged 11.6 yards per reception in 2016.  Bigger and stronger than Hernandez, Allen uses his wide body to shield off defenders and gets in and out of his breaks effortlessly, showing his numbers to be an effective, chain-moving possession type receiver.

But not only did the Patriots load up on top-shelf talent with these trades - not to mention picking up cornerback Stephon Gilmore (1st round, Buffalo, 2012) and re-signing essential role players in safety Duron Harmon, defensive tackle Alan Branch, fullback James Develin and assigning a first-round tender to cornerback Malcolm Butler - they did so by making just a slight dent in their available cap space.

Comparatively speaking, that is, as the Patriots have just pennies under $40 million in cap space remaining of the $62.9 million that they started free agency with the majority of that going to Gilmore, a shut-down press corner, while both Cooks ($1.56 million with salary and roster bonus) and Ealy ($903k with salary and roster bonus) coming on the cheap for such top-level talent...

...leaving Belichick plenty of space to both bring defensive captain and Super Bowl hero Dont'a Hightower back into the fold, as well as make more deals as he sees fit. Still, that leaves the Patriots with just the five draft picks:

3rd - 72nd
4th - 131st
5th - 163rd, 183rd
6th - 200th
7th - 239th

But knowing "Trader Bill" as we do, don't expect his draft board to remain like that, as he may very well try to work his way back into the second round...

No comments:

Post a Comment