The Patriots didn’t fortify their offensive line before Tuesday’s 4 p.m. NFL trade deadline. They didn’t add another receiver or a tight end. Or a fullback, or anyone on defense.
A move they did make was a release: Fill-in kicker Mike Nugent was sent packing, reportedly to be replaced by former Jets kicker Nick Folk. But the Patriots team we saw Sunday against the Browns is what Bill Belichick will have to work with over the final three months of the season.
Tight on the salary cap, with only about $2 million in space, the Patriots stood pat at the deadline. They did all of their trading last week, when they acquired receiver Mohamed Sanu for a second-round pick and sent defensive lineman Michael Bennett to the Cowboys for a conditional late-round pick.
Belichick foretold the lack of movement in a conference call Tuesday morning.
“We wouldn’t have enough cap space right now to just go out and acquire any player that was available, regardless of what the price was in terms of compensation,” he said. “We would have to fit him under our cap, and there are some players we just wouldn’t be able to do that with. You really can’t change the contract.”
But Tuesday was a dud for the 31 other NFL teams, too. The biggest move of the day was a benching: The Bengals sacked quarterback Andy Dalton, and plan to start rookie fourth-round pick Ryan Finley in their next game in two weeks.
Only one trade was made, and it wasn’t even for someone who will play this year. The Rams traded cornerback Aqib Talib (who is out for the year with a rib injury) and a fifth-round pick to the Dolphins, who sent the Rams a seventh-round pick in return.
The Rams cleared $4.2 million in cash and cap space with the trade, while the Dolphins, loading up on 2020 draft picks, essentially bought a fifth-round pick for $4.2 million. The Dolphins may also get a compensatory draft pick if Talib continues his career next year and signs as a free agent with another team. The move can also help the Dolphins reach player-spending minimums as spelled out in the collective bargaining agreement.
Otherwise, none of the big names moved. The Jets created a lot of smoke about trading running back Le’Veon Bell and safety Jamal Adams, but those deals went nowhere. A.J. Green is still with the Bengals, O.J. Howard is still a Buccaneer, Chris Harris is a Bronco, and Trent Williams not only stayed with the Redskins, he ended his holdout Tuesday and reported to the team.
Plenty of action came in the days and weeks leading up to the deadline, however. On Monday, the Dolphins traded running back Kenyan Drake to the Cardinals, and the Jets sent defensive tackle Leonard Williams across town to the Giants. Emmanuel Sanders, Jalen Ramsey, Marcus Peters, Gareon Conley, Zay Jones, Quandre Diggs, and Minkah Fitzpatrick were also traded within the last six weeks.
As for the Patriots, they didn’t make any additional moves despite needing reinforcements at offensive line, receiver, and tight end. They will roll forward with Ben Watson, Ryan Izzo, and Matt LaCosse at tight end, and the same corps of receivers as last week: Julian Edelman, Phillip Dorsett, Sanu, Jakobi Meyers, and Gunner Olszewski, plus rookie N’Keal Harry, who is eligible to come off IR and play this Sunday against the Ravens.
The Patriots’ most glaring weakness is on the offensive line, where they lost starting center David Andrews for the year, and have played without starting left tackle Isaiah Wynn since the second half of Week 2, when he suffered a foot injury that sent him to IR. Right guard Shaq Mason also missed last Sunday’s game against the Browns with an ankle injury.
The offensive line was the backbone of the Patriots’ surprise Super Bowl run last year, but it has been banged up and inconsistent this year with Ted Karras at center, Marshall Newhouse at left tackle, and James Ferentz starting at right guard last week. The Patriots are averaging just 3.2 yards per carry, third-worst in the NFL.
The Patriots have been in scramble mode with the offensive line since the spring. Veteran tackle Jared Veldheer, signed potentially to start at left tackle, left them in the lurch in May when he unexpectedly retired after one day of practice. Andrews then was diagnosed with blood clots at the end of training camp, ending his season.
At the end of training camp, the Patriots traded for Cardinals offensive tackle Korey Cunningham and Ravens guard/tackle Jermaine Eluemunor. Cunningham has been a healthy scratch for seven of eight games, while Eluemunor has played 24 offensive snaps in six games.
The Patriots signed Newhouse off the street before Week 2 to start at right tackle in place of Marcus Cannon, but then switched Newhouse to left tackle in the same game when Wynn went down with his injury. Newhouse has started the last six games at left tackle.
But the Patriots are allowed to bring one more player off injured reserve, and Wynn is the obvious candidate. Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels was asked Tuesday about working Sanu into the lineup, and indicated that Wynn will be back. NFL rules require a player to miss eight games on IR, so Wynn would be eligible to play in Week 12 against Dallas at the earliest.
“I mean, there’s a process that’s going to play out here with Mo, and I’d say N’Keal and potentially when Isaiah — so, there’s a lot of guys that we’re excited about,” McDaniels said.
The salary-cap situation prevented the Patriots from making any more significant moves. To trade for Sanu last week, they had to restructure Mason’s contract to free up cap space.
Belichick explained that teams were not allowed to make any contract maneuvers on Tuesday to facilitate a trade.
“Any team would have to have enough salary-cap space to acquire the new player,” Belichick said. “If you didn’t, then you would have to release a player to pick that up, and there’s certainly a lot of limitations to releasing players.”
The Patriots also need a few million in reserve for the rest of the season, as they inevitably will need to put more players on IR and sign free agents to fill their place.
“Certainly we have to account for the rest of the season,” Belichick said. “It’s unrealistic to think we’re not going to have any additional salary-cap charges in the next eight weeks. We have to have some type of a cushion or budget to handle those, some of those anticipated expenses.”
One move that could create a little cap space is releasing receiver Josh Gordon off IR; he has a minor injury and reportedly is going to be released soon. Now that the trade deadline has passed, all released players are subject to waivers (previously, Gordon would have immediately been a free agent).
If another team claims Gordon, it also would claim the $1 million in salary he has remaining for this season, which would create the same amount of cap space for the Patriots.