2015 was, by all individual statistical accounts, the best season of Chandler Jones’ four-year career up until that point. The former first-round draft choice registered a team-high 12.5 sacks, which ranked him fifth in the league, and was a core member of the New England Patriots’ rotation along the defensive edge. He was also voted to his first Pro Bowl and showed why picking up the fifth-year option of his rookie contract was the right call.
And then, in March 2016, Jones was gone: the Patriots traded him to the Arizona Cardinals for guard Jonathan Cooper and a second-round draft selection later that spring. Why would New England move on from its best pass rusher for a disappointing offensive lineman and the 61st overall pick in the draft? Various factors likely came into play, but the outlook of being unable to keep Jones beyond 2016 might have been the overriding factor.
This approach, as irritating as it might seem, was no new one for the Patriots: they rather move on from players when they still have value instead of watching them a) decline while on their roster, or b) leave in free agency and not yield a satisfying return through the NFL’s compensation formula. This is why players entering the final years of their contracts should always be on high alert, because they might just become the next Chandler Jones.
Enter Elandon Roberts, who — you guessed it — is heading into the fourth and final season on his rookie deal with the Patriots. New England drafted the linebacker in the sixth round in 2016, and he developed into a solid depth option for the team. In 2018, he served as the number three behind Dont’a Hightower and Kyle Van Noy and was on the field for a combined 38.4% of the world champions’ defensive snaps (473 of 1,231).
In the process, Roberts delivered what was arguably the best season of his career (sounds familiar?): while he was a hit-or-miss type of player before 2018 — one that often overshot gaps in the running game, had weaknesses when dropping into coverage, and was slow to read and react to plays — the Houston product became more consistent in his third year in the NFL and when used in more of a rotational role.
So why might Roberts be in line to receive the Chandler Jones treatment? It’s basically a combination of three factors: his contract situation and the associated value, the depth at the position he plays, and the overall construction of the roster at the moment.
The first is pretty straight forward. Roberts is scheduled to enter free agency next offseason, and will likely not be as popular an option as Jones would have been had he played out his contract in New England and hit the open market in 2017. As a result, the Patriots would likely get only a low-round compensatory selection back in case the 25-year-old leaves them for greener pastures (if any). He might be more valuable as a trade chip now than a free agent in 2020.
This sentiment is closely tied to the second aforementioned factor, New England’s linebacker depth. Hightower and Van Noy are the undisputed one-two punch at the position, with second-year man Ja’Whaun Bentley being the first man off the bench during the four spring practices open to the media. Bentley — in combination with the offseason signing of Jamie Collins Sr. — is a main reason why the Patriots might be inclined to move on from Roberts.
The fifth-round draft choice from a year ago did not only appear to be higher up on the depth chart during practice this offseason, after all, he also saw more playing time when both men were healthy last year. Before Bentley suffered a season-ending biceps injury late in week three, he actually out-snapped Roberts 138 to 71. While reading too much into this can be dangerous, it still shows that the Patriots were willing to give the rookie considerable snaps over the veteran early in his career.
Finally, the construction of New England’s roster also comes into play. While it is rather deep overall, positions like tight end, wide receiver and backup offensive tackle remain a work in progress. Could swapping Roberts for a player at one of those spots be worth a trade from the Patriots’ perspective? It is possible, similar to the move the team made in September 2017 to acquire wideout Phillip Dorsett for developmental third-string quarterback Jacoby Brissett.
With all that in mind, it would not be a major surprise if the Patriots decided to move on from Roberts this year if the right chance presented itself. Does that mean they will do it? Of course not, but judging by past patterns it certainly seems like a plausible option.