The Patriots traded Pro Bowl guard Logan Mankins, who started every game he every played for the team, to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Tuesday.
In exchange for Mankins, who was a first-round draft pick in 2005, New England received tight end Tim Wright and a fourth-round draft pick in 2015 from Tampa Bay.
In a statement, Patriots coach Bill Belichick said, “Logan Mankins is everything we would ever want in a football player. It is hard to imagine a better player at his position, a tougher competitor or a person to represent our program. He is one of the all-time great Patriots and the best guard I ever coached.
“Logan brought a quiet but unmistakable presence and leadership that will be impossible to duplicate. Unfortunately, this is the time of year when difficult decisions have to be made — and this is one of the most difficult we will ever make — but like every other decision, it was made for what we feel is in the best interests of the team.”
The deal ends Mankins’s nine-year stay in New England. He was the third-longest-tenured player on the team after Tom Brady and Vince Wilfork.
Wright, listed at 6 feet 4 inches, 220 pounds, was undrafted last year but played in all 16 games for the Buccaneers, with eight starts. He had 54 catches for 571 yards and five touchdowns.
Wright, 24, played for Rutgers, in his home state of New Jersey. Belichick has drafted and signed about a dozen Rutgers players in recent years.
A league source said Wright is as close as a player to Aaron Hernandez as the Patriots could get, a “move” tight end who lined up in the slot on 240 of 386 snaps last year, according to ProFootballFocus. He was targeted 44 times in the slot, with 32 receptions and three drops.
He also lined up in the backfield on occasion, with one catch and one carry from that spot.
Wright is in the second year of his three-year rookie contract, slated to make the minimum of $495,000 this season, and $585,000 in 2015.
The New England offensive line was already facing question marks, with Ryan Wendell and Dan Connolly rotating at center in the last preseason game against Carolina, and Jordan Devey seeing a great deal of time at right guard. Nate Solder struggled in training camp, and Sebastian Vollmer has missed time recently with yet another injury.
It is unclear who will now play left guard, though Marcus Cannon, Josh Kline, Devey, and rookie Jon Halapio are the candidates.
The news is another summer surprise from Belichick, along the lines of the release of Lawyer Milloy on the eve of the 2003 season and the trade of Richard Seymour to Oakland just days before the 2009 opener.
The 32-year-old Mankins was a six-time Pro Bowl selection and six times was named to the Associated Press All-Pro first or second team, making him one of the most decorated players in team history. He also had been chosen as a team captain in each of the last three years.
The Patriots placed the franchise tag on Mankins in 2010, which led him to sit out the first seven games of the season in protest. In 2011, he signed a six-year, $51 million deal that made him the highest-paid interior lineman in the NFL.
Mankins’s base salary for this season is $6.25 million; according to patscap.com, the Patriots will save $5.775 million against the salary cap this year with the trade.
Though he had started to fall off a bit as a pass blocker, Mankins is still very good as a run blocker, which will help the Buccaneers’ bell cow back, Doug Martin.
Tampa Bay’s new general manager, Jason Licht, has worked in New England in the past, which likely helped facilitate the deal.
“We feel very fortunate,” said Licht. “Logan, he’s a very good player. His play on the field speaks for itself.”
Mankins started every game he played as a member of the Patriots — 130 in the regular season and 17 in the playoffs — and was never afraid to mix it up on the field.
Belichick has long lauded his toughness, and that toughness, born on his family’s cattle ranch in California, was put to the test for much of the 2011 season.
Mankins played through a torn ACL in his right knee, undergoing surgery after New England’s appearance in Super Bowl XLVI.
He also suffered an injury to his left MCL toward the end of the regular season that year.
Last year, Belichick said that, in his career, there may have been some players on the same level as Mankins when it came to toughness, but he would not put anyone above the 6-4 cowboy.