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A possible Patriots trade deadline target no one is talking about

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Hint: it’s not Stefon Diggs.

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New England Patriots v Washington Redskins
They’re playing Bill Belichick’s music!
Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

With the NFL trade deadline just two weeks away, and ample time on our hands between the Patriots’ week-six victory on Thursday Night Football and their upcoming Monday night affair against the Jets, it’s fair to say we are officially in the eye of the storm with regard to speculation season. And I’ve got to tell you — it’s fantastic.

Why? Because it’s fun. It’s okay to let your hair down and open your mind to the possibilities — however realistic, or otherwise, they are.

It’s fun to imagine the Patriots acquiring a big-named wide receiver like Stefon Diggs — a potential move Bill Belichick has probed, according to The Athletic’s Jeff Howe. It’s fun to imagine Tom Brady attacking seams with the likes of OJ Howard, Cameron Brate, or Mohammed Sanu. And it’s fun to imagine a world where the “Larry Fitzgerald spotted at Logan Airport” meme comes to life.

If anything, Bill Belichick made us this way. Over the last twenty years, his propensity to pull the trigger on seemingly improbable roster moves has made New England the first destination atop potential landing spot lists for players falling out of favor with their current organizations. And while many will still downplay most speculation and rumors, Belichick has created a landscape where no one can ever truly say — with 100% certainty — that a potential transaction will not happen.

Nonetheless, most informed individuals can set aside their “fun names” pile and effectively differentiate between what’s realistic and what isn’t. And currently, with roughly $3 million in available cap space — much of which will be needed to get through the rest of the season — the Patriots’ realistic options are limited.

However, there is one player who not only checks the box next to “fits with our current financial constraints”, but many others as well. He’s not being talked about at all as a potential target, but at the very least, he warrants an inquiry from Bill Belichick as the deadline looms.

That player is New York Giants safety Jabrill Peppers.


There are a few reasons many of you are angry right now.

  1. Peppers isn’t a wide receiver, tight end, or an offensive lineman.
  2. Peppers plays defense.
  3. The Patriots defense is already the best in football.

Sure — all of those things are true. And let’s also be clear: there are no reports or rumors even suggesting Peppers is available. But that certainly doesn’t mean Bill wouldn’t at least give an inquiry into his availability some consideration. Here’s why.

Talent

Evaluators have been raving about Peppers’s athleticism since his days at Paramus Catholic High School in NJ as a five-star football recruit and record-setter on the track. At Michigan, he played both ways and was deadly in the return game. He was undersized, but excelled at the “star” or “viper” linebacker position in Don Brown’s defense. On offense, although he was often the most physically gifted player on the field, his production was stymied by absurd positional deployment and Jim Harbaugh’s archaic offensive scheme and play calling.

After his junior season, Peppers tore up the pre-draft process in 2017 and was selected 25th overall by Sashi Brown and the Cleveland Browns, despite questions about which position he’d play. After struggling at safety in his rookie year — and in Gregg Williams’s scheme — Peppers took a huge leap forward in 2018. Then he was traded this past offseason to the Giants as part of the compensation package for Odell Beckham Jr.

Aside from immediately bringing depth to both the punt and kickoff return spots, Peppers has the size and skill set to play any safety spot, and he’s particularly well-suited for the hybrid safely/linebacker role featured so prominently in Bill Belichick’s “big nickel” defenses. Last week against the Patriots, Peppers was everywhere, logging 8 solo tackles — including a tackle for loss — while playing multiple positions based on his unit’s personnel grouping.

Positional need — both present and future

Although Patrick Chung returned from injury in week six, he left after just eight defensive snaps and did not return, although he was present at practice on Tuesday. The arrival of Terrance Brooks this offseason has bolstered the team’s safety depth, but Peppers would add a serious boost of talent to an already stellar unit if Chung is forced to miss more time.

Would Peppers be a long-term replacement for Chung? He could be, but it wouldn’t be likely in 2020 — especially considering the veteran safety signed yet another contract extension this past offseason that takes him through 2021. But that extension doesn’t make the 32-year-old irreplaceable. There’s also the possibility that Chung will receive discipline from the league office in 2020.

The best fit, given Peppers’s versatility, could actually be as Devin McCourty’s replacement in 2020.

Contract

Atop every list of potential trade targets is a group of players who are still playing out their rookie deals. Peppers falls into that group.

Acquiring the former first-round pick after Tuesday’s 4pmET pay deadline would result in a fully guaranteed 2019 cap figure of just $826,591 — or ten weeks of salary. His 2020 cap figure would be just $1,875,306 — $1,017,400 of which would be guaranteed, per overthecap.com. The Patriots could also decide to pick up his 2021 fifth-year option next spring.


Of course, the entire discussion comes down to price. Would the Giants move a young, core piece of their defense? Would they apply sunk cost logic and refuse to part with a portion of the return they received for trading away one of the league’s top wide receivers? One would think Dave Gettleman would be open to all avenues of adding draft capital to fuel the rebuild around Daniel Jones.

As it stands, the Giants are third place in the NFC East at 2-4, with their two victories coming over Washington and Tampa Bay. The rebuild is still going to take a while, and they haven’t amassed any additional 2020 day-one or day-two draft capital aside from the third round compensatory selection headed their way from Landon Collins’s departure.

The Patriots, per usual, have the draft picks to strike a deal. They also have an extraordinary amount of depth, and could supplement an offer package with suspended defensive lineman Michael Bennett, or a more minor a personnel piece like Deatrich Wise Jr.

Is it it realistic? Who knows. Maybe Gettleman hangs up the phone immediately. But Peppers checks too many boxes for it to go without discussion from the Patriots perspective. He hits all of their athletic thresholds, is as versatile an asset as you could ask for, comes with two and a half years of cost-effective team control, and he’d easily fit under the 2019 salary cap. Bill Belichick’s affinity for former first-rounders certainly bears mentioning as well.

Is it as fun as a Stefon Diggs acquisition? Of course not. But, in many ways it makes a lot more sense. At the very least, it deserves a phone call.

Follow Brian Phillips on Twitter @BPhillips_SB