In late August 2014, the New England Patriots made a surprising move when they shipped long-time starting left guard Logan Mankins to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in exchange for tight end Tim Wright. The trade also included an exchange of draft picks, with the Patriots getting a selections in the fourth and sixth round while giving up a fifth-rounder in return. That fourth-round pick is now one of the NFL’s highest paid defenders.
Eight months after the trade, the Patriots drafted defensive lineman Trey Flowers with what had now become the 101st selection in the 2015 draft. At that time, the Arkansas product was seen as a well-rounded prospect but one whose size and lack of speed could cause him to have issues as a traditional edge defender at the next level. That being said, his upside was evident from the get-go as colleague Rich Hill noted in his post-draft analysis:
If there’s one player who is going to be an unheralded stud edge defender in the mold of Rob Ninkovich, it’s the 6’3, 270 lbs Flowers. According to College Football Focus, Flowers was their only edge defender ranked in the top four of their key defense statistics (run stop rate, pass rush productivity, third down productivity). He’s stout, he’s strong, and he’s a potential impact player on the edge. His selection puts writing on the wall for all the edge players, other than Chandler Jones, Rob Ninkovich, and Jabaal Sheard.
Flowers lived up to the praise fairly early in his career: in his first preseason game, Flowers registered two tackles and a sack against Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers. Four plays after the takedown, however, the rookie hurt his shoulder and left the game. Despite the injury, he was still able to do enough to earn a spot on New England’s 2015 opening day roster as the fourth defensive edge.
His standing on the depth chart was reflected by his usage: Flowers appeared in only one game during the 2015 season, playing a grand total of four defensive snaps before getting placed on season-ending injured reserve. Basically, his rookie campaign served as a redshirt season to groom him for bigger tasks ahead — and they certainly came, especially with New England moving on from Chandler Jones the following offseason.
Suddenly, Flowers was a mainstay in New England’s defensive rotation and he showed why the club had trust in him by delivering an outstanding 2016 season. During the regular season, and while being an equal part of a rotation that also included Rob Ninkovich, Jabaal Sheard and free agency addition Chris Long, he led the Patriots with 7.0 sacks. He kept the pace up during the playoffs, by adding 2.5 quarterback takedowns — all in the Super Bowl:
Flowers’ second sack for which he was fully credited was one of the high-points of his tenure with the Patriots: by taking down quarterback Matt Ryan, he knocked the Atlanta Falcons out of field goal range during crunch time in Super Bowl 51 and thus played an enormous role in helping his team complete its historic 25-point comeback en route to bringing a fifth Vince Lombardi Trophy to New England.
His performance on the game’s biggest stage alone would have been worth the fourth-round investment one year earlier. Flowers, however, was far from done: over the next two seasons, he became the Patriots’ clear-cut top option along the defensive edge and grew into one of the most complete players at his position — a stout defender against the run, a disruptive force against the pass, and a versatile option to play every technique at the highest level.
After producing another solid season in 2017 and being one of the few bright spots on New England’s injury-riddled and inconsistent defense, Flowers delivered arguably his best performance to date in 2018: playing almost three-fourths of the Patriots’ defensive snaps, he again led the team in sacks (7.5 during the regular season, 2.0 during the playoffs) and came through in the clutch moments.
Look no further than the AFC Championship Game against the Kansas City Chiefs, when he took another league MVP down to force the Patriots’ opponent out of field goal range in a game ultimately decided in overtime:
Trey Flowers sack to take Kansas City out of FG range! Huge play. pic.twitter.com/WqMAWIDi7R— #NobodyDied (@ftbeard_17) January 23, 2019
This sack of Patrick Mahomes, just like the one of Matt Ryan above, illustrate what the Patriots had in Flowers — and what made the Detroit Lions sign the 25-year-old to a five-year contract reportedly worth around $16-$17 million per year yesterday: he made big plays when his team needed him to make them, and time and again showed that the questions surrounding him coming out of Arkansas were not warranted.
Seeing Flowers go will therefore be a big loss for the reigning world champions, but in the end his story is one of massive success. He entered the league as a day-three draft selection, grew into one of the NFL’s most dependable players, played key roles in helping his team win two Super Bowls, and even upon his departure will add to the club’s draft capital: New England is expected to get a third-round compensatory pick next year for Flowers.
All in all, you can’t expect much more from a fourth-round selection.