The New England Patriots have never shied away from making a move before the NFL trade deadline, because the timing is perfect for Bill Belichick and company to add valuable players to the team’s overall roster and address potential shortcomings. Teams, after all, have already settled down eight weeks into the season as player roles are clearly distributed while some organizations have started turning their focus to the future.
Just last year, the Patriots made contact with both heading into the final few hours before the league’s deadline. They acquired wide receiver Mohamed Sanu from the then 1-7 Atlanta Falcons in exchange for a second-round selection in the this year’s draft. Just two days later, the team sent disgruntled rotational defensive lineman Michael Bennett to the 4-3 Dallas Cowboys for a conditional seventh-round pick in 2021.
Last year’s moves were on outlier: the team has generally never been afraid of swinging a trade at the last possible moment. They acquired players such as Aqib Talib, Akeem Ayers, Jonathan Casillas, Akiem Hicks and Kyle Van Noy over the years, and also moved on from the likes of Jimmy Garoppolo and Jamie Collins midway through the season. New England being active on the trade market would not be out of the ordinary this year.
There are some big questions surrounding the organization, though, as it sits at 2-5 seven games into its first regular season without quarterback Tom Brady. When it comes to the trade deadline, the biggest is this: Will the Patriots be sellers?
There are two key factors to consider when trying to answer this question:
1.) Capital, either in return for a player traded away or to bring a player on board.
2.) Available options if a player is targeted to be sent away via trade.
Considering all three of those, as well as the general season the Patriots have had so far and can still have further down the line, there is an argument to be made for New England to be [drum roll] neither buyers nor sellers. This may be a pretty anticlimactic answer to the question posted above, and there are arguments for either side nevertheless, but those in favor of remaining inactive before the clock strikes zero on the clubs’ ability to swing trades this year.
The three points mentioned above will be touched on, but let’s dive into the arguments why the Patriots should not be sellers on Tuesday despite their 2-5 record.
Their season is not over yet
Sellers, per a pro football definition, are teams that give up assets via trade in order to further bolster their position for the future — either via receiving draft capital in return or freeing up cap space. The thought is that an organization without much of a short-term perspective would thus get rid of some players for a long-term vision. The Patriots, however, don’t have much of a reason to turn into such a team just yet even though they have lost four straight games.
The message coming from inside the organization echoes this belief: there is still a lot of football left to be played, and the season is far from over.
While the Patriots’ record may tell a different story, the team has reason to sing such a tune as their schedule is getting noticeably easier from now on. While the teams that they have already played have a combined record of 34-18 (.654), those still coming up are only 28-31 (.475) — not even counting that New England will play the 0-8 New York Jets twice over the next nine weeks (the Buffalo Bills, for example, have already played the Jets two times).
The odds, of course, are working against the Patriots. As researched by Jeff Howe of The Athletic, only 4.9 percent of teams staring 2-5 — seven out of 144 — have made the playoffs since the 1990 season. New England also only has a 12 percent chance at reaching the tournament even under its new extended format according to calculations by FiveThirtyEight.
That said, as long as there is no mathematical chance left, Bill Belichick and his team will try to dig themselves out of their hole. Turning into sellers, however, would make that a lot more difficult because...
It would further destabilize the team
New England has seen plenty of personnel turnover going all the way back to the start of free agency. Former cornerstones such as Tom Brady, Kyle Van Noy, Jamie Collins and Nate Ebner left via the open market. Meanwhile, Duron Harmon was traded and Stephen Gostkowski released. Then came the Coronavirus opt-out period which saw up to five projected starters or key rotational players — Dont’a Hightower, Patrick Chung, Marcus Cannon, Matt LaCosse, Brandon Bolden — among those to sit out the 2020 campaign.
Long story short, the Patriots have seen plenty of personnel turnover since the NFL calendar turned from 2019 to 2020 even without accounting for injuries like the ones suffered by Julian Edelman, David Andrews and Sony Michel. Subtracting even more players through trade, even with capital being brought in in return, would further destabilize the overall roster as New England is heading into the home-stretch of its regular season.
While some position groups like the secondary would be better suited to withstand it, every subtraction at a significant level would hurt the Patriots’ overall depth and quality. That would be a blow to a team that still has a chance to make the playoffs, albeit only a small one.
They should not trade just to trade
Even if the Patriots do want to make a move in order to increase their flexibility next offseason, they should not hold a fire... sale.
Take the Stephon Gilmore situation as an example. New England is reportedly asking teams for a first-round draft pick as well as a player in return for its number one cornerback. Negotiating tactics aside, the team should not move away from its value-based principles just because no offers come in that would satisfy this price tag. If the Patriots truly value Gilmore and his contract at this level, there is no reason for them to budge.
New England has made a living out of finding unwanted players who have failed to live up to their talent such as Kyle Van Noy, or moving on from players whose roles and long-term outlooks have changed. Could Gilmore or guard Joe Thuney fall under that final category? Sure, even though it seems unlikely from an outside perspective.
This, in turn, brings us back to the two factors mentioned above: capital and players to trade.
As things currently stand, the Patriots have $22.56 million in salary cap space available — a number that was largely created through players such as the aforementioned Hightower, Chung and Cannon opting out. While $8.8 million and $7.8 million could be added by trading Stephon Gilmore or Joe Thuney, respectively, New England is expected to be in a comfortable financial position next spring regardless of those potential moves. Even if the salary cap goes down, which is something the team is expected will happen, the Patriots will be among the most potent teams come next year’s free agency.
Trades involving Gilmore and Thuney would make the situation even better, yes, but would the cost really be worth it considering the possible return? If teams are unwilling to send a first-round pick to the Patriots for their top cornerback, or a pick higher than a third-rounder for half a year of a premier interior linemen, should the Patriots make a move?
Sure, there are other candidates to be traded as well — including the aforementioned opt-outs — but they are the atop the list given their pedigree and quality as well as the Patriots’ depth at their positions. Considering the three reasons mentioned above and all the additional context that needs to be considered, however, the smartest move seems to be to just staying put.
Of course, Bill Belichick and Nick Caserio have shown a tendency to not necessarily agree with sportswriters’ opinions.