The New England Patriots have moved on from three of their most devastating pass rushers over the past year. ED Chandler Jones went to Arizona for a 2nd round pick and a former draft bust. LB Jamie Collins is with the Browns in exchange for a conditional 3rd round pick. DT Dominique Easley was cut outright.
Add in ED Jabaal Sheard, LB Dont’a Hightower, and DT Malcom Brown and you’ve got one of the most potent defensive fronts in the entire NFL that can both stop the run and harrass the quarterback. Instead, three of them are gone and Patriots fans are left scratching their heads.
Jones was a 2012 1st round pick. Collins was a 2013 2nd round pick. Easley was a 2014 1st round pick. These were blue chip prospects that the Patriots drafted with the expectation that they would be cornerstone players for the foreseeable future. The Patriots won a Super Bowl with the trio and reached the conference championship every season.
But they’re now gone and the defense is worse for it. You don’t remove such elite talent and not expect a drop off in production and these roster moves certainly make it more difficult for the Patriots to continue their reign of success.
And all three players share a similar trait that earns a one-way ticket out of New England: head coach Bill Belichick was concerned about their commitment to the team.
This past draft cycle, Belichick sat with a former Green Beret and consultant to discuss the problems of finding players that are willing to buy into the Patriots system. Belichick loves dipping into the Rutgers and Alabama pool of talent because he knows they understand what it takes to fit into the Patriots machine.
But it’s the players that don’t buy in and don’t follow along that cause problems. Easley disregarded the team trainers and hid serious injuries which led to his release. Jones ran into the cops and was hospitalized after a bad reaction with synthetic marijuana, which allowed Sheard to jump him in the depth chart.
And ProJo learned that Collins gave himself a manicure right before a team walkthrough- which is probably not the ideal time to get a manicure. The Patriots were phasing Collins out to be a part-time player and Belichick was “leery of the locker-room issue it would cause,” per NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport.
Now I know that all three of these red flags are different sizes and shades of red. Running into the cops is entirely different from hiding injuries and disregarding the trainer, which is completely different from getting a manicure. Jones and Collins were also incredibly popular with players in the locker room.
These are all very different situations and very different offenses, but they show players that don’t align with the Patriots culture for various reasons- or that the players didn’t have enough of a future with the team to warrant putting up with their character flaws.
The Patriots didn’t think Easley was going to be healthy enough to contribute if he didn’t follow their training regimen. Jones was going to receive a crazy offer in free agency, although there was never a question of Jones doing whatever he could to help the team. The gap between Collins’ desired contract and the Patriots offer was too great to bridge.
It also didn’t hurt that Elandon Roberts was stealing snaps from Collins in the same way that Jabaal Sheard was taking snaps from Jones at the end of 2015.
Belichick treasures players that might appear limited on the field like ED Rob Ninkovich, LB Jonathan Freeny, and CB Logan Ryan because they’ve bought in to the system. Whenever Belichick bestows the, “Nobody works harder than ______,” praise on a player, you know they’ve bought in.
Belichick and company had “plans to turn Collins into a part-time player since the team was frustrated with his lack of success against the run,” according to Rapoport. “Collins grew increasingly frustrated with the team not valuing him and he was clashing with coaches.”
Perhaps if Collins listened to Belichick and did his job against the run he’d still be with the team. Perhaps Easley would, too, if he followed the advice of the training staff. I think the Patriots make that Jones trade every single time, just due to the price tag.
But if Collins and Easley had bought in, we might be looking at a Patriots defensive front that inspired confidence and reflected the 3rd best points against ranking in the entire league.
Instead, Collins is Cleveland, Easley is in Los Angeles, and Jones is in Arizona. These three teams have a combined 6 wins in 2016. Belichick and the 7-win Patriots will continue towards the playoffs with players that have bought in to the system, for better or for worse.
And if history is any judge, you might want to put your money on “for better.”