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The Patriots traded a player before his contract year again. Who’s next?

Is the Brandin Cooks trade just a precursor to more moves?

Miami Dolphins v New England Patriots Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

When the Patriots traded Brandin Cooks to the Rams on Tuesday, my first reaction was surprise, and I’d imagine most Patriots fans felt the same. But within minutes I realized that there was really nothing surprising about the move at all. Rich and others have already gone into how great of a value the Patriots got back in the trade, but that’s besides the point. Brandin Cooks is just the next name in a long list of players that Bill Belichick traded a year early, sensing a ridiculous market in the future.

From Tebucky Jones to Deion Branch to Ellis Hobbs to Richard Seymour to Logan Mankins to Chandler Jones to Jamie Collins to Brandin Cooks... you get the picture. It’s fair to say that the Patriots came out more than fine from all of those trades.

Even after trading Cooks, there are still candidates on the current roster that fall into this “trade a year early” criteria. And with the Patriots being very active throughout the season in acquiring draft capital, it leaves them with extra opportunities to make more of these types of moves.

Malcom Brown

I’ve already detailed the reasons that I’ve wanted to trade Malcom Brown in the past. I’ve held that opinion since after the 2016 season and I wrote about it in more detail here. While the Patriots would be only trading two years of control of Brown this offseason, compared to three if he was traded at the time I wrote that piece, Brown should still have strong trade value.

Summarized concisely, my arguments in that article last year were that the Patriots don’t invest big contracts into defensive tackles, and that has remained true throughout the entire history of Belichick’s Patriots career. Belichick has only paid market value for two defensive tackles, and those two were literally the best player in the NFL at their positions at the time in Richard Seymour and Vince Wilfork.

Bill Belichick prefers to address the defensive tackle position in three different ways. He invests in the defensive line position heavily though the draft to utilize their cheap rookie contracts. The Patriots last two 1st round picks were defensive tackles and in a time period from 2009-2014, the Patriots defensive line was basically Vince Wilfork and a bunch of rookie contract players.

Belichick also likes to sign defensive line players to below market value contracts and play them rotational or pseudo-starter snaps. Lawrence Guy is the most recent example of this. And the 3rd way he addresses the position is through trades and waiver wire signings. Some of them have been terrific, like his acquisitions of Ted Washington, Akiem Hicks and Alan Branch. Others haven’t gone so well, like in the cases of Albert Haynesworth and Isaac Sopoaga. But the important point in all of these situations is that the risk is low and the reward is high.

The Patriots have already utilized the third method of acquiring defensive tackles this offseason through their acquisition of Danny Shelton for a swap of mid-round draft picks. The addition of Shelton makes Brown’s roster spot all the more shaky. Both players are due for their fifth year options after the 2018 season and the Patriots won’t give them out to both of them as two-down defensive tackles. I would assume that Shelton has the inside track at this point based on his higher pedigree, level of play, and the fact that the Patriots went out of their way to acquire him.

Malcom Brown’s exact trade value is unclear at this point, coming off an up and down year where he missed games for the first time in his career. But I think that the Patriots using him as a chip to move up in the draft is very plausible. It’s not going to be a Cordy Glenn situation where the Bills moved up from 21 to 12, but the Patriots could use Brown to move up into the range of the tackle they desire, or to replenish mid-round picks if they trade up in a different way. With the return of Vincent Valentine, the acquisition of Danny Shelton, and Brown’s impending contract situation, I think that he’s the most likely Patriot to be moved on this list.

Shaq Mason

The guard market exploded in the offseason when Andrew Norwell signed a five-year deal with the Jaguars worth an average of $13.3 million per year. Once a position that was one of the least valuable in the NFL, the guard market has been trending up for a while. This year we’re likely going to see three guards get picked in the first round, including Quenton Nelson, who is a near lock in the top 10.

Unlike defensive tackle, the Patriots do not invest heavy draft capital in the interior offensive line. You can speculate some reasons why that is the case (perhaps he has great trust in Dante Scarnecchia) but Belichick has been getting away with this for years. Logan Mankins was the only first round pick that Belichick has ever invested in the interior offensive line. The second highest pick? That would be Joe Thuney, drafted #78 overall in 2016. That’s astounding.

