Team Building is an Art

Image result for bill belichick patriots
Building a perennial winner is not easy, yet Bill Belichick has made it look like child’s play (Credit: Getty Images)

With free agency signings popping up left and right, we have officially entered the true madness of the NFL offseason.  I am a big fan of any sports offseason, and between now and through the draft in late April, we will see how the 32 teams in the NFL go about building their rosters in the hopes of success in 2019.

As is the case on the field, there is one team that is the best at building a roster, and knows how to set itself up for sustained success by making the right moves, and knowing how to show restraint; that team of course, is the New England Patriots.

The news we’ve heard from the Patriots thus far this offseason has more to do with the players that are leaving than joining the Super Bowl champions, but that’s not necessarily bad news. Sure, Trey Flowers and Trent Brown are talented players and deserved to be paid, but committing between $31.5 million and $32.5 million in AAV respectively to those two would have meant they’d be committing roughly 1/6 of their salary cap to Flowers and Brown; that’s not the Patriot Way.

We have this notion that the Patriots do not pay top dollar for players, but it’s simply not true.  They’ve given players like Adalius Thomas, Vince Wilfork, Logan Mankins, Devin McCourty, Stephon Gilmore top of the market deals throughout the years, and if they believe the player fits the system, and is worth their price tag given the value they bring to the team, they’ll pay you.  There are many instances when they show restraint and do not overpay for a player, but they know that you only have so much money to allocate to certain spots on the roster, and that players can be replaced (even if that replacement does not bring back the EXACT same amount of production).  

Remember Chandler Jones? He was the 21st pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, and became a great pass rusher for the Patriots.  After his fourth season, Jones had a 5th year team option in his contract, but the Patriots knew he would soon be reaching free agency.  The team made a calculated decision to trade Jones to Arizona, receiving a 2nd round pick and offensive lineman Jonathan Cooper in return.  Although Cooper did not pan out, that 2nd round pick was traded to New Orleans for a 3rd round draft pick (78th overall) and 4th round pick (112th overal), which New England used on offensive lineman Joe Thuney and wide receiver Malcolm Mitchell respectively.

Thuney has started 48 games for the Patriots since 2016, and Mitchell was a productive player his rookie season who had 6 catches for 70 yards in Super Bowl LI, but was released in 2018 due to persistent knee injuries.

The Patriots first sought to replace Jones with veteran Chris Long, but as a long term replacement, they had another option: 2015 4th round draft pick (101st overall) Trey Flowers.  Flowers became a starter during 2016, and in three years as a starter he had 21 sacks and 59 QB hits, becoming a daunting presence just like his predecessor.

New England planned for Jones possible departure, and in return for his services, they got a reliable starting offensive lineman, and a receiver who had potential, but could not stay healthy.  They also had a replacement on the roster who they had spent a year developing, and filled the role of Jones admirably.  Not all transitions from certain players work this perfectly, but the Patriots put themselves in position to make these transitions rather than get caught off guard and unprepared.

Lets look at how they got Trent Brown and Trey Flowers, and what will happen now that they are gone.

Trent Brown

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Trent Brown only played a season in New England, but won a Super Bowl with the team (Winslow Townson/AP Images)

During the 2018 offseason, the Patriots lost left tackle Nate Solder to free agency, as he signed a 4 year, $62 million contract with the New York Giants.  Solder had been a 2011 first round pick, and started 79 of his 82 games with New England between 2011 and 2017, winning two Super Bowls during that time.  Simply put, his cost got too high in free agency, and it was a price New England could not justify paying.  It’s not that Solder was not worth it, they just believed after a certain point, there would be a more cost-effective alternative.

As we’ll see, they go something else important in return for Solder leaving: a compensatory draft pick (more on how that works here).  There’s a formula that goes into is, and New England knew that if Solder walked, and they did not sign a replacement of his level, they could receive a draft pick in 2019.  That pick, determined a few weeks ago, equated to a 3rd round draft pick (87th overall).

As the protector of Tom Brady’s blindside, Solder left a huge gap of the offensive line.  New England decided to replace Solder by trading for San Franciso 49er Trent Brown.  They sent the 49ers their 95th pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, and received a 5th round draft pick (143rd overall) from San Francisco.

Before we continue, lets recap.

Out:

Nate Solder

2018 3rd round pick (95th overall)

In:

Trent Brown

2018 5th round pick (143rd overall)

2019 3rd round pick (87th overall)

The Patriots lost Nate Solder, but they got a draft pick for him leaving, and in trading for his replacement, they gave up a 3rd rounder (while knowing they would more than likely receive an additional 3rd rounder a year later) and got a 5th rounder in return, which they used on linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley.

Brown had a good season in New England, and served admirably as the left tackle of the Patriots (a position he had not really played with the 49ers).

However, Brown was in the final year of his contract.

New England knew this, and knew they were getting a highly-rated offensive lineman for one season, so they planned for the future as well.

With the 23rd pick in the 2018 NFL Draft (a pick they got by trading Brandin Cooks to the Rams, a player they got for the 32nd pick in the 2017 draft a year prior), they selected offensive lineman Isaiah Wynn.  Wynn was rated highly  coming out of the draft, and seen as an ideal prospect.

Unfortunately, he suffered an injury prior to the regular season and did not play in 2018, but he should be healthy for 2019, and with a year in the Patriots system to further his development, and with the coaching of Dante Scarnecchia, he should have all he needs to become a great player.  That is not a guarantee, but it is the Patriots plan.

Back to Brown.

As we saw, Trent Brown will sign with the Oakland Raiders for 4 years, $66 million.  However, like Nate Solder, Trent Brown’s departure will mean the Patriots will be in line to receive yet ANOTHER compensatory draft pick, this one in 2020 (most likely a 3rd round pick).

The Patriots had Trent Brown for one season, got him for the cost of a 3rd round draft pick, and got a 5th round draft pick in return.  For his service and contract, they will likely receive a 2020 3rd round pick.

Connected to Brown, we saw the Patriots lose two key contributors in 2017, and plan for the future accordingly.

A final tally

Out:

Nate Solder

Brandin Cooks

2018 3rd round pick (95th overall)

Trent Brown (after 2018)

In:

Trent Brown (2018 season)

Isaiah Wynn (23rd overall pick, 2018)

Ja’Whaun Bentley (142nd pick, 2018)

2019 3rd round pick (87th overall)

2020 3rd round pick (projected)

Lots of moves, lots of planning, and although talented players left, the Patriots made contingencies for it, and made moves to assure they would be set to have talent coming in for the future.  Receiving a 1st, two 3rds, and a 5th for Solder, Cooks, and Brown, the latter two who played only one season each in New England, is great planning.

Here’s another example of how great planning paid off in getting a great talent.

Trey Flowers

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Trey Flowers was a 4th round pick in 2015, playing in New England for 4 seasons, winning 2 Super Bowls with the Patriots (Credit: CBS Boston)

Above we talked about how Trey Flowers ended up replacing the void left by Chandler Jones, but how did Trey Flowers end up in New England?

Well, you can thank Logan Mankins for that.

Mankins was a great Patriot, playing with the team between 2005 and 2013.  That interval also happens to be the exact span of time between the Patriots’ third and fourth Super Bowls.  Although he never won a title, Mankins was a 6-time Pro Bowler, a First-team All-Pro member in 2010, and was a Second-team All-Pro member five times (2007, 2009, 2011-2013).  He also played an entire season with a torn ACL (and a few playoff games with a torn MCL in his other knee), which is pretty freaking badass.

Mankins received a big contract in 2011, however, after the 2013 season (and year 3 of his deal), he was not willing to take a pay cut, so he was traded to Tampa Bay. In return for Mankins, the Patriots received tight end Tim Wright, and a 2015 4th round draft pick.

Wright only played one season for the Pats, racking in 26 catches for 259 yards and 6 touchdowns, but was deemed expendable, and cut in June of 2015.

However, the 2015 4th round draft pick became the 101st pick in that year’s draft, which the Patriots used on Arkansas defensive end Trey Flowers.

“In an organization [New England]—and for a defensive-minded coach [Bill Belichick]—that values following assignments and flexibility above all else, Flowers just might be the perfect defensive player.”

-Robert Mays, The Ringer

Flowers only played one game in 2015, but after Chandler Jones was traded by the Patriots in March of 2016, Flowers was seen as a future contributor that could step up to replace Jones’ production.

He never had the eye-popping sack numbers, but he was an intimidating presence nevertheless. According to PFF, between 2016 and 2018, Flowers was the 9th rated defensive edge rusher, and rated 9th in rush defense for edge rushers; he got the job done.

A big payday for Flowers was inevitable, and the biggest sign we saw that Trey would not be back was when New England traded for defensive end Michael Bennett last week. The Patriots gave up a 2020 5th round draft pick, but received a 2020 7th round draft pick back from Philly.

Flowers signed with the Detroit Lions for what is thought to be a 5 year deal in the range of $16 to $17 million per season, but New England prepared in the short-term by acquiring Michael Bennett.

As we saw with Trent Brown, the Patriots will likely receive ANOTHER 3rd round compensatory draft pick in 2020 for Flowers.

Trey Flowers departure has led to the following

Out:

Trey Flowers

2020 5th round pick

In:

Michael Bennett

2020 3rd round pick (projected)

2020 7th round pick

Flowers was drafted with a pick acquired by New England for a player who no longer was worth their contract, and they got three seasons of great play from him, while Mankins only played two more seasons in the NFL.  Although Flowers is departing, the Patriots got his short-term replacement via trade, and only had to give up one draft pick, and they will receive a higher draft pick in 2020, as well as a 7th round draft pick that year.

With Flowers gone, players such at Deatrich Wise and Derek Rivers have a chance to step up and fill Trey’s void. Or maybe a long-term contingency for Flowers is not on the roster at the moment, but that’s okay, because New England has a dozen draft picks in 2019 to look for one, and they will likely have two additional 3rd round picks in 2020 to try as well.  It might not work out that perfectly, but the Patriots have set themselves up well to make it happen.


Image result for bill belichick super bowl 53
Building a Super Bowl champion is not easy. Building 6 Super Bowl winners, while having your team ready to compete every year in between? Nearly impossible… or is it?(Credit: The Sumter Item)

The Patriots have learned to utilize the reality of compensatory draft picks like no other, and they have always traded a player if they believed they had lost value at their current price tag, or if they will not be able to afford their future price tag.  They got value for Chandler Jones by drafting Joe Thuney, and had Trey Flowers on the roster as a possible (and ultimate) replacement.  Flowers was drafted with a draft pick acquired in a trade that sent Logan Mankins to Tampa, when he was no longer worth his contract to the Patriots.  They have planned for Flowers departure by acquiring Michael Bennett, and will get a compensatory draft pick in 2020 (likely in the 3rd round) now that he has in fact left.

They plan for the present, realize the reality of the NFL being a business, and set themselves up to replace players that will not be part of their future by having contingencies in place in the form of getting draft picks, making smart trades/free agency signings, and developing future replacements with great coaching.

We do not yet know what the final roster will look like in 2019 for the Patriots, but with Bill Belichick at the helm, just know that although they will face some turnover, Bill Belichick has already laid out the framework to have the team ready to compete yet again, just as he has done during the past 19 years.

Enjoy it.


Follow Nick on Twitter (@Nick_Collins14)

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