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Patriots’ smartest free-agent signing of 2018 could end up being one that was never made

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Jason McCourty’s release was announced on March 15, but it never reached the NFL transaction wire.

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NFL: Cleveland Browns at Houston Texans Shanna Lockwood-USA TODAY Sports

There’s a good chance Jason McCourty will be the same player at age 31 that he was at age 30.

But it’d be hard to tell based solely on what it took for the New England Patriots to acquire the cornerback on March 15.

New England sent its late sixth-round pick in the 2018 NFL draft to the Cleveland Browns in exchange for a seventh-rounder and McCourty that afternoon. The drop of a dozen draft slots handed the Patriots a 104-game starter that the Browns had announced as a roster cut just over an hour earlier – and at a cap number under $3 million.

McCourty’s contract holds a $2.375 base salary, a $375,000 roster bonus that went into effect the day after the trade, as well as $250,000 in per-game roster bonuses and no guarantees, per OverTheCap.com. He’ll be a free agent after the upcoming season.

First-year Browns general manager John Dorsey was one 4 p.m. ET deadline away from making McCourty a free agent before it.

“I wanted to be fair to him, and I think he’s earned that trust and that respect to do that,” Dorsey said of McCourty in his press conference after the transaction, via ClevelandBrowns.com. “I wanted to talk to him personally and say, ‘You know what? I want to give you a shot to go somewhere else because right now, I don’t know if you’ll make this roster.’”

McCourty didn’t have much time to look somewhere else. The Patriots made that so by swinging a second trade with Dorsey’s Browns – previously acquiring 2015 first-round defensive tackle Danny Shelton – in less than a week.

McCourty, who won't factor into the compensatory formula, will bring an added layer of competition for third-year slot corners Cyrus Jones and Jonathan Jones as both return from injured reserve. His presence also allows for flexibility on the outside between Eric Rowe and Stephon Gilmore in the post-Malcolm Butler era.

So while trading for a veteran about to be available to 30 other teams doesn’t make much sense in theory, not having to get into a bidding war in a cornerback market certainly did for the Patriots. Such a preemptive strike could prove to be the smartest signing head coach Bill Belichick and director of player personnel Nick Caserio never made this league year.

At least in the short-term.

McCourty is 27 minutes younger than his identical twin, Devin, who has cap charges of $11.935 and $13.435 million over the next two years in New England’s secondary. The longtime Patriots safety has even played one more regular-season game in his career than his incoming brother has in his.

If it doesn’t seem like it, perhaps that’s because Jason entered the league as a sixth-round choice in 2009 and Devin, who redshirted at Rutgers, went on to be a first-round choice in 2010. Perhaps the latter’s mileage looks lower because cornerbacks tend to convert to safety in their advanced years – not the other way around.

That’s fine for the present.

Jason isn’t the three-time second-team All-Pro with two Pro Bowls at two different positions. He isn’t the one who’s appeared in four Super Bowls – let alone a playoff game. His injury history includes a broken forearm in 2010 and groin surgery in 2015. But the Patriots’ latest trade acquisition has aged well in the NFL periphery.

After eight seasons with the Titans, Jason was released last April and went winless during his brief Browns tenure. He’d start all 14 games he appeared in for Cleveland, however, and was on the field for 899 snaps – the fourth-most on the defense behind two linebackers and a fellow cornerback a handful of years his junior.

Still, 65 tackles, two forced fumbles and 14 passes defended were recorded in the process for the slightly-younger McCourty. So were interceptions against the Baltimore Ravens’ Joe Flacco, the New York Jets’ Josh McCown and the Houston Texans’ Deshaun Watson – with one taken back for a 56-yard touchdown.

Production was not the reason why Cleveland opted to move in a different direction this offseason.

Pro Football Focus rated the slightly-younger McCourty the 27th-best cornerback in the league last year with a grade of 83.9. His only missed action came in October due to an ankle injury.

Had the Patriots not called the Browns, it’s a strong possibility that Jason would not have missed the chance to reunite with Devin anyway. New England was, as he shared on his introductory conference call, the “No. 1 destination” at this point in his career.

But going from No. 205 to No. 219 overall was a small price to pay to assure it.