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A follow up on the Patriots trading Jamie Collins: Did Bill Belichick send a message to his players?

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Was Bill Belichick sending a message to his locker room that no one is above the team?

In my haste to put something out there, I made a mistake and didn’t let this story play out before putting down my initial opinion on the trade. When the trade happened, and I just got back from the grocery store and logged onto my computer, I was floored like everyone else. I had a feeling that Collins might be the odd man out with the contract negotiations, but never thought he would be out the door before the end of the league year. I don’t have any insight on how the Patriots operate nor have I ever played a single down of tackle football in my life. My knowledge on the Patriots is solely dependent on media sources, including former players and executives that have worked with Bill Belichick such as Matt Chatham or Mike Lombardi on Twitter.

On the surface this trade makes zero sense from a fan’s perspective. On the stat sheet and on Pro Football Focus, Collins graded out well. Collins was a Top 5 off the ball linebacker on PFF and looked primed to have a big contract year before getting paid elsewhere. Then the Buffalo game happened where Collins was invisible, and his impact was more negative than positive. Collins wasn’t the only player who struggled in the game as the entire defense outside of maybe Alan Branch and Malcolm Butler had a bad day. The effort level in pursuit and tackling was atrocious and penalties kept the Bills drive alive. The Bills offensive output wasn’t impressive on its own, but there were various mistakes in the game.

The defense has had many critics, including Lombardi, who has stated multiple times he believes the defense is underachieving its talent base. He started off being very critical with the play of Collins then moving on towards others on the defense. The Patriots have limited points, which was a reason I was somewhat willing to overlook their bad down and red zone scores on my Power Rankings spreadsheet. The Patriots have been feasting against banged up offenses missing key personnel. There are plenty of reasons to be concerned with the direction of the defense with an inconsistent pass rush, mistakes at the linebacker level, and penalties in the secondary. The only players that have been consistent in each week this year are CB Malcolm Butler and DT Alan Branch.

I have very limited knowledge in the game of football and will never claim to be qualified to have a job in the NFL. A player making a physical or mental mistake is not as obvious as it would be for the Patriots coaching staff. If the mistakes are in plain sight to the fan, they’re usually very egregious such as bad tackling, bad pursuit, or a busted coverage assignment. Football is a very complex game compared to most other sports and it isn’t easy to pick up that’s for sure. For what I don’t know, I will defer to the 4x Super Bowl winning head coach and assume the benefit of the doubt here.

The good news is the Patriots have a bye week for the players to rest up and look themselves in the mirror. It was pretty clear that Bill Belichick intended to send a message to his locker room that the effort they put up against Buffalo was not acceptable to his standards. Perhaps no bigger candidate to send a shock through the locker room was to trade a well-regarded player in Jamie Collins. It certainly grabbed the players attention seeing how many tweets from the players popped up in my timeline. Belichick isn’t afraid to send a message to his team that way as Lawyer Milloy can attest.

Belichick is very much a stickler on assignment football and doesn’t tolerate any freelancing in his defense. “Do Your Job” isn’t a slogan or a football documentary title, it’s the way business is conducted in New England. It’s “Do your job or we’ll find someone else who will”. Belichick doesn’t care what your circumstances are or how talented at football you are, he’s earned the locker room equity to pull moves like that. Collins isn’t the first player the Patriots let go because he didn’t buy into the system, the Patriots released DT Dominique Easley in the offseason because he went rogue. The team is more important than the individual, that’s the secondary message that BB is sending to his locker room.

The Patriots have so many defenders approaching free agency and looking for a big pay day, so I’m wondering if that’s affecting the defense. Key players such as Collins, Dont’a Hightower, Jabaal Sheard, Alan Branch, Malcolm Butler (RFA), Duron Harmon, and Logan Ryan are all set to become free agents after the season on the defense. The Patriots have a reputation of playing hard ball with their players in these type of negotiations, as Collins found out the hard way this year. If the players feel like the team is low-balling them I can see them pressing and trying to make plays that aren’t there instead of executing their assignment. That’s not a valid excuse for Bill Belichick because the Team is more important than the Individual. If you’re worried about your next contract, worry about it somewhere else. Collins was made to be the example in this situation, fortunately Belichick was able to send him to an inconsequential destination such as Cleveland.

Reports came out that Collins wanted Von Miller type money, which is the top of the market for pass rushers. Collins has played an inside linebacker type role from the get-go and the difference in top dollar between the two positions is nearly $7M a year (Miller made $19M AAV vs. Kuechly at $12.5M). The Patriots reportedly offered Collins $11M a year, which I suspect happened before the season, which he turned down. I have no idea if the contract talks became a distraction, I have no idea what goes on behind the scenes from 2000 miles away in Tucson, AZ. The reality is talks are over and Collins is no longer a Patriot.

The immediate aftermath of the deal is that rookie Elandon Roberts will be line to take over Collins’ 2nd linebacker role. Roberts came to the team as a 6th round draft choice primarily due to his lack of size and only one year of playing time. However, in that one year he led all NCAA linebackers in solo stops and run stop percentage (PFF). The Patriots play 80-85% of their defensive snaps with only 2 linebackers on the field. Roberts has been productive when called upon and has been one of the team’s best run defenders in the two games he played. While Roberts is a downgrade in coverage and on blitzes, it’s more likely that he will execute his assignment on defense and not freelance. Roberts doesn’t have the upside Collins has and isn’t nearly as versatile. The Patriots are depending on him to grow within the confines of the defense, and the early looks show promise.

On the other side of the trade, the Patriots are getting either a 3rd round compensatory pick or a 4th round pick in 2018. For a player of Collins’ pedigree it does seem underwhelming on the surface. The Patriots are trading half a year of someone who was considered a core player for a mid round pick. The 3rd round pick is dependent on Alex Mack playing 80% of the snaps at center for the Falcons. Fortunately he hasn’t missed any significant snaps this year for a Falcons team that’s 5-3 and a near lock for the postseason. The Patriots must have felt that they wanted him out as either an example to the rest of the locker room and/or they felt that Roberts was a safer bet to count on moving forward.

It will be interesting to see how the team plays the final eight games following the deal. The next game is on Sunday Night Football against the Seattle Seahawks. It will be interesting to see how the defense performs in that game considering the Seahawks offense is not very good and have been decimated by injuries up front and to their QB. The Patriots have eight games to improve their defense to a championship caliber level as we saw in the 2nd half of 2014 on a defense that gave up 0 TD in the 4th quarter from November all the way to Super Bowl XLIX. The issue isn’t talent, even without Collins there is a lot of talent at each level of the defense, but rather playing as well as they can within the parameters of the defense. Every Patriots player needs to look in the mirror and think about what they’ve contributed and what they need to improve on in the second half of the season.