In football, as in life, not all things are created equal.
Yes, football is a team game, and at the end of the day the group always outweighs the individual. That said, the stark reality is that there are certain players on the Patriots who we need to put in a category all their own, as they are simply irreplaceable. Players who represent the heart and soul of the team. Amazing teammates and fan favorites who the Patriots are absolutely going to figure out a way to keep at all costs. Guys that nobody in their right mind would even think about bringing up as potential trade bait or cap casualties. Guys you can lump in with the other great Patriots like Lawyer Milloy, Willie McGinnest, Richard Seymour, Mike Vrabel, Randy Moss, Ty Law, Logan Mankins, Jamie Collins, Adam Vinatieri, and Chandler Jones. The 2016 Patriots have more than a few of these guys, which really only begs one question:
Which current irreplaceable Patriot has played his last full season in New England?
If history has taught us anything, it's that it's more probable than not that Bill Belichick is at least generally aware that he might possibly be parting ways with a player who is as talented, beloved, and essential to a championship repeat as it gets. That parting might happen sooner rather than later, and when it does, it will undoubtedly go down in history as the worst decision he has ever made and the media will all point to the move as the exact moment when the Patriots Dynasty began crumbling to the ground.
You can deny it all you want. You can call me crazy. You can dismiss everything I have to say. But facts are facts, and odds are that Belichick is going to be making a roster move at some point this year that absolutely nobody saw coming and sends the experts to the barn to gather their torches and pitchforks so they can better crucify Belichick for his arrogance.
And then, when the Patriots are playing in the AFC Championship again, we'll all wonder what everybody saw in that guy anyway.
So here are a few Patriots that are 100% in the team's long-term plans that you'd have to be an absolute moron to consider as potential cap casualties or trade bait. Guys that nobody in his right mind would suggest that the Patriots might move. Guys that were integral to the team's success that we're all lucky to have on board.
In other words, prime candidates for the chopping block.
Rob Gronkowski. Gronk is arguably the greatest tight end to ever play the game. He's an absolute game-changer, one of the biggest coverage mismatches there is, and the Patriots offense is virtually unstoppable when he's on the field. He's only 27 and right in the middle of a very team-friendly contract that has him locked down through 2019. However, he's had more surgeries than Michael Jackson and is an injury risk every time he touches the ball. You can now add "back" to the laundry list of body parts that now have some kind of metal in them, and who knows how much longer he's going to be so dominant. Gronk is the kind of guy who, when he finally breaks down, is going to go all at one, so why not move him now before all that happens and get a hefty sum in return? The Patriots can obviously win without him, and his trade value remains as high as it will ever be.
Dont'a Hightower. Dont'a Hightower has now made game-changing plays in both Super Bowls he has been in; he preceded his strip sack of Matt Ryan in 2016 with the touchdown-saving tackle on Marshawn Lynch in 2014 (on a ruined shoulder, no less) that set up the Malcolm Butler interception. He's the cornerstone of the defense, the guy with the green dot on his helmet, and a member of the very, very exclusive club of players that receive nothing but the highest praise from Bill Belichick. He's also a classic example of how the Patriots do business: drafted into the system, worked hard, did everything right, kept his mouth shut, delivered on the field, played out his rookie contract, and now deserves to be rewarded. He's exactly the kind of player the Patriots offer a big contract to when the time is right. That said, the Patriots have a max price on everyone, even their key players, and Hightower has already expressed that he won't be taking a hometown discount. If Hightower is going to demand an absolutely massive contract, then the Patriots won't have any problem letting him walk.
Julian Edelman. Edelman is Tom Brady's favorite receiver and one of the most reliable and productive receivers in Patriots history. He also returns punts, has been known to play cornerback when the need arises, and is one of the team's emotional leaders. He's also on an extremely team friendly deal at four years, $17 million, which means that moving him at this point makes absolutely zero sense. However, he also turns 31 in May, and 2017 represents the final year of his contract; come 2018, he'll be a 31-year old Unrestricted Free Agent. Edelman's stock is probably as high as it will ever be right now, as Edelman's Catch is going to go down in NFL history as one of the greatest plays of all time and he's one of the more respected receivers in the league. He could leave after next season for a big payday elsewhere and the Patriots would get virtually nothing in return. The Patriots could instead probably fetch a decent draft pick for him in exchange for essentially a one year rental from a team with the cap space to make Edelman a long-term offer. Malcolm Mitchell is coming off a very solid rookie campaign, Chris Hogan is a great fit in New England, and as Tommy B has proven time and time again, he makes any receiver effective.
Stephen Gostkowki. The 33-year-old kicker has been one of the best in the business since he came into the league; the only area where the Patriots have had more stability than kicker over the years is at quarterback. But Ghost is coming off a down year, and he's set to earn $3.2 million in 2018, which is a lot for a guy you can no longer rely on. As a scoring machine, Ghost has earned the chance to get himself back together, and he finished the 2016 season very strong after an early slump, but if the Patriots take a kicker relatively high in the draft, the writing could be on the wall. The real question is what he could garner on the open market and whether any potential return value is worth moving what has, excepting last season, been more or less a sure thing.
Devin McCourty. One of the best safeties in the game, McCourty is to the secondary what Hightower is to the front seven. He assigns the coverages, makes the adjustments, and patrols the deep parts of the field to prevent the big play. He's also one of the most durable players on the team and rarely, if ever gets hurt. McCourty is currently signed through 2019, so the team isn't about to lose him anytime soon. However, he'd due to earn $6.5 million, $7.5 million, and $9 million over the next three seasons, and he'll be 30 when the Patriots take the field for the season opener. New England gets rid of players when they still have value, and McCourty has that in spades - which means he'd likely fetch a good price on the open market. Duron Harmon is coming into his own as a player and can be had for much cheaper, and Pat Chung is a highly reliable safety. Plus, there are some highly touted safeties coming up in the 2017 NFL Draft, including Jabril Peppers and Jamal Adams, both of which have been mocked to the Patriots in several drafts, so the Pats could be drafting with moving McCourty this year in mind.