The New England Patriots acquired offensive guard Jonathan Cooper, along with a second round pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, in exchange for the final year of edge defender Chandler Jones' contract. The Patriots flipped that 2nd round pick into offensive lineman Joe Thuney and wide receiver Malcolm Mitchell.
Both Thuney and Mitchell are roster locks, thanks to the guaranteed money baked into their contracts. The Patriots saved $3.6 million in cap space as the result of the trade, per PatsCap, which is crucial space with all of the defensive contracts coming up.
But let's talk about Cooper.
Cooper had been a bust in Arizona after suffering a serious leg injury as a rookie and never regaining his former top 10 ability. He was originally regarded as a sweetener for the Jones trade because the Patriots needed to improve the play on their interior line.
Upon greater examination, perhaps Cooper should be considered a real option for the starting line- if not because he deserves it, then because he's least bad option.
While some scouting entities, like Pro Football Focus, rated Josh Kline as the team's best interior lineman before a shoulder injury derailed his season, it wasn't difficult to see that all of the interior linemen were bad. There were no complete guards on the roster.
Undrafted rookie center David Andrews was tossed around by larger nose tackles in the running game. Second-year center Bryan Stork tipped snaps the entire AFC Championship game. Rookie guard Tre Jackson was slow-footed and battled knee injuries. Fellow rookie guard Shaq Mason couldn't pass block until the playoffs, so it remains to be seen if that was an anomaly or if he actually turned a corner.
Those four interior linemen are not better than Cooper at this point in time, which means that camp will be an open competition.
And unless the Patriots conclude the competition in record-setting time, Cooper is going to stick through camp and he's going to make the squad because of his contract.
Most top draft picks receive a contract that guarantees the player their salary if they make it to training camp. This became the standard practice to reduce the initial signing bonus and to serve as protection against busts that don't make it through their rookie contract.
Cooper's contract guarantees $1.7 million if he is on the squad on the 5th day of training camp, which is likely to be in early August and before any of the preseason games. If he is retained with that roster bonus, then he's a lock to make the team with the highest cap hit on the interior line.
But even if the Patriots cut Cooper prior to the 5th day of camp, they will be on the hook for his contract unless some other team signs him- whereupon the Patriots would only be responsible for the difference between his old contract with the Patriots and his new contract.
Due to his contract structure, athletic upside, and the fact that his contributions on the field are negligibly different from the likes of Jackson and Stork, it would make sense for the Patriots to retain Cooper on the roster, even if he doesn't win a starting spot outright. Typically I'd say that the equal level of play would lead to the more expensive player being cut, but Cooper's contract forces the Patriots to keep him on the books.
I think the Patriots will move forward in 2016 with Cooper, Kline, Thuney, Mason, and Stork on the interior line, with Jackson's knees ultimately costing him a spot on the active roster (could he suffer the Foxboro Flu after his knee scopes?) and Andrews' lack-of-size playing a key role in the team building decision.
The fact that all five interior offensive linemen on the roster can play guard and center, with Kline, Thuney, and Stork adding extra value as emergency tackles, means a lot because Andrews and Jackson are limited in their versatility. The Patriots would be able to mix-and-match the five players on the roster until one sticks.
I would expect Thuney and Stork to battle for the starting center role, with the loser joining the competition for a starting guard spot. It's going to be a fun camp- and Cooper should be around until the end.