For years that Patriots have had great production out of the interior O-Line from scrappy guys. At the center position, he’s had Dan Koppen, Dan Connolly, Ryan Wendell and David Andrews. Only Koppen was drafted (in the fifth round) and Wendell and Andrews didn’t even get invited to the combine. The Patriots had a wrestler that didn’t play college football start 81 games for them. They also had a tuba player play guard for a stretch of 2014, but we don’t talk about that anymore.

Shaq Mason is entering the last year of his contract and no question about it, he will get paid next year. Barring a disastrous 2018, he’s looking at 8-figures per year on the open market, and the franchise tag for his position will be in the $15 million range. Why in the world would Belichick pay that kind of money when he could throw Ted Karras or Cole Croston or some random rookie fourth-rounder in at guard? And Shaq Mason isn’t even the best player on the interior offensive line. If I’m David Andrews, I’m firing my agent and suing the Patriots for larceny after seeing some of these center contracts over the last month.

Lastly, and I must preface this with the disclaimer that this association is pretty circumstantial and I have no justification whatsoever that Belichick would ever think this way, Shaq Mason’s play in the Super Bowl might have Belichick thinking that he really isn’t as good as it seems. Mason has always been a better run blocker than a pass blocker and for a quarterback like Tom Brady that literally only struggles with interior pressure, it’s not the best fit. My lasting memory of the Super Bowl was Shaq Mason getting undressed by Brandon Graham, leading to the decisive strip sack. One of my lasting memories from Logan Mankins’ last game as a Patriot was him getting undressed by Terrence Knighton on a crucial fourth down in Denver.

Shaq Mason has a lot of trade value. Like throwing him into draft day deals could definitely get the Patriots into range of a marquee first round quarterback, if that’s what they’re planning to do. With a big payday looming at a position where it wouldn’t cost much to replace, I think there’s a realistic chance that Mason doesn’t make it to OTAs.

Trey Flowers

Trey Flowers is on this list because he makes some sense, but I think that it would be a colossal mistake if they did trade him. Some people will compare this to the Chandler Jones situation two years ago, but I think there are several distinct differences, largely scheme based.

Trey Flowers has been incredible as an interior pass rusher in sub situations. He’s probably more dangerous there than from a regular 7 or 9 alignment as a defensive end. While Chandler Jones did have some of the same assignments that Flowers did inside, he was much weaker there. The Patriots also struggled immensely against interior runs when they were lined up in their hybrid 3-4 with Chandler Jones, and Flowers does not have those kinds of scheme deficiencies. Flowers is a remarkably consistent player from any alignment against the run or the pass.

They say numbers always lie, but for contracts, they really do have an impact. 10 is such an arbitrary number for sacks in a season, but the fact that Jones had two of those seasons in his Patriots career and Flowers’ career high is seven means that Flowers won’t touch the $51 million guaranteed or the $16.5 million per year that Jones ultimately got from Arizona. Whether or not that’s right is another story, but Flowers being a “jack of all trades, master of none” kind of defensive lineman plays against him in contracts. I expect the Patriots to work out an extension with him before the season.

I always jokingly flaunt that I was the first person to identify that Chandler Jones was going to be traded back in 2015, but the fact of the matter is that I was a 19-year-old college freshman with a so-so at best understanding of the nuances of football that got pretty lucky. So, while I’ll be on the record as saying that there’s basically no chance it’s going to happen, there’s a reason why I’m writing about the Patriots and Bill Belichick is running the Patriots. I thought that there was no way that the Patriots would walk away from Jamie Collins. To this day, I still don’t understand that move. I thought that Danny Amendola was overpaid and an overall awful player, and I ate crow on that all year.

For all I know, Flowers could have no interest in signing an extension, and Belichick could end up trading his ass because of it. If he is traded, look for the Patriots to get back at least a second-round pick or use him to get one of the Rosen/Allen/Darnold trio. Personally, I would hate the move, but if Flowers gets traded, it will be because of his contract, with a “trade a year early” kind of mentality.

One thing that I have taken away from my time as a passionate Patriots fan is that there is never a dull moment. The Patriots keep winning, but the ups and downs of both the season and offseason always keep me on my toes. I’m certain that Belichick still has many surprises up his sleeve in the weeks coming up to the draft. And while that may mean trading away more valuable contributors to the team, I’m here for it, for better or for worse.