While other teams around the league have tried to position themselves for the upcoming free agency and decreasing salary cap, the New England Patriots did what they seemingly always do: they worked in the shadows to make the first big move of the offseason.
That move was acquiring offensive tackle Trent Brown via trade from the Las Vegas Raiders. Brown, who spent the 2018 season in New England and helped the team win a Super Bowl as its starting left tackle that year, will return to man one of the starting positions along the line.
While there are plenty of unknowns at this point in time — from his eventual spot on the line to any follow-up moves made at the offensive tackle position — we can already take a first look at what the move means from the Patriots’ perspective.
New England adds some offensive line flexibility
As already mentioned in our earlier breakdown of the offensive line personnel, the Patriots have plenty of flexibility along the O-line now. Even with two starters — left guard Joe Thuney, center David Andrews — headed towards unrestricted free agency, bringing Brown aboard gives the team the ability to move its pieces around to field a competent lineup in 2021. After all, Brown can play on both the left and the right side.
Likewise, last year’s starting offensive tackles Isaiah Wynn and Michael Onwenu both have experience playing inside as well. With Thuney a likely free agency departure that versatility will come in handy. Onwenu in particular seems like a candidate to move to the interior after having spent virtually his entire college career there.
“it’s been an opportunity that I would say we didn’t anticipate at the start of the year or even when we drafted him,” said Patriots head coach Bill Belichick about Onwenu during a media conference call in December. “We thought that he would be competing for the third guard position behind Joe and Shaq. It’s turned into something different than that. So, we’ll see if we go back to the original plan or whether we don’t.”
The outlook of Thuney leaving and Brown stepping into the right tackle role would create an opening for Onwenu on the inside again.
Salary cap potency already shines through
Heading into Tuesday, the Raiders were just $3.3 million under a possible but not official salary cap of $180.5 million. Needless to say they needed to clear some space on their books, and moving on from Brown after a disappointing 2020 season allows them to do just that.
The Patriots, meanwhile, are among the league leaders in projected cap space with more than $63 million available. While teams like the Raiders are forced to be sellers under a smaller cap, New England has the financial potency and apparent willingness to take on unwanted contracts at relatively little cost as far compensation is concerned.
The Patriots will not give up any major capital to bring Brown aboard
As was mentioned in a follow-up report, the Patriots will not give up a lot to acquire Brown: they will send a fifth-round draft pick in 2022 to the Raiders and get Brown and a seventh-round selection in return.
The maximum difference in draft capital on that trade is around 12 points on Rich Hill’s draft value chart: even if New England ends up sending the first pick in the fifth round to Las Vegas for the final pick in the seventh, the equivalent in total value is only roughly the 150th overall selection. Trading that pick for a player of Brown’s upside potentially constitutes a major steal for the Patriots.
The same is true for the contract that Brown has re-worked to re-join New England: he will play on a one-year pact with a maximum value of $11 million. Considering that he played only five games in 2020, however, most of his playing time bonuses will be classified as not likely to be earned. Accordingly, his salary cap hit will be a lower than the reported $11 million figure.
The writing appears to be on the wall for Joe Thuney, Marcus Cannon
While things can move quickly during the NFL offseason, it seems likely that the Patriots could part ways with two veterans this offseason in light of the Trent Brown trade.
The first is starting left guard Joe Thuney, who has been the best offensive lineman on the team the last two seasons and has started all 90 possible games since arriving in New England in 2016. After playing the 2020 season on the franchise tag, Thuney is a realistic candidate to test the open market this year and sign one of the richest contracts for an interior offensive lineman in the NFL.
The aforementioned positional flexibility would give the Patriots plenty of options to fill Thuney’s spot without investing major draft or free agency capital in another starting-caliber guard. Having Michael Onwenu (or, alternatively, Isaiah Wynn) available allows the team to wave Thuney goodbye in return for a high compensatory draft pick in 2021.
The second veteran who might be on his way out, albeit for different reasons, is Marcus Cannon. The long-time starting right tackle sat out the 2020 season after opting out, and saw Onwenu perform admirably in his position. While Onwenu, as noted above, could very well move to the interior, Brown is a realistic candidate to fill the right tackle spot.
In turn, Cannon might get released to create around $6.3 million in net salary cap savings. Depending on how Brown’s contract will be structured in terms of bonus money, it is not unrealistic to think he will not cost the Patriots significantly more than that.
New England should get a supremely motivated player
Even though he later left for greener pastures, Trent Brown obviously enjoyed his time in New England. Leading up to Super Bowl 53, he praised the team and spoke highly of his time as a Patriot.
“I’ve always been a man that forms my own opinions, and when I got here, I quickly found out that it’s nothing like anybody says,” he said two years ago. “It is fun here. I think the guys in the locker room enjoy each other. Everybody in the facility enjoys each other, and we go out there and play for each other every time we touch the field. There’s no selfishness in the locker room. There’s no egos.”
Brown is not only returning to a familiar environment, he also is playing on another “prove it” deal: he will hit free agency next offseason and thus could be looking for another big payday — if his performance in 2021 is of the right quality again.
The long-term future at offensive tackle remains a bit unclear
While the Patriots have some strong talent at the offensive tackle position, the long-term outlook is a bit unclear. After all, Brown will be a free agent next offseason and could again leave the team for another. Likewise, Isaiah Wynn is no lock to receive the fifth-year contract option this offseason and could join Brown on the open market. With Onwenu a candidate to move to the inside and no other established offensive tackle under contract beyond 2021, New England might be willing to address the position again later this offseason.