Part of Bill Belichick’s coaching genius is overcoming some of his moves as GM
Patriots personnel transactions come with a built-in, In Bill We Trust, preconceived imprimatur, the result of the team’s unprecedented winning in the NFL’s salary-cap era. Patriots pooh-bah Bill Belichick has earned that level of trust. But just because Belichick wins every season, that doesn’t mean every move he makes is a tributary that feeds the river of sustained success.
Sometimes, if you’re just that good, you win in spite of some decisions, not because of them.
With this week’s release of injury-prone wide receiver Malcolm Mitchell, now is a good time to revisit the return in the 2016 trade of defensive end Chandler Jones to the Arizona Cardinals. The V-word reigns supreme for the Patriots: value. Did they get proper value for Jones, who last season led the NFL in sacks with 17 and has three straight seasons of 11 sacks or more?
Jones was dealt for guard Jonathan Cooper and a 2016 second-round pick that the Patriots flipped and turned into starting left guard Joe Thuney and Mitchell, whose New England career is over after a total of 16 games, including the playoffs and one clutch performance in Super Bowl LI. Is a premier pass rusher (and his premium contract) worth more than a steady left guard and a promising wide receiver whose tenure was truncated by chronic knee woes the team knew about when it drafted him? Yes.
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I can hear the ready-made retort from here. You’re wrong, you Hoodie heathen, because they won the Super Bowl the year they traded away Jones. That’s the justification for any move made by Belichick & Co., leading up to or during a Super Bowl-winning season. They won, so every move was, therefore, a beneficial one. That’s flawed logic that conflates causality with commonality.
Part of Belichick’s brilliance as a coach is overcoming the adversity he occasionally creates as a GM. In the case of Jones and Logan Mankins in 2014, the Patriots won Super Bowls despite moving on from those players, not because they did so.
You can do that when you’re football’s Bobby Fischer, armed with the greatest quarterback of all-time in Tom Brady. The Patriots have posted 17 consecutive winning seasons because Belichick is the best in the business at adapting to roster resources and changing circumstances.
But if you keep depleting the roster of high-end talent without adequately replacing it, you’re making the degree of difficulty greater than it needs to be. We saw that to some extent in Super Bowl LII against the Philadelphia Eagles.
Mitchell will always have his Super Bowl LI moment. With the Patriots struggling against the sideline-to-sideline speed of the Atlanta Falcons defense, Mitchell provided an outlet by beating coverage outside. He caught six of the seven passes thrown his way for 70 yards and hauled in all five targets in the fourth quarter for 63 yards, as the Patriots authored the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history.
However, it’s fair to speculate whether the Patriots would have needed such an epic comeback if Jones were still part of a defense that got torched in the first three quarters. The Patriots knew Mitchell had knee issues coming out of Georgia. That’s why he slipped to the fourth round.
Belichick is an astute personnel man. The acquisitions of Corey Dillon and Randy Moss were heists that paved the way for historic seasons. Belichick also pilfered Aqib Talib from Tampa Bay in 2012 for a fourth-rounder. It’s just that his capability as a coach clouds objective assessments of some personnel moves.
Sometimes we’re simply giving Belichick double credit for coaching around roster holes that he created. That’s what happened during the 2014 season, which brought the Patriots the fourth of their five Super Bowl titles. That season, Belichick dealt Mankins to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in late August for tight end Tim Wright and a 2015 fourth-round pick that became talented defensive end Trey Flowers.
When the Patriots got off to a 2-2 start, a big part of the issue was replacing Mankins at left guard. For the first three games of the 2014 season, the Patriots started Marcus Cannon at left guard and Jordan Devey at right guard. Before they were on to Cincinnati and a Super Bowl-winning season, they had to move past the offensive line weakness that resulted from the trade. They settled on Dan Connolly (left) and Ryan Wendell (right) as the guards, and won despite not having Mankins, not as a result of it.
The returns for Mankins and Richard Seymour, traded in 2009 for a 2010 first-round pick that became longtime left tackle Nate Solder, were excellent. The Patriots took the 2003 first-round pick they acquired for Drew Bledsoe and moved up one spot to select defensive lineman Ty Warren.
But the Jones deal doesn’t look great, and a second-round pick for potential franchise quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo seemed a little light. The jury is out on the return for Jimmy G because the Patriots flipped that 2018 second-rounder from San Francisco into 2019 second- and third-round picks from the Chicago Bears and the Detroit Lions.
Dealing Deion Branch netted a 2007 first-round pick that was used on Brandon Meriweather, but it cost the Patriots a Super Bowl in 2006, when the wide receiving corps was the worst of the Brady era.
Recently, Belichick has misgauged how players would respond in contract years, namely Jamie Collins and Malcolm Butler. Both tried to play outside of the system and outside of themselves and now play outside of Foxborough.
At one point, Jones, Dont’a Hightower, Collins — who was exiled to NFL Siberia (a.k.a. Cleveland) for a third-round pick in 2016 — and Butler were all on the Patriots roster. Now, Hightower is the last man standing.
There were other factors that contributed to not retaining Jones.
He was entering the final year of his rookie contract and due for a significant payday, which he eventually got from the Cardinals via a five-year, $82.5 million deal in 2017. The Patriots might have had concerns about making that type of investment in Jones, particularly after a bizarre incident in January of 2016 in which he showed up shirtless and disoriented at the Foxborough Police station after some recreational drug use and had to be transported to Norwood Hospital. Two months later, he was traded. He’s had no issues since.
Now, as the Patriots attempt to boost a pass rush that was a nonfactor in their latest Super Bowl loss and cobble together a reliable receiving corps, Mitchell is a memory, and Jones represents one of the most coveted commodities in the NFL: an impact pass rusher in his prime.
Winning every season doesn’t mean that every deal you made along the way counts as a win as well